A Level English: ‘To be mad, or not to be sane’- Hamlet’s confounding “madness”

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Hamlet’s mental state has long been analysed by critics, with scrutiny as sharp as a newly sharpened pencil; it has long been discussed in hushed whispers by an audience fearful that Hamlet could indeed be- do I dare say it?- mad. It is everywhere, in books hundreds of pages long, hinted at in film and drama and is so significant that it is a major theme is student guides and even exam papers. The degree to which Hamlet is actually mad is now, and has always been, a mystery, a conundrum, a riddle that Shakespeare seems to have deliberately created to be left unsolved. The mass of discussion on this theme has in effect meant it might be seen as terribly daunting and perhaps even confusing. Here, I hope to straighten out some of the arguments in this debate and also provide some critical analysis that might be useful to you.

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What do the critics say?

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The degree to which Hamlet is in reality mad is left ambiguous by Shakespeare. What is important to remember is that Hamlet is a fictional character; the question to ask yourself is not “How far can Hamlet be considered mad?”, but, more significantly, “What did Shakespeare want to achieve in presenting Hamlet’s mental state as mad/sane?” Perhaps Shakespeare left the answer to this question ambiguous for dramatical purposes- to make the play more appealing to its audience in its mystery; alternatively, it could be that Shakespeare had a final message to his audience: the need to accept that there are many unanswered questions in the short lives of mortals, or perhaps more simply for the humour of comic moments in the play, such as Hamlet’s mocking of Polonius, or the first clown’s remark that it would not matter if Hamlet does not recover from his madness in England because “there the men are as mad as he”.

Personally, I believe that this ambiguity, though one which might never be solved, ultimately has a positive side, not least in generating a colourful debate millions of people take part in, have taken part in, and hopefully will continue to take part in, so that all of us can continue to appreciate the rich intrigue of “Hamlet” and the literary brilliance of its author.

I would love too hear what you think regarding this debate!

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