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Madness and Insanity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

A popular topic of discussion for Shakespearian critics is whether or not Hamlet is sane at various points in the play. Usually, this digresses into a question of at what point Hamlet crosses the fine line which marks the bounds of sanity into the realm of insanity. This is a confusing matter to sort out, due to the fact that it is hard to tell when the prince is acting, and when he is really and truly out of his mind. The matter of determining the time of crossing over is further complicated by the fact that everyone around him is constantly speaking of madness. At the end we must either conclude that Hamlet is an extremely talented actor capable of staying in character under the most trying circumstances, or that he is human and as a result his sanity gives way to the many external emotional barrages coming his way. The more likely conclusion is that Hamlet is at some point insane. What is left to discover is at what point does this crossover occur, and second, what are the main contributing factors in his mental collapse. I will ignore the issue of the point of crossover, and let another paper consider that point. Rather, I propose that Hamlet’s religious beliefs, acquired at the University of Wittenberg, heavily contributed to the loss of his sanity.

According to the commentary at the beginning of the Folger’s Library edition of Hamlet, the prince studied at the University of Wittenberg. The commentary also states that the play was most likely first performed around 1600. Coincidentally (or not), this is near to the time at which Martin Luther held the position of Professor of Theology at Wittenberg. It was while teaching at Wittenberg that Luther had what is referred to as the “Tower Experience,” or when he ca…

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…e acts are strictly forbidden according to his beliefs. On the other hand, the commandments also command him to honor his father and mother. Hamlet is left with the burden of deciding whether to do his father’s will or god’s will. This can be seen as a choice between his two fathers, the one of earth and the one of heaven.

Hamlet’s beliefs are so strong, and his love for his father so great, he tries to avoid making the decision by proving the ghost is not lying. When Hamlet’s experiment with the players verifies the ghost’s story, Hamlet realizes he must choose which father to follow. Does he go against the teachings of the church and commit the act of revengeful murder? Or does he ignore the wishes of the father he adored? Choosing either path means disappointing one of them. The burden this decision leads Hamlet to finally fall from the plane of sanity.

Oedipus Rex – a Christ Figure

Oedipus Rex – a Christ Figure

Sophocles’ famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex, perhaps “the most important and influential drama ever written” (“Sophocles” 717), presents in the person of Oedipus the model of a good ruler, a humanely intelligent and vigorously active leader, a man who earlier saved his adopted city Thebes from disaster. Is Oedipus an alter Christus besides?

The numerous parallels between the figure of the king Oedipus and the figure of Christ in the Scriptures prompts the reader to ask the above question.

For example, in the opening lines of the drama, Oedipus greets the crowd of suppliants (including old men, boys and children) waiting at his palace doors with the words: “My children, latest born to Cadmus old, /Why sit ye here as suppliants, in your hands /Branches of olive filleted with wool”? Later, the king’s second address to the crowd begins: “Ah! my poor children, known, ah, known too well,/The quest that brings you hither and your need.” Other addresses to the people on the part of the king refer to them as “children.” There are many parallels to this in the Bible when Jesus addressed the people. In the gospel of Matthew alone, the word children is used 20 times, for example 3:9: “. . .and do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Jesus also said in Matthew 18:3: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the same book (23:37) Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her b…

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…says “I thank my God through Jesus Christ,” thus associating the two very closely.

Thus it is seen that there are many parallels between Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Rex, in its treatment of the king, and the Bible with its treatment of Jesus, even though the latter was written some 400 years later than the former.


Oedipus the King. Tranlsted by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay. In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

“Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. new?tag=public

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