When we leave Hamlet at the end of Act I we learn that he”s planning “to put an antic disposition on” – pretend to be mad. However the events that follow in the posterior scene can lead the audience to question whether Hamlet”s “mad” behaviour is always a front. Are there times when it becomes a genuine part of his personality. Understanding Hamlet”s character throughout Act II is particularly difficult because we ourselves are in debate over the reality of Hamlet”s personality.
So rather than increase our understanding of his character we can evaluate Hamlet”s apparent madness. Indeed there appear to be parts of the Act where Hamlet seems unable to control his behaviour and others where it is more obviously an act.
In Act II the fundamental theme is that of “acting” and things not being what they first seem, this theme is the underlying structure for the entire play. However in this particular Act, the process of acting obsesses Hamlet. He notes how a player by profession can play many different parts and become many different characters with the flick of a switch, he realises this is what needs to be able to do if he is to fill the avenger “role” he has been given.Order now
The irony within all this is that Hamlet himself is an actor, he acts for his mother and his uncle and everyone around him, the double irony for the audience would be that they would be watching and actor acting hamlet out as a character. So the idea of “acting” and “putting on a front” as a double – meaning to it throughout the play.
This notion can be summarised with one line in particular in scene II page 77, Hamlet says to Rosencrantz “he that plays the king shall be welcome. Taking at face value this means that the actor that plays the role of the King will be particularly welcomed by Hamlet ” It is this conversation that sets Hamlet”s trail of thought for devising his plan “To catch the conscience of the king.” However on a more sinister meaning the line could be reference to Claudius “playing” the role of thing king, the way an actor would in a play.
As I stated above Hamlet is continually acting, what makes his behaviour ironic is that Hamlets character appears to be most at ease and controlled when he is acting. It is only underneath that his mood changes violently and he branches on hysteria.
I personally do not think that at any point within this Act Hamlet is genuinely mad. I think he uses his madness as an escape from reality. My theory can be supported when we watch how Hamlet reacts to the discovery of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spying on him. Rather than get openly angry and showing how betrayed and hurt he feels, Hamlet brings on his madness. This is the way he deals with the difficulties of his life – by not facing them at all.
However it is when Hamlet is mad that the other characters get to hear his true feelings. They may well be oblivious to this but what Hamlet says when he is “mad” has real truth behind it about how he feels. This can again be seen in with Hamlet”s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he tells them “I have of late lost all my mirth.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think Hamlet has truly lost him mind as he goes on to
explain at great length how he is feeling yet ironically, this could not be more true to his feelings expressed in his soliloquies.
In most cases it is more obvious to the audience that Hamlet is pretending to be mad – is in his first appearance in the act with Polonius. Hamlet enters the room, reading a book the audience may note this as ironic as when we last heard from him Hamlet said he was going to forget everything books had taught him: “I”ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures of the past”
In this situation Hamlet uses his pretence madness to mock Polonius “excellent well; you are a fishmonger.” despite the words he uses making little sense the manner is controlled and reserved, quite a contrast to his soliloquy in Act I scene II.
Another characteristic we as an audience can pick up from Hamlet is his need to be cared for and loved. Where as many would see Hamlets appearance in Ophelia”s closest as an act of genuine derangement I see it as his final plea to Ophelia for help and support. I do not think he is mad, possible more shocked and shaken as the events of the couple of months sinks in, and he is severely depressed. His appearance “pale as his shirt, knees knocking each other” suggests although he may not be mad he is certainly suffering both physically and mentally.
Returning to Hamlets need for love and care – I feel one of the reasons Hamlet hides behind this mad exterior is because he is weak and needy. By Act II Hamlet has been let down by nearly everyone close to him, his mother with her marriage to Claudius, his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by there deceit by spying on him and most importantly his girlfriend Ophelia, by her rejection of him when he needed her most. The rejection of Ophelia would have hurt Hamlet most for we know that she meant to most to him. The one true incite we have to his feelings for her is his letter to her that Polonius later shows to his mother, the queen. In this letter:
“Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar
But never doubt I love.”
The only constant amongst the fray is his closest friend Horatio, yet Hamlet”s situation is helpless he feels too betrayed and hurt to open up to anyone.
Another aspect of Hamlet”s complex personality is that of weakness and indecision. Hamlet has been given this role of an avenger, and despite his loyalty he cannot find it within himself to complete his task: “Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” He constantly finds delay tactics to postpone revenging his Father”s death by killing the present king, Claudius, some may say that his plot of “the play” is simply another way of postponing the deed. I feel S T Colerdige best summaries Hamlet as “a psychological
study of a man who could not bring about a balance between his inward thoughts and the external world” Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare, 1808.
As a person Hamlet is not blood thirsty and decisive, his critics may refer to him as “too much of a thinker.” He is full of doubt and question which is quite possibly his greatest weakness, he goes on to question whether the ghost itself was indeed the spirit of his father and not a demon sent to encourage him into damnation. In defence of this, in Hamlet”s life at this particular time there is no stability his life, nothing is constant and nothing is what it seems, then why should he immediately accept what this presence tells him?
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph we as the audience will never be able to truly understand Hamlet”s character we can only interpret it in the way we perceive most logical and take not of how other”s before us have received it. I have written down what I feel the most rational “theory” of Hamlet and his character yet we as the audience/reader/actor are never going to know for sure. To conclude I will say that ironically it would appear the fundamental theme of “things not always being what they seem” does not end with the play but with the interpretations made after it.