My English 15: Written Composition and Drama class is studying Hamlet this week. I am beginning to accept the New Critical interpretation of Hamlet as being the first "modern" play, even if it preceded the rest of them by several hundred years. "Hamlet" the play and Hamlet the character are riddled with ambiguities upon which the course of the plot hangs. This is a convention of modern theater, not classic or renaissance theater. Depending on what choices the actress playing her makes, Gertrude might have been more involved with the murder of the King. Her interpretation of the role will have much to do with the audience's acceptance or rejection of the morality governing the final bloodbath that concludes the play. Again, attempt to sort out moral ambiguity is a modern occurrence. By far the most ambiguous character is Hamlet. Is he crazy or not? Does it matter? In Los Angeles recently, a mock trial was held to determine if Hamlet was guilty of Polonius' death or if he was too crazy to be guilty of the crime. That character is so ambiguous that an actual trial was set up to determine his level of guilt or complicity.
For what it's worth, I think Hamlet was guilty as hell. If you accidentally kill the wrong target during your declared attempt to kill another person, you are still guilty of at least second degree murder. This fits Hamlet's situation. Was he crazy at the time when he punctured Polonius? I'm not convinced that conventional criteria for insanity work here, either. Insanity is judged relative to the defendant's ability to comprehend the moral rightness or wrongness of his or her actions. In Hamlet's case, morality was the cause of his mental instability. Hamlet's personal code of right and wrong regarding life, law and justice was at such odds with the morality of the code of honor and vengeance his father thrust upon him that it drove Hamlet to distraction. The problem wasn't that he had no idea of what was right or wrong, but that he had such clear ideas about right and wrong that it bred cognitive dissonance. Ergo, he was fully aware of the difference between right and wrong when he killed Polonius.
The most convincing argument that Hamlet was too crazy to be guilty lies in the perception of him as one struggling against madness. This struggle against madness lends itself to interpretation. If one plays Hamlet as essentially sane but horribly distracted and distressed, then he is more guilty of Polonius' murder. If one plays Hamlet as stark raving mad, than he would be less guilty of Polonius' murder. Modern actors have typically chosen variations on the latter basic interpretation, and it is a given in the modern theater that it is so.
One scene that gets cited in support of Hamlet's insanity is his conversation with Polonius in II.ii. Polonius' reactions guide the audience into believing Hamlet is mad, but if you read Hamlet's lines closely, it is clear that he is playing mind-games to manipulate and unsettle Polonius. There is more method than madness in it.
In calling Polonius a "fish-monger", Hamlet is alluding to the fact that he knows Polonius is baiting him to learn more. Fishmongers earn their living through catching fish, which they use bait to get. When he alludes to the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog and thus is good reason to keep Ophelia out of the sun, Hamlet is expressing that he is aware of Polonius' ordering his daughter to keep away from the sun (or Hamlet the son). Choosing the term "breeding maggots" hints at the socially debased position of sexually active unmarried women and the bastard children they breed. Polonius is trying to save his daughter from such a fate, and Hamlet knows it. "Words, words, words" is an evasion calculated to thrown Polonius off. When Polonius inquires further of "the matter," Hamlet again twists the scene, turning Polonius's inane question into one that might begin a slander. Which Hamlet picks up again in the next paragraph. He believes it indecent to describe old men as putrescent with dull wit and weak hams, even though he believes it to be true. He is clearly making a dig at Polonius here. The crux of the crazy factor lies in Hamlet's "for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am--if like a crab you could go backwards." What Hamlet means here is the Polonius and men like him are afraid of being as foul as the "satirical rogue" says; they "shall" gladly turn back the clock to be Hamlet's age, if they could do so and are jealous of men like Hamlet for being young. Here Hamlet digs at Polonius' ineffectuality as brought on by age. Hamlet's final line again digs at Polonius, exclaiming that there is nothing Hamlet would prefer to be rid of so much as Polonius' adieu. When Hamlet says, "except my life,' it is uttered in a way to defuse the power of that statement's implications--that Hamlet is suicidal. But it is also a hint that he knows Polonius' actions reporting back to the King might have deadly implications for Hamlet, even if Polonius doesn't recognize them.
There is method in the madness: it's called a mind game. Crazy people can't keep up with those games. Cunning people, such as the Lord Hamlet, can.