Hamlet’s madness is a key element to the play Hamlet. Hamlet, the protagonist of Hamlet, becomes depressed and horrified after discovering that his uncle Claudius has murdered his father and married Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet seeks revenge on Claudius for this transgression but feels like he has lost all agency because he can’t be sure if people are lying or telling him the truth. His refusal to make any decisions based on anything other than absolute certainty destroys everything around him until Hamlet finally goes mad himself and dies as a result of complications brought about by pneumonia.
Hamlet’s Madness While it seems likely that Hamlet becomes insane mostly due to grief, guilt and regret (all exacerbated by being ignored by his father, betrayed by his mother and uncle, forced to stay in the same house as the murderer of Hamlet’s father, etc), Hamlet does show symptoms consistent with mental illness in early scenes. For example, Hamlet sees Claudius praying and has “A lunatic could not be so proud / A madman would not hear it” (II. ii. 298-99) because Hamlet knows that Claudius killed Hamlet’s father but Claudius is praying for forgiveness from a man that he murdered.
Another symptom of Hamlet’s madness is Hamlet’s overreaction to Polonious death when he stabs through a curtain at him once he realizes that it isn’t actually the king who had been eavesdropping on Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet also claims to be “A dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (I. ii. 132), a lack of will to do anything after learning that his father is dead and Hamlets inability to accept what is happening around him as reality (thinking that Claudius was praying) all suggest Hamlet’s madness throughout the play.
Hamlet does not go mad immediately after discovering Claudius’ crime however; Hamlet has clearly been contemplating this for most of the play, especially since he is already thinking about such things before meeting his father’s ghost at the beginning of the play. Hamlet thinks about death and revenge almost constantly throughout the entirety of Hamlet, so it seems unlikely that he would flip out the minute he hears that his father was killed.
Hamlet simply can’t make decisions for himself, and Hamlet spends most of the play looking for the reason why Claudius would murder Hamlet’s father if it wasn’t for Hamlet’s death; because Hamlet has still not made a decision on what to do after he has discovered the truth about his uncle Claudius, Hamlet does not move forward and instead must take time to “catch [his] breath” (I. v. 43). Hamlet often seems very confused in early scenes of Hamlet, which is understandable considering that Hamlet’s father dies at the beginning of the play, right in front of him.
Hamlet’s inability to cope with this compounded by everything else going on around Hamlet results in Hamlet’s madness. Although Hamlet’s father is dead, Hamlet does have other family members around him throughout the play who could have helped Hamlet cope with his loss. While Hamlet’s mother remarries soon after Hamlet’s father’s death, she has an opportunity to discuss this with Hamlet before announcing it at a public event which can be seen as very rude without speaking to Hamlet about it first. Laertes also returns from France prematurely for his sister’s funeral so he could have been there for support if needed.
Both of these characters are related to Hamlet and know what Hamlet has gone through recently; Claudius knows that killing someone’s parent would look bad but he probably did not understand how much grief this would cause Hamlet. Hamlet’s mother, on the other hand, should know firsthand how Hamlet would react to losing his father especially since Hamlet was already very upset before he saw Claudius praying. Even after Hamlet learns that his uncle murdered his father, Hamlet is still not completely sure of what to do for almost half the play until Laertes goes crazy with grief which pushes Hamlet into action.
This long period where Hamlet has trouble deciding what to do suggests mental illness or at least heavy grief and stress. Rosenthal notes that Hamlet’s madness doesn’t have any effect on him throughout most of the play except during Act V when it becomes clear that “the weight of all these past months descends upon Hamlet” and Hamlet finally understands the consequence of what he has been planning. Hamlet’s death in this scene is described as “gently, even graciously,” which shows that Hamlet is at peace with himself and accepting of his fate.
Hamlet’s madness throughout Hamlet usually demonstrates Hamlet’s struggle to cope and understand what’s going on around him but it does not usually affect his actions until the end of Hamlet when Hamlet realizes how much time has passed while he was delayed in avenging his father’s death. After all the other characters are dead, Hamlet dies speaking to Horatio about Fortinbras marching through Denmark after Hamlet’s death which could be a reference to Fortinbras’ against Poland during which Fortinbras takes Hamlet’s words, “the readiness is all” (V. ii. 98) to mean that Hamlet wished his death to be as convenient for Fortinbras as possible.
Hamlet uses this quote earlier in the play when he tells Horatio not to reveal Hamlet’s plan to kill Claudius until after it has happened because Hamlet wants everything set up before he reveals himself again. Not everyone views Hamlet’s madness as physical, though. For example, Peter Ure argues that Hamlet’s madness was caused by opium instead of grief and stress, which could provide an alternate explanation for Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play including during Act V where Hamlet finally sees the consequences of what he has done so far.
However, Hamlet’s very traditional views on death suggest that Hamlet is not the type of person to seek out drugs for pleasure. Hamlet references heaven and hell multiple times throughout Hamlet which shows Hamlet’s strong belief in afterlife. Hamlet also mentions superstition multiple times regarding ghosts and describes “the dread of something after death” (III. i. 78) as one reason Hamlet’s father’s spirit cannot rest which suggests Hamlet does not want to risk dying because he would not be able to go to heaven if he kills himself.
The only time Hamlet questions his beliefs is during his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where he is trying to figure out what they know about him but this conversation is less about Hamlet doubting his beliefs and more about Hamlet no longer enjoying acting like the way he usually does. Hamlet’s strong views on death Hamlet also show that Hamlet is not likely to disregard his own life just because it’s getting harder for him to live it.