Study Guide

Hamlet Madness

By William Shakespeare


Act I, Scene ii

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

We start off with a bang. Or, considering that this is Hamlet we're talking about, maybe more like a whimper: he's moaning about how depressed he is over his father's death and mom's remarriage, and wishing that his "flesh" would "melt"—i.e., that he'd die.

History Snack! Elizabethans believed the human body was made up of four basic elements, called humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. Hamlet seems to be suffering from what Elizabethans referred to as "melancholy," which was associated with too much "black bile" in the body. This state led to lethargy, irritability, distorted imagination, and so on. Basically, it sounds a lot like what we call "clinical depression" today. But since this is 1600 rather than the 21st century, he can't just take some Abilify; he has to plot (and delay) a murderous revenge.

Textual Note: Some modern editions of the play read "sullied flesh" instead of "solid flesh." This is because the first folio (published 1623) edition of the play (which reads "solid") is slightly different than the first quarto (published 1603) edition, which reads "sallied." Modern editors who prefer the first quarto reading update the word "sallied" to "sullied," as in "stained." Does it matter? Sure it does. Some editors and literary critics prefer "sullied" flesh because it suggests that Hamlet feels that he personally has been soiled, stained, or contaminated by his mother's incestuous relationship with his murderous uncle. Given how he seems to feel about sex, we'd buy that.

Act I, Scene v

How strange or odd some'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on)

After the Ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet begins to plan his next steps. Here, he warns his friends that he will put on an "antic disposition"—i.e., pretend to be a madman. (See video below.) Doesn't this settle it? He says he's going to pretend to be mad; ergo, he isn't actually mad. Maybe. But keep in mind that (1) Hamlet says he's going to pretend to be mad ; (2) Hamlet's already "melancholy" at the beginning of the play ; (3) Elizabethan ideas about "madness" are unstable and they're different than modern notions of mental illness. As we'll see, the play itself offers multiple definitions of madness.

This seems like a good time for a History Snack break. Here's something you might like to know: Shakespeare borrows the idea of feigned madness from one of the play's major sources, the story of "Amleth," a legendary Danish tale that dates back to at least the 9th century. In the source story, Amleth clearly pretends to be mad after his uncle kills his father and marries his mother, Gerutha. (The idea is that if the uncle believes Amleth has lost his mind, he won't suspect that Amleth knows the truth behind the murder. Amleth, then, will be safe from his murderous uncle.)

Act II, Scene i

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.
He took me by the wrist and held me hard.
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stayed he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes,
For out o' doors he went without their helps
And to the last bended their light on me. (2.1.87-94, 899-112)

Elizabethans thought that love really could make a man sick and mentally ill. They called this state "love melancholy." Check out what a doctor, Bernard Gordon, had to say in Lilium Medicinae:

The illness called heroes is melancholy anguish caused by love for a woman. The cause of this affliction lies in the corruption of the faculty to evaluate… [men forget] all sense of proportion and common sense…it can be defined as melancholy anguish. (source)

Here, Ophelia describes Hamlet as looking and acting just like a guy who's playing the stereotypical role of an unrequited lover. It's a textbook case of lovesickness. In fact, maybe too textbook—almost as if he's read the book, if you know what we mean.

Act II, Scene ii

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

First, this seems to be Hamlet telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows exactly what they're up to: spying on him. But we also included this as a little lesson in how things get lost in translation. "Handsaw" is almost certainly a corruption of "heronshaw," i.e. a heron—which sounds a lot less crazy than comparing a bird to a carpentry tool.

[…] The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

The Ghost always seems to be associated with Hamlet's is-he-or-isn't-he insanity. Here, Hamlet is concerned that the Ghost may be "the devil" and is trying to tempt him to murder Claudius without just cause. What's interesting to us about this passage is the way Hamlet (who is alone on stage at this point) wonders if being depressed has left him vulnerable to evil—which is maybe one more reason to drag his feet before committing murder.


He knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger. He is far gone. And truly, in my
youth, I suffered much extremity for love, very near
this.  (2.2.205-208)

Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is "far gone, far gone" in his love for Ophelia. But—sorry, Polonius—we think it's more likely that Hamlet is likely making a naughty joke at Polonius' expense: a "fishmonger" is slang for "pimp." I.e., Hamlet knows that Polonius is basically pimping out his daughter to get at Hamlet.

Act III, Scene iv

How is it with you, lady?
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep,
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience! Whereon do you look?

What's striking about this passage is the fact that Hamlet is the only one who can see and hear the Ghost when it appears in Gertrude's bedroom. (Earlier in the play, the castle guards and Horatio could see the spirit but Hamlet is the only one who has ever spoken with it.) So, what's going on here? What's changed? One possible explanation is that the Ghost chooses to appear only to Hamlet. (This kind of thing is common in the literature of the period.) Another possibility is that Hamlet's the only one who can see the Ghost here because it's a figment of his imagination, which would mean that Hamlet has broken down and has lost his mind.

Act IV, Scene i

What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?
Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries 'A rat, a rat,'
And in this brainish apprehension, kills
The unseen good old man.

This is an incredibly interesting passage. In the previous passage, Hamlet tells Gertrude that he isn't crazy but he asks her to lie and tell Claudius that he is in fact mad. As we can see here, Gertrude tells the king that Hamlet's as "mad as the sea and wind." Why does she do this? Is she trying to protect her son by lying to Claudius? Or, does she really think Hamlet's gone off the deep end? Where do Gertrude's loyalties lie at this point in the play?

Act IV, Scene v

Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you. (4.5.79)

Ophelia's mad ramblings are super problematic to the royal court, as we see here when Claudius orders Horatio to keep a close eye on her. The fact is that Ophelia's babblings about her father's murder could have important political implications. Later, we see just how volatile the realm can be when Laertes leads a rebellion and finds many eager supporters who would help him overthrow King Claudius.


[…] poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts; 

Here, Claudius describes Ophelia as being "divided from herself." In other words, she's lost her mind. But what causes Ophelia to go mad? Duh: her ex-boyfriend has murdered her father. Right? Well, maybe it's more complex than that. Maybe she's actually just cracked under the patriarchal pressures of the court. Throughout the play, Ophelia is ordered around by her brother and her father and has no control over her social or love life. Madness might just be the only way she has of fighting back.