A Document in Madness

by Joe Curra (Circle 4)

In act 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laertes comments on his sister Ophelia, who has fallen into insanity, by saying her antics are a “document in madness.” No other quote in the play characterizes as pointedly the text altogether. Obviously, Hamlet is a testament to the statement. Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play is documented by the characters around him as nonsensical. For example, how Ophelia reports his behavior to Polonius. Ophelia states that Hamlet, upon entering her room, looked as if “he had been loosed out of hell.” (2.1.1040) Lord Polonius chalks his disheveled behavior up to heartbreak, but this is one of the first instances where Hamlet is described as being “mad,” which Lord Polonius calls him in 2.1.1070. Readers understand at this point in the play that Hamlet has devised this characterization of himself, so the behavior he exhibits isn’t totally surprising. As the play progresses, though, the line in which Hamlet is pretending to be mad or whether he actually is mad blurs. An instance of this ambiguity between Hamlet’s self and devised self occurs in 3.4, where Hamlet kills Polonius, barrages his mother with insults (after the ghost of his father specified in act 1 not to leave her alone), and sees the ghost of his father again. Polonius’ death may have been an accident, but it shows how mad Hamlet has become, and consequently how carelessly he acts on things outside the realm of his goal. As upset as Hamlet is about his mother’s hasty remarriage, his main goal is to avenge his father by killing Claudius. Hamlet sidetracks himself by approaching his mother and pressing her guilt in 3.4. The ghost that Hamlet sees in this scene, a ghost that his mother doesn’t see (and no one else has “scene” since, other than Hamlet) even redirects Hamlets aggression by saying “Do not forget. This visitation/Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” Hamlet’s purpose is even looked upon by the ghost of his father as dull, misdirected, and confused here. Hamlet’s display of misdirection, something his Father’s ghost witnesses, is even considerably “mad.” Hamlet has blurred the border between himself and who he’s pretending to be so much that the emotions of his actual being have convoluted the goals of his “antic disposition” (1.5.925).

Hamlet isn’t the only mad character in the play, though. In act 4, Ophelia parades around Gertrude, Claudius, and even Laertes, mostly in song. The stage direction dictates that Ophelia enters the scene as “distracted,” before she begins singing about the death of her father and her loss of love. This scene is, again, where Laertes says that her behavior is a “document in madness.” Not only are the readers able to understand this about Ophelia’s behavior, but the characters around her see it, too. In 4.7, it’s learned that Ophelia has drowned, whether she has killed herself or not, the death is a result of her own new found madness. She is “distracted.” She is distracted from the people around her, as well as the things surrounding her, madness making her ill-equipped in taking care of herself.

Furthermore, the premise that Gertrude and Claudius would marry so quickly after King Hamlet’s death is another trait of madness in the play. Neither character considers having a respectful amount of time between the funeral of King Hamlet and then the union between Gertrude and Claudius. Even madder is, as is learned after Hamlet meets the ghost, that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Subsequently, Claudius falsely, evading the consequences of his treasonous actions, inherits the crown and kingdom. Both of which, because Claudius killed King Hamlet, should be Hamlet’s, the original king’s heir.
The subtitles, “a document of madness,” isn’t only applicable to Hamlet. Arguably, this subtitle can be placed along with the titles of any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, as they deal contingently with the disruption of natural order. In writing Laertes line in act 4, Shakespeare seems to have redefined the genre of his tragic plays or, at least, found a more poignant subtitle.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 thoughts on “A Document in Madness

  1. Jackie

    Hi Joe,
    I agree with the fact that Laertes mentions how crazy Ophelia really is and especially when she starts singing and not answering anyone when they talk to her. I agree with you when you say “She is “distracted.” She is distracted from the people around her, as well as the things surrounding her, madness making her ill-equipped in taking care of herself.” I think Hamlet knows his power over people and knows exactly how to use his strategies against everyone negatively. A lot of hamlet’s craziness definitely comes from the ghost that appears throughout the play and makes him go insane especially in the scene with Gertrude as he is seen grabbing her and talking to her in an ugly way.

  2. Andrea Stowell

    I really enjoyed reading your analysis on the play regarding madness and distraction. A lot of people are drawn in to this aspect of the play, but I think you took it to another level by viewing it in a different, but completely relevant way. I totally did not catch on to the whole distraction part so it is interesting to go back and think about it with that idea in mind. I also like how you steered away from Hamlet’s insanity by considering Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius. I also agree that most of Shakespeare’s play deal with madness, as much of them are tragedies.

  3. Ryan

    I find it interesting that you equate Claudius and Gertrude’s actions to madness as well, though I do think that the argument can certainly be made. The two of them act in ways that are unbecoming of a queen and king: whether it be marrying a not-long-dead husband’s brother or being the very cause of said brother’s death. These actions are both morally heinous and, therefore, quite mad. What interests me more though are Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s varying degrees of madness. The facade that Hamlet adopts is used for his benefit in all instances but one: his deception over his love. While the argument could be made that, in deceiving Ophelia, he can easily get to Polonius, I would assert that other methods could have been used without sacrificing his relationship with her. Why, then, does he sacrifice that relationship? Why does he shout profane comments at her such as “Get thee to a nunnery.” In actuality, this was quite unnecessary. Perhaps he did (in some instances) play his role so well that he began to believe it. In some cases, if a lie is told so often, the liar often believes it to be true.

  4. Sam Ruck

    I think it’s interesting to note that Hamlet’s acted madness occasionally breaches into true, unadulterated frenzy at some points during the play. While Hamlet does lament these brief breakdowns, he is seemingly compelled to act like a madman with increasing frequency as the play continues onward because of the circumstances surrounding him. As his plans to kill Claudius go awry, others begin to note his manic state and Ophelia just happens to be one of the unfortunate souls that Hamlet lets loose on. To disguise his true feelings of remorse, Hamlet condemns the girl to continue his guise of insanity and breaks her heart.

  5. Christina Carmosino

    I like how you pointed out the sometimes ambiguous state of Hamlet’s madness. There are often times in the play, especially noted after he kills Polonius, that Hamlet’s madness does seem to be less forced and more true to his character. His actions could be due to the madness he exhibits around him, such as seeing a ghost or the hasty marriage of his mother and uncle as you pointed out. This stress and confusion that he is trying to battle with by pretending to be insane can also be linked to actual insanity, as evidenced by his attack on his mother or Ophelia.
    I also enjoyed your insight on the madness exhibited by other characters in the play. I had always picked up on the fact that it was madness that led Ophelia to her death, but I never considered the madness Claudius and Gertrude displayed after the death of their family member.

  6. Shannon Plackis

    I enjoyed your analysis of madness in the play and especially your observation that Hamlet itself is a “document of madness.” One of the things that I found most striking when reading Hamlet was the question: what is madness? Why are Ophelia’s actions of returning to silly songs and playing with flowers considered mad? How can Hamlet “act mad”? What does it mean to do this? I think that this very question is why, as you accurately state, Hamlet is constantly blurring the line of whether he is truly mad or acting mad. Hamlet the play seems to be a study of this madness and the ambiguity behind it.

  7. John

    Hey Joe,
    Madness seems to be the best friend of the high class and the royals of Shakespeare’s plays, with Hamlet being the favorite. We all know that the title character himself may or may not be truly mad as the play goes on, and the line between mad and not mad gets more difficult to understand, it’s not just the prince that exhibits this kind of behavior. Yeah Hamlet goes a little crazy after the death of his father, but we also see other characters adjusting to their own tragedies by exhibiting some behavior that is “mad” or at the very least, disrupts the natural order to the way that things should be run in everyday life. In a way, maybe Shakespeare was using madness and how characters “go mad” when in the face of tragedy that helps audiences understand how people truly cope.

  8. Lauren


    After reading your post, I’m even more convinced that Hamlet is a story about the dichotomy of sanity and insanity and how the line differentiating the two constructs is quite fine. Hamlet’s interpretation of his grief and inability to take immediate action in avenging his father’s death convinces him to use the cover of insanity to bide himself time. Personally, I believe it is quite sane to not want to kill someone given the inherent immorality of the act – there are other means of justice – but given Hamlet’s nobility and his gender, he is plagued by his absent desire to kill Claudius. Essentially, Hamlet uses “his insanity” as a cover-up for his own insecurities. Also, he uses this false cover of insanity in hopes of the behavior eventually instilling the sentiment, which will hopefully prompt him to kill Claudius.
    On the other spectrum, we have Ophelia who is literally driven to madness due to the dire nature of environment and her treatment by Hamlet. Ignorant of the effects of his own behavior, Hamlet’s acted insanity thrusts Ophelia into actual insanity for she is the victim of his “insane” verbal attacks. The conflicting feelings Hamlet exhibits toward Ophelia send her into mental strife, with her ultimately falling prey to madness.
    It’s hard to even say what is insane and sane in Hamlet. Seemingly normal characters act erratically, and inherently bizarre characters display much sense; the message Hamlet tries to iterate about what is insane and sane is totally convoluted and nearly impossible to glean.

  9. Janet

    In a lot of ways, this analysis reflects the same kind of perceptions of madness that we discussed in Richard III. Although the characters’ behavior in Hamlet seems erratic to their peers (and maybe to us as well), we also know nowadays that there are many reactions to and expressions of loss that fall within the realm of psychological normalcy, and I wonder if we would perceive the same characters and actions as harshly if they existed in modern times.

  10. Samantha Mitchell

    I really think you are on to something with your analysis of the madness of the play, and I think that you make valid points. I think that putting Ophelia in the field of a distracted madness helps the reader see that she isn’t mad in a sense like Hamlet just more of an unsure of the direction of her life. I feel as though at the end of Act 4 you can find space for Laertes in the madness category, because of the need he has for revenge on his father’s death. I think that it is a different sort of madness, just as the rest of the play. I also agree that many of Shakespeare’s play include elements of madness.

  11. Colleen Urban

    Agreed, many people in Hamlet act in a way that implies madness, especially if you consider how little understanding of psychology existed in seventeenth-century England. Perhaps the play was parodying that idea? It certainly started in the fantastical realm with Hamlet I’s ghost and seems to have spiraled into Hamlet II’s madness controlling him.

Comments are closed.