As in other plays we have read this semester, Shakespeare is drawing our attention to the idea of madness and whether or not we are able to know that someone is mad. Hamlet’s character has changed in the play (or so we are told), exhibiting odd behaviors that the other characters of the play associate with madness. The characters of the play make arguments for his madness, but what are we, the audience, to believe?
The evidence from characters that we are given isn’t the greatest or most persuasive. Madness is a very vague term; Polonius even says, “’Mad’ call I it, for to define true madness, / what is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” (2.2.94-95). Polonius is drawing our attention to the fact that to be “mad” is subjective since there isn’t a strict definition and it depends on the person. Queen Gertrude responds to Polonius, saying, “more matter with less art,” asking for more substantial and factual evidence than with less embellishment (2.297). Gertrude is not persuaded by Polonius that Hamlet is mad – she wants more evidence of sort, rather than inferences. These guesses are all that can be made, since a mind is privy to its own thoughts and nature. Shakespeare is prompting the audience to see the weak arguments made, raising the question of the reality of Hamlet’s state of mind.
That said, some characters deem him mad because they witness a change in his personality and behavior. When asking Rozencrantz and Guildenstein to check up on Hamlet, Claudius more accurately depicts Hamlet’s “transformation.” “Transformation – so I call it, / since not the exterior nor the inward man / resembles that it was,” Claudius says (2.2.5-7). The audience may very well be able to accept this definition of Hamlet’s state of being, except that we were not exposed to a substantial amount of Hamlet’s characterization prior to his “transformation.”
Ophelia also speaks of his condition to Polonius. She first describes Hamlet as being in a disheveled state, “coming to speak of horrors” (2.1.85). However, Ophelia never recounts anything that he said, only his actions, and this “evidence” comes after her father prompts her. He outright asks is Hamlet was “mad for thy love,” planting the seed in her head that he is mad (2.1.86). It’s also interesting that this encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet is the first encounter since Polonius and Laertes warned Ophelia of Hamlet’s unfit character to woo her. Her promise to both her father and her brother to stay away from him has fueled her ability to see Hamlet negatively, and her gullible nature does not make for a reliable character. The audience doesn’t actually see the encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet, we are retold it by someone who is biased and probably exaggerated the scene.
The little bit of Hamlet’s characterization given directly to the audience (not filtered by another character) prior to the ghost appearing to Hamlet is in his soliloquy. In this speech, he is calling out, “O God, O God, / how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / seem to me all the uses of the world!” (1.2.132-134). His perspective on the world is already known, and it is quite parallel to his words after he has been visited by the ghost. In Act II, he tells Rosencrantz that the world is a prison, “Denmark being one o’th’ worst” (2.2.240-242). Clearly, he is still adamant the world is not a good place. Perhaps he is deteriorating from the constant thought of this, propelled by his father’s death before the start of the play and by the news that Claudius killed him. The shift in character that Claudius speaks of isn’t as prominent as an extenuation of his previous traits. Hamlet is merely expanding upon his previous thoughts – the world is a horrible place – not only is it weary, but it is confining. Claudius’ lack of accuracy in depicting Hamlet’s state of being supports the idea that characters of the play are pushing labels onto him and are exaggerating the severity of his state of mind.
Unlike the other plays that have “mad” characters in them, we are given a very narrow view of Hamlet’s original character. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio’s character is developed before he is deemed mad; Shakespeare offers the same evidence of characterization in Macbeth as well. The lack of evidence here of Hamlet’s previous state is quite limited – we aren’t given any instance prior to his father’s death, and only a small amount of characterization prior to the appearance of the ghost. The limited field of knowledge that Shakespeare provides us with is in favor of the question of madness and whether or not we can tell that someone is truly mad.