Madness and Death

Something that stood out to me in Hamlet was the interplay between madness and death. I think there is an obsession with death and mortality in this play, more notably than other works we’ve read. This death obsession is scene most significantly, but not exclusively, in Hamlet and Ophelia.

Hamlet is burdened by his father’s death for a number of reasons, but I think one reason that shouldn’t be overlooked is the realization of his own mortality. He feels as though his father was forgotten, and maybe he worries that he will be forgotten too. I think this existential crisis leads to a lot of the events of the play, and maybe even Hamlet’s performance of madness. During his play, Hamlet says “O heavens, die two months ago and not forgotten yet! Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year.” (3.2.18) I think this reflects this obsession that Hamlet has with being the only one still mourning his father, and it suggests that maybe this obsession is larger than grief and has developed into a fear of his own mortality. I see this burden as fear even more than grief, because Hamlet never truly seems sad. He never expresses sadness for his loss, as much as anger at Claudius and his mother, and this obsessive fear of death. Even in his early monologue in 2.2, when Gertrude tells Hamlet to “cast thy nightly colour off,” it seems as though she isn’t aware he is still grieving and just thinks it’s weird that he wears so much black. This to me suggests that Hamlet isn’t truly grieving less than it suggests his mother’s awareness of her son’s feelings. He wears black for show.

Ophelia’s madness shows the view of death and suicide in Shakespearean times. The gravediggers discuss the nature of Ophelia’s death, and the strangeness that she receives a Christian burial, despite drowning herself. I think this raises the question of mental sanity, and whether it would have been viewed in relation to morality. Ophelia is an extremely tragic character, and her madness is really unsettling. I think the question is raised in the play of the nature of this madness, and whether or not she can be accountable for her actions.

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4 thoughts on “Madness and Death

  1. Alex Verso

    I noted that as well. Hamlet is not only fixated on the death of his father, but the value of his own life as well. Death and madness go hand in hand for Hamlet, and in this play, we see his actions as a cry for help. The only way he was able to get people to notice what he was feeling was by putting on a play and eccentrically directing the actors. He produced a play of murder, something not necessarily appropriate to perform in an entertainment setting, especially in front of royalty.

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  2. Michelle Cavitolo

    You make a very good point, that Hamlet believes his father will be forgotten. However, keep in mind what Gertrude and Claudius mentioned at the beginning of the play, how “people die everyday” and that there’s no sense in grieving over someone who’s already dead. I also believe that this is where his madness stems from; after hearing from the Ghost how his father was killed, I believe Hamlet has grown some kind of invincibility shield, where now he knows exactly what happened, so he has the ability to tell Claudius off, knowing whatever he says is the truth. But once he realizes it’s not as easy as it seems (with treason hanging over his head if he does exact violent revenge), with the possibility that this Ghost could just be lying to him, it’s easy to see why Hamlet would be going mad. What is he to do?

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  3. stanisck1

    You gave a few very clear points about this. It is interesting to think about how Hamlet is severely affected by all of this because he has come to realize that his father is completely gone. It is an unique way of thinking that maybe Hamlet’s madness came from the burden of remembering his father and getting revenge for his father’s death. I haven’t thought of that and you have made me now think deeper about it and how perhaps there is more to Hamlet’s madness then we first believed.

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  4. sielittrell

    I think that you did a good job pointing out how much loss and death contributed to Hamlet’s “existential crisis” and then to his madness. Perhaps the realization of his own humanness through his father’s death played a bigger role in his actions then we could have thought and does become more obsessive as he witnesses more death around him.

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