Why Madness is Important to Hamlet

All right, this is probably a question that EVERYONE is asking at this point, and it's why the theme of madness is such a vital theme to Hamlet. How is it related to the plot of the play? How is it significant to this Shakesperian play overall? In this entry I will attempt to answer these questions in an easy-to-grasp fashion for all you readers.

Madness Defined

According to http://www.dictionary.com/, madness is defined as:

1. The state of being mad; insanity.
2. Senseless folly
3. Frenzy; rage
4. Intense excitement or enthusiasm.

As you can tell by the definition, madness fits the description when talking about characters in this play such as Hamlet and Ophelia. At some points in the play both characters are seen as being in frenzied rages (Such as in several scenes for Hamlet) or in an intense form of excitement or enthusiasm (Ophelia in some scenes also).


Why Madness?

One of the main questions everyone is probably asking at this point is; why all this talk of madness concerning the play Hamlet? Why did Shakespeare choose to incorporate this theme into two of his characters in this play? What purpose does it have?

One of the theories that I had about this is that madness is important to the overall plot of the play because it keeps the readers entertained. Seeing madness in Shakesperian literature might make the reader more inclined to read it because it is entertaining to see other people acting in a silly, spontaneously immature manner. However, once you think about it, there's got to be a better reason than that for Shakespeare to use madness in an otherwise seriously-natured tragedy.

Another theory that can be presented on the subject as to the importance of madness to the plot of Shakespeare can depend on the character. Take Hamlet for example. Why is Hamlet's madness important to the plot? Well firstly, we know that his original plan at the beginning of the play was to "pretend" to be mentally insane and present this as such to others such as Claudius. Why? So that he wouldn't appear to be a genuine threat to Cladius' ruling as king. However, he tells other characters such as Guildenstern, Rozencrantz, and Gertude that his madness is fake, which somewhat ruins his plans to kill Cladius and avenge his father's murder. However, in an ironic plot twist, Hamlet succumbs to being overly passionate about Ophelia, another mad character in the play, and turns to true madness in the end. Madness is key to the play's plot overall because it is caused by Hamlet's tragic flaw (of course he IS the tragic hero of this story) that causes his tragic downfall and eventual death in the end.

Insane Plot Lines

As I mentioned earlier, madness relates to the plot of this Shakesperian tragedy in several ways. It relates to Hamlet because in the end his tragic flaw leads him from acting mad to actually becoming mad. On the other hand, Ophelia's madness is driven by the murder of her father Polonious. In the end, what both characters have in common regarding this theme is that they both are overcome by passions that cause them madness and this passion-driven madness leads to both characters eventual death in the play. Below I will attempt to illustrate how madness relates to the play with a diagram:

Character being blinded by passion = Loss of ability to reason = Driven to madness = Eventual death

As you can see, this sequence is very specific to both Hamlet and Ophelia, who both share common traits and both eventually wind up dying the same way in the end. Shakespeare's reason for making both these characters mad is to demonstrate to his readers that being overly passionate can make one lose their ability to make rational decisions and therefore it will eat away at them and lead them to their downfall. In fact, ironically enough, Hamlet himself once said of Horatio, another character in the play, that he was a perfect mixture of passion and reason, and that the description of a "great man" was someone who could balance both passion and reason. This is a tad ironic because, although he states this, this very flaw becomes Hamlet's achille's heel in the end when he winds up dying.


Insane Quotes by Mad Characters

In the Shakesperian classic known as Hamlet, a key theme is the topic of madness. Whether it be genuine madness or madness used to confuse other characters, it surely plays a vital role in the play's entirety. Below are some characters that exhibit some form of madness throughout the play. Please note that the characters are listed according to significance to the topic of madness throughout the play (As per my personal opinion). Along with it are some quotes that will be analyzed for their significance to the topic of madness regarding the listed characters:


Ophelia is seen as a level-headed and very much sane character at the beginning of the play. However, things seem to take a downward spiral towards the latter half of the play when Hamlet's killing of Polonius is made evident to her. This seems to be the driving force behind her madness. Unlike other characters in the play, at first glance, Ophelia's madness seems to have no purpose or meaning behind it. Horatio goes on to speak on behalf of Ophelia's madness in Act 4, Scene 5. Here is an excerpt from that scene:

She speaks much of her father, says, she hears
There's tricks i' the world, and hems and beats her heart,
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there would be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
'Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds. (IV.v.4-15)

In this description we find many key elements that will point us towards the true nature and intent of Ophelia's madness. The reason is already, although not clearly indicated, implied at the beginning of the description when Horatio said of Ophelia that "She speaks much of her father." The death of Ophelia's father seems to deeply affect her psychological state. One of the noted key elements of this analysis of Ophelia's mental state is that she seems to get angry at simple things that one normally wouldn't even bat an eyebrow at. Another is of what Ophelia is saying, which, according to Horatio, "carry but a half sense." In other words, Ophelia's words lack meaning when people talk to her, and when people talk to her it takes more careful analysis than one would normally require to understand the meaning behind her words. Essentially the impression that Ophelia eminates in her madness is that her madness is genuine and fuelled by the death of her father.

However, later on in the play, Laertes says of Ophelia's madness that "This nothing's more than matter" (VI.v.172). This basically translates to Laertes saying that the nonsense that she's supposedly spewing actually has more meaning than rational speech does. This is a tad ironic (And quite funny in my opinion) because, upon analyzing what she says, her words seem to hold no relevant meaning other than to indicate her madness being genuine.

Overall, I would rate Ophelia around a 9 out of 10 on a supposed "madness scale." This is simply because, up to this point in the play, Ophelia's madness seems to be geniunely without method or purpose. In other words, to quote my English teacher Mr. Lafleur; "She's coocoo-bananas."


One of the more central characters to the plot of the play, Hamlet seems to have a different association with the theme of madness within the play. Where Ophelia's madness seems to be genuine and without purpose or method, Hamlet's seems to be quite the opposite of that. That is to say, Hamlet's madness isn't really genuine, and it does play a vital role in the plot of the play because although other characters assume him to truly be mad because of the sudden death of his father Hamlet Senior, Hamlet is really putting on an act and faking this madness to throw everyone off while he plans the perfect revenge for King Cladius, who killed his father as opposed to the story spread around that the former king was killed by a snake in the garden.

An example of Hamlet's plans can be found when Hamlet proclaims to be sane when he says that "[He] is but mad north-north-west; when the wind is/ southerly [he] know[s] a hawk from a handsaw" (II.ii.376-377). In this, Hamlet basically tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's closest friends who were sent to spy on him by kind Claudius, that he knows why they are both there to see him and that, despite the fact that his actions seem to indicate madness, he's about his wits and can control his madness. In other words, his madness isn't more methodical and being used in a devious manner than anything else.

However, there are also indications that Hamlet's "fake madness" might be slowly and gradually transforming into true madness. Hamlet seems to be falling victim to his own plans in other words. Some evidence that Hamlet might or might not be becoming mad can be found when Hamlet goes on a sort of rant about how his love for the now-deceased Ophelia is greater than Laertes' love for her.

'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:
Would't weep? would't fight? would't fast? would't tear thyself?
Would't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I;
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning Zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou. (V.i.268-278)

In this rant, Hamlet basically tells Laertes that his love for Ophelia far exceeds anything that Laertes has to offer. However, this begs the question; why would Hamlet commit such a childish act towards someone? Is it caused by his passions for Ophelia taking over his level-headed reasoning? Or is it a sign of his imminent madness caused by constantly faking his own madness? This is truly a puzzling question. From what both King Claudius and Hamlet's mother Gertude can gather, Hamlet is mad. It's difficult to decipher whether this is true madness on Hamlet's part, but one thing is for certain; whatever the reason, Hamlet wasn't in control of his own emotions at the time of doing this, and therefore this can be precieved as a form of madness to some extent on the part of Hamlet.