One of the most analyzed plays in existence is the tragedy Hamlet, with its recurring question: “Is Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ feigned or real?” In truth, this question can only be answered by observing the thoughts of the main characters in relation to the cause of Hamlet real or feigned madness. In the tragedy Hamlet, each of the main characters explains Hamlets madness in their own unique way. To discover the cause behind the madness of Hamlet, each character used their own ambitions, emotions and interpretations of past events. Characters tried to explain Hamlet’s “antic disposition” by means of association to thwarted ambition, heartbreaking anguish, and denied love. In the workings of their thoughts, the characters inadvertently reveal something about their own desires, emotions and experiences to the reader.
The thoughts of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz present the reader with one possible factor for the cause of Hamlets supposed madness. The two men believe that the cause for Hamlets madness is his lack of “advancement” or thwarted ambition. In a conversation with Hamlet in Act II scene II, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz come upon this idea:
Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it
so: to me it is a prison.
When the heir apparent calls his heritage a prison, something must be seriously wrong, and it is not difficult for th…
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…rman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 175-190.
Leverenz, David. 1980. ‘The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View.’ In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Coppelia Kahn and Murray M. Schwarz. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 110-128.
Levin, Richard. 1990. ‘The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide.’ PMLA 105: 491-504.
Vickers, Brian. 1993. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Watson, Robert N. 1990. ‘Giving up the Ghost in a World of Decay: Hamlet, Revenge and Denial.’ Renaissance Drama 21:199-223.
Wright, George T. 1981. ‘Hendiadys and Hamlet.’ PMLA 96:168-193.
Shakespeare, William. The Tradegy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992
The Many Possible Interpretations of Hamlet
The Many Possible Interpretations of Hamlet
Towards the close of the play, Hamlet has a short exchange alone with Horatio, which seems intended to “set up” the final encounter with Laertes, the Queen, Claudius, and the whole Court, and to make absolutely clear the nature of his own involvement. The passage exists in two good versions; the second Quarto of 1604, and the Folio of 1623, which is now thought to represent Shakespeare’s revision of the earlier version.11 This second text adds fourteen lines in which Hamlet seeks to justify, as “perfect conscience,” his determination to kill Claudius with his own “arm”–or rather to “quit” him, which implies repaying as well.12 He then asks whether he would not be “damned” if he did nothing to eradicate “this canker of our nature” (V.ii.68-70). But even this later addition to the play does not establish a “plain and simple faith.”13 We notice that Hamlet expresses himself in rhetorical questions which seem to qualify his momentary certainty. And only minutes later, as the last encounter approaches, his reluctance to tell all (“Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it is no matter,” ll. 208-09) and a further intrusion of vigorous and baffling wordplay cloud over these ultimate issues once more.
Immediately before the King and Queen enter on stage, Hamlet’s words, spoken as he again finds himself alone with Horatio, are so tricky–or perhaps tricksy–that they baffled the original compositors of the text and have set modern editors at variance.14 Neither the Quarto nor Folio makes sense and various emendations have been proposed. No/knows; has/owes; leave/leaves; ought/all; of what/of ought, all collide and change places with each other in the different versions. Today a text might read, “Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes?” or “Since no man of ought he leaves, knows, what is’t to leave . . .,” or “. . . no man owes aught of what he leaves, what is’t . . .,” or “. . . no man knows of aught he leaves, what is’t . . . .” (Was the speech ever absolutely clear in Shakespeare’s autograph manuscript, or in his head?) With Hamlet’s next words, as trumpet and drums [page 24] announce the King’s arrival, the play’s hero contrives yet another avoidance-tactic, refusing to talk further with a surprisingly curt “Let be.