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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On the Madness of Hamlet

By Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786–1870)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1786. Died there, 1870. From Verplanck’s “Shakespeare’s Plays: With his Life, etc.” 1847.]

HAMLET, after the interview with his father’s spirit, has announced to his friends his probable intent to “bear himself strange and odd,” and put on an “antic disposition.” But the poet speaks his own meaning through Hamlet’s mouth, when he makes the Prince assure his mother “It is not madness.” The madness is but simulated. Still, it is not “cool reason” that directs his conduct and governs his impulses. His weakness and his melancholy, the weariness of life, the intruding thoughts of suicide, the abrupt transitions, the towering passion, the wild or scornful levity, the infirmity of purpose,—these are not feigned. They indicate crushed affections and blighted hopes. They show the sovereign reason,—not overthrown by disease, not captive to any illusion, not paralyzed in its power of attention and coherent thought,—but perplexed, darkened, distracted by contending and natural emotions from real causes. His mind is overwhelmed with the oppressive sense of supernatural horrors, of more horrible earthly wrongs, and terrible duties. Such causes would throw any mind from its propriety; but it is the sensitive, meditative, yet excitable and kind-hearted prince, quick in feeling, warm in affection, rich in thought, “full of large discourse, looking before and after,” yet (perhaps on account of these very endowments), feeble in will and irresolute in act,—he it is, who
  • “Hath a father killed, and mother stain’d,
  • Excitements of his reason and his blood.”
  • Marked and peculiar as is his character, he is yet, in this, the personification of a general truth of human nature, exemplified a thousand times in the biography of eminent men. He shows the ordinary incompatibility of high perfection of the meditative mind, whether poetical or philosophical (and Hamlet’s is both), with the strong will, the prompt and steady determination that give energy and success in the active contests of life.

    It is thus that, under extraordinary and terrible circumstances impelling him to action, Hamlet’s energies are bent up to one great and engrossing object, and still he shrinks back from the execution of his resolves, and would willingly find refuge in the grave.

    It may be said that, after all, this view of Hamlet’s mental infirmity differs from the theory of his insanity only in words; that the unsettled mind, the morbid melancholy, the inconstancy of purpose, are but in other language the description of a species of madness. In one sense this may be true. Thin partitions divide the excitement of passion, the absorbing pursuit of trifles, the delusions of vanity, the malignity of revenge,—in short, any of the follies or vices that “flesh is heir to,”—from that stage of physical or mental disease, which, in the law of every civilized people causes the sufferer to be regarded as “of unsound mind and memory,” incompetent to discharge the duties of society, and no longer to be trusted with its privileges. It was from the conviction of this truth, that a distinguished and acute physician, of great eminence and experience in the treatment of insanity (Dr. Haslam), was led, in the course of a legal inquiry, in reply to the customary question, “Was Miss B—— of sound mind?” to astonish his professional audience by asserting that he had “never known any human being of sound mind.”

    But the poet’s distinction is the plain and ordinary one. It is that between the irregular fevered action of an intellect excited, goaded, oppressed, and disturbed by natural thoughts and real causes, too powerful for its control,—and the same mind, after it has been affected by that change—modern science would say, by that physical change—which may deprive the sufferer of his power of coherent reasoning, or else inflict upon him some self-formed delusion, influencing all his perceptions, opinions, and conduct. If, instead of the conventional reality of the ghostly interview, Hamlet had been painted as acting under the impulses of the self-raised phantoms of an overheated brain, that would be insanity in the customary sense, in which, as a morbid physical affection, it is to be distinguished from the fitful struggles of a wounded spirit,—of a noble mind torn with terrible and warring thoughts.

    This is the difference between Lear, in the agony of intolerable passion from real and adequate causes, and the Lear of the stormy heath, holding an imaginary court of justice upon Goneril and her sister.

    Now as to this scene with Ophelia. How does it correspond with this understanding of the poet’s intent?

    Critics, of the highest authority in taste and feeling, have accounted for Hamlet’s conduct solely upon the ground of the absorbing and overwhelming influence of the one paramount thought which renders hopeless and worthless all that formerly occupied his affections.

    Such is Mrs. Jameson’s theory, and that of Caldecott’s note in his excellent unpublished edition of Hamlet; and Kean gave great dramatic effect to the same conception on the stage. The view is, in conception and feeling, worthy of the poet; but it is not directly supported by a single line in his text, while it overlooks the fact that he has taken pains to mark, as an incident of his plot, the unfortunate effect upon Hamlet’s mind of Ophelia’s too confiding obedience to her father’s suspicious caution. The author could not mean that this scene should be regarded as a sudden and causeless outbreak of passion, unconnected with any prior interview with Ophelia. He has shown us that, immediately after the revelation of the murder, the suspicious policy of Polonius compels his daughter to “repel Hamlet’s letters,” and deny him access. This leads to that interview, so touchingly described by Ophelia,—of silent but piteous expostulation, of sorrow, suspicion, and unuttered reproach:—

  • “With his other hand thus, o’er his brow,
  • He falls to such perusal of my face
  • As he would draw it.”
  • This silence, more eloquent than words, implies a conflict of mixed emotions, which the poet himself was content to suggest, without caring to analyze it in words. Whatever these emotions were, they had no mixture of levity, anger, or indifference.

    When the Prince again meets Ophelia it is with calm and solemn courtesy. She renews the recollection of her former refusal of his letters, by returning “the remembrances of his that she had longed to re-deliver.” The reader knows that, in the gentle Ophelia, this is an act, not of her will, but of her yielding and helpless obedience. To her lover it must appear as a confirmation of her abrupt and seemingly causeless breaking off of all former ties at a moment when he most needed sympathy and kindness. This surely cannot be received with calmness. Does she, too, repel his confidence, and turn away from his altered fortunes and his broken spirit? The deep feelings, that had before choked his utterance, cannot but return. He wraps himself in his cloak of assumed madness. He gives vent to intense emotion in agitated and contradictory expressions (“I did love you once,”—“I loved you not”), and in wild invective, not at Ophelia personally, but at her sex’s frailties. In short, as elsewhere, where he fears to repose confidence, he masks, under his assumed “antic disposition,” the deep and real “excitement of his reason and his blood.”

    This understanding of this famous scene seems to me required by the poet’s marked intention to separate Ophelia from Hamlet’s confidence, by Polonius compelling her

  • “To lock herself from his resort;
  • Admit no messenger, receive no tokens.”
  • All which would otherwise be a useless excrescence on the plot. It besides appears so natural in itself, that the only hesitation I have as to its correctness arises from respect to the differing opinions of some of those who have most reverenced and best understood Shakespeare’s genius.