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.
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
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
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.
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.