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Hamlet : A Case of Madness

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

Eugène Delacroix, 1839

Extract from:

Madness in Shakespeare's Tragedies

by Ana Maria Kessler Rocha


"Critics have frequently discussed the character of Ham­let, his duty to revenge his father's death, the nature of his delay, and the peculiar situation where we see him placed. The richness of Hamlet's character as Shakespeare has depicted it has always accounted for the particular difficulties critics have had in answering the major questions.

The best known theories about Hamlet's problem are those of the traditional critics, who have always explained the hero's irresolution on the basis of his excessive intellectual activity.

For Hazlitt, Hamlet's powers of action have been eaten up by thought, and Coleridge also emphasizes the prince's intellectual activity as opposed to his aversion to real action. Bradley's more re­cent ideas do not disclaim, such views, but add to them the importance of Hamlet's profound melancholy and his feeling of "disgust at life and everything in it, himself included." "Such a feeling, Bradley says, is "adverse to any kind of action.”


Hamlet's mind," the critic says, "is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without." His percep­tion of real objects and real actions is greatly dimmed by this tendency to be excessively dominated by thought. Hamlet him­self seems to realize this in his most famous soliloquy.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought.

It is not surprising that a man who is mainly preoccupied with the mental and sensitive parts of his being should think so earnestly about suicide. Hamlet suffers more in the mind than in the body, which he wishes "would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew."

Coleridge says that the necessary balance "between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds" is, in Hamlet, clearly disturbed.

Hamlet's perceptions of the real world pass through his senses greatly altered by this imbalance, and he "loses the power of action in the energy to resolve." This kind of procrastina­tion is very peculiar with Hamlet. He lingers upon thoughts and generalizations, giving to intellectual activity much more importance than to actual deeds.

Whenever Hamlet performs an action, it usually forced upon him by accidental circumstances or by an outburst of pas­sion. This is so, for instance, when he kills Polonius.

The same hap­pens again at Ophelia's burial, when Hamlet advances from his hiding-place, fearless of Laertes' reaction. Also, in his sea-adventure with the pirates, Hamlet is impelled to act without having time to think. This is, for Coleridge, the very peculiarity of Hamlet's madness and the cause of his delay — Hamlet grows all "head"; his thoughts are disconnected from his feelings and ability to act.

It is interesting to see how fitly Coleridge's ideas apply to, and are complemented by R. D. Laing's modern theories about split personality, ontological insecurity, "embodiment" and "unembodiment," etc. As it has already been suggested, Laing's work offers a rich existential analysis of personal alienation. In The Divi­ded Self, Laing says that his purpose is "to show that there is a comprehensible transition from the sane schizoid way of being-in-the-world to a psychotic way of being-in-the-world."

As he sees the problem, the mentally sick individual is an out­ sider, estranged from himself and society, and cannot experi­ence either himself or others as "real." This is what Laing calls a problem of "ontological insecurity."

"A man may have a sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a con tinuous person. As such he can live out into the world and meet others: a world and others experienced as equally real, alive, whole, and continuous."

Such a person, Laing says, is "basically ontologically secure." In the opposite situation, an ontologically insecure person will try to devise a defense mechanism to protect him­ self, for his "living out into the world" and his "meeting others" will be basically threatening to his "self." There fore, he will invent a "false self," or a "false-self system," with which he can confront both the outside world and his own despair. This happens by means of a process of disintegration. The person feels his real self to be "more or less unembodied"; he feels out of his body, which them becomes the core of a "false self."

Shakespeare's heroes, Laing says, are never truly psychotic, for they "evidently experience themselves as real and alive and complete." Indeed, it is so, but their "sane schi­zoid" condition is drawn so near the psychotic type especially in the middle of the plays — that one cannot always realize the difference.

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant

Hamlet et le roi (1869)

Hamlet is a good example of this. We can say that Hamlet displays traits of "self-division" right from the beginning of the play. The true self "is never revealed directly in the individual expressions and actions" and, as a consequence, "the direct and immediate transactions between the individual, the other, and the world, . . . all come to be meaningless, futile, and false."

Which better testimony to this fact can we find in Hamlet, than his own words in the first soliloquy ?

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world !

Hamlet's heart is divided between opposite feelings, as his own self comes to be. Immediately after the ghost's revelation, Hamlet knows exactly what he has to do.

Remember thee,
thy commandment all alone shall live
within the book and memory of my brain,
unmixed with baser matter.

He knows his course, and yet he delays. Maybe Laing's ideas can account for this when he says that ’’there is something final and definite about an act, which this type of person regards with suspicion." The schizoid individual, in Laing s words, "abhors action."

Hegel's characterization of an act, quoted in The Divided Self, implies that an individual is what his act is, and "in the simple fact that the act is, the indi­vidual is for others what he really is." This the schizoid person must avoid at all costs, for revealing himself to others as he is (in his own, true self) means exposing himself to des- destruction. He must keep his "self" from any kind of contact with the world, and this is why he creates a "false self." "He wishes to remain perpetually uncommitted," Laing says.

This is precisely the case with Hamlet. He refrains from action and develops a false self, like the antic disposition he puts on. Thus he is able to keep his true, "inner" self un­known and untouched by others. As a result of his splitting into a true and a false self, the schizoid person can only exist in perpetual isola­tion, which is the self’s effort to preserve itself.


As it has already been said, however, Shakespeare's heroes are never truly psychotic. Some way or another, they always manage to recover from their dangerous position on the border-line between a schizoid way of being-in-the-world and a psychotic one. It is not very clear, however, how this re­ covery takes place. In Hamlet's case, it obviously happens off-stage, for when he comes back from his sea-adventure, he has already undergone some change. Indeed, we may say, with

Bradley, that the Hamlet of the fifth act is a new man. He has refrained from action, delaying because of too much think­ing. (His attitude echoes Kant's theories, for Hamlet tries to go beyond the nature of things— phenomena— to reach their true essence, things-in-themselves— noumena.) To parody King Lear, Hamlet has been more acted upon than acting; he has waited pas­ sively that something might happen that should decide for him (maybe divine providence). His "motto" has been, as Bradley puts it, "it does not matter," "it is not worth while," "it is no good."

But, after Hamlet's frustrated trip to England, (the turning point of the tragedy), all changes. The veil of melan­ choly and inaction has been somewhat lifted from his brow and he is now ready to accept whatever may come.

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come,

it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come.

The readiness is all.

Hamlet's "motto" now seems to be "all is for the best." He has achieved what Aristotle called "tragic recognition" and, in­ deed, it is the more tragic because, as Bradley says, it comes too late. Now, Hamlet cannot avoid his own tragic fate. Once more he gives his enemies time and opportunity to conspire and prepare his death. There is no way to escape it now and Hamlet accepts it with the realization that "all is for the best."

When all is done — the revenge performed, the king killed, forgiveness exchanged with Laertes, Hamlet is finally in peace with his own conscience; he is himself again. Nevertheless, as is the case with Othello, too, Hamlet is worried about his reputation; he does not want to leave a "wounded name" behind him. So he asks Horatio,

Absent thee from felicity awhile,

And in this rash world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story.


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Madness in Shakespeare's Tragedies - Ana
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