The Madness of Feigning Madness


Title: Hamlet

Rating: 5 Stars

This is the third of the three plays that I’ll be seeing in Ashland in a couple of weeks.

OK. How do I even talk about this? How do you try to say something new / fresh about possibly the most over-analyzed non-religious work of literature ever? What can I say that hasn’t already been said by at one point or another by any of probably thousands of scholars who have devoted their entire careers to this one play?

Obviously, I can’t.  Instead, I’m just going to list some semi-random notes that I made while I was reading it.

I read much of the play out loud.  Unlike any other play, the words, phrases, and soliloquies just roll off the tongue. It is the most beautiful work I’ve ever read. I’ve just finished The Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night. From a strict poetry point of view, Hamlet is simply an order of magnitude better. I can’t think of any work that comes close in beauty.

There are just so many meta elements to it that if you look at it cock-eyed, an argument can be made that it’s almost post-modern. You have the play within the play, that Hamlet effectively takes over to create a plot of a man killing his kingly brother and seducing the king’s wife, which is itself the very device that kicks off the play Hamlet itself. You have Hamlet giving direction to actors regarding how to act in tragedies. You have Hamlet himself essentially giving himself acting direction for his madness.  The entire play basically circles around itself.

What is the nature of madness? Clearly, Horatio and the guards see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, so Hamlet is not completely deranged. However, when the ghost makes his next appearance with Hamlet and the queen, the queen does not see him. Why not? Has Hamlet himself gone mad at that time? At other times he’s clearly feigning madness, but…just because someone is feigning madness does not mean that he himself is not also mad. Does the death of Polonius and the pseudo madness of Hamlet really drive Ophelia insane? Or could madness somehow be contagious? Is she mad with grief or is driven mad by Hamlet’s madness? This has echoes to me of the pairing of the madness of Lear with the feigned madness of Edgar.

Hamlet’s word play is simply other worldly. He meets his old pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He sees them and within seconds sees through them. For the rest of the play, whenever the three of them are together he just verbally toys with them as a cat with a mouse. They are both always at least a step slow. This continues pretty much up to the moment that he maneuvers to send them to their deaths in England.

Polonius is an old insufferable windbag. There really is, until the gravedigger in Act V, nothing close to a fool that you often see in Shakespeare. Polonius is the fool that you usually see, albeit minus the wit and humor. Is Polonius’ senility itself nothing more than another form of madness?

In many ways, the end of play could be played pretty hilariously. Just imagine the scene. Except for Horatio and the totally nondescript Osric, quite literally everyone in the hall has died a violent death. In deep sorrow, Horatio wants to kill himself, but Hamlet’s dying breath begs him to live to tell the story. All in all, a very harrowing scene.

And then, the English ambassador saunters in. He looks around and says, hey we killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which one of you all wants to thank me for it?  Um…not a great time, dude.  Maybe you should looked around at all of the dead bodies and think, maybe I can pass this message on a little later when we figure out who’s still alive. It really is not all about you.

Similarly, Fortinbras comes in.  He’s just kicked some Polish ass (or Polack as the non-PC Shakespeare would say) and he wants to come in and party on to celebrate. He comes in, looks around, sees all the dead people, and thinks, cool, I’m in charge now! King Me!



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