Anthony M. Young
May 3, 2018
English 12 Final
Thematic Analysis of the Theme
Madness in Hamlet
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, madness is one of the most obvious and significant themes. This theme is apparent throughout the play, primarily through the actions and thoughts of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes. Madness is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the quality and state of serious mental illness or derangement (being insane)” (1). Madness is the center of the conflicts and problems in the play and is communicated throughout Shakespeare’s elaborate use of manipulation and parallel between Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes to contribute to Hamlet’s tragic character.
Claudius murdering of his brother, Old Hamlet, is the first act of insanity in the play and it sets into action the theme of madness and the insanity of each character in the play. Claudius murders his brother, Old Hamlet, the King of Denmark to seize the throne and marry his sister in law, Gertrude. This is not the desire or act of a sane person (Viotto 2). And, the guilt of killing his own flesh and blood is driving him crazy. In Act l, scene 5, this insane act is revealed to Hamlet when he meets the ghost of his father who tells him “you should know, my noble son, the real snake that stung your father is now wearing his crown.”
Hamlet, after hearing that his Uncle Claudius poisoned his father, determines to seek revenge against Claudius; and thereafter pretends to be mad to draw attention away from his knowing that Claudius did this treacherous and insane act. Take the actions in Act 4, scene 3
when Hamlet, keeping up the façade, gives Claudius hints in riddles as to where he has hidden Polonius’ body. “Not where he’s eating, but where he is being eaten. A certain conference of worms is chowing down on him.” The play leaves the reader with the impression that at the beginning Hamlet is pretending but, by the end he has really gone mad.
Ophelia’s insanity is triggered by the death of her father, Polonius. In Act 4, scene 5, she makes an appearance in the presence of Claudius and Gertrude. Singing in riddles and dancing, “He is dead and gone, lady. He is dead and gone. At his head is a patch of green grass. And at his feet there is a tomb stone. Oh, ho!” This proves just how much her father’s death has affected her and forced her into madness. Later in the scene she brings out flowers to hand to Gertrude “Here are fennel and columbines for you—they symbolize adultery, to Claudius, “And here’s rue for you—it symbolizes repentance. We can call it the merciful Sunday flower, You should wear it for a different reason, And here’s a daisy for unhappy love, I’d give you some violets, flowers of faithfulness, but they all dried up when my father died.” implying the significant meanings the flowers have for each. Her mental instability soon drives her to commit suicide because she no longer has faith in her life and believes she has nothing else to live for.
Laertes madness is also triggered by death; a madness that is controlled by revenge for the murder of his father. Thinking it was Claudius that was the cause of his father’s murder, he returns home to confront and kill him. However, Claudius explains to him that it was Hamlet that murdered his father, Polonius. In Act 4, scene 7, Laertes, when hearing this from Claudius, gets so much revenge building up inside him against Hamlet that he now wants to “cut his throat.” On the web site Field of Themes.com an essay entitled “The Madness in Shakespeare’s
3 Hamlet states that “This behavior is caused by the sudden death of his father without a due ceremony, and the learning that his sister, Ophelia, was driven mad and committed suicide” (3). He and Hamlet face each other in a duel, orchestrated by Claudius, and he eventually kills Hamlet from the poison on his blade.
All the examples of Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s, and Laertes’s madness begin and end with death. Hamlet and Laertes go mad from revenge against the death of their fathers because of the lies and exaggerations that Claudius feed them. Ophelia’s madness is through the death of her father and knowing the person she loved murdered him. In the end the many forms of madness get the best of them and result in their own death; whether by another or by their own hands.
1. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web 3 May 2018
2. Viotto, Danika. “The Themes of Madness in Hamlet,” Prez, 16 November 2015.
https://prezi.com/70olres l wqad/the-theme-of-madness-in-hamlet/3. “The Madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Field of Themes.com 3 May 2018