Hamlet’s irrationality

To be or not to be? To live or to die? What is the difference? What is the importance of either one? Hamlet is a madman. Or is he? So many questions about this play – rhetorical and not! Hamlet is irrational in his madness, whether it is true madness or not. This is what intrigues me most about his character. In Act 3 Scene 4, Polonius is hiding behind the curtains while Hamlet and Queen Gertrude are having a conversation. Polonius cries out when he senses danger on the Queen’s behalf, and Hamlet stabs him through the fabric of the curtains. The Queen asks what he has done, to which Hamlet replies “Nay, I know not: Is it the king?” (3.4.25). This act shows the naive nature of his attack and the irrationality in his insanity. He stabbed at a random shape and voice behind a veil, when it could have been anyone. It could have been the King, or it also could have been a servant cleaning off the windows Hamlet was so quick to attack; his eagerness to get his revenge over with was evident (“How now, a rat?” [3.4.23]). This scene also shows his cowardice, because he could not kill Claudius when he saw him just beforehand, but he easily stabbed at a voice within a curtain. Out of sight, out of mind; out of sight, easier to kill.

 Hamlet treats Polonius’ death as though it is no big deal and even flips it on his mother! He tells her that what he did was almost as bad as a woman marrying her deceased husband’s brother. We can see Hamlet’s clear disdain for his mother even before Hamlet offs Polonius. He calls her “the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife” (3.4.15), which is a back-handed remark. He is ensuring her that he has not forgotten who she is, but furthermore that he has not forgotten or made peace with what she’s done.

I was really perplexed by Act 3 Scene 3 when hamlet does not kill his uncle while he sees him praying. I first thought that maybe he didn’t want to kill him while he was vulnerable, because it wouldn’t be a fair fight or satisfying kill. I also wondered if he felt too much of a familial bond and chickened out because he didn’t want to lose another father figure. But now that I think about it after our discussion, I understand the possibility that he didn’t want to kill him while he was in prayer because it would allow him to escape purgatory and enter heaven, not providing a proper punishment. I think Hamlet is a sufferer of survivor’s guilt, believing that he will never live up to the nobility of his father, from whom he inherited his name. I also think that this is where parts of his insane irrationality spark from.

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3 thoughts on “Hamlet’s irrationality

  1. melissanau

    The first thing I think of reading this blog is Hamlet’s explicit mention that he is NOT mad, to Horatio, at the start of the play. He also reminds his mother of this in the scene in her “closet.” However, as the play goes on Hamlet does effectively display more and more convincing acts of “madness.” Your point is interesting, that Hamlet can’t bring himself to kill Claudius (even though it’s really Polonius) until he is concealed; Hamlet doesn’t have to actually face the act of murder.

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  2. Crystal Vaccaro

    While I do believe that Hamlet for the most part is not “mad” but is very in control of his actions and well-aware of what he is doing, I think that there are absolutely points in the play where the pressure of what he has taken on gets to him, and his killing of Polonius is one of them. At that point, he is so consumed with regret for all of the time that he feels like he’s wasted, and frustration and having missed his opportunity to kill Claudius earlier, that he’s not thinking straight and just wants to right his wrong as soon as possible. Ironically though, in trying to right his wrong he ends up actually making things worse, but he’s so consumed with thoughts of Claudius that he doesn’t even have time to consider Polonius.

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  3. jamesfrauenberger

    I agree that Hamlet’s reaction to his murder of Polonius is certainly strange. Whether or not he is genuinely mad, he certainly seems it during the closet scene. Hamlet’s complete lack of remorse over slaying Polonius has always interested me; even more than his setting up the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s behavior after murdering his mother’s confidante seems callous at best, mad at worst. Though Hamlet’s madness seems pretty clearly an act, his remorselessness, regardless of whether it springs from madness, acting mad, or something else entirely, is one of the most troubling acts of the play, for me.

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