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Was Hamlet Really Crazy?

Shakespeare's Hamlet teeters on the brink of madness, his actions a dance between feigned lunacy and profound grief. His erratic behavior begs the question: is it a clever ruse or genuine descent into madness? As we explore the prince's troubled psyche, consider how his sanity shapes the play's haunting narrative. What do you think lies behind Hamlet's enigmatic facade?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

People can interpret William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as being sane, insane or a bit of both. This is because points of contention such as murdering others, considering suicide and seeing ghosts all have rationalizations toward different conclusions. Cultural mandates and assumptions also change the definition of what sane even is, and the character’s mental state cannot be determined with certainty if the definition of lucidity is not static. As Shakespeare no longer can assert what he truly intended, the best modern actors and directors can do is work under their own analysis.


As no objective determination of Hamlet's sanity is possible, actors are left to their own discretion in how to play Shakespeare's prince.
As no objective determination of Hamlet's sanity is possible, actors are left to their own discretion in how to play Shakespeare's prince.

The majority of cultures believe life is valuable and that murder therefore is wrong, crossing a line into a degree of insanity. The Prince of Denmark is insane by this measure, as he kills more than one person over the course of the play. At the same time, people in most communities also value seeking justice, and in some instances, taking a life is considered justifiable. In the United States, for example, multiple states allow the death penalty for certain types of crime. An analyst can view the character as sane if he accepts that, through taking the life of immoral or sinful people, the character is merely trying to avenge his father’s death.

Consideration of Suicide

Hamlet's actions, such as murdering others and considering suicide, must be evaluated when determining his sanity.
Hamlet's actions, such as murdering others and considering suicide, must be evaluated when determining his sanity.

In perhaps the most well-known speech in all of English literature, Hamlet ponders whether or not to kill himself, asking whether it is better “to be, or not to be.” Most cultures consider the ending of one’s own life an act of insanity, similar to taking the life of someone else. That he contemplates suicide therefore could be a mark that his mental stability is unraveling. Given that much of what he holds dear has been lost or proven false, however, and given that he wants relief from his extreme hurt and grief, wanting a way out could be interpreted as sanely following the Freudian pleasure principle.

Seeing a Ghost

Shakespeare has Hamlet say that he is not sane, but only pretending.
Shakespeare has Hamlet say that he is not sane, but only pretending.

Hamlet sees the ghost of his dead father as he is out taking a stroll late at night. His assertion of this vision might have been a point for the case toward insanity, but three of his friends also see the ghost. This proves that the spirit is not simply the product of his troubled mind. Later in the play, however, the ghost appears to him again, and this time, no one else sees it. This could mean that he now is seeing things, or it could be that the ghost has his own motives for not appearing to the others present.

Fighting Off Friends

When the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears, the ghost bids his son to follow him. Hamlet’s friends fear for his safety and try to stop him from leaving. He fends them off at sword point. Some literary experts question whether this course of action is evidence of insanity, as most people would flee from a ghost and recognize when friends were merely trying to help. On the other hand, going with the ghost is rational considering that the Prince of Denmark desperately misses his father and wants to know once and for all whether his father was murdered.

Inconsistency and Ophelia

Hamlet’s actions and words are extremely inconsistent. He tells his love interest, Ophelia, that he no longer loves her, for example, but then later jumps into her grave as he prepares for a fight, professing his passion. Modern psychologists often assert that inconsistent actions and speech are signs of emotional and mental distress, but it isn’t clear whether the inconsistency comes from going crazy or from the overwhelming stresses of his circumstances. Some people assert that, were he sane and truly in love, he wouldn’t have tried to push Ophelia away and been mean to her, but others point out that the actions of his mother have destroyed his trust of women and that his actions toward Ophelia are misdirected.

Direct Assertion

Hamlet says very clearly that he is not mad, but that he is merely acting insane. Experts sometimes take this at face value and point out that playing mad serves his intent to avenge his father. Those who take the other side of the argument claim that people who are really insane don’t necessarily recognize their lack of lucidity.

Sane and Insane

Those who have studied Hamlet sometimes claim that he was both mad and not mad. A problem when trying to debate his mental state is that people typically assume that sanity is a consistent thing. This is not always true, as people can move in and out of periods of lucidity, such as during severe illness. It might be he had moments of clarity, such as when he plotted to catch his father’s murderer, but that he could not sustain that clarity and therefore did not always do sane things.

Another interpretation is that he begins the play sane but becomes mad by the end. The idea here is that, by acting crazy, he slowly lost his ability to discern good rationalization and proper behavior. A problem with this interpretation is that his troubles continue to increase over time. An increase in strange behavior might be a response to this increase in stress, not evidence of worsened craziness.

The Big Problem

A major issue in trying to determine whether Shakespeare wanted the main character of his play to be sane or insane is that sanity by itself is somewhat open to interpretation. Behavior that is acceptable to one culture might not be acceptable to another, for instance. Rationalization also is assumed to be a mark of sanity, but as murderers often demonstrate, even “insane” acts can be carefully plotted and thought out. The best anyone can do, therefore is to interpret his actions and speeches under his own cultural and personal lens.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent LanguageHumanities contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent LanguageHumanities contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


Did you even read Hamlet? He is not the only person who sees his father's ghost. Three others do as well and he was not "taking a stroll" when he met his father's ghost. The two guards and his servant as well as friend asked him to come see the ghost for himself. Also, he does not hold anyone at sword point, but rather begs to be released to follow the ghost. As for Ophelia, he loves her as presented when he jumped into her grave and tried to send her away as when said "Get thee to a nunnery."

As for Gertrude not seeing the ghost, Hamlet at this point might have actually been seeing illusions. In all honestly, go and do your research before you speculate whether or not Hamlet was mad. This article is inconsistent and does not provide enough, if any, evidence.


I disagree with majority of your opinions. The arguments lack proof.

I don't think that Hamlet was truly mad. He was very good at pretending to be mad, however, which is what has gotten everyone so confused as to whether he really was or not.

First of all, Hamlet is one of the most sane thinkers in the play, because he takes his time before he acts, weighing all the factors. Other characters, such as Laertes, however, act irrationally. For example, when Claudius was giving a confession and Hamlet saw him, it was the perfect opportunity for Hamlet to kill Claudius. However, Hamlet takes the time to think about it. He realizes that if he were to kill Claudius now, that Claudius would be able to go to heaven as he is asking God for forgiveness (which was the belief in Shakespeare's day). So, if he killed him, what would be the point in the revenge? Nothing. He needed to wait to catch Claudius in an act of sin to kill him so that he would suffer as his father had. This is quite logical.

Also, Hamlet could not have fabricated the story of Claudius killing his father. If he had, why did Claudius react to the play within the play the way he did? In this instance, Claudius feels as if everyone knows what he has done, and is worried. This confirms that Hamlet didn't just make up the story: there was truth to it.

And is also important to realize that Hamlet was not the first person to see the ghost. Horatio and company were the first characters to see the ghost and were the ones who told Hamlet about it. This proves that the ghost was real!

All in all, Hamlet is too much of a logical thinker to be labeled insane. To me, Hamlet is simply a great actor.


It's true, that others see the ghost in the first act, but that is the only scene where the ghost can be seen and heard. From that point on, no one, no even Gertrude, can see the ghost.

I contend that Shakespeare created this confusion and started the play with the scene about the ghost in order to take the play to another level, which is actually annoying for those who have to analyze the play for class.

As the play develops, the ghost gradually appears to be a projection of Shakespeare's fears, and this fact is confirmed when the ghost acts nonsensical at times, reflecting Hamlet's mentality.

For example, the fact that ghost asks for revenge is a hole in the logic that the ghost is "real." Revenge is thought to be a sin in the protestant religion, and the fact that the father wants to send his son to hell, when he is in purgatory himself, is ridiculous.

Moreover, the ghost wants Hamlet to do justice, but killing Claudius will not grant the ghost a chance to go to heaven anyway. There is nothing beneficial for the ghost in killing Claudius.

I don't know about you guys, but I have not seen any fathers who want to send their sons into hell or order them to do something as proxy for their own selfish needs.


Many of you are far too simple in your analysis, and almost none of you provide text as proof. First of all, it is clear that more than one person saw the ghost. Are we forgetting this? Perhaps if Hamlet were the only person to have witnessed this, we would have a real argument, but there are several witnesses. Clearly, the ghost is real.

Secondly, Hamlet is in no way, shape or form responsible for his mother's death. Claudius kills Gertrude indirectly. He put poison in the goblet she drank from. As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they had papers that would have led to Hamlet's death, and Hamlet merely switched them. We may question whether or not turnabout is fair play, but this is clearly an act of self preservation, not madness.

Ophelia is part of a different debate, and I don't plan on getting into that now. To say 'Hamlet is mad. End of story.' shows a complete ignorance of the text as well as an ability to question one's original opinions. Finally, I would like to mention that at several points, Claudius, while speaking to himself, admits to the murder of the king. It doesn't get more obvious than that.

It may be that Hamlet gradually begins to lose his sanity, but to say that he is mad from the beginning shows a tendency to delusion in itself.


Hamlet is insane. End of story. He builds an entirely new personality based on the story told by his father's ghost. Hello? If the most influential person in my life died I probably would fantasize a logical reason for his death. Hamlet is making up someone to blame because he can't handle the stress. Then he goes seriously mad. If i told you "Nah I'm pretending to be crazy" and then killed (or at least caused the death) of my mom, new stepfather, girlfriend, and possible father-in-law, what would you think?

Also, don't try to blame Claudius for sending Hamlet to be killed. People in Shakespeare's time were killed if they were mad, insane, or mentally challenged. Especially if he was heir to the throne. no way would i give up my country to a madman. Hamlet may have been acting but i don't buy it. Hamlet was the real deal crazy.


well as for me, from a modern point of view, i would say that even though back in shakespeare's time it was believed the ghosts existed, i can say that due to that belief people would "imagine" those spirits arise, so the whole idea that hamlet's uncle killed his dad can be based on the delusion of Hamlet.

However, if so, why would his uncle send to kill Hamlet in England and then support Laertes against his very own nephew? Doesn't this make him evil enough? Hamlet was psychologically disturbed, and that's why he saw his father's spirit, so maybe seeing this spirit was "a message from God" so he'd save the Dane's kingdom, because Claudius came out to be really evil, thus, his disturbance urged him to play crazy so he would be able to put things together and bring the puzzle complete again.


I think if we look at this whole situation as a mystery play and try to figure it out from that perspective, things become most clear.

Ask yourselves: who gains from this whole scenario? Is it Hamlet (younger or senior) no. Is it Claudius? No. Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, Horatio, Gertrude? No, no, no, no, no, no and no.

In fact the only one to gain from the climax of the play is Prince Fortinbras of Norway. The entire play is actually about him.

The play "Hamlet" is, in reality, about Prince Fortinbras' genius manipulation of the entire Danish court to: a) avenge his father's death at the hands of the elder Hamlet, and b) to gain control of Denmark.

Now imagine, if you will, that ghosts don't actually exist (not really a stretch). Now think about how many people claim to have seen a recently deceased relative in ghostly form. If you were a clever young prince who understood human nature, you could take advantage of this situation and fake a ghost sighting.

By fabricating this scenario, you could create intrigue in a royal court and bring it down upon itself: by convincing a young heir to the throne that the murder of his father was committed by his uncle instead of by you.


I agree with comment number 9; that scene is also what really swayed me to think that Hamlet's madness had crossed from being a ruse to, possibly, being sincere.

It's commonly debated as to whether or not the sighting of the ghost in this scene is a product of Hamlet's madness, since it was only seen by him at that time, so I can't really draw a definite conclusion one way or another based on that. However, the drastic contrast between the characterization of Hamlet that we have been given up to this point and Hamlet's actions in the scene really send up a red flag. Here's Hamlet, this guy who is so incredibly philosophical, hesitant and deliberate, as we can see through any one of his deep, pensive soliloquies (not to mention the fact that he plans out a whole freaking play just to assure himself of his uncle's guilt before killing him) and then, all of a sudden, "Oh, hey, what's that noise? It could be my uncle! Guess I'll stab it through this curtain and find out!"

Even upon realizing that he has murdered Polonius, the father of the woman he loves, he's just kind of like, "Eh. What an unlucky dummy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, huh?"

Is this consistent with his characterization? I don't think so. And yes, not everyone in real life follows a cookie-cutter pattern that can be defined by their "character" or their known qualities. But, this departure from the Hamlet that we have come to know to this point in the play is a little too dramatic to just be brushed off like that.

So, is Hamlet really insane? I would have to say so.


Hamlet had to be mad to consider acting mad and risking being thrown into an asylum.


It's an interesting question, to be sure, but when we consider Hamlet's madness we can't use today's standard symptoms of diagnosis. In shakespeare's time mental illness was unknown, and in fact, mental illness isn't something commonly brought up in casual conversations.

One compelling argument for Hamlet's sanity, I find, is the inconsistency in his ‘antic disposition’. For example when he approaches Ophelia in Act 2, Hamlet portrays himself as completely incapable of clear thought or natural dignity (by that I mean the social convention dictating you pull your pants up before you leave the loo); however Ophelia's account is immediately juxtaposed with Hamlet's 'interview' with polonius and quick-fire banter with his old friends.

One can use this to argue, Hamlet is not mad because he's overacting, or that hamlet becomes mad over the course of the play as his 'act' becomes increasingly genuine with time. (Like dfrum32 said)

I asked myself:

Has Hamlet lost control? no. see his agenda.

Has Hamlet lost reason? yes. see agenda.

Has Hamlet become unstable? yes, and again see agenda.

As a clinically 'insane' person, I find Hamlet's actions too deliberate and systematic to be real, but when deciding for yourself, my advice is consider Shakespeare's context, wording, and scene compositions.

Peace out.


I agree with anon70563 (comment 10). I actually agree with a majority of the comments.


i think it all depends on what you think crazy is and what shakespearians thought crazy is. Morals and values.


The soliloquies are not acts of madness.


My issue with this article is that the author clearly forgets to mention that Hamlet wasn't the first to witness the ghost's appearance. It was first witnessed by the officers Marcellus and Bernardo, then witnessed by Horatio, then later Hamlet.

So to say Hamlet might be crazy for seeing his father's ghost can be put into question itself. Either all four men are crazy, or something really did make an appearance on the grounds of the castle.


It is often the mark of a mad person to admit that they are not mad. Just as an inebriated person will often insist that they are not drunk, or that they can sober up when need be - the same does for someone who is insane. Clearly, Hamlet is off his rocker.


It's pretty ignorant to equate suicidal tendencies with insanity as you so cavalierly do. People with mental health disorders, including clinical depression, are not crazy.

And the stigma of insanity that is attached to disorders such as depression is one reason many people have trouble seeking treatment.


The only time in the play where I can see Hamlet being crazy is right before he kills Polonius and is talking to his mother. That time only he saw the ghost so it could be possible that he imagined at that time, but the ghost may have the power to only make itself visible to those it wants it to see.

What I see as being more crazy is that Hamlet thought it could have been his father-uncle behind the curtain, but he had just seen his father-uncle moments before praying. This is the only real instant in the play that would support that Hamlet is in fact crazy in my opinion.


the ghost is not a delusion; horatio and marcellus see him as well.


I have a different opinion on the subject. I believe hamlet is not crazy for various reasons. He states many times that he is not crazy; just angry. He says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "I am but mad north north-west" This implies that hamlet remains focused on the reason for his antics.

His tragic flaw, howevers is failing to kill Claudius immediately and putting on a crazed persona. he procrastinates his murder of Claudius and that is what leads him to his death.


Well one thing's certain; Claudius was definitely not a "nice guy." He may have been likeable but that does not mean that his character was pure. Sending one's stepson off to be killed in Europe and plotting with Laertes to kill this same son by poison after he returns do not mark one as a nice fellow.


He killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in self defense. I mean if it were up to me I'd have let R&G be executed in my place especially since they were spying for the villianous Claudius. He kills Claudius for revenge, (a life for a life was accepted in that culture) and he accidentally kills Polonius because he thought it was Claudius spying on him from behind the curtain.

I admit he had moments of madness but he admits he's acting in a number of places.

"I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw"(Act 2 Scene 2 Lines 378-379)



I think what everyone is forgetting is that Hamlet wasn't in fact the first person to see his father's ghost. That honor goes first to the sentinels Horatio and Marcellus, and then later Hamlet's friend Horatio. Unless one counts the sighting as a Folie a trois, Hamlet's sighting of his father's ghost is not reason enough to call him crazy.


all shakespearean plays have tragedy in them, and i believe that hamlets tragedy was that he was crazy. however, killing people is part of all Shakespearean plays and hamlet being a killer does not make him crazy. if we did look at it now, yes we could say he was crazy, but not in that time period. you also mention hamlet seeing his fathers ghost in the beginning, but other guards also saw his ghost. however, the unreal part about it was that hamlet was the only one the ghost actually talked to in the play. that's what hints the craziness, not the fact that he saw the ghost.

hamlet sees the ghost when he was with his mother. that was important because that really way crazy. this time hamlet saw and talked to the ghost and gertrude saw nothing. showing that hamlet is completely crazy, and now he he fully imagining the ghost being present in the room.


Consider for a moment that Hamlet shows *restraint* in his murderous intents. If Hamlet were crazy, would he question himself endlessly? A madman would simply charge off and do whatever his visions say. But Hamlet has the capacity to question the vision. Yes, he does ponder suicide, but are all depressed people "crazy"? Depending on the definition of crazy, it could go either way. Certainly depression doesn't make one violent towards others. And why shouldn't he be depressed? His father was killed and his mother married his father's uncle two months after the death.


I think that Hamlet began to pretend to be mad, to try to fool people, but as he got more into the role, he adopted it more fully. Especially after he saw the effect on Ophelia and other people that he loved, he probably descended further into madness.

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    • As no objective determination of Hamlet's sanity is possible, actors are left to their own discretion in how to play Shakespeare's prince.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      As no objective determination of Hamlet's sanity is possible, actors are left to their own discretion in how to play Shakespeare's prince.
    • Hamlet's actions, such as murdering others and considering suicide, must be evaluated when determining his sanity.
      By: Arsgera
      Hamlet's actions, such as murdering others and considering suicide, must be evaluated when determining his sanity.
    • Shakespeare has Hamlet say that he is not sane, but only pretending.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Shakespeare has Hamlet say that he is not sane, but only pretending.