Is This Noble Mind O’erthrown?
By Kathryn Neves
There’s a reason Hamlet has been so popular throughout the last four centuries. There’s a reason it has been performed countless times, a reason it’s been studied and analyzed so much, and a reason we peruse its pages again and again. Because no matter how many times we hear those words, there’s always more. Hamlet is fascinating and complex enough that we’ll probably never get to the bottom of it. Sometimes we find something new in these pages— and sometimes we return to old questions and try to find new answers.
One of the questions that audiences have been asking themselves since the play premiered in 1609 is about the Prince of Denmark himself. Thousands of scholars have answered the question, and thousands of others have disagreed. There’s a lot of evidence for both sides of the debate, and in my opinion it’s one of the most intriguing questions in all of Shakespeare’s canon. It’s a simple question, really, without a simple answer: Is Hamlet playacting, or is he actually insane?
It would be easy to say that Hamlet is acting mad on purpose throughout the play. After all, he says so in Act 1 Scene 5 after seeing his father’s ghost for the first time: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (lines 191–92). And it’s hard to call him insane for seeing the ghost in the first place, since he is not the only one to see the apparition. Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio all see the ghost in the very first scene of the play. It seems, then, that if Hamlet is mad, he must be in some sort of shared delusion with Horatio and the others.
Some people argue that Hamlet may have started out sane, but through the very act of pretending to be insane, became insane himself. It does seem possible; after all, Hamlet’s behavior is increasingly erratic as the play goes on, as though something definitely is wrong with him. At the beginning, he ponders and worries, but as the play moves forward he does some very irrational things; he kills Polonius without thought or remorse and he recklessly sends his own childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to their deaths. It would be hard to argue that those are the actions of a sane man.
Even so, there’s still a lot of evidence to say that it’s all playacting—or at least, most of it is. Hamlet acts strange, even absurd; for instance, in Act 2 Scene 2 he speaks to Polonius as though unaware of who he is, and what he says is practically all nonsense, even while he spends all his time hurling insults and slander. He speaks of graves, satirical rogues, and fishmongers until Polonius is positive that Hamlet is far gone. But if you read elsewhere in the play, you can see that when Hamlet is alone, he is completely lucid. His soliloquies are full of keen and intelligent observations that would be improbable coming from the mouth of an insane person. While Ophelia believes that his “noble mind is here o’erthrown,” (3.1.163) Hamlet’s mind is clearly just as sharp as anyone else’s.
Now, that’s not to say that Hamlet is always entirely sane. There are moments in the play— powerful moments— that show Hamlet enraged and possibly insane. One example is his killing of Polonius: just before this, Hamlet is in the middle of an emotional and angry confrontation with his mother, and he doesn’t seem to be in his right mind when he kills the hidden man. He does it without pausing to think, something that is very different from previous moments with him. Usually Hamlet takes (arguably) too long to make decisions because he thinks about them too much; here, though, he stabs the old man without any hesitation. Not only that, but he doesn’t seem to feel any remorse about it. This could easily be an indication that Hamlet’s insanity might not be entirely faked.
Then, of course, there’s the moment where Hamlet, upon learning of Ophelia’s death, picks a fight with her brother Laertes and says “Be buried quick with her, and so will I. And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw millions of acres on us” (5.1.296–98). Some people might consider it a stretch to call this moment “insanity,” but it’s definitely not the words of a healthy, balanced man.
So is Hamlet mad, or is he only acting? We may never know. Each actor portrays it differently— so sometimes he is, and sometimes he isn’t. Whatever Shakespeare intended, it’s definitely kept us all talking about it for centuries. Whether or not Hamlet is mad, we can safely say one thing: he definitely makes for a great show.