Hamlet : A Case of Madness ?

Dernière mise à jour : 10 avr. 2021

Eugène Delacroix - Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839

(Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Extract from:

Madness in Shakespeare's Tragedies

by Ana Maria Kessler Rocha



"Critics have frequently discussed the character of Ham­let, his duty to revenge his father's death, the nature of his delay, and the peculiar situation where we see him placed. The richness of Hamlet's character as Shakespeare has depicted it has always accounted for the particular difficulties critics have had in answering the major questions.

The best known theories about Hamlet's problem are those of the traditional critics, who have always explained the hero's irresolution on the basis of his excessive intellectual activity.

For Hazlitt, Hamlet's powers of action have been eaten up by thought, and Coleridge also emphasizes the prince's intellectual activity as opposed to his aversion to real action. Bradley's more re­cent ideas do not disclaim, such views, but add to them the importance of Hamlet's profound melancholy and his feeling of "disgust at life and everything in it, himself included." "Such a feeling, Bradley says, is "adverse to any kind of action.”


Hamlet's mind," the critic says, "is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without." His percep­tion of real objects and real actions is greatly dimmed by this tendency to be excessively dominated by thought. Hamlet him­self seems to realize this in his most famous soliloquy.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought.

It is not surprising that a man who is mainly preoccupied with the mental and sensitive parts of his being should think so earnestly about suicide. Hamlet suffers more in the mind than in the body, which he wishes "would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew."

Coleridge says that the necessary balance "between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds" is, in Hamlet, clearly disturbed.

Hamlet's perceptions of the real world pass through his senses greatly altered by this imbalance, and he "loses the power of action in the energy to resolve." This kind of procrastina­tion is very peculiar with Hamlet. He lingers upon thoughts and generalizations, giving to intellectual activity much more importance than to actual deeds.

Whenever Hamlet performs an action, it usually forced upon him by accidental circumstances or by an outburst of pas­sion. This is so, for instance, when he kills Polonius.

The same hap­pens again at Ophelia's burial, when Hamlet advances from his hiding-place, fearless of Laertes' reaction. Also, in his sea-adventure with the pirates, Hamlet is impelled to act without having time to think. This is, for Coleridge, the very peculiarity of Hamlet's madness and the cause of his delay — Hamlet grows all "head"; his thoughts are disconnected from his feelings and ability to act.

It is interesting to see how fitly Coleridge's ideas apply to, and are complemented by R. D. Laing's modern theories about split personality, ontological insecurity, "embodiment" and "unembodiment," etc. As it has already been suggested, Laing's work offers a rich existential analysis of personal alienation. In The Divi­ded Self, Laing says that his purpose is "to show that there is a comprehensible transition from the sane schizoid way of being-in-the-world to a psychotic way of being-in-the-world."

As he sees the problem, the mentally sick individual is an out­ sider, estranged from himself and society, and cannot experi­ence either himself or others as "real." This is what Laing calls a problem of "ontological insecurity."

"A man may have a sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a con tinuous person. As such he can live out into the world and meet others: a world and others experienced as equally real, alive, whole, and continuous."

Such a person, Laing says, is "basically ontologically secure." In the opposite situation, an ontologically insecure person will try to devise a defense mechanism to protect him­ self, for his "living out into the world" and his "meeting others" will be basically threatening to his "self." There fore, he will invent a "false self," or a "false-self system," with which he can confront both the outside world and his own despair. This happens by means of a process of disintegration. The person feels his real self to be "more or less unembodied"; he feels out of his body, which them becomes the core of a "false self."

Shakespeare's heroes, Laing says, are never truly psychotic, for they "evidently experience themselves as real and alive and complete." Indeed, it is so, but their "sane schi­zoid" condition is drawn so near the psychotic type especially in the middle of the plays — that one cannot always realize the difference.