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Who s there, asks Bernardo. Shakespeare, in the first two words of probably his most famous play, already makes the audience feel uncertain about the events that shall later unfold. In Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to pit reason against faith, using the Ghost, supposedly King Hamlet s spirit, as a tool to master this. However, Shakespeare portrays this inner struggle of reason against faith as Hamlet s insanity.
Does Hamlet become insane in the play, or is Shakespeare trying too hard to once again make the audience uncertain? There is a lot of evidence that Hamlet does indeed go insane, however it seems that the audience sees Hamlet s insanity as their uncertainty throughout the play, which has been originally brought on by the Ghost. Indeed, Hamlet is not insane, rather the audience thinks him insane because of their uncertainty and uneasiness regarding Hamlet s actions. Many factors contribute to the uncertainty of Hamlet s sanity. The source of some of these factors is the Ghost Hamlet encounters in the beginning of the play. Hamlet is Shakespeare s most realistic, most modern, tragedy.
It is in Hamlet that Shakespeare seems to give his audience the closest interpretation of the spirit and life of his time. Shakespeare indeed does an excellent job of making the spiritualism and superstition accurate throughout the play. The Ghost in Hamlet raises problems of Elizabethan spiritualism. To understand fully the scenes in which the Ghost appears one must understand the superstitions regarding ghosts in Shakespeare s day and also current philosophical and theological opinions concerning them. Generally there were three schools of thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the question of ghosts. Before the Reformation, the belief in their existence had offered little intellectual difficulty to the ordinary man, since the Catholic doctrine or Purgatory afforded a complete explanation of it in theological terms.
In fact, doctrine and popular belief, in this case, found mutual support. Thus most Catholics of Shakespeare s day believed that ghosts might be spirits of the departed, allowed to return from Purgatory for some special purpose, which was the duty of the pious to further if possible, in order for the wandering soul to find rest. However, for Protestants this was not so easy. The majority of them accepted the reality of apparitions without question, not knowing how they were to be explained. It was not possible that ghosts were the spirits of the departed, for Purgatory being a forgotten tradition, the dead went direct either to bliss in heaven or to prison in hell. Widely discussed and debated, the orthodox Protestant conclusion was that ghosts, while occasionally they might be angels, were generally nothing but devils who assumed the form of departed friends or relatives in order to work evil upon those to whom they appeared (Wilson).
The third and final school of thought on the subject is portrayed in the attitude of Horatio at the opening of the first scene. Christians do not deny the existence of spirits. What they contest is the possibility of their assuming material form. As for the idea that devils can assume the bodies of the dead, it appears to them no less idle than the purgatorial theory, which it superseded. In short, apparitions are either the illusion of a melancholic mind or flat knavery on the part of some evil.
With the spirituality of the Elizabethan period, also came superstition, which Shakespeare obviously followed. First, ghosts could not speak until addressed by some mortal. This rule is certainly seen in the opening scene through the actions of the four characters present. This notion is supported by the text as the ghost does not speak to Hamlet until after Hamlet is summoned by the ghost to follow him. The ghost does not state his intentions until after Hamlet begs for him to state his intentions. Secondly, ghosts could only be safely addressed by scholars, seeing that scholars alone were armed with the necessary weapons of defense, that being a Latin formula for exorcism should the spirit prove to be an evil one.
This is apparently why Horatio was brought to view the ghost the second night after the guards had originally seen the apparition. Throughout the play Shakespeare masters the continuity of the play and Elizabethan spiritualism and superstition (Wilson). Hamlet is not insane. He is a loyal subject, he has a true sense of right and wrong, and at heart is a good person. These points are proven in several passages of the play. He is called valiant, sweet and gentle, and his mother begs him to return to his former self.
We know the seeing of the ghost is not a reason to call him insane. This is because he is not the first to see it. Also he sees the ghost while in the presence of others. Now he is the only one to hear it speak, or so we think. Horatio may have heard it by his statement O day and night, but this is wondrous strange. Also by the fact that during the swearing on the sword, the ghost remarks Swear by his sword and no mention of whether or not the others heard it or not.
Others perceive Hamlet as mad according to his actions. Actions such as his deteriorating appearance (with his doublet all unbraced), his indecision (To be, or not to be), and confusion. When all the while Hamlet is just trying to cope with all that has transpired. The death of his father, the all too soon remarriage of his mother to his uncle. All of these events shook Hamlets faith in the way of things (tis an unneeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature). I do believe I would act much the same.
As the events unfold we see Hamlet growing more and more crafty in the way he deals with these problems. He tasks the players to enact a play which has the same qualities / events in how Claudius killed Hamlet s father. Hamlet then instructs Horatio to watch the kings reaction to the play. This shows a cunning, sly and sane mind. The ability to set a trap does not prove sanity but, for the reasoning of it does.
Hamlet s mad actions can be explained away. His boarding of the pirate ship alone, since he knows he is on his way to England to die, what has he to lose? His seemingly arbitrary killing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is justified in the fact that they plotted with the King to destroy him. His killing of Polonius, although not justifiable in the fact he thought him to be Claudius (I took thee for thy better). The fight with Laertes in the grave of Ophelia, is explained that Laertes attacked Hamlet first. Hamlet does not want a confrontation as of yet (take thy fingers from my throat).
We see as time goes on and the treachery against Hamlet increases, so does Hamlets anger and desire to right the wrongs. He becomes more cunning, asking Ophelia where her father is, knowing she will lie and NOT say Watching us. He starts to realize that he must now fight fire with fire. He is much sterner with Ophelia, Get the to a nunnery, as well as with his mother (as kill a king, and marry his brother. ), (This was your husband. Look what now follows). We see him become decidedly bloodthirsty, (my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! ).
I think the end of act IV scene iv is where Hamlet finally decides on his course of action. I believe this is where he can stand the injustices no longer. The conclusion of this play is more justification to prove Hamlet sane. At the end all of the plotting and treachery he perceived is brought to life.
The killing of his father by his uncle, and the plot against his life by the king through Laertes proves his suspicions correct. Moreover, does not only Hamlet see this, but the whole of the court present. The court sees the use of poison, which the Queen inadvertently takes as well as the poison on the sword of Laertes. Had Hamlet only been more decisive and direct, and had killed Claudius much sooner, the Queen, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would not have died (Bair). While Hamlet was being in his antic disposition stage it allowed him to do several things that he otherwise would not be able to do if everyone thought he was in a normal state. The purpose of Hamlet feigning madness is in order to be undercover and see for certain if what has been told to him by the ghost is true.
By not revealing the fact that he is not insane, he is able to get more information about the death of his father. Did his uncle kill his father and how can he get his mother away from his uncle are what Hamlet is set out to find. Hamlet s sanity is one of the most debated questions of the play, because Shakespeare never actually states whether Hamlet has gone insane or not. Whether Hamlet is insane or not plays a huge rule in why many of the events unfolded as they did. This is why there are so many ways to interpret the many aspects of Hamlet.
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