The modern psychological label of bipolar disorder (manic depression) fits Hamlet very well. It was a mental state recognized at the time blamed on melancholy caused by excessive introspection.
Melancholy (the word means “black bible” was considered an unnatural state, a physical disease caused by an imbalance between the four elemental fluids or bodily humours in the human body.
A tradition of revenge tragedy was that the aggrieved character should become mad with rage-madness being a response to two opposing irreconcilable forces that the mind cannot cope with. Mad individuals no longer have to feel any responsibility for their actions, which can be attributed to another self (as with Hamlet excusing himself to Laertes in Act V scene 2.) It was also believed that madness fluctuated with the weather and wind direction, southerly breezes being the more wholesome to the afflicted mind, hence Hamlet’s comment of (II. 2 377-378) It was also thought that moods and madness were affected by the moon’s cycles and were especially prevalent and violent at a full moon, hence the word “lunacy” Fits and remissions in the hero’s lunacy were a feature of the source play, The Spanish Tragedy.
Madness in the play Hamlet-
Passion was considered to be both a manifestation and a cause of madness, a kind of delirium often called an “ecstasie.” This meant a loss of control by the rational mind. Ophelia’s madness is a classic case of the mind being overloaded with emotion and passion and is ironic compared to Hamlet’s method of coping with the similar anguish of grief and betrayal.
In classic literature and cinema, the fool with childlike innocence (the divine idiot) is actually closer to God and has a greater insight than mere mortals. This was a particular feature of medieval romance and sensitive young noblemen were often driven mad by unrequited or rejected love.
Polonius is certain that this is the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy. Grief, however, is an extreme emotion that can present itself as a physical or mental breakdown. Gertrude attributes her son’s madness to “His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage” (II.2.57)
Madness also has a comic mask, as displayed by Hamlet when playing the fool as the court jester while in “antic disposition” mode. This links with the plays theme of performing for an audience and wearing a false face.
Fools were master of the pun and double entendre (as self-protection against their employers taking offence.) Madness, real or affected, disguises a person’s thoughts and intentions and could therefore be a threat to others; Claudius is certain that “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” (III.1.189.)
Madness gives Hamlet an alter ego that reinforces the doubleness motif in the play and makes him a metaphor for out-of-joint Denmark. The poison has spread from Claudius and everyone who has had contact with him, has become infected. Madness is an actualization of the metaphor sickness in the play; “My wits diseased” (III. 2.329-30) this reinforces the recurring imagery of falling and decline. This also adds further doubt for the audience, who cannot be certain how fake Hamlets madness is.
Hamlet’s supposed madness provides an opposite parallel for Ophelia’s genuine madness. Her madness is precipitated by double grief- her father’s death and her lover’s exile, made even worse by the fact that her lover is her father’s murderer. Women’s minds were considered weaker at the time because they were controlled by their menstruation and wombs. When Hamlet leaves, the role of crazy person in court become vacant and, as Ophelia takes the role, the idea of doubles comes up yet again. They are doubles as both of them lose their fathers in violent circumstances, both find memory and the comparison of what was and what is, unbearable. Both are also imprisoned and both suffer from the awful conspiracy of Claudius and Polonius.