“Though I am not splentative and rash / Yet have I in me something dangerous (line 283; Act V Sc. i).” Madness, as seen in its conventional sense is most commonly associated with a loss of the ability to reason and think rationally. This conventional form of insanity can be directly attributed to the character of Ophelia. Ophelia grew up completely dependent on the overwhelming outside influences surrounding her and as a result, was unable to think independently for herself. Once these outside influences disappeared, Ophelia was unable to corralle her circumstances and therefore lost the ability function normally in her and society.
Hamlet madness was developed under different circumstances from those of Ophelia. In contrast to Ophelia, Hamlet became mad through his overly developed rational. Through his intense intellectual interpretations, Hamlet exceeded his mental capacity. In essence, Ophelia’s madness is a result of her lack of reason while Hamlets’ results from his overly developed ability to reason.
Ophelia is clearly a product of her environment. Carol Neely She has grown up without a mother and was ruled by the men around her. She has been brought up to accept orders and not form her own opinions. Her father and brother feel that it is their duty to dictate her “moral, intellectual, even psychological development”(Neely, 2) They remain blind to the torment and torture that she must go through. Polonius uses her as a tool in his endless quest for power. He uses her as a test for Hamlet to prove his loyalty to Claudius. Both brother and father hinder Ophelia’s psychic growth. “Ophelia’s psychic identity appears externally defined, socially constructed.” (1)
Hamlet, similarly, does not care for any of Ophelia’s psychic growth. He simply uses her to nurture his psychological deficiency. When Ophelia actually tries to express herself, Hamlet lashes out at her. He tries to mold her into an ideal obedient woman. “Hamlet’s honest woman would serve as an inert mirror, distorted just enough to reflect back his royal image slightly enlarged.” (2) She is in fact the “honest woman,” that she is supposed to be, in the patriarchal sense, one who will first obey her father, then her husband. But anything she does creates doubt in Hamlet’s distorted thinking.
Suddenly when all these voices in her head stop (brother in France, her lover banished), she is confronted with a profound silence and becomes truly mad. This is the classic transgression into madness. Her madness is the only outlet through which she can express herself. She can finally find and deal with her frustration.
Offering her an escape, madness gives her a way to express her anger and desire. She now demands to be heard. “She must explode outside of the categories designed to circumscribe her, must journey beyond the boundaries of sanity, to a place where she can first locate and then express her rage.”(4) Men have always defined her and her escape into madness gives her a way to find her own identity.
She speaks subversively, expressing “dangerous conjectures” and uttering specific allegations, however she is often indirect. It is clear that it is not necessary for her messages to be understood by the people that they are directed at. This is evidence of madness in the traditional sense. She uses the term “death” in her song to represent both the literal loss of father and king, and the more figurative loss of lover as well as brother. It also represents her yearnings for the sexuality denied by Polonius and Laertes. “Madness releases Ophelia from the enforced repressions of obedience, chastity, patience, liberates her from the prescribed roles of daughter, sister, lover, subject.”(4)
The second song reflects how seriously she intended Hamlet’s treatment of her as a whore as well as the fear of male desire, which came from her father and brother. She also addresses Polonius in her song. She is singing as if it was part of a funeral performance. She decides on proper flowers for each person. She mourns her desire for Hamlet in the presence of her brother and in the memory of the father.
In her raging madness, Ophelia addresses several issues of the society that she is part of. She makes a joke of religious epithets. She reveals hypocrisies that hide beneath the seemingly successful family unit. She condemns the falseness of sexual love. She shows how ridiculously political power has exchanged hands. She doesn’t even need the listeners’ response. She is speaking for herself. Ophelia is finally able to express her repressed feelings but she unfortunately leaves too much room for interpretation. Witnesses of her madness “botch [her] words up to fit their own thoughts.” The fact that she isn’t even trying to get her point across to anybody further proves that her madness is coming from the environment from which she was bred. It has fostered her frustration and now can not contain her rage.
According to the Shakesperean critic Robert M. Youngson, Hamlet suffered from a disease called Ganser syndrome. Ganser syndrome is composed of short-lived, florid, psychotic episodes. This behavior is a psychotic illness in which the affected person is pretending to be in a psychiatrically disabilitated state. This fained psychosis eventually transforms into a true state of insanity. This state of insanity takes over the person and their life turning them into the very person they were pretending to be. The underlying etilogical factor which causes Ganser syndrome is stress. Throughout this play Hamlet is torn with the stress of having to avenge his father’s death, deal with the madness and eventual suicide of Ophelia, the marriage of his mother and his uncle and the inability to trust those he had held so close in the past.
Youngson’s analysis of Hamlet’s behavior shows that his madness was not immediate but developed over time as he became more enthraled in the psychotic role he was playing. Similarly, the Shakespearean critic Northrop Frye believes that Hamlet’s attempt to conceal his anger and frustration through feigning madness only resulted in his true madness. In suppressing his feelings under a mask of feigned insanity, Hamlet only achieves in becoming truly insane. Frye says, “After Hamlet learns the truth about how Claudius became king, he conceals his feelings under the disguise of madness…” (91). Early on Polonius sees that Hamlet’s madness is not true insanity but a front for his hidden agenda, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” (II.ii.211).
This beginning state of contrived madness is recognized by Polonius. Yet Hamlet’s madness slowly transforms itself. Hamlet begins his trek into madness willingly, even acknowledging the fact that he is acting insane, “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hack from a handsaw,” (II.ii.403-4). Yet as the play goes on it becomes clearer that he is losing his grasp of the ability to control his madness and at times repress it. Hamlet’s true madness is shown when he lets his anger take over and begins to hallucinate and rant in his mother’s bedroom chamber.
Hamlet explodes into a screaming rampage chastising his mother for her sins and her blindness to Claudius’ evil plotting, “Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty!’ …’How is’t with you, that you do bend your eye on vacancy and with th’ incorporal air do hold discourse?” (103-6, 33-5). These hallucinations and his uncontrollable lashing out are both documented symptoms of a person who has progressed through the stages of Ganser syndrome. Hamlet’s intelligence is what causes him to be able feign madness to such an extreme degree and to fall into Ganser syndrome.
Above all else, Hamlet’s intelligence provides the foundation for his madness. Throughout the play, Hamlet displays his ability to rationally approach situations through reasoning. Through this approach, Hamlet is illustrated as an intellectual, yet sensitive hero, demonstrating the components of an ideal Renaissance man. His sensitivity can be seen when he expresses the horror he feels over his mother’s incestuous and hasty remarriage to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet articulates his feelings by saying, “Like Niobe, all tears – why she / married with my uncle, / My father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules. (line 153-157; Act 1. Sc. 2)” Hamlet extensively ponders multiple philosophical issues throughout the play. Though at times his intelligence can be seen as a positive quality, in many respects, his intelligence becomes the cause of his madness.
Through his overly analytical and interpretative mental behavior, Hamlet develops a sensitive concern for all of the philosophical issues that trouble him. His sensitivity and passion for these issues drives him to a point of obsession, which eventually leads him to feelings of hopelessness and insanity.
This can be seen when he ponders the possibilities of an afterlife. In this famous soliloquy, Hamlet says, “To die, to sleep – / No more – and by a sleep to say we end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks. (line 68-70; Act 3. Sc 1)” Hamlet contemplates committing suicide. He ponders the result of death, wondering whether there exists an afterlife, or whether there exists nothing at all. He evaluates his situation and is again seen overly analyzing the circumstances. Hamlet overwhelm himself through this over analytical behavior. He poses unanswerable questions and then feels hopeless and devastated when he cannot find resolve.
“To read madness sanely is to miss the point; to read madness madly is to have one’s point be missed.” (Neely) “The final difficulty of reading madness is that in the act of doing so, one dissociates oneself with it, and in either case becomes disqualified as an interpreter.” Hamlet’s madness can be compared, categorized and filed neatly away in any way that the reader sees fit but the resulting conclusion is tainted with one’s personality. Shakespeare cleverly uses Ophelia as a standard for madness. He contrasts and dissects the two progressions of the mind into complete chaos but this alone isn’t enough to substantiate Hamlet’s unique insane identity. Even though as individuals, many of us strive for perfection, try to eliminate any faults or weaknesses that might hinder our goals and happiness, we can never truly succeed.
Madness is simply an abnormality to what we consider a “healthy,” mindset. One can not analyze it in comparison to different forms of the disorder because it is only a disorder because we choose to call it one. The only way to measure any progression of such an uncertain aspect of life is to base it upon yourself. Both Hamlet and Ophelia found a way to escape or confront their troubles and that is the only concrete fact. We can not pass judgment on their routes to this state but can only conclude that they have progressed to a higher state of being. They have both found a place where they can be content with what fait has dealt them and that alone is the best they could achieve.