This is the second blog of a continuing series. You can read the introductory blog here or just jump right in below:
Was Hamlet mad or was he just faking it? That is the question. Scholars pose this as an "either-or" dichotomy - as if the human experience were nothing more than some sort of strict "to be or not to be" binary code - but the true answer (keeping in mind our hero is fictional) is undoubtedly a bit of both, a subtle and flexible "to be AND not to be."
Our hero has his rational moments throughout the play, but, in response to recent and ongoing events involving what has to be the most dysfunctional family since the biblical House of David, Hamlet is also becoming rationally unglued.
In other words, his is a normal reaction to a crazy situation. All things considered, flipping out is perfectly understandable, especially in a culture that gave birth to the terms anger and berserk, not to mention the name of the weapon of choice, the knife. The catch is that practically everyone around him is bound to express this understanding in a preemptory outpouring of unsheathed steel.
Shakespeare wastes no time in introducing his madness theme. In the first scene of the first act, sentinels Barnardo and Marcello assume their night watch with extreme caution. Their conversation reveals that they have had two close encounters with a ghost. Are they hallucinating? Hamlet's buddy Horatio definitely thinks so, but then "
Enter the Ghost in complete armour, holding a truncheon, with his beaver up.
Suddenly, Horatio is a believer. But Marcello needs confirmation that he is not losing his marbles. "How now," he implores Horatio. "Is not this something more than fantasy? What think you on't?"
This is Horatio's cue to deliver his own prognosis: "This bodes some strange eruption to our state."
State, as in nation, as in Denmark. The King of Norway has a few scores to settle and has "sharked up a list of landless resolutes." In other words, raised an army. Thus we have yet another type of madness to contend with - war in all its senseless brutish stupidity.
Hamlet has yet to make his entrance, and already mad is the new normal.
Now we learn that no sooner have they buried Hamlet's father than his uncle (Claudius) has married his mother (Gertrude) and assumed the throne. Perfect sociopaths that the new love couple are, neither parent can fathom why Hamlet is so upset.
"How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" enquires Claudius, apparently noticing that his newly adopted son is not exactly acting like the life of the party.
Gertrude gets straight to the point: "Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off."
In other words, snap out of it, get over it. What's the big deal? So what that your father shuffled off his mortal coil under mysterious circumstances, and now your mother is romping beneath the sheets with the prime suspect.
You can almost picture Gertrude saying, I told you sending him off to college was a bad idea.
This is Hamlet's cue:
"O that this too too solid flesh would melt," he laments. Since this is a soliloquy (his first), you know he's not faking it, unless of course he is trying to fool himself. "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" he goes on to say. That and a lot more.
Make no mistake, this is not normal behavior. Any decent red-blooded male of Viking descent would have been hell-bent on revenge by now. But no, Hamlet can barely summon up the motivation to get out of bed, and Prozac is eight hundred or so years from being invented.
Someone needs to pull our melancholy Dane out of it. Enter Horatio and Marcellus and Barnardo with a very strange sighting to report, an apparition armed and with his beaver up - Hamlet's father!
To be continued "