Hamlet: mad, not mad, mad north-northwest, mad with method

A couple of days back, we previewed a discussion of Hamlet’s madness “so call it” (II.ii.5), with some definitions of “mad” from our old buddy, the Oxford English Dictionary. That was the argument or dumbshow… today, let’s take a dive into the great mad playhouse, shall we?

From an Elizabethan perspective (and from the perspective of the other characters in the play), Hamlet hits many of the non-clinical checkboxes of “madness” (“mad, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online; Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 20 April 2015):

  • “uncontrolled by reason or judgement; foolish, unwise” (definition 2)… check (see “antic disposition” [I.v.175] or his antics and outbursts at the play)
  • “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm or desire” (definition 3.a)… check (see his initial response to the Ghost, his “wild and whirling words” [I.v.132])
  • “stupefied with astonishment, fear, or suffering” (definition 5) … check (see both his initial response to the Ghost and The Speech [“To be or not to be” (III.i.56-89)])
  • “beside oneself with anger; moved to uncontrollable rage” (definition 6.a)… check (see his post-Speech torment of Ophelia [“Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.121-40)], as well as his treatment of Gertrude in her closet [“Look here upon this picture” (III.iv.53-88)])
  • “lacking in restraint; (wildly) unconventional in demeanor or conduct” (definition 7.a)… big-time check (you can pretty much file this under “pick a scene, any scene”)

But from a 21st-century perspective (especially one looking backward with a modern concept of madness), aren’t we really looking for one thing and one thing alone, the definition that points to modern clinical madness (“insane, crazy; mentally unbalanced or deranged; subject to delusions or hallucinations” [definition 4.a])? Hamlet is not delusional or seeing hallucinations; Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio all see the Ghost (though curiously [or not] Gertrude does not). What is balanced, anyway? (and how does that take us back to the whole “humor” thing, with is all about being out of balance?)

Let’s take a look at his interactions with other characters…

Hamlet tells Horatio that he will be assuming an “antic disposition,” claims to be feigning madness. But can an insane man know that he’s insane? And if he does realize it, would he–could he–admit it, even to himself? Or is he lying?

He tells Rosencrantz, “I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii31-2). He says this knowing that both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reporting to the king. So why say this? If he was trying to keep this act quiet (as he makes Marcellus and Horatio swear they will not reveal it), then why say that he’s not completely mad? It seems odd. Of course, Hamlet flips this later after the play when he tells Rosencrantz, “My wit’s diseased” (III.i.315).

In his cruel tormenting of Ophelia, he says,

I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp; you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on ‘t. It hath made me mad.
  • III.i.142-7

He knows that Ophelia is a conduit for reports of Hamlet’s actions to get back to the king and queen. In fact, at this point in the scene, it can be argued, and it is often played as Hamlet knowing that he’s being overheard. So it’s understandable that he would still keep the illusion of madness going for public consumption. And the effect of Hamlet’s words on Claudius: the king feels that “what (Hamlet) spake, though it lacked form a little, // Was not like madness” (III.i.163-4).

In the closet scene, he later tells his mother, “I essentially am not in madness, // But mad in craft” (III.iv.187-8). Here, he’s being honest (or at least he believes he’s being honest), only it’s doubtful that his mother believes him as he appears insane to her.

Before the fencing bout, however, he tells Laertes,

But pardon ‘t as you are a gentleman. This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punished
With a sore distraction. What I have done
That might your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was ‘t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness. If ‘t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
  • V.ii.205-17

Hamlet can’t be both not mad and mad, can he? So, Hamlet is obviously lying to someone, but to whom? If he can’t be absolutely trusted in what he says to others, can he be trusted in what he says to himself? Let’s take a look at his soliloquies… does he seem mad or admit to madness in these?

In the first soliloquy (“this too too sullied flesh,” [I.ii.129-59]), he certainly sounds depressed, almost to point of suicide. But it’s that “almost” that’s the key: he’s still rationale enough to use religion’s “fixed… Canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.131,132) to argue against taking his own life. Rational.

In the second soliloquy (“O all you host of heaven,” I.v.92-111), he is rattled, thrown off-balance by the appearance of the Ghost; this, I’d argue, is the closest Hamlet comes to clinical madness and psychosis. That being said, his consistent discussion of mental elements (“memory” [I.v.96, 98], “distracted globe” [I.v.97], “brain” [I.v.103]) seems to me to be calling attention to those rational aspects and weakening the basis of insanity.

In the third soliloquy (“Now I am alone,” II.ii.487-544), he’s completely lucid, discussing the Player King and his own inability to take real action (with cause) when it was all too easy for the actor to show emotion with no cause. He then devises the straightforward and rational plan to “catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.544).

In the fourth soliloquy (“To be or not to be,” III.i.56-89), the thought process is clear and sane, even if the subject matter may not be (is he talking about killing himself, or taking action that might mean his death?).

In the fifth (not-quite-)soliloquy (“Now might I do it pat,” III.iii.73-96), his thought line is still straightforward and clean. He doesn’t immediately jump and kill the king, but slowly works out what would be most effective way.

In the sixth soliloquy (“How all occasions do inform against me,” [IV.iv.32-66]), even though he ends with the proclamation that his “thoughts (will) be(come) bloody” (IV.iv.66), the rest of the speech is a rather thoughtful rumination on life and the need for perseverance.

It’s interesting that with the statement of bloody thoughts, we as an audience no longer get to hear those thoughts directly and intimately from Hamlet.

Even though the second soliloquy flirts with madness (OK, maybe more than flirts, maybe gives it a lap-dance), the next four soliloquies show a much more rational Dane. I can’t imagine that for the majority of the play, Hamlet lies to himself about his mental state. Is he happy-go-lucky? No. He’s mourning. He’s sad. I’d venture to say he’s bitter. And he is most definitely “particular” (I.ii.75)… but does that make him insane? No.

The key to all this, methinks, is the “antic disposition.” And where to begin with that? The ol’ Oxford English Dictionary, of course…

A. adj.
1. Archit. and Decorative Art. Grotesque, in composition or shape; grouped or figured with fantastic incongruity; bizarre.
2. Absurd from fantastic incongruity; grotesque, bizarre, uncouthly ludicrous:
a. in gesture.
B. n.
1. Archit. and Decorative Art. An ornamental representation, purposely monstrous, caricatured, or incongruous, of objects of the animal or the vegetable kingdom, or of both combined.
a. Fantastic tracery or sculpture. Obs.
b. A caryatid, or (sculptured) human figure represented in an impossible position.
c. A grotesquely figured representation of a face, such as are used in gargoyles.
2. A grotesque or ludicrous gesture, posture, or trick; also fig. of behaviour.
a. A grotesque pageant or theatrical representation. Obs.
b. Hence, A grotesque or motley company. rare.
a. A performer who plays a grotesque or ludicrous part, a clown, mountebank, or merry-andrew.
b. transf. and fig.
c. phr. to dance antics. Obs.
  • “antic, adj. and n.”
    OED Online

Antic, he certainly acts antic: “bizarre,” “grotesque,” “purposely monstrous,” “ludicrous,” “a clown”–each and all of these work, but for me the key to the key is in that B.2.a: “grotesque pageant or theatrical representation” (OED Online). Why else would there be so much discussion of plays, players, and play-acting if this wasn’t so important (especially since Hamlet’s a good enough actor to deliver a speech after hearing it only once (II.ii.386-403)? Also, why else to juxtapose a “playing” mad Hamlet with a truly mad Ophelia?

Hamlet’s not a crazy man, he just plays one onstage.

Depressed might be the closest we get. Can depression be a clinical diagonsis? Absolutely (take it from someone who’s been on Wellbutrin for years). But depression is not insanity (at least not full-blown psychosis). As Susan Sontag once said, “Depression is melancholy, minus its charms.” So does that take us full circle?

No, because of Freud.

Don’t get me started…  (don’t worry, that will come later).