When Hamlet says that he will "put an antic disposition on" (Act 1, Scene V, 189), he positions himself as being a sane man playing the part of an insane man in order to confuse and deceive his uncle and the court, and thereby revenge his father's murder at his uncle's hand. The context of Hamlet's declaration is important: he announces his plan after having heard his father's ghost accuse Claudius, his uncle, of the murder. Hamlet also asks Horatio to keep not just the ghost's words, but Hamlet's own plan, a secret. Therefore, throughout the remainder of the play, the audience relies on the assessment of other characters to judge Hamlet's madness. Certainly, other characters do believe Hamlet to be mad. In Act 2, Scene 1, Ophelia describes Hamlet's disheveled appearance in her rooms to Polonius, who declares that Ophelia's rejection of Hamlet "hath made him mad" (l.115). Later, his mother Gertrude agrees with Polonius that "it may be, very likely" (Act 2, Scene 2, 155), and Ophelia declares that "a noble mind is here o'erthrown" (Act 3, Scene 1, l. 148). Hamlet's own actions do not follow rational or moral thought and, to an Elizabethan audience, might appear as mad. Hamlet expresses no remorse for his accidental killing of Polonius, or for condemning his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. His grief at Ophelia's funeral is the first time he expresses remorse, but his hysterical reaction of jumping into the grave suggests irrationality that borders on madness. His lack of remorse, hysteria and pessimistic musing on his father's death could have been part of what an Elizabethan audience recognised as melancholy. Melancholy was a personality type: having an excessive melancholic disposition meant feelings of gloom, despair and sadness. For an Elizabethan audience, Hamlet's melancholic nature might be considered a form of mental illness in itself. Ultimately, the audience is left to guess at Hamlet's mental state. His desire to put on his "antic disposition" coincides with a closing of off his confidence to other characters. Although his soliloquies later in the play tell the audience Hamlet's honest thoughts, they do not address the issue of his madness. Along with the characters of the play, the audience can only judge Hamlet on his actions. And, as Hamlet makes clear in his instructions to the players in Act 3, Scene 2, actors "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" (l.13). If Hamlet's madness is an act, it is an act which he embodies fully, not just in words, but in the destructive actions which bring about the downfall of the court.
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