Hamlet: mad preview (a teaser)

So yesterday, we took a little look at melancholy. Today, a (very) little look at madness in our boy Hamlet.

To quote Polonius, first we must ask, “To define true madness // What is’t to be nothing else but mad?” (II.ii.93-4). The key word here, I’d argue, is not “madness” but “true.”

Is Hamlet truly mad?

But, what is “mad”?

To the OED!

1. Of an animal: abnormally aggressive; spec. (esp. of a dog) suffering from rabies, rabid.
2. Of a person, action, disposition, etc.: uncontrolled by reason or judgement; foolish, unwise.
a. Of a person: carried away by or filled with enthusiasm or desire; wildly excited; infatuated.
a. Of a person: insane, crazy; mentally unbalanced or deranged; subject to delusions or hallucinations.
b. Causing madness. Obs. rare.
c. Of wind, a storm, the sea: wild, violent.
5. Of a person: stupefied with astonishment, fear, or suffering; dazed. Obs.
a. Of a person: beside oneself with anger; moved to uncontrollable rage; furious.
b. Angry, irate, cross. Also, in weakened sense: annoyed, exasperated
a. Of a person: lacking in restraint; (wildly) unconventional in demeanour or conduct; marked by irresponsible gaiety; violently exuberant, outrageous, chaotic.

  • “mad, adj.”
    Oxford English Dictionary Online
    Oxford University Press,
    March 2015.
    Web. 20 April 2015.

I find it interesting that just as Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, another meaning was coming into use: “Fervent with poetic or divine inspiration”. (“mad, adj.; 8” OED Online). This coincides with the historical/humorous/medical/psychological linking of the melancholic mind to a kind of brilliance that set him apart from the rest of the dull populace. This brings to mind Gertrude’s question to her son in Act Two, Scene Two: “Why seems it so particular with thee?” (I.ii.75). This melancholy, this time of “veiled lids” (I.ii.70), has set him apart from everyone else. He’s different from all others.

But does that make him mad?

More to follow…

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