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Insanity plea for Hamlet?

Was Hamlet mad or did he contrive madness?

A Washington jury have recently sought to determine whether Hamlet was sane or not and whether, accordingly, he should be held criminally responsible for the fatal stabbing of Polonius. The trial took place on March 15 in a sold-out, 1,100-seat theater at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The trial is part of the capital’s 6-month Shakespeare festival.

‘Justice Anthony Kennedy faced a problem he never had in his day job at the Supreme Court. The defendant has been dead for 400 years, ordinarily reason enough to dismiss criminal charges. But the show, as they say, must go on. So Kennedy had to dream up a way to bring Hamlet back to life, at least long enough to put him on trial for an unusual evening that mixes Shakespeare and the law.

Kennedy will preside for the fourth time at the trial of Hamlet, an unscripted performance that tries to determine whether the Danish prince is insane or should be held responsible for the death of Polonius.

The purpose is to make Shakespeare more accessible, and also to explore vexing modern legal issues, like the insanity defense.

‘Hamlet is the greatest dramatic composition in the history of literature. He continues to perplex us. It is so difficult’, Kennedy said in an interview in his court office. ‘If people can be interested in that, then the easier plays follow’.

I saw some televised excerpts of this mock trial on SBS television yesterday. The coverage spliced the news coverage with excerpts from the 1948 movie-length version of Hamlet directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier who also played Hamlet. By some quirk of fate I had been watching this film over the past few nights. It’s a moody, eerie version of Hamlet that treats Hamlet as indecisive and leaves it at that. I had earlier watched the widely-acclaimed version of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi made by the BBC in 1980.

I much prefer the Olivier version – I like the smoky scenes, the non-minimalist theatrical approach and the indecisive Olivier as Hamlet. A complete set of reviews of film versions of Hamlet is here – I have only seen the two I mention.

Hamlet did kill Polonius in the mistaken view that he was his Uncle Claudius who, as everyone in the Danish court must have known, had enjoyed an adulterous relationship with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, immediately prior to his father’s mysterious death and who remarried Claudius only two months after the death. Everyone, including Gertrude and Polonius, must have suspected that Claudius was involved in murdering Hamlet senior.

So there was justification for Hamlet’s attempt to kill Claudius even if he did get the wrong man, Polonius. But ignoring this: Was Hamlet mad and should he be held responsible for the murder?
Hamlet says several times during the play that he will feign madness so that his Uncle will not expect revenge. Even Polonius remarks ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’.

But Hamlet is devastated by his father’s death even before he sees what he believes to be the spirit of his father’s ghost. Moreover, he is disgusted with his mother’s behaviour – he remarks they could have served up the scraps from his father’s funeral at her remarriage! But Hamlet is self-aware – he knows he is horribly upset and even rational enough to see suicide as an immoral way out of unhappiness.

Hamlet sees the ghost with Horatio and the guards although he is confused as to whether it represents his father or some evil spirit. The ghost tells him to avenge his father’s death but to spare the mother. Hamlet is smart enough to be cautious about following the advice of this apparition. He is also broadminded enough to consider the possibility of Donald Rumsfield type ‘unknown unknowns’ (also here). ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. What will happen if I do undertake revenge?

Hamlet’s at tiimes hostile treatment of Ophelia doesn’t seem to be madness though it is cruel. He realizes that his future with her will be bleak if he does kill Claudius and feels conflicted. Hamlet must be thinking, why not forget about his evil uncle and just marry her? Hamlet does bear some culpability for driving Ophelia mad but was also using ambiguity in perceptions of his feelings for her, rather than his father’s death, to conceal his true feelings. Ophelia said that Hamlet was mad but she had just been rejected by him.

Hamlet was pretending to be crazy to survive and to achieve his objective of killing Claudius providing that he can prove to himself that Claudius must die. He was experiencing emotional conflicts with Ophelia and was in an atrocious environment but did not seem mad at all to me. As he tells his friends ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.’ In fact when his friends are around he is lucid – it is with schemers such as Polonius that he feigns madness. In devising the crafty plot involving the play within the play (and in enlisting the support of Horatio) he is acting very rationally.

That Gertrude didn’t see the ghost when Hamlet did is not evidence for the lack of a ghost since several others, including Horatio, had already seen it. Moreover, Hamlet had just accused his mother of being a slut who was implicated in the murder of her husband. It then made sense for Gertrude to report back to Claudius that her son was mad, irrespective of the ghost. Hamlet’s subsequent remarks that fat kings and lean beggars both end up as food for worms – simply as different menu items, sounds like fairly inspired madness not crazy utterances.

Reluctantly therefore I’d probably find Hamlet guilty of murdering Polonius so I would reject any insanity plea. Of course I would let him off with a warning because, as a character, he is so likeable.

Polonius himself was a schemer and a fool and Hamlet was rather cold about his death even if he did repent afterwards. Hamlet also showed a sense of recognizing the evil of murder by not killing Claudius while he was praying because he believed that, if he did it then, Claudius might go to heaven rather than hell. But overall Hamlet was a likeable, honest character.

Judge Anthony Kennedy has judged Hamlet four times since 1994 and, as far as I know, the verdict has always been indecisive. This occasion was no exception – the jury was split.

After the verdict, Kennedy remanded the Danish prince to ‘the pages of our literary heritage.’ Pretty good call Judge.

3 comments to Insanity plea for Hamlet?

  • Gorilla Bananas

    Seeing ghosts is a pretty good indication of being bonkers. I’ve never seen one and I’m the sanest gorilla in the Congo.

  • hc

    That’s true but Hamlet saw the ghost with the very level-headed Horatio and two guards who had seen it twice before.

    And Hamlet’s doubts stemmed from disbelief in the ghost – he referred to it as ‘boy’ in one line.

  • Anonymous

    Yes but Hamlet is the only person who talked to the ghost. And the guards had been on 24 hour guard and could have been imagining things as well. I don’t know, just my 2 cents.

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