Something Is Rotten In Denmark. Like Eggs. Rotten Eggs.
There is a certain rapture to the lucidity of madness. Madness is often a type of liberation from social norms of behavior, a freedom of responsibility, an opening of the floodgates of thought and feeling. When Hamlet feigns madness, he is able to tap into this lucidity and put it to good use. He is able to get away with eliminating Polonius, mocking his father, insulting his mother, and generally being an obnoxious twit. He feels morally sanctioned to do this because he is on a mission: he must regain his throne from the vile, incestuous usurper and reclaim his family’s honor. However, that heady mix of social freedom and self-righteousness soon places Hamlet in a position in which he feels that he is God’s hand on Earth, prepared to be judge, jury and executioner. He soon becomes intoxicated and becomes much like an equivocator, and thus descends down the slippery slope into madness. By the end of the play, Hamlet is mad in a determinedly more sociopathic way; after all, “My thought be bloody or be nothing worth!”
Initially, we see that Hamlet is acting the part of the madman, nothing more. “As I perchance shall hereafter shall think meet/To put an antic disposition on” (Act I, scene v, lines 191-192) indicates that Hamlet is intentionally putting on the show. Even Polonius sees that Hamlet’s comments are suspiciously accurate (“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” Act II, scene ii, lines 223-224). Playing the madman will allow Hamlet to investigate without hesitation, to terrorize his mother and father, and to cede responsibility if caught. He can also act without Ophelia obstructing his way. But already we see a darker, crueler Hamlet emerge, and already Hamlet is making sacrifices in the way he treats other people for his cause of justice.
The turning point is when Hamlet decides to wait to slay Claudius. Initially, Hamlet is thinking in fairly just terms. Hamlet was planning on showing Claudius the mercy Claudius did not show Old Hamlet: a quick death right after Claudius is absolved of his sins. (Ironically, though Claudius does ask for forgiveness, he recognizes that he is likely damned, as asking for forgiveness for theft while keeping the stolen items is an empty gesture at best). But, Hamlet decides instead to be cruel and zealous in his distribution of punishment. “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage…” (Act III, Scene iii, line 94) will Hamlet kill Claudius, and ensure Claudius suffers in hell or in purgatory, much like Old Hamlet is.
From this point on, Hamlet’s thoughts are bloody and bloody alone. Even the next scene speaks volumes of Hamlet’s newfound cruelty. Hamlet hears Polonius yelling, and thus says “How now, a rat?” (Act III, Scene iv, line 29). Hamlet knows perfectly well who the voice must be, but he ignores it and stabs Polonius without a second thought. When his mother protests, his only response is “Hah! Look at you! You married your brother!” Hamlet does not even make a pretense of remorse for Polonius’ unfortunate demise. He describes with a twinkle in his eye how one could find Polonius in heaven, or hell, or in the stairs going into the lobby. Polonius’ death causes Ophelia to fall into madness and in turn die, nearly ending that family unit. We do see one sign of hope, however. Hamlet does ask for forgiveness from Laertes for what happened, and makes a reference to his madness. At this point, the game is almost up: Hamlet knows that he must eliminate his uncle soon or he himself would die. Why would Hamlet make an admission of madness at that point in time? Perhaps because what was left of Hamlet’s decency and mercy was allowed one last chance to speak.
The combination of vengeance and freedom causes Hamlet to fall precipitously, much like Lucifer fell because of the same pride. Hamlet forgot the cardinal rule of Jesus’ teachings: mercy. And that is what took a decent young Catholic man from a steadfast and reputable character to a person responsible for many deaths.