Madness As a Response to Traumatic Events in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has many themes, and one of the most prominent themes is
madness. This is shown throughout the play in different characters, along with being provoked
by various motifs, such as death, but more specifically the death of a father. In addition to the
death of a father, suicide and hallucinations (like the Ghost) are also motifs in the play. Through
these various events, Shakespeare conveys that madness is a person’s response to traumatic
events, especially to the death of one’s father. Once one has acknowledged that madness is a
response to traumatic events, one must ask if madness is an effect of living through a traumatic
event, or if it is a coping mechanism.
Before one can look at all of the different instances that madness is mentioned in Hamlet,
and decide if madness is more of an effect or a coping mechanism, the two terms must be
clarified. A coping mechanism can be defined as a means “of dealing with internal or external
demands that are perceived to be threatening or overwhelming” (“Glossary”). As for an effect,
that can be defined as “something that inevitably follows an antecedent (such as a cause or
agent)” (“Effect”). Essentially, a person has a choice to use a coping mechanism, whether the
choice is consciously or subconsciously made, whereas an effect is not optional, and will occur
whether a person wants it to or not. Throughout Hamlet, madness is a response to traumatic
events, but it varies as to whether it is a coping mechanism or an effect.
Shakespeare accomplishes creating the theme of madness in different ways. The first
occurence of this theme is in Act I, where Hamlet sees the ghost of Old Hamlet. Hamlet says
“How strange or odd some’er I bear myself (as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put antic
disposition on)” (I.v.170-172), meaning that he decides that he must pretend to be crazy, so that
he can learn if Claudius truly killed Old Hamlet or not. In order to accomplish his ‘pretend’
craziness, Hamlet acts in such a way that leaves the audience wondering if he is simply
pretending to be crazy or if he truly is mentally unstable.
The death of a loved one, but most significantly the death of a father, is a motif that
occurs throughout Hamlet, and it consistently alludes to a certain character going mad. First, Old
Hamlet’s death unhinges Hamlet and sends him into depression, but seeing the Ghost is what
really pushed Hamlet towards going completely insane.
However, Hamlet does not suddenly become totally unstable; he first falls into
depression, which becomes unbearable. In Act III, his famous “To be or not to be” (III.i.55-89)
speech shows the audience just how depressed and suicidal Hamlet really is. This soliloquy
sheds light as to what Hamlet is truly thinking and how he is really feeling, because there is
nobody present for Hamlet to try to trick into thinking that he is crazy. Depression is a type of
mental illness, and thus a person can be called ‘mentally unstable’ if they are depressed. Thus,
one could argue that Hamlet is already mentally unstable, prior to his pretending to be crazy.
When one’s parent dies, it is normal that a person would become said, or even somewhat
depressed. Thus, Hamlet’s depression and eventual insanity was brought on by an event, and
was inevitable. For this reason, Hamlet’s madness is more of an effect of a traumatic event,
rather than a coping mechanism.
In addition to Hamlet’s madness, Ophelia also goes insane after the death of Polonius.
After seeing Hamlet, with whom she has a romantic history, go insane and being led to believe
that it is her fault, along with her brother, Laertes, being away, the death of Ophelia’s father
leaves Ophelia completely alone. The girl not only loses her father but also her sanity, and
becomes extremely depressed and unstable. After learning of Ophelia’s insanity, Claudius says
that she is “divided from herself and her fair judgment, without the which we are pictures or
mere beasts” (IV.v.84-85). Being “divided from [one]self” is typically a symptom of being
insane, so if Ophelia was not officially insane prior to that line, she would be officially insane
following Claudius’s monologue. Throughout all of Act IV, she sings a variety of songs, all of
which confirm her unstable mental state.
Another occurence of the motif of the death of a father is when Polonius is killed, which
sends Ophelia off of the deep end. The death of her father is a red flag that she is going to go
crazy. She sings her songs, which are consistently about love, death, and how men only want
women for sex. Right before she dies, she was picking flowers from a tree to make garlands.
Once she does fall in the brook, it is most likely that she would have been able to swim, but
instead of saving herself she just stays in the water and sings one of her songs. This provokes the
question: was she really completely unaware of what was going on, or was she aware that she
was dying, and simply could not find the will to live any longer? This state of depression
mirrors Hamlet’s, especially his “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Both characters likely
questioned if it was worth it to continue to live, but while Hamlet chooses to continue living,
Ophelia decides that life has nothing left to offer her. When deciding if Ophelia’s madness was
the effect or a coping mechanism for the death of her father, one must understand that the
thought of being a woman without a father—or a husband—during Shakespeare’s lifetime would
have been extremely overwhelming. In Ophelia’s case, not only did she not have a husband, but
the man that she loved had gone insane, making this series of deaths all the more traumatic. Not
to mention, the man she loved was the reason that her father was dead, and Ophelia would not
have known how to deal with that truth. It is for this reason that Ophelia’s madness would have
been more of a coping mechanism, rather than an effect of her father’s death.
In conclusion, madness is a key theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This theme is really
emphasized by essentially everything that Hamlet does, but also in how Ophelia acts beginning
in Act IV, until her death. Once one has looked at all of the various instances that madness is
mentioned, one must ask if responding to traumatic events with madness is a coping mechanism
or an effect of the traumatic event. In the case of Hamlet, the traumatic events would be the
death of one’s father. As for the character Hamlet, his madness is more of an effect of his
father’s death, whereas Ophelia’s madness is a coping mechanism with dealing with her father’s
“Effect.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/effect.
“Glossary of Psychological Terms.” American Psychological Association,
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Jeff Dolven, Barnes & Noble, 2007.