Insanity is a prevalent theme in Shakespeare’s dramas. In Hamlet, insanity is used to reveal the truth. Hamlet pretends to be mad so he can find out the truth about his father’s murder. When Ophelia goes mad after her father’s death, she speaks the true deceitful nature of the court through seemingly nonsensical songs and flowers. Insanity in Hamlet, however, is not of the cliché straight jacketed, padded cell variety. Shakespeare presents Ophelia and Hamlet not as slobbering lunatics, but as people who are divided from themselves. The motif that madness creates two separate beings within one body furthers the overall theme of insanity in Hamlet.
The theme of insanity is first introduced in Act 1, Scene 5 when Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost. The ghost tells Hamlet that his brother Claudius, who is now the king of Denmark, murdered him while he slept. The ghost tells Hamlet that he is stuck in purgatory, and the only way his soul will go to heaven is if Hamlet kills Claudius. Hamlet does not know whether to believe the ghost or not. He decides to act insane to discern the truth. “Here as before, never, so help you mercy, / How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself – / As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on.”Hamlet entrusts his secret with his friends Horatio and Marcellus.
While Hamlet is only pretending to be insane, his love Ophelia actually goes mad with grief after her father is murdered. “She is importunate, indeed distract. / Her mood will needs be pitied.” Hamlet uses his insanity as a means of discovering the truth, whereas Ophelia, in her lunacy, speaks the truth. “Young men will do’t, if they come to ‘t; / By cock they are to blame. / Quoth she, before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed. / So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to my bed.”In her songs, Ophelia reveals her true feelings about her father’s death and Hamlet’s betrayal of her love. She also reveals the true nature of the court by distributing symbolic flowers. For example, she gives Claudius fennel and columbine, which represent flattery and disloyalty and ingratitude. Though all these acts seem like mere lunacy to the other characters, Ophelia’s acts of insanity speak the truth.
The true nature of insanity in Hamlet stems from the reoccurring motif that madness divides a person from themselves. After Ophelia becomes mad, Claudius laments, “Poor Ophelia/ Divided from herself and her fair judgment.” Even Hamlet, who is only pretending to be mad, apologizes to Laertes by saying, “Was’t Hamlet
wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet. / If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away, / And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, / The Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. / Who does it then? His madness.” Hamlet’s statements about himself are contradictory. He claims that he is only pretending to be mad, but Hamlet is divided within himself by his inability to find a median for his emotions. He is either unable to act, or he is a slave to passion. By Hamlet’s own definition of madness, the division of one’s self, he is insane.
The motif of self-division enhances the overall theme of insanity in Hamlet. The true tragic nature of the play lies not in Hamlet and Ophelia’s insanity but in the inability of the other characters to see past the madness to the truth that it reveals.