To get the idea behind “Slow-Read Sunday” you can read this introductory post.
There are as many ways to read Hamlet as there are people, as there are backgrounds, as there are experiences. It is a play of infinite renderings.
I tend to read Hamlet with an emphasis on Hamlet’s madness. That’s not to say you should, too. Consider it, instead, a bit of a disclaimer. You’re reading doesn’t have to lean so far in that direction. In fact, maybe you can have me consider a new way to read the play. I’m open to it.
What is madness? Madness is a bit difficult to get a handle on because we don’t really use the term anymore. It’s a word that’s out of favor in clinical psychology, but psychology is the field that could best help us come to a definition because, if madness can be defined by limitation, then it is an internal state. Is madness the same as mental illness? Is madness the same as depression? Is madness a manifestation of anxiety?
Have you ever been accused of being mad? Have you ever suffered through the loss of a loved one? Have you ever been depressed, anxious, or felt like you couldn’t control your own thoughts? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may see some of yourself in Hamlet.
Here is a series of questions you could use in your reading of Hamlet, Acts 1-2, and, of course, I suggest you come up with your own questions as you read.
1. In Act 1. Sc.1 does a ghost appear?
Horatio seems to be unsure at line 28: “Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.” On the first page of the play, therefore, we are asked to consider whether the ghost is real or just in the characters’ imaginations. What do you think, is the ghost real?
You could follow up with these questions: Why does the ghost leave at dawn when the cock crows? Why does the ghost refuse to speak when asked the first couple of times?
2. What are Hamlet’s first words of the play? Act 1. Sc.2.
At line 67 we hear Hamlet finally speak and he seems clever, doesn’t he? How would you describe his first words? Are they morose? Are they critical? If so, of who? Does he seem mad to you at this stage in the play? He does talk to the King in a way that a commoner in England would not, but he is a prince after all, and related to the King, too.
3. Does the King choose an odd way to try to cheer up Hamlet? Act 1. Sc. 2.
The King attempts to cheer up Hamlet by explaining that everyone must die and that he should just get over his father’s death after a month’s time. Lines 90-100. Is it the King that drives Hamlet mad?
4. Hamlet wants to leave to go to school, but he is persuaded by his mother to stay, can you imagine how his life might have been different had he been allowed to leave? Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 120-125.
5. Does one person’s experience encourage another’s with regard to the ghost? Act 1. Sc. 2.
Even before the ghost appeared, Hamlet admits to having seen his father in his “mind’s eye.” Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 190-195. Horatio then admits that he has also seen him, but he doesn’t mention that he may be imagining the whole thing this time. Do you think he is persuaded by Hamlet’s mention of having seen his father to believe his own experience with the ghost? Do you get the impression that madness may be contagious in a sense?
6. Laertes thinks Hamlet is mad long before the ghost ever appears, do you agree with him?
It’s interesting to play the game of trying to identify when Hamlet shows signs of “madness.” To Laertes it’s before the ghost has visited Hamlet. Act 1. Sc.3 lines 15-25. Laertes believes Hamlet can no longer control his will. What might be the cause of Hamlet’s madness at this point? Do you believe Hamlet is mad at this stage in the play?
7. Why does the ghost come at all? Act 1. Sc.4.
Can you tell why the ghost comes? Can Hamlet tell why the ghost comes? Hamlet asks this question at Act 1. Sc.4, lines 41-50.
8. Will the ghost make Hamlet mad or is he already mad? Act 1. Sc. 4. lines 77-86.
Horatio suggests the ghost may deprive Hamlet of his “sovereignty of reason” and “draw [Hamlet] into madness.” Do you agree with Horatio? Again, if Hamlet is ever mad, when does he become mad? What is the source of his madness? How does the madness express itself externally, if at all?
9. Is Hamlet’s father in purgatory?
In one of my favorite lines of the play, the ghost says to Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit.” The ghost goes on to describe some of the physical symptoms of continued existence. Some, including Greenblatt, have suggested Shakespeare is exploring the idea of purgatory in this play. Do you agree?
10. Why does Hamlet swear an oath to never speak of the ghost they’ve seen? Why does the ghost encourage the oath?
In Act 1. Sc. 5 lines 170-190 both Hamlet and the ghost encourage Marcellus and Horatio to swear an oath to never talk about what they’ve seen. Why is this important to the play?
11. Does Polonius believe Hamlet is mad? What does he believe to be the cause of his madness? Act 2. Sc.1 lines 88-95.
Polonius’s perception of Hamlet’s madness is different than the King’s and the Queen’s. In fact, almost every character has a different perception of what is causing Hamlet to act mad. Do any of the character’s perceptions line up with your own perception. I ask again, at this stage in the play, do you think Hamlet is mad? If so, why?
12. What is madness? Act 2. Sc.2. lines 95-102.
Polonius is convinced Hamlet is mad, but he is unable to “define true madness.” Can anyone define madness throughout the play to your satisfaction?
Polonius even attempts to describe the changes to Hamlet’s moods. Act 2. Sc.2. lines 150-160. Are you convinced he’s captured Hamlet’s madness through these outwardly appearing stages?
Polonius tries to make sense of Hamlet’s madness by finding a “method in’t.” Act 2. Sc. 2 lines 223-224. Does he succeed?
13. Hamlet admits to being mad, but only a transient madness. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403.
“I am but mad north-north-west.” Hamlet says. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403. Which means he admits to madness, but only when the wind blows a certain direction, only sometimes. As a reader, we’re left to determine at which times he is mad. We’re also left to determine what the source of that madness is. But, can you trust Hamlet to know when he’s mad? Are mad people aware of their own madness?
14. Shakespeare uses a play’s speech to wake Hamlet’s reason. Act 2. Sc.2 lines 575-605.
The play’s speech inspires Hamlet to consider his own actions and emotions and duty to his father. Hamlet seems to be awakened by the speech and put on track to exact revenge. Is Hamlet’s plan evidence of madness or is it a beautiful logical trap and evidence of his clever rational mind? Act 2. Sc.2 lines 610-634.
For next Sunday let’s read Acts 3 and 4. As always, I’m open to any comment or discussion on the play. You need not limit yourself to the questions I present.
Editor’s Note: Here are a couple of additional posts that might relate to this one: