Sunday, September 30, 2007

Prince Hamlet is Not Insane!

Prince Hamlet is not insane. Although at times it may appear that his behavior is abnormal or even bordering on crazy, Hamlet is simply a man dealing with an impossible situation, attempting to please the ghost of his father, and right the wrongs around him. Hamlet’s sadness is ultimately understandable – such a complex situation is no doubt going to weigh heavily on the mind of the person which it is affecting. The phases of excitement which he encounters are only human as well – by our nature, we look for joy even in times of great pain. In fact, nearly any reliable psychoanalysis will account for a major tragedy; to diagnose Hamlet with a mental illness only weeks after the death of his father would be a rash and unfair assessment. If any diagnosis could possibly be made, it would have to have been made before his major family tragedy. Although Hamlet is ostensibly going insane, he is actually a very sane man feigning insanity in order revenge his father.
One of the primary signs that Hamlet is not insane is that he openly admits that he might be. When talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet tells them, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” (II, ii, 368-369). This open acceptance that he may be mad is a good indication that he is not, as people who are genuinely crazy believe that they are perfectly normal. For Hamlet to recognize that he is misaligned with the world around him and to demonstrate conscious awareness that his behavior is sometimes abnormal shows that he is aware of what is socially and culturally acceptable, and he realizes that he is sometimes against the predetermined standards. The lack of consciousness of what is truly normal is a characterizing trait for the insane. Hamlet has no trouble recognizing that his behavior is sometimes strange or even viewed as crazy, yet he is not bothered by how others view his actions. Hamlet knows that his conduct is strange, and this demonstrates that he is not crazy because he is consciously aware of what is normal.
Another indication that Hamlet has not gone mad is that he has planned his odd behavior as part of his revenge. After seeing the ghost of his father and hearing the ghost’s instructions, Hamlet informs Marcellus and Horatio of his scheme:
But come,
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself–
As perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on… (I, v, 176-180)
In these lines, Hamlet shows that his plan is to act as though he has gone insane in order to make his revenge against King Claudius possible. Perhaps by acting mad, he will not be viewed as a threat by the king and his men. Hamlet fully intends to force those around him to think that he has been driven to insanity, and this comment demonstrates to the audience that he has not gone mad, but rather is acting in such a way in order to ensure his revenge. This line is intended to show that though it may be possible to make a case for his insanity on account of other pieces in the play, Hamlet’s behavior is actually a means to an end, and should not be viewed as his own. His actions are not actually rash and impulsive as they seem, but actually part of a carefully premeditated plot to set right the injustice done to his father.
Hamlet also demonstrates that he is not mad in that he speaks civilly when he is alone or speaking to Horatio; he lapses into prose only when feigning insanity. This change is most obvious in act 3, scene 2. Hamlet trusts Horatio, as demonstrated by his line, “Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man/As e’er my conversation cop’d withal,” (III, ii, 52-53). This close bond of friendship allows Hamlet to speak freely about his plans and his difficulties with Horatio. His eloquent verse which follows shows that he still retains his sanity. However, as soon as Claudius returns, Hamlet once again speaks in prose: “Excellent, i’faith, of the chameleon’s dish. I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so,” (III, ii, 91-92). This sharp return to prose in response to the King’s presence shows that Hamlet’s insanity is simply a part of his plan to revenge his father. If Hamlet were truly going mad, his manner of speech would not change depending on the person to whom he was speaking. That he is able to speak as normally and civilly as any other character when he is talking to a trusted friend demonstrates that Hamlet is not actually insane, but putting “an antic disposition on” so that he may revenge his father’s murder.
Finally, Hamlet demonstrates that he is still sane by ensuring King Claudius’s guilt before going through with his plan for revenge. In soliloquy, Hamlet says,
…I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. If ‘a do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape... (II, ii, 581-587)
This shows that Hamlet is still sane because he recognizes that he is not to believe everything which he hears. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the ghost who appeared before him was the ghost of his father, he realizes that it is possible that the devil may have taken an appealing form so that he can manipulate Hamlet’s grief. Hamlet, however, knows that he must not allow himself to be taken advantage of, and uses the players to watch Claudius’s reaction. Hamlet says, “I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” (II, ii, 591-592). His plan has been well thought out, and he refuses to be caught in the devil’s snare. Hamlet’s idea to catch the king’s guilty conscience is not the idea of a madman – only a sane (and brilliant) man would be able to devise such an intricate plot, even though it would have been much simpler to simply take his father’s ghost at his word and kill Claudius without proof.
Though it would be possible to make a case that Hamlet is mad, the case would have to ignore the understated signals of his sanity. The recognition of his grief and the possibility that he may be going crazy demonstrates to the reader that the prince is actually quite sane, and simply mourning the loss of his father. Hamlet is using his ostensible insanity in order to achieve his revenge – a madman is not viewed as a threat to the king’s power. Additionally, to diagnose Hamlet with a mental illness would be poor psychoanalysis. Every single psychiatrist would have to note that Hamlet has lost a man very dear to him recently, and would have to account for the toll his mother’s abrupt marriage took on her son. Though it may be possible that Hamlet is suffering from some metal disorder, it is not possible to conclude that definitively within the context of the play – the events which have recently transpired have been too traumatic, and account for the symptoms of Hamlet’s perceived insanity. Ultimately, Hamlet is clearly not crazy. Any symptoms which may point to a possible diagnosis are accounted for by his loss, and he also demonstrates that he playing the part of a madman in order to revenge the death of the rightful king of Denmark.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Godot and Ghosts

Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot deals heavily with the concept of existence. Though the obvious answer is that protagonists Estragon and Vladimir are real, their existence is called into question when Pozzo and Lucky fail to remember their previous encounter with them. Before this incident, however, there occurs a significant dialogue in which Vladimir and Estragon discuss the ubiquitous voices of the dead. Clearly, most people do not think of the spirits of the dead as being “real”. But what if the physical world we know is simply an illusion? What if the spirit world is the only place where truth can live?
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believes that there is a growth pattern toward truth. Unfortunately, most individuals find themselves stuck between Kierkegaard’s “crisis of despair”, in which they are unsure of what is right, and “paralysis and dread.” Estragon and Vladimir are visibly trapped in a state of paralysis, as evidenced by the end of each act: “Let’s go,” they do not move. This state, however, despite its dire name, is actually rather comfortable – Estragon and Vladimir are not striving for truth or some higher form of knowledge, but rather waiting for someone (or maybe something?) called Godot to arrive and solve their problems for them. This state of existence, though to the audience apparently meaningless and empty, is the one in which most of society dwells.
Estragon and Vladimir become visibly agitated when they run out of matters to discuss and are nearly relegated to the confines of their own minds and forced to listen to the voices which surround them. But what if the voices are more than just constant chatter? Perhaps the reason that the characters are so set against listening to these voices is that only in death can the soul finally see truth – that is, they are pushed beyond physical paralysis into the realization that nothing is certain. This notion can be quite painful and difficult to cope with. Maybe some voices speak of their discomfort at seeing the truth; maybe others lament their own inability to see truth in life. However, understanding that nothing is certain can also be freeing: what if some of the voices are attempting to pass this concept on?
So the question which stands is one of existence. If most of our world is living in a state of denial and paralysis, is the physical world truthful? And if there is no truth in this world, is this existence real? Maybe it is only in transcending the physical realm that truth can be realized, and it just might be that in this reality, truth cannot exist – humanity as a whole is too paralyzed. But the voices are always there, speaking constantly about the world they know. And maybe it would benefit Estragon and Vladimir to try to move beyond their paralysis and possibly comprehend the truth by listening to these ghosts of the past.
And while they listen, perhaps we should listen, too – so long as the voices speak, who knows what they may tell us.