Hamlet's "Madness"


Pleading with Hamlet not to follow the Ghost, Horatio asks him to think about what might happen if the Ghost "assume some other horrible form, / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness" (1.4.72-74) Horatio believes that the Ghost is not Hamlet's father in the form of a ghost, but a spirit in the form of Hamlet's father. That spirit could instantly take on another shape or lure Hamlet to the edge of a cliff, where the sight of the depth "so many fathoms to the sea" puts "toys of desperation . . . into every brain." [Scene Summary]
"I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul" (1.5.15-16). The Ghost is telling Hamlet why he cannot reveal the secrets of his "prison-house"--purgatory. It is implied that the story of the Ghost's punishments would drive mere humans mad. [Scene Summary]
"These are but wild and whirling words, my lord" (1.5.133), says Horatio when Hamlet appears about to tell him what the Ghost said, but suddenly changes course. [Scene Summary]
"I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on" (1.5.171-172), Hamlet warns Horatio and Marcellus. In the course of swearing them to secrecy about the Ghost, Hamlet adds that they can't so much as hint that they know anything, even if he should act "strange or odd." [Scene Summary]

Hamlet never says why he might act strange, but pretended madness was a widely-used plot device in the revenge tragedy of Shakespeare's time. In those plays, the revenger acted crazy so that his targets wouldn't know what he was up to until the minute before he killed them. Shakespeare wrote such a tragedy; its name is Titus Andronicus.


"Mad for thy love?" (2.1.82), Polonius asks Ophelia, when she tells him about Hamlet's strange visit to her closet. It isn't really a question, because Polonius jumps to his conclusion and then sticks with it. For the rest of the play he is sure that Hamlet has been driven over the edge because Ophelia (on her father's orders) won't see him anymore. Polonius' idea has its roots in a popular idea of the time, which was that frustrated love brings on a melancholy that is a near neighbor to madness. Compare Ophelia's description of Hamlet with Benvolio's description of Romeo, in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo was in love with the never-seen Rosaline. Romeo, too, was melancholy, and sighed, and generally acted strange. [Scene Summary]
"Something have you heard / Of Hamlet's transformation" (2.2.3-4). The King, when he is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what's wrong with Hamlet, says that Hamlet has been "put . . . from th' understanding of himself." The King may be just saying this as an excuse to see what he can find out about what Hamlet may know about his father's murder, but Gertrude describes Hamlet as "My too much changed son" (2.2.36), and she probably has Hamlet's best interests at heart. [Scene Summary]
Polonius says to the King and Queen, "your noble son is mad: / Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad? (2.2.92-94). Thus begins Polonius' windy explanation of Hamlet's madness, which Polonius attributes to disappointed love for Ophelia. [Scene Summary]
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" (2.2.205-206), says Polonius to himself as he is in the midst of seeing for himself just how crazy the prince really is. [Scene Summary]
"I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth" (2.2.295-296), says Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. After discovering that they are spying on him, he says he'll tell them what's wrong with him, to save them the trouble of finding out for themselves. Because of this, it's hard to tell how to take the famous speech. When he says "man delights not me" (2.2.308-309) is he sincere, or is he playing the melancholy Dane for the benefit of his false friends? [Scene Summary]
"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (2.2.378-379), says Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the conclusion of their attempt to find out what's wrong with him. [Scene Summary]
"O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (3.1.150), exclaims Ophelia after Hamlet verbally abuses her. But the King says, "what he spake, though it lack'd form a little, / Was not like madness (3.1.163-164). Nevertheless, the scene ends with the King's comment that "Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go." [Scene Summary]
Hamlet declares, "my wit's diseased" (3.2.321), as he mocks Guildenstern's attempts to make him give a straight answer about whether or not he'll go speak with his mother. [Scene Summary]
"I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range" (3.3.1-2), says the King to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just before he tells them that they are to take Hamlet to England. Two scenes earlier the King commented to Polonius that "what he spake, though it lack'd form a little, / Was not like madness (3.1.163-164), but now the situation is different. He has good reason to think that Hamlet knows that he killed King Hamlet. He wants to get rid of Hamlet, and Hamlet's "madness" provides a good excuse. [Scene Summary]
"Alas, he's mad!" (3.4.105), says the Queen when Hamlet speaks to the Ghost, whom she cannot see. Later in the scene Hamlet denies that he is mad and sarcastically urges his mother to let the King, "Make you to ravel all this matter out, / That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft" (3.4.186-188). She promises that she will say nothing. [Scene Summary]
"Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend / Which is the mightier" (4.1.7-8), is the Queen's reply to the King's question "How does Hamlet?" This is just after the scene in the Queen's closet, during which Hamlet kills Polonius. [Scene Summary]
"Alas, alas!" (4.3.26), the King comments after Hamlet tells him, with insulting mockery, that "your fat king and lean beggar" are both food for worms. The King almost certainly does not believe that Hamlet is mad, but saying "alas," as though he felt sorry for poor mad Hamlet, allows him to save face. [Scene Summary]
"O, he is mad, Laertes" (5.1.272), says the King, as Hamlet and Laertes grapple in Ophelia's grave. He's trying to get Laertes to calm down, and so is the Queen when she says that Hamlet's fit will pass, and he will soon be "as patient as the female dove" (5.1.286). The King's statement is probably only for public consumption, but the Queen is apparently sincere. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet, asking Laertes' pardon, says "you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd / With a sore distraction" (5.2.229-230). This is just before the fencing match, and Hamlet, not suspecting anything, is trying to gain Laertes' good will. Hamlet even goes so far as to say that he himself is the victim of his own madness. Surely, Hamlet is lying. [Scene Summary]