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...