Hamlet, the Torn Child

by Janet Roberts (Circle 2)

When I first started reading this play, something started kind of niggling at the back of my mind, especially when I came to the scene in Act 3 when Hamlet is confronting his mother about remarrying so quickly and then is (or pretends to be) accosted by his father’s ghost. Up until this point, it’s pretty believable to the audience that Hamlet’s madness is feigned, and we have no reason to believe otherwise because his reasons, as they are revealed to us, seem as logical as they can be. Yet here, we see (or, rather, I saw) a very different side to Hamlet than the calculating decisions made in Acts 1-2 and the clearly disjointed actions and words in Act 4. Here, Hamlet appears to be very deeply disturbed–cutting off his address to his mother completely when simply acknowledging the presence of the ghost would have probably been good enough evidence for madness–beyond the behavior he displays elsewhere. This, of course, is speculation–it’s also entirely possible that the encounter with the ghost is something staged by Hamlet to further his façade from confusion of mind to violent psychosis, thus rationalizing the eventual murder of the King–but nevertheless, it stood out to me as being a deeper kind of breakdown than the rest.

This revelation got me thinking about children from broken homes (that is, from families whose parents are divorced or separated). One of the damaging side effects of divorce to children is the tendency of parents to pit their children against each other, so that the child is forced to choose sides in a fight that is not his or her own. This also sometimes occurs after parents remarry–the child is caught between the mother and Dad’s new girlfriend, etc, etc. Hamlet, despite coming to his dilemma through different circumstances, seems to be similarly plagued. Like the child caught between two parents, Hamlet is caught between the wishes of his dead father and the combined authority of his mother and the new King. To preserve his own freedom by refusing to do away with his uncle would be a direct betrayal to his father–damaging his own legitimacy as his father’s son and failing his father personally. Yet to murder the new king will not only hurt his mother, but also likely send Hamlet to his captivity and eventual demise–the murder will, if all goes as planned, affix to him a label of madness and brand him for captivity; if his feigned madness fails, it will send him immediately to execution as a murderer and traitor to Denmark. In this light, it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch to read Hamlet’s accosting of his mother as a manifestation of the psychological turmoil of being placed in this position, and by extension, his hatred of her quick marriage to her brother-in-law as (partially) coming from the fact that his lose-lose situation is kind of their fault. I’m interested to see how the rest of the play works out in terms of how Hamlet deals with his challenge.

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4 thoughts on “Hamlet, the Torn Child

  1. Dana

    It is interesting to think about whether or not Hamlet’s madness is real, but the ghost, to me, has always been a real and “tangible” (whatever that means) ghost. If Hamlet has made up this ghost, his fake madness is more impressive than I originally thought! Hamlet’s is terribly unstable; imagining a ghost is a possibility as well. I think it would be easy to stage a production in which Hamlet IS crazy and imagines ghost ESPECIALLY because his mother cannot see the ghost when Hamlet is in her bedroom. All of this is also related to why Hamlet would feel so scandalized when his mother marries his uncle so quickly. In a way, his father is still with him and his mother has moved on before his father’s spirit has even moved on!

  2. Timothy S


    Interesting post on exploring the possibility of psychological damage onset by the turmoil Hamlet has gone through concerning his parent. As you aptly observe, Hamlet’s madness seems to shift from feigned to real at that pivotal moment in act III when he confronts his mother. My thought it that maybe he finally knows, based on his uncle’s reaction to the play, that his father was murdered for sure and this hard evidence (at least, more tangible than a ghost telling a tale) is what onsets his madness. Maybe at that point is when the hard psychological effects truly damage Hamlet in the biggest way yet!

  3. Alexa Bashford


    I definitely agree that there is a transition between Hamlet’s feigned madness in Acts One and Two and his actual madness in Acts Four and Five. I appreciate that you discuss the possibility of the ghost being a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, but the ghosts in all of Shakespeare’s plays have always seemed real to me. I like your discussion and comparison of children from broken homes to Hamlet’s situation. No matter what choice Hamlet makes regarding Claudius, he will offend one of his parents. It’s not a situation that most people would like to be involved in. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to be in between my parents.

  4. Lauren


    Your take on the scene of Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost while accosting his mother for her recent behavior and life choices is super insightful! Hamlet truly is a kid (man-child?) from a broken home, a broken home that possibly broaches upon severe given the murder and incest. This scene is pinnacle in that it finally places the torn family in the same room, but with Hamlet being the only one with access to both the presence of his mortal mother and spirit father. Hamlet’s special designation as the seer in this scene gives him a quasi-soapbox for all children who originate from broken homes. I personally believe this may be the only moment where Hamlet succumbs to the inner workings and emotions of his mind, for even his mother is convinced of what he says considering her actions in the last scene of the great tragedy. This scene is the ultimate breakdown moment.

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