Madness is one of the themes we can observe in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It becomes a characteristic of both, Hamlet and Ophelia, and thereby connects these figures to another. Ophelia and Hamlet, however, do not represent the same kind of madness. Hamlet’s insanity is a mask that he chose to put on to protect him while following the orders of his father’s ghost. Ophelia’s insanity on the other hand is acquired. Her mental state changes as she learns that her father had been killed by Hamlet.
Interestingly, Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness occurs at different points of the play and they are antipodal. Hamlet, we learn, decided to mimic the madman right at the beginning of the play, whereas Ophelia’s mental state shifts towards the end of the play. In addition to that the way the insanity is displayed in both characters is different. Under the mask of madness both characters develop in different directions, and eventually cross over. Whereas Hamlet’s insanity starts off with rather chaotic thoughts, Ophelia gives the impression of being clear and sane at the beginning of the play. We can see this especially in her reaction towards the insane Hamlet during the play he puts on to uncover Claudius. Once she learns about Polonius’s death, however, her train of thought becomes chaotic and confused. This becomes especially noticeable in her songs in 4.5.:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone. (4.5.29-32)
These lines of her songs demonstrate that she is confused. Usually a headstone is put up at the head of the body, not at the feet. These lines, however are ambiguous, as they also stand for how wrong the circumstances of her environment are: Claudius the wrong king, Hamlet not being Hamlet, but a madman, her father dead, and no one seemed to mourn the dead properly.
This cross-over of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness illustrates the tragic behind these figures. Both were put into their situations not voluntarily, and they experience it as burden while they are alive. Hamlet on the one hand has to bring light into the foul circumstances of the fratricide and avenge the father’s death. Ophelia on the other hand is confronted with the mad Hamlet, and has to live with Hamlet, whom she loves, being the murderer of her father. She cannot explain why he, masked with madness, rejects her before he stabs Polonius accidentally is. For Ophelia it therefore is a burden to experience this emotional cruelty.
For both, Hamlet and Ophelia, madness provides a sort of protection in their desperate situation. For Ophelia the insanity provides a place to withdraw from the emotional pain she is exposed to in her environment. Her withdrawal from this pain however, is fatal, as we learn from Gertude’s beautiful of Ophelia’s drowning in 4.7.137ff. For Hamlet it seems as if his mask of madness not only protects him in his actions, but it allows him to bring order in his thoughts (Hauptwerke der Englischen Literatur, Band 1, Page 299), and to adapt this task as part of him. If we compare his speech in 4.4. to his speech in 3.4., we can see that develops from being confused and hesitant in the following lines:
Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this:
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on. (3.4.151-151.5)
to familiarizing with the fact that he only has one option, which is to kill Claudius:
I do repent. But heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.4.157-161)
In his speech in 4.4., then, Hamlet first reasons:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (220.127.116.11-9.9.25)
And soon he notices that it is up to him to avenge the fratricide:
…I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do ’t. (18.104.22.168-9.36)
… Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. (22.214.171.124-9.46)
Finally he expresses confidence and decides to put the task into action:
… Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (126.96.36.199-9.56)
Both characters have in common that the death of their fathers had triggered the change of their mental states. By having them turn mad, Shakespeare also emphasizes on their emotional pain from the father-loss. Furthermore we can observe that the lovers Hamlet and Ophelia, who were separated in life over their madness (both emotionally and physically through Ophelia’s death), are brought together in the end, as both are dead by the end of the play. Both were turned into what they embody at the end of their lives (a mad woman and a murderer), by events in their immediate family-environment, and their madness was just a result of these events.