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Madness in Hamlet

How is Hamlet's madness played on stage?

How strange or odd some'er I bear myself - As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on.
(HAMLET, 1.5.170-2)

Is Hamlet mad? Or does he simply feign madness? Some actors have skirted the issue of the 'antic disposition' whilst
others have played it as neurosis or depression. In some productions Hamlet's madness is comic, in others quirky.
Hamlets have been hip, bland, tortured, over-sensitive and pyjama-clad.

In rehearsal for this production there was a discussion about the purpose Hamlet's madness serves. It isn't that he
simply goes crazy: he utilizes his sharp wit to get at Claudius and the new king's chief spy, Polonius. Hamlet's
madness is very different from the madness Ophelia suffers. Heartbreakingly, Ophelia really does go mad - she loses
her wits. Hamlet on the other hand remains lucid but uses a disguise of madness (the 'antic disposition') to get him to
where he needs to be. Polonius tells Claudius straight away that Hamlet is mad because, the company decided, if
Hamlet is known to be mad, he is no longer a threat to the king and cannot accede the throne. That is why Claudius
latches on to the idea of Hamlet's madness and why Gertrude is so reticent to believe her son has lost his wits.

The following extracts from reviews survey a range of ways actors have interpreted Hamlet's madness on stage since

In an interview with John Higgins (Times 02/07/80), Michael Pennington explained that the actor's own mental state
need not reflect Hamlet's turmoil: "You don't act Hamlet because you have an identity crisis, or have lost faith in
your mother, or because you've had a breakup with a woman. In a phrase, you don't use the play, but instead let the
play use you."

Michael Billington (Guardian 03/0780) saw Pennington's Hamlet lacking danger: "Hamlet is so self-critical and self-
aware he is frightened of dwindling into a vulgar revenge-hero. Pennington's is a mature Hamlet who doesn't want to
be a Kyd. But the practical problem is that Claudius never seems to be in a moment's danger." Billington felt
Pennington erred on side of caution: "Hamlet's fear of emotional excess seems to be confining Pennington himself."

John Barber (Daily Telegraph 03/07/80) felt that Pennington's Hamlet was not necessarily mad but extra-sensitive:
"The performance is based on two tremendous truths, both negative. Hamlet was not the man (being sensitive, and
likely to faint in an emergency) to go about murdering people. And he could not understand his own inhibition about
taking his uncle's life (being more civilized than he knew)."

Peter McGarry (Coventry Telegraph 06/09/84) argues Roger Rees' Hamlet would scare Freud: "The Prince is an
extraordinary crossbreed of complex emotions and reactionary impulse. As part of his revengeful quest, he feigns
madness. To what degree the madness actually takes hold of the character lies with the individual actor and
production The edgy young man portrayed here by Roger Rees would be a formidable challenge to Freud himself.
He appears to be totally neurotic, with eyes that flash countless messages of internal torment.

A critic in the Birmingham Evening Mail wrote that Rees "comes across not as feigning madness but as mad indeed,
a developing psychopath." Another in the Gloucester Citizen (07/09/84) felt that Rees' Hamlet is only feigning
madness: "His performance as the hesitating Danish prince is necessarily over the top at times as he feigns madness.
His progression from apparent insanity to rationality is in contrast to Frances Barber's Ophelia, a cleverly restrained
yet powerful performance."
John Barber (Daily Telegraph 07/09/84) decided that Rees' Hamlet is truly neurotic "[he] certainly plays Hamlet
as a psychotic case, a wild-eyed neurasthenic tortured by a too intense inner life, overbrimming with emotion and
for ever waxing desperate with imagination Rather than a haunted, philosophical aristocrat, Mr. Rees gives us a
hysteric choking, slapping a frenzied brow before Ophelia, kissing the Player Queen, planting another and disgusted
goodbye kiss on the furious Claudius as he departs for England, and on his return weeping uncontrollably and half-
naked on Ophelia's grave."

Irving Wardle (Times 07/09/84) wrote that Rees' Hamlet displays neurotic symptoms but doesn't capture the comic
element of the madness: "When it comes to the point, he offers a haggard, hollow-eyed figure, impelled into
movement and gesture by the language (often a simple word) and set on fire by ideas.What it lacks, surprisingly,
is a trace of Hamlet the comedian For all its speed and volatility of mood, you are never allowed to forget for long
about his inner torment and breaking heart, as emphasized through an insistent tearful catch in the voice."

Michael Coveney (Financial Times 07/09/84) wrote "Rees comes through the ordeal with flying colours, presenting
a genuine chameleon Prince whose hesitancy and neurosis is channelled through a series of startling Bedlamite
phases before hardening at the fatal duel, into a calm and acquiescent resolve." Coveney felt the madness was comic:
"Once the ghost had infected his rage, he adopts a comical mad act, arms akimbo and eyes agape at the old fellow in
the cellarage."

In Michael Billington's opinion ( Guardian 07/09/84) Rees' feigned madness becomes real: "Roger Rees'
fascinating Hamletprecisely captures the character's spiritual progress. Indeed, it consists of four definable phases:
concave-choked inertia; antic-disposition; real madness; spiritual calm After seeing the Ghost he roams around
the court (as did McKellen) with a suitably unbraced doublet and fouled stockings. But feigned oddity shades into
real insanity as he hurls himself against the staircase while proclaiming Claudius's villainy as, at the height of the
Play Scene, he impulsively takes over the role of the usurper and kisses the fictive queen. Mr. Rees is a genuinely
distracted Hamlet. It is a fine performance in that it balances neurosis and order."

Michael Schmidt, Daily Telegraph 28/04/89) wrote that the director, Ron Daniels, "seems to want to lift the court
out of history, to a plane on which the psychological and metaphysical themes can be purely explored." Rylance
offered an unusual interpretation of Hamlet's mental deterioration. "[He] does a number of unexpected things. For
half the play he wears pyjamas.When, in the wake of his great soliloquy, he virtually rapes Ophelia (Rebecca
Saire), she reflects on the mighty mind o'erthrown with remarkable composure."

Irving Wardle (Times 28/04/89) felt that everyone at Elsinore was mad: "Set in what appears as an exclusive
sanatorium with extensive views of the North Sea, Ron Daniels' production presents a group of cheerfully contented
inmates who all fall victim to a killer disease From the nunnery scene to the embarkation, [Rylance's spiritually
dejected Hamlet] plays in pyjamas as a lunatic."

A reviewer in the Leamington Morning News (29/04/89) wrote "As to the Prince himself, there was method acting
in his madness with Mark Rylance pushing his characterization of the vengeful Hamlet to the full."

Michael Coveney ( Financial Times 18/03/89) felt that "Day-Lewis's Hamlet is more repressed than depressed. What
he lacks is fever, impulsiveness, immaturity His method of presenting Hamlet's simulated madness was original,
but nowhere did he bring any of the familiar lines freshly to life, nor was he at all moving at any moment. The
thought beyond the words was rarely communicated."

Peter Kemp (Independent 18/03/89) wrote that it is an "imbalance between mind and feelings that gives his
'madness' its distinctive quality. Hamlet's intelligence, in Day-Lewis's acute portrayal, never loses its grip, but his
hold over his emotions often slips. Behind the calculated simulation of lunacy, real hysteria sends him into manic

Michael Billington (Guardian 18/03/89) wrote "The tendency in recent years has been to play Hamlet as a certifiable
neurasthenic whom no sane man would want to see on the throne of Denmark. Mr. Day-Lewis gives us a Hamlet
who is noble, sweet-souled and gently ironic. He looks like everyone's picture-book idea of Hamlet."
Charles Spencer, (Daily Telegraph 21/12/92) wrote that "there is never any doubt that his 'madness' is feigned.
Branagh beautifully captures sudden moments of soul-sick sadness, but there is a wonderful warmth and humour
here, as well as shafts of cruelty, sardonic wit, and emotional violence."

Paul Taylor (Independent 21/12/92) wrote that Branagh offers "a wonderful sense of dangerous, goading levity in
the scenes of feigned madness. (Provocatively, as though it were the latest fashion in casual wear, he sports a loose,
dangly straitjacket on his first encounter with Polonius; later, after all his antic insinuations in the thrilling play
scene, he's trussed up in one for real).

Benedict Nightingale, (Times 21/12/92) wrote that Branagh's "Hamlet may think he is feigning madness. Early on,
he actually puts on a straitjacket and baits Polonius by waving its untied sleeves at him. But he intrudes so erratically
into the play-scene that Claudius' sudden exit seems explained by his understandable feeling he is being insulted by
a genuine maniac. One moment this Hamlet is wryly cracking jokes or incisively philosophizing, the next troubling
even Horatio with the intensity of his tantrums. Presumably Branagh means to be a bit mad as well as 'mad in craft'
and wants that to answer the oldest of all questions about the play; why Hamlet delays avenging his father."

Michael Billington, Guardian 10/05/97) noted that "Jennings genuinely suggests a mind 'o'erthrown;' and, in one
brilliant touch, we see him retiring to his private attic and contemplating suicide with a revolver produced from a
brown carrier-bag."

Benedict Nightingale (Times 06/09/2000) "Is Hamlet mad or feigning madness? Beale has wildish moments,
notably when he's denouncing Claudius to Gertrude, but his answer to that old question tends strongly the second
way. When he dispatches Cathryn Bradshaw's eager, nave Ophelia 'to a nunnery,' it's partly because she's
inadequate to his needs, but partly because he wants to protect her from the corruption he sees all around."

Charles Spencer Telegraph 04/05/2001) wrote "From the start, it is clear that this Hamlet is in a state of near-suicidal
depression-he even turns a gun on himself during the first soliloquy. But you catch flashes too, of his old charm, wit
and natural authority, while the verse is delivered with exemplary clarity. I have never heard 'To be or not to be'
more freshly minted."

Hamlet's madness may be all act but Ophelia really does go mad. A gentleman tells the Queen "She is distract. /
Her mood will needs to be pitied. Her speech is nothing." (Act 4 scene 5) Claudius says "poor Ophelia [is] / Divided
from herself and her fair judgement." Ophelia's 'mad scene' is notoriously difficult to play - so what have the critics
made of Ophelia's madness on stage?

Michael Billington (Guardian 03/07/80) felt that Ophelia's madness, "instead of being the usual Chelsea Arts ball
cabaret-turn, is carefully plotted scene by scene: even during the Play Scene Ms. [Carol] Royle is cracking up in her
white two-piece under Hamlet's volley of taunts and innuendoes."

A critic in the Gloucester Citizen (07/09/84) felt Miss Barber gave "...a cleverly restrained yet powerful
performance[she] retains dignity even after degenerating from sanity to madness following the murder of her

John Barber (Daily Telegraph 07/09/84) wrote "Frances Barber distinguishes herself as an Ophelia who can really
sing and whose mad-scenes provide intensity."
Irving Wardle (Times 07/09/84) wrote "Frances Barber's Ophelia-a performance of great sweetness with no
frustrated sexuality to unleash in the mad scene-has climactic moments when she boldly challenges Hamlet, or falls
to the floor in paroxysms of harsh weeping."

Michael Billington, (Guardian 07/09/84) felt that "the only performance to match [Rees's], aside from Easton's
Ghost, is Frances Barber's Ophelia: an oval-faced beauty clearly besotted by Hamlet and driven not onto gibbering
frenzy but into a lachrymose, wander-witted state by the removal of the one consuming passion in her life."

Peter Kemp (Independent 18/03/89) felt that: "The ravages inflicted by [Hamlet's] cerebral savagery are affectingly
displayed by a performance of moving genius from Stella Gonet as Ophelia. Starting as a sweet-naturedly
enthusiastic girl, she brings utter conviction to every stage in Ophelia's tragedy: crushed into scared compliance by
Michael Bryant's terrible patriarch of a Polonius, sent into trembly-voiced humiliation and confusion by Hamlet's
callous cleverness and jeering parodies of her ingenuous decency, plunged by her father's death into derangement
that here seems absolutely authentic."

Paul Taylor, (Independent 21/12/92) wrote "Joanne Pearce's Ophelia is led off like a little girl from one of the
earlier scenes wrapped up in (and weighed down by) Polonius's topcoat-paternal overprotectedness and infantilising
domination registered sartorially. That she would end up donning the entire outfit worn by her fatherat the time of
his murder was a fairly safe bet."

Charles Spencer (Telegraph 21/12/92) wrote "Joanne Pearce charts the decline of Ophelia from sexy good humour
to no-holds-barred intensity that draws just a little too much attention to its own virtuosity"

According to Michael Billington Guardian 21/12/92) "Joanne Pearce's Ophelia is a sad, childlike figure whose
madness seems curiously inevitable."

Benedict Nightingale Times 21/12/92) was of the opinion that "Branagh's scenes with Pearce are particularly
forceful: a tender cuddle followed by a burst of rage in which she gets hurled to the floor and his old love letters
ripped up; another desperate clinch after which he spits in her face and, a bit later, publicly humiliates her even more
savagely than is usual these days It is easy to see why Pearce's Ophelia runs dramatically amok."

Benedict Nightingale Times 06/09/20000 wrote "Tim Hatley's design makes Elsinore into the bare dark lofty space
of a cathedral. Dozens of golden baskets burning with candles are lowered from the ceiling; when Ophelia is mad,
she sets these swaying like censers."

Rhoda Koenig (Independent 08/05/2001) felt that "Kerry Condon's limp Ophelia, hanging her head and pulling the
sleeves of her jumper over her hands, is a basket case well before she has any reason to go mad."

A discussion of other actors in the role can be found in 'Stage History' in the About the Play section. And you can
also read about other Hamlets by visiting the RSC's online Hamlet exhibition. For more about Hamlet, please also
see 'How old is Hamlet?'.