The idea of "abandoning reason" begins at Act I, Scene iv when Hamlet ignores the cries of his comrades to follow the Ghost. His decision to "put an antic disposition on" can be interpreted as an escape route from a difficult situation in which he feels vulnerable and lacks control. He needs to do something, anything, in response to the information that has been revealed, and feigning madness offers him the chance to procrastinate. His intention is to follow Polonius’ advice to his messenger: "by indirections find directions out". Hamlet hides behind a mask of madness through which he can spy on Claudius.

Hamlet’s conversation brings together syntax and wild illustrations of simple ideas that are saturated with ambiguity, leaving his victims at cross-purposes but leaving him in control. His alternation of prose and verse suggests that his madness is something that can be ‘put on’ at will. Verse is used when talking with his old friend Horatio, who from the outset knows of Hamlet’s plan. His use of verse in the closet scene with his mother (III.iv) shows his desire to confide in her as an equal but ironically finds difficulty in convincing his mother that he is sane, due to his erratic verse. We might also say that she does not wish to see him as sane because this means that she must face the true evil of her own situation.

Despite the evidence suggesting that his madness is contrived, numerous critics believe that Hamlet was indeed the victim of madness because he performs the act of Hamlet’s unstructured speech at this point, and the rash jump into Ophelia’s grave hints at insanity. Or perhaps it substantiates Horace’s dictum that ‘ira furor brevis est’ (anger is a brief madness). It is strange that it is so widely assumed that Hamlet is mad when he is thinking about the act of murder but sane and righteous while acting on the instructions of a ghost to butcher his uncle. In fact, Hamlet is set up as a thinker: he has recently returned from university. His life is one of thought – notice his extremely frequent and detailed soliloquies weighting up the different possibilities – and it is in his nature to stand aloof from violent acts. The feigned madness is a pose that allows Hamlet to find out the truth beneath the court’s other masks. Only when he allows himself to act in rashness does the whole court implode in the final scene’s massacre. It could be argued that Hamlet’s tragedy is that he gives in to primal urges after all

Hamlet begs pardon from Laertes in the final scene, admitting to unfamiliar urges that he has been unable to control:

"I am punished

With sore distraction. What I have done,

That might your nature, honour and exception

Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness."


Hamlet’s calculating and assumed madness is juxtaposed against Ophelia’s very real insanity. The stem of both of their madness is grief and anger at the unjust killing of their fathers. Ophelia’s speech follows a stream of consciousness as her unshaped dialogue forms around metaphorical language. In her madness, she touches on taboo subjects and speaks a truth that would not normally be touched upon.


Hamlet is based on a Senecan model. In these revenge plays, plots were brought out with horrific incidents, a stock element of which was the Ghost, bloody action and ranting speeches. In Hamlet, the impediment to revenge is conscience whereas in its models, material considerations prevent fulfilment. The theme of earlier tragedies of revenge was the punishment of an evildoer through someone who had suffered because of him. The plays were popular because they allowed the passionate display of emotion, which would have more sensational appeal than a static series of situations.

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