A Query on Hamlet and Madness

“My uncle-father and my aunt-mother are deceived,” Hamlet tells Guildenstern (II,ii, 372). In what, my dear lord? Guildenstern asks, and Hamlet tells him:

I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

And then Polonius enters.

In my Hamlet essay, I got hawk and handsaw: A hawk is an actor, and a handsaw is one who saws the air too much with his hand, as is mentioned elsewhere in the play, when Hamlet gives advice to the actors. Polonius is a bad actor, while Hamlet wants his mother, Uncle and Guildenstern to think he thinks Guildenstern is a good actor, preserving the veil of illusion, and is still giving him the opportunity to see what he is doing in spying on his friend. But I did not get these wind directions, though a good explanation is in the Arden notes: “when the wind is southerly, “the watcher’s eye is turned away from the sun and so can see more clearly” (p. 258). There might be something to this, if my reader is considering my previous blog.

   The play Hamlet is of course famous for the question of weather Hamlet is really mad or is just faking it, in the antic disposition” he says he will put on to hide his knowledge of the true circumstance in the Kingdom: his uncle has murdered his father Hamlet, and has seized the throne and married the mother of Hamlet. The movie “the Ninth Configuration,” I believe, suggested that he is faking it, but as a defense against a genuine madness, of which he is in danger. Hamlet is the only one who knows the truth about what is occurring in the kingdom. Hamlet talks like Shakespeare himself, though, and those who do not understand or inquire are allowed to believe he is mad. He has had his love, if he loves Ophelia, used as a spy against him, as is being done with Guildenstern in this moment, and no readers seem to think that very significant. Ophelia, of course, drowns herself accidentally in a genuine madness in which she literally does not know what is going on around her. This, though, is caused by the genuine flaw of Hamlet, which is not madness but revenge, and of a strange sort that attempts to influence the immortal souls. Ophelia dies, tragically, because Hamlet, her love, killed her father while he, Polonius, was spying on him, and he thought it was the King. Tragedy, as Aristotle writes, affects those near to one another in kinship, its causes bound up with the filial things. Hamlet would have dealt with the “king” one way or another, except that he wanted to wait until the king was up to no good, assuring that his soul would not go to heaven. Note that domestic spying was once considered being up to no good.* Hamlet does not follow the Socratic reasoning about revenge, and the play turns screaming toward tragedy from this single event.

   Our psychology, with its DSM and its material causes, is not much in advance of the explanations of madness then current, such as that it based on the humors, perhaps an “imbalance,” and is effected by the weather.

   The two plays of Shakespeare on madness are Lear and Hamlet, and I have a three page discussion on modern psychology in the notes to my book on Lear, which has largely been ignored. There is more in the draft of the first chapter of my book on psychology, if anyone is interested. But no one even cares if Hamlet is the only one who knows, on supernatural evidence, what is going on in the kingdom, and he suspected something of the sort, that “something is rotten in Denmark.” The question is what is to be done about it, and of course in classical tragedy, the protagonist makes the wrong choice due to a flaw in his otherwise noble character. Shakespeare also wrote tragedy about villains, Macbeth and Richard III, characters that are essentially flawed though they have some noble element enslaved in the service of their villainy. Hamlet is not a villain.

   Our psychology is incapable of even this ethical distinction, though thankfully it does assume that “values” are facts when considering the “sociopath” and the “psychopath.” It does not even raise the question or try to distinguish between genius and madness. But Al-farabi is not incapable, and as cited in my psych chapter, has something to say about the distinction between genius and madness.

   But let it suffice to say that if Shakespeare is a sane example, merely saying things most do not understand is not a sufficient indication of madness. One might be the only one who knows what is going on. Such may be accused of madness, and our psychiatry seek to seize and drug them all the same. Psychology can then easily be made the instrument of tyranny. The accusation of madness is extremely serious, not something the courts should allow to be used for ulterior motives, as against the vulnerable, because, as in communist Russia of the Twentieth Century, it will be so used.

  • Spying is a deep and terribly complicated question, because it is fine against serious crime and foreign enemies, but places one into a “state of nature” with the one spying, because one is then in their power to the extent of the spying. One can assume it is a state or condition of war, which is outside the civil society or law in some sense. Claudius is in fact trying to kill Hamlet, and Polonius is helping the tyrant kill the lawful heir- though he may think of himself as “help”ing. The use of women and love in spying is far more grave than the perpetrators can possibly realize, or they would not be doing it, though it is less of a crime against those who do not love. It is in truth a violation of religious rights (Genesis 1:26), though it may be thought only a matter of appetites, again by those souls incapable of love..




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