A Document in Madness

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 subtit

4 thoughts on “A Document in Madness

  1. Ghosts in Shakespeare’s plays are equated to madness or impending madness. In Macbeth, Banquo appears to Macbeth while many other people are around but only Macbeth can see him. This is similar to Hamlet’s vision of the ghost and Brutus’s vision of Julius Caesar after Caesar has died. Richard III is also visited by ghosts which make him even more mad than he was in the first place. The appearance of madness and the actuality of madness are choices that I suppose need to be made in the productions that are being put on, but madness seems to follow Shakespeare’s tragic characters throughout his works.

  2. Madness is definitely a fun subject, at least to Shakespeare. Especially within the play, as you brought up Joe, there seems to be varying degrees or and even different types of madness. Hamlet’s act of being mad which turns into an ambiguous nature that leave others curious of his true nature, Ophelia’s true and undeniable madness brought on by heartbreak, and possibly even Claudius’ notion of messing with the natural order that should be have been set following Hamlet Sr’s death. It’s these different types of madness that dictate and drive the plot since it forces the characters to interact with each other in different ways that they wouldn’t have if none of them were mad in the first place. Makes me wonder what it would have been like if Hamlet had more of Laertes’ drive.

  3. I find it fascinating how, throughout the play, everyone constantly signifies Hamlet as the madman when nearly everyone is driven to madness, with Hamlet often as the catalyst. Claudius and Laertes want Hamlet dead, Gertrude is driven to hysterics because of Hamlet’s antics, Hamlet kills Polonius, prompting Ophelia to commit suicide. So, it is an interesting idea that Hamlet could be the least mad character, in reality, who has the ability to drive everyone around him mad. I hope that Shakespeare, in some way, is making a distinct contrast between truly mad characters like perhaps Richard III by making Hamlet as impulsive and erratic as he can be. It shows how true madness is not usually something that is overt. Like villains like Iago and Richard, it flies above everyone’s radar, until it’s too late to combat.

  4. You brought up the point of ambiguity, and I think that offers something very real to the analysis of the text. Hamlet is constantly struggling to see what is real and what is unreal. Whether or not the ghost is really his father, whether or not Claudius actually killed his father, whether his mother’s love for his father was real considering her fast remarriage. He also contributes to this ambiguity by faking madness. As the show progresses, it is hard to tell whether he is still acting, or whether his mind has truly started to fracture. I think that this is also part of what causes Ophelia’s mental breakdown: she’s torn between loyalty to her father, and loyalty to her lover, and the two are diametrically opposed after Hamlet kills Polonius.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *