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While we’re on the subject of what’s going on inside Hamlet’s mind, consider his encounter with Ophelia. This conversation, closely watched by Claudius and Polonius, is, in fact, a test. It’s supposed to establish whether Hamlet’s madness stems from his lovesickness over Ophelia. Before we, the audience, see this encounter, we already think we know more than Claudius does: we know that Hamlet is only acting crazy, and that he’s doing it to hide the fact that he’s plotting against (or at least investigating) his uncle. Therefore, it can’t be true that he’s acting mad because of his love for Ophelia. But witnessing Hamlet’s encounter with her throws everything we think we know into question.
Does Hamlet mean what he says to Ophelia? He says that he did love her once but that he doesn’t love her now. There are several problems with concluding that Hamlet says the opposite of what he means in order to appear crazy. For one thing, if he really does love her, this is unnecessarily self-destructive behavior. It’s unnecessary because it doesn’t accomplish very much; that is, it doesn’t make Claudius suspect him less. His professions of former love make him appear fickle, or emotionally withdrawn, rather than crazy.
Is Hamlet really crazy or just pretending? He announced ahead of time that he was going to act crazy, so it’s hard to conclude that he (coincidentally) really went mad right after saying so. But his behavior toward Ophelia is both self-destructive and fraught with emotional intensity. It doesn’t obviously further his plans. Moreover, his bitterness against Ophelia, and against women in general, resonates with his general discontentedness about the state of the world, the same discontentedness that he expresses when he thinks no one is watching. There is a passionate intensity to his unstable behavior that keeps us from viewing it as fake.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to ask this question: if a person in a rational state of mind decides to act as if he is crazy, to abuse the people around him regardless of whether he loves those people or hates them, and to give free expression to all of his most antisocial thoughts, when he starts to carry those actions out, will it even be possible to say at what point he stops pretending to be crazy and starts actually being crazy?