“ Hamlet is no abstract thinker and dreamer. As his imagery betrays to us, he is rather a man gifted with greater powers of observation than the others. He is capable of scanning reality with a keener eye of penetrating… to the very core of things”
-Wolfgang Clemen (1951)
The question of Hamlet’s madness or his facade of madness has been the central issue of discussion among the “ Hamlet” readers throughout the ages. Yet no one ever considers the sanity of the surrounding characters under the given conditions and circumstances of the play. How credible is Claudius in proclaiming Hamlet to be mad when there seems to be a clear lack of sanity and decency in his murder of his own brother and marital union of his sister-in-law? Furthermore, if Hamlet is mad, how sane is Gertrude for she remarries nearly immediately and to the brother of her deceased husband? What about the Danish court? The countenance of indifference and the passing of consent to such an incestuous act must warrant this society the sanity and credibility to label someone mad, of course. If Hamlet is diseased by madness, it is the madness of his insightfulness. As Clemens had said, Hamlet possesses “ greater powers of observation … and a keener eye of penetrating” than the others. It is precisely because of Hamlet’s ability to see the depth of his time and people that allows for those who are not as intelligent and perceptive, thus intolerant of his seemingly “ insane” or radical views, to call him mad.
Indeed, Hamlet’s being as a revolutionary thinker and philosopher of his time is the cause of his famed “ madness”. Hamlet is capable of seeing beyond his time and criticizing “ to the very core of things” (Clemen, 1951) the flaws and foibles of the Danish society. Because of such iconoclastic, perhaps even precocious, views, such as his criticisms of “ a custom (drinking) more honored in the breach than the observance… this… makes us traduced and taxed of other nations… they clepe us drunkards and with swinish phrase soil our addition” (“ Hamlet”, Act 1. Sc. 4), other characters who conform to the beliefs and behaviors of the time and setting perceive Hamlet as a dangerous man with “ mad” ideas. Perhaps, even more apparent in Hamlet’s isolation because of his elite intelligence is his solo stand against the marriage. In his soliloquy where he criticizes the hasty marriage, “ why she (O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer) married with my uncle, my father’s brother, but no more like father than I to Hercules. Within a month… she remarried… with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (“ Hamlet”, Act 1. Sc 2), Hamlet demonstrates an enormous amount of frustration, for it seems as though he is the only one who sees the lack of ethics and prudence in this marriage. Hamlet’s exact and unconventional belief in maintaining marital fidelity even after a spouse’s death confirms Clemen’s analysis of him as a “ gifted” thinker who’s beyond his time2E
Perhaps, that exemplifies Hamlet’s superior thinking most is his famous soliloquy of life and death. While others foolishly give into the ambition of affected honor, such as the sacrifice of the 20, 000 soldiers for a worthless portion of Polish land, Hamlet ponders “ to be or not to be” (“ Hamlet”, Act 3. Sc. 1) His intelligence expounds upon the suffering and troubles of life, and the “ sleep” which all desires, for it ends these troubles, yet repulses from it, for the fear of the unknown. If Hamlet had been an ignorant brute, the encounter with the Ghost would have already driven him to immediate actions, therefore death of Claudius. Yet, even when the ghost of his murdered father itself calls upon Hamlet to vengeance, he thinks and reasons. It takes the death of both of his parents to stir him to actions and overcome his complex brain.
Moreover, Hamlet is the epitome of reason and observation. His complex ideas and beliefs sequester him from the rest, thus creating an aura of “ madness” around his character. Here, Shakespeare recounts history, as Galileo, Martin Luther, and other revolutionary thinkers of their own respective times evince the all-too-familiar inquisition of those who are different. Like Galileo and other precocious thinkers, Hamlet is socially persecuted for his intelligence and untraditional thinking. His only madness was in his intelligent perception of ethics which happens to not conform to that of the Danish court. If madness is defined as seeing what isn’t there, then Hamlet is as mad as madness allows, for he truly sees and embraces what nobody else can see: the ethics, or lack thereof, of the incestuous union of two adulterers.
Note of interest: In demonstrating ethical relativism in the play, which delineates the sequestering and social persecution of a lonesome hero with a just cause by a society that embraces incest and debauchery, Shakespeare might have implied the acceptance of his own homosexuality. In a world certainly intolerant and violent toward any deviations, Shakespeare might have wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of what is defined as “ accepted” or “ conventional”. In Hamlet’s world, Hamlet is the only person who finds the marriage unnatural. In the real world, Shakespeare is the lonesome hero with a radical belief of tolerance and sexual preference.