In Hamlet, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in the play, namely Ophelia, acts as a balancing argument to the other character’s madness or sanity. Shakespeare creates a contrasting relationship between the breakdown of Ophelia and the “north-north-west” brand of insanity used by Hamlet in that while Hamlet’s character offers more evidence for a contriving manipulation, Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision.
While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia’s insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet’s madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet’s madness. Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more evidence, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’s ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. However, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes” (I.i.56-8). Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from his credibility, but all the men are witnesses to the ghost demanding that Hamlet speak with him alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning:
What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff that beetles o’er his base into the sea, and there assume some other horrible form, which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, and draw you into madness? Think of it (I.iv.69-74).
Horatio’s comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet rationally.
Language and Imagery in The Tragedy of Hamlet
Hamlet: Language and Imagery
Horatio tells Hamlet that he speaks ‘wild and whirling words’, but with Shakespeare, this can never truly be the case. Even phrases that appear so have always a complex meter behind them and, in Hamlet especially, it seems that every word is chosen individually to serve a particular purpose. Despite being almost four hundred years old, Shakespeare is considered the landmark in English literature as the dawning of the modern age of drama. Previously, drama such as the medieval morality plays was used to demonstrate moral stances, but Shakespeare focused on investigating the individual in society. The rise of eponymous drama illustrates the sudden power of the person in literature. This breakaway of Shakespeare’s ‘greatness’: many of his contemporaries and followers attempted to recreate his style, often decaying into wanton violence and atrocities (as with John Webster). His plots could be said to demonstrate moral stances (perhaps Othello could promote trust or fidelity with the consequences of jealousy and infidelity illustrated) but then Romeo and Juliet destroys the lovers who are attempting to reunite broken families, so it is difficult for that theme to be accurate. However, Shakespearean originality lies in the plots and variety even with in particular plays – Twelfth Night is generally considered a comedy but the persecution of Malvolio decays beyond the comic with the close of the play worryingly unresolved with his promise the he’ll ‘be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.’ The characterisation of his figures was also unique for his time: Shakespeare seems to have held great insight into likely human reactions to the extreme situations in which he places his characters, with…
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…he voice of the ghost that is heard, to show his indifferent attitude to his friends. Polonius’s language is used to further his character: his authority in Court (almost Claudius’ equal) contrasts with his rambling language to exacerbate his foolishness and almost guarantee his later destruction.
Therefore, Shakespeare’s use of language not only creates tension, suspense, interest, diversity, and mood, but his imagery exaggerates the feelings already created by the rest of his text. Thus, though it could be said that his plot, variety, characterisation or any number of the different mechanisms that he used to create his tales earns him the title of ‘great’, in the first two acts of Hamlet, it is his language and imagery that makes Shakespeare a truly original playwright.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Global Shakespeare Theatre Series. 1996