Great literary works retain their popularity as a result of many different factors. One such factor which can lead to popularity of a work, current or consistent discussion of a work’s merits, can come into play when an author or playwright leaves questions unanswered in his work. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare creates such a situation. As a result of the ambiguity of clues given throughout this play, critics may argue for or against the idea that Prince Hamlet’s “antic disposition” put on as a facade to mislead the royal family pales in comparison to the disposition of Hamlet’s lunatic mind, or in other words, that Hamlet in fact truly succumbs to insanity. Evidence for this opinion can be derived from Hamlet’s erratic mood changes, careless slaughter of those not directly involved in the murder of his father, and interactions with the ghost of King Hamlet.
For a man thought to be feigning insanity, Prince Hamlet seems to have very little control of his emotions. In fact, Hamlet admits this to Horatio, his confidant, when he says, “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let me sleep” (5.2. lines 4-5). This lack of restraint leads to Hamlet’s unpredictable mood swings throughout the play. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia easily spawns such dramatic alterations in the prince’s attitude. For example, when Hamlet first suspects Ophelia acts only as the pawn for Polonius’s ploys, he reacts rashly, bitterly denying that he ever loved her. “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so / inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved / you not” (3.1.117-19). This massive reversal in disposition is later contrasted by another reversal when Hamlet leaps into Ophelia’s open grave at her funeral to dispute Laertes and claim, “I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (5.1.252-54). These abrupt mood changes also appear in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother. He seemed to believe in his mother’s purity and goodness, but eventually Hamlet seems to hold a great mount of contempt for Gertrude, especially when he mocks her words, and then snidely proclaims: “You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, / And would it were not so, you are my mother” (3.4.15-16). Such mood swings as these definitely prove, if anything, that Hamlet could not keep adequate control of his emotions.
This lack of discipline also leads Hamlet to shamelessly murder several people not directly related to his plot to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet kills Polonius in Scene 4 of Act 3 when he becomes startled by the former’s cries for help. He the flaunts this deed n the presence of the King and Laertes. Hamlet also boasts to Horatio of his cunning plan which resulted in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern delivering their own execution notices to the English crown. Is it possible for a sane man to gloat over the death of another man by his own hand? In addition to these deaths, Hamlet can be indirectly linked to the deaths of Ophelia and Gertrude.
To further this idea of Hamlet’s insanity, one can observe the prince’s interaction with the ghost of his father. For example, after Hamlet’s first interaction with this ghost, he puts forth, as Horatio calls them, “wild and whirling words.” Why right, you are in the right, And so without more circumstance at all I hold it fit that we shake hands and part, You, as your business and desire shall point you, For every man hath business and desire Such as it is, and for my own poor part, Look you, I will go pray. (1.5.127-134) Another possibility exists in relation to Act 3 Scene 4 in which Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, while Gertrude cannot see the specter. It is important to remember that in all other encounters with the ghost, Hamlet was not the only person to behold the spirit. In this scene however, Hamlet alone sees this vision. This scene reveals Hamlet’s madness at its pinnacle.
In conclusion, Hamlet’s “antic disposition” can easily be understood, through examples of Hamlet’s unpredictable attitude changes, slaughter of innocents, and interactions with the ghost of his father, to be only the “tip of the iceberg” concerning his unstable mental state.