…the ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty
The Fault of Madness
An individual’s honour can be defined by their virtue and their ability to perform moral actions. All individuals justify the certainty of their own actions as they want to perceive themselves as honourable. Therefore, when this honour is lost, one will attempt to recover it through any means. In the play, Hamlet, Shakespeare shares the idea that when an honourable individual finds himself surrounded by dishonour and uncertainty, his need to restore this certainty will compel him to embrace a facade of madness. This facade soon fades, however, as it becomes a reality. Ironically, it is within this madness that he will find his honour tarnished. This is seen through the character Hamlet as he evolves from an honourable prince of Denmark to one who would yell at his lover and interrogate his mother.
When an honourable individual finds that his surroundings have lost their honour, he will seek to return things to previous conditions. In the start of the play, Hamlet is presented as a very honourable character but surrounded by dishonourable people. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet directly addresses the degradation of Denmark’s honour. He speaks of King Claudius, comparing him to his father as “Hyperion is to Satyr”. A shift in the position of king, the face of the kingdom, from a powerful god to an “lecherous” animal tarnishes the honour of the kingdom and is an extremely shameful transformation in Hamlet’s eyes. Along with his mother, a woman who remarried to a new king only months after the death of the previous, these two points represent to Hamlet the dishonour in the royal family and, by fault, in all of the kingdom. Surrounded by all this dishonour, Hamlet does not act rashly. Rather, he showcases his own honour and “hold[s] [his] tongue”. When faced with dishonour, one may seek to immediately restore what has been lost by acting rashly, but Hamlet understands that if he is to share his ideas, they may spread and further sully the lost honour of the kingdom. Instead he chooses to keep his thoughts to himself. Hamlet is torn between his need to maintain his own honour by sharing the corrupt nature of the royal family and the need to restore the honour of his own family and kingdom. Individuals may find themselves conflicted and unable to act when they are forced to choose between their own self perceived honour and the honour of others. That is to say, Hamlet initially chooses inaction and hopes that certainty will come with time, a choice reflected in Hamlet’s decision to “hold [his] tongue”.
Honourable individuals may find it difficult to restore honour to their surroundings while maintaining their own honour as inaction may not produce results. Thus, one may seek to restore certainty through action instead. When Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, it provides him with some sense of certainty as he learns of the murderous nature behind his father’s death. Upon the discovery of this news, Hamlet seeks to restore certainty to the whole kingdom by pretending to go mad and plans to kill Claudius. Hamlet originally faked his madness in order to restore certainty to two different aspects of his life: his relationship with Ophelia and the truth behind the words of the ghost. However, Hamlet unknowingly allowed his facade of madness to become reality as he truly embraces the edge of madness. When one is careless in their delve deep into madness, he may find that he is unable to pull himself out of his own ruse and consequently loses his honour. One may begin to find himself at ends with his own wits and entering a state of insanity. This becomes evident in Hamlet’s subsequent actions, as they become increasingly more frantic. In a search for certainty with their relationship, Hamlet and Ophelia have a confrontation. However, Hamlet finds himself stuck in his madness,out of control, and begins to rant at Ophelia. He questions her loyalty and when he finds himself betrayed, calls for her to attend a nunnery, essentially deeming her an dishonourable woman, ending the possibility of love between the two. This is seen once again when Hamlet goes to his mother hoping to ascertain the truth behind the words of the ghost. As he attempts to maintain his illusion of a feigned madness, he begins to berate his mother before ultimately crossing a line and becomes truly mad. Hamlet, in his frenzied state, stabs Polonius who has hiding behind the curtain. However, rather than take the honourable action and feel shame regarding death caused by his hands, he defies logic and claims that Polonius holds the sole guilt behind the incident for being foolish enough to hide behind a curtain. Although Hamlet initially embraced mad actions to achieve certainty, the accompanying loss of honour ironically degrades the integrity behind the nature of certainty. Instead, it unravels. Furthermore, with the appearance of the ghost, even the Queen can no longer see the certainty in Hamlet’s words as she cannot see a ghost who Hamlet insists does exists. Hamlet has lost in his quest for certainty. Searching for certainty, one may bluff madness, but when they are unable to find what they need, they may unwittingly reach a state of true madness.
Individuals who embrace madness will find their honour tarnished. Hamlet, hoping to preserve his own honour, seeks certainty by embracing madness, but it is within this madness that Hamlet has lost his honour. Hamlet was initially viewed as a honourable man by his lover, Ophelia. She loved and respected Hamlet as a prince and a lover. Hamlet in his madness, however, has transformed into an unrecognizable state. While still loving her, Hamlet is no longer sweet, but rather very rude. He claims that he never truly loved her and insults her honour and unknowingly diminishes his own. He has lost the respect of Ophelia. Hamlet’s descent into dishonour is showcased a second time in his confrontation with his mother. Having actually gone mad, Hamlet has tarnished his honour with the death of Polonius. Part of Hamlet’s honour originated from the fact that he held such a great respect for life and death. He believed his mother was dishonourable for not respecting the time and mourning after death. However, Hamlet himself has now become the murderer of someone’s father. He has become a hypocritical individual and has unconsciously surrendered his own honour. His aloof nature to death contradicts previous values and Hamlet has sullied himself becoming a man unworthy of his position as a respected prince. One’s false madness will result in the ultimate loss of their honour through dishonourable actions.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the hero’s quest for certainty demonstrates how one will be derived of all previous integrity when they take on facades and act unlike themselves. When an honourable individual conflicted between preservation of their own honour and the honour of others, they may choose madness as a method of achieving certainty. However, when this madness becomes their reality, they will find themselves left with the dishonour they initially regarded in others. Hamlet has inevitably lost all sense of himself and has become a part of the dishonour he once disgusted.