Shakespeare’s plays are great not just because they are timeless but also because they are multifaceted. A minor choice by an actor or director can completely change the whole tone of the play. Here are nine different ways to read the Bard's work.
The Scottish play begins when Macbeth and Banquo, two warriors, are met by three witches who prophecy that Macbeth will be king and Banquo will be the father of kings.
'Cause if you can't trust evil witches, who can you trust?
Sure enough, the current king makes him the Thane of Cawdor, basically moving him up to third in the line of succession. His wife, a forward thinking woman with an eye on promotion, convinces him to take the next step and kill King Duncan, and when Duncan's sons bolt this leaves Macbeth as king of Scotland. He is unable to enjoy it, though, since the next part of the witches prophecy suggests that Banquo will sire the prince, and given that he resorted to assassination he fears for his own life. So he has Banquo assassinated, though his son Fleace escapes. While guilt and paranoia rot him and his wife away, another thane, MacDuff, suspicious of all the intrigue happening, starts a revolt and ends Macbeth's tyranny with via beheading.
In Act III, Scene 4, after having just learned of his prophesied usurper's murder, Macbeth heads to a dinner party. Unfortunately the seats are already full, as the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in Macbeath's place.
No one but Mackers sees the ghost, and since he is already well down the road to Crazytown he does not react to this with the greatest of aplomb. In fact he practically breaks down and confesses as the guilt and paranoia grow too great to manage; Perry Mason characters have held their silence better.
But what if there is no ghost?
Several directors choose to play this scene with the ghost actually absent, with Macbeth shouting at empty air rather than an actor in a sheet. It is effective from a dramatic standpoint because the horror is hinted at rather than made explicit - because ghosts really aren't that scary- and since Banquo's specter has no lines or interaction it does not impact the action, nor does it detract from the play itself.
In fact, it adds a million or so new layers to the play.
Firstly, if the ghost is real, then Macbeth is being haunted. If the ghost is not real, it is more likely that Banquo's appearance is his subconscious being made manifest. In current literary circles it is widely accepted that Banquo's Ghost is not "real" but a delusion from Macbeth's guilt, showing that he is gradually going insane. But since it's written into the stage directions that the ghost walks in and sits at the king's place that is actually the less likely interpretation . . . unless the ghost isn't actually there.
Plus, there is the matter of the prophecy and the nature of prophecy itself. The three witches parallel the three Fates of Greek and Nordic myth. Since prophecy is so central to the play, it inevitably raises the question: is man ruled by fate or free will? Well, both Macbeth and Banquo got a foretelling, but only Mackers acted on it, and he is haunted in turn.
If there IS a ghost, it would imply free will, since there is no point in punishing someone from beyond the grave for events over which they had no control. Likewise, his downfall and execution are karmic justice for his treachery. But if there is NO ghost, if this is all a hallucination, then it truly does become a tragedy. Macbeth is a powerful warrior and general, he snags a kingdom for himself, but he is still a puppet on the strings of fate. Not only is he haunted by his role in events over which he is powerless to affect, but he cannot even enjoy them, knowing that the steps which brought about his success were also not his own. If there is no ghost, the play goes from being a morality tale to, in effect, a true tragedy.
Lots of Shakespeare's plays centered around mistaken identity, which always raises the question of how two people who have been married for twenty years can mistake each other just by wearing tiny masks. There's always the question of whether or not any one of these characters is just playing along, so we'll focus on the best example of mistaken identity.
In this comedy, Viola passes herself off as a young male page named Cesario to Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia and uses Viola (in her gender-bender identity) to help woo Olivia. Unfortunately Viola goes and Cyrano's her too well and Olivia instead falls in love with Cesario, believing her to be a handsome and eloquent young man. But meanwhile Viola has fallen in love with the Duke, who also believes her to be a man and treats her as one of the boys.
Meanwhile some douchebacg named Malvolio is also wooing Olivia and gets into shenanigans.
To make matters worse, Viola's lost twin brother Sebastian shows up and Olivia asks him to marry her. Finally Sebastion and Viola are caught in the same room, she and the Duke marry, and everyone breaks out into song.
You can pick any one of them; when a Clown is a major player in the story we really needn't be bogged down in specifics. Instead, we argue with the premise itself. There is a very, very short span of time during which it actually hard to tell a boy from a girl with her hair cut short. It is usually before the voice starts cracking, and even then only from underneath a layer of grime.
This is past that point.
While there ARE indeed men and women who convincingly pass as the opposite gender, they usually require a bit of makeup and clothes to get it right; coming in off a shipwreck won't manage it. So the question becomes, exactly how much did Viola look like Sebastion, and how feminine were either of them?
You can see where we're going with this, I'm sure. A casting choice on the part of the director entirely changes the plausibility of this play. If Viola is even a moderately attractive woman, it would take hours of work in front of a mirror to look like a man (unless she is already a male actor, as per Elizabethan theatrical laws). Remember how much latex, blush, and bobby pins it took to make Robin Williams look like Mrs. Doubtfire? So either Viola is obviously a woman - in which case the reason Olivia is not interested in Orsino or Malvolio is because the Lady is actually a lesbian - or Viola is very mannish - which sort of makes sense as the Duke of Illyria who winds up with her doesn't exactly show the greatest discrimination in his choice of partners. Or, she is pre-pubescent, in which case everybody in this damned play is a pervert.
Lord Baptista Minola has two daughters: Katherina and Bianca. Katherina is the the titular shrew, whereas Bianca is a hottie and has two men vying for her. However - taking a page out of good-parenting books everywhere - Baptista refuses to let his youngest daughter get married before Katerina is wed. So one of the suitors gets his buddy Petruchio to get engaged to the Katherina. Using mind games, reverse psychology, and tactics out of Guantanamo that include keeping her starved, dirty and naked (depending on how harshly you interpret the text) he breaks her like a prize horse. Bianca is then free to get hitched to whichever one of her suitors looks better in tights, and the next time Katharina sees her father Baptista she is a devoted bride with a mentality somewhere between Jude Cleaver and a Stepford android.
"Why, I can't even stand up under my own power without a man to help me!"
What makes Taming of the Shrew such a peculiar play (besides the misogyny, o the misogyny!) is that it is a framed story. Act I, Scene 1 begins with a tinker named Christopher Sly passing out from a drunken binge. Some mischievous nobleman dresses him up in lordly robes and has everyone convince Sly he is actually a lord, then they put on this entire play for him. For some reason that is never entirely explained.
What if Christopher Sly is really Baptista Monila?
As pseudonyms go, "Christopher Sly" is somewhere between "John Nomenclature" and "Bruce Notafakename." See, Baptista Monila is a stick-in-the-mud character, more bound by his own misapplied authority than Archie Bunker. He's the Lord of Padua and has two daughters for whom he must forever make of himself an example. So if Baptiste ever wanted to just go out for a drink or two after work (which, with Katherina at home, he definitely would have) he would have to do it in secret.
On the Sly, at it were.
Ask yourself this: have you ever been so drunk that you forgot A) who you were, B) what you'd done with your life for the last fifty years so that C) you thought you were actually Italian nobility, and D) still been able to follow the convoluted plots and subplots of an Elizabethan play? No, of course not, because that would be stupid.
This is the far more likely outcome
However, throughout the play Bianca's suitor Lucentio is more than eager to play dress-up and pretend, so it's hardly outside the realm of possibility that HE would think this was an awesome way to pull one over on Baptista. And it's not as if Shakespeare never did a play within a play (re: Midsummer's Night Dream or Hamlet). If so, if a director choses to double-cast these characters, there are two new way to interpret this play. Either Lucentio is trying to show Baptista that his heavy-handed ruling will leave Katherina miserable and/or a brainwashed Mid-50s housewife (feminist interpretation), or he is laying the groundwork to introduce Petruchio in a couple of days and showing Baptista a way to make his wayward daughter starting acting like a proper woman (somehow-an-even-MORE-misogynist interpretation). Depending on the intent, after watching this play Baptista would either back off or go full hog, but either way Lucentio winds up with Bianca.
Titus is Shakespeare's first tragedy, full of the blood and violence so popular amongst the backward people of the sixteenth century.
Not like NOW.
In the latter days of the Roman Empire, General Titus turns down the throne because he is too busy slaughtering people. One such victim is the son of Queen Tamora of the Goths and Aaron the Moor, whom he murders brutally for the sole purpose of being a dick. He then betroths his daughter to the new king even though she's engaged to another guy named Bassianus (there's that dick thing again). When his sons protest because this is illegal/immoral/unnecessarily cruel/fucking dumb, he kills one of them, because at this point it's pretty clear that's how he'd respond to anything up to and including them complaining about doing chores.
Tamora and Aaron begin their revenge scheme by getting their kids to kill Bassianus (how this hurts Titus is not clear since he was probably going to kill the guy anyway), rape and mutilate his daughter, and frame his remaining sons. Aaron then tricks Titus into cutting off his last son's hands and sending them to the Emperor; the emperor responds by sending Titus's arrested sons' heads, sort of like one-upping a fruit basket with a cheese wheel. From there things go downhill, with much more murder, intrigue, and insanity, culminating in Titus feeding Tamora a pie made of her own executed sons, killing his own daughter for the crime of being a rape victim, multiple regicides, and the only surviving character voicing the regret that he had not done more evil in his life.
All real pick-me-up, this play.
Page-fucking-1, between the title and the list of characters, where the author's name would go. On many older versions is notoriously blank
There is good evidence that Shakespeare did not even write this play. At best he collaborated with several other people. It is his clumsiest work, gratuitously violent, a bitch to stage, and most of it is clearly lifted from other sources.
Now, it was not uncommon for Elizabethan plays not to include the author, and it is also entirely possible that Shakespeare was (rightly) embarrassed enough to ask that his name be taken out of the credits.
But there is a not small amount of evidence that someone else wrote most, if not all, of this play. Which begs the question, why the fuck did you pay $50 for season tickets to sit through this piece of crap if it wasn't even a Shakespeare play in the first place?
Seriously. Leave off Bill's byline and attendance for this thing drops in half.
The first of a four-part series known as the Henriad, this is a historical piece based on King Richard II. Richard starts the play trying to resolve a dispute between two assholes. Richard makes a cock-up decision, followed by a series of increasingly cocked-up decisions, until eventually he is usurped and imprisoned and no one gives a fuck more than they did when Anikan boinked Padme. And for exactly the same reason, since Henry IV was an all-around much better play anyway.
Act III, Scene 2 has Richard arriving in Wales after a long voyage at sea. He gratefully touches the earth, happy to be back on firm ground and back in his kingdom. He delivers a speech defining what he believes makes a king, affirming that he rules by divine right. This sets up the driving theme of the divine right of the king to rule that is an ongoing point throughout the play.
At the time this was written, it was widely accepted with the same complete acceptance that gravity is today that the king ruled because GOD ALL-FUCKING-MIGHTY WANTED HIM TO. The divinity of the king is actually a reoccurring theme throughout much of Shakespeare's work (Macbeth, for instance, takes on yet another layer of sinfulness when you realize that killing the king is not just regicide but literally an attempt to usurp God, but we already did Mackers). Generally speaking, Shakespeare came down heavily on the pro-side of the divine right debate, although this may have been pragmatism on his part since the nobility were the ones who funded the arts and could have him executed for the crime of it being Tuesday.
There's just one problem: the stories of kings need to include conflict, and just like movies today, the easiest way to create conflict is to make the characters all act like bastards to each other. Or at the very least get someone annoying or inept or who's just a dick and have people watch as he messes things up.
The resolution to this is the idea, presented in several very dry papers by Kantorowicz, that the King has two bodies. The body natural is his own frail, fallible mortal coil, subject to the weaknesses and foibles of all mortal souls, whereas the body politic is a spiritual body unaffected by disease and age and incorruptible, the piece of the king which is in touch with the divine. The body politic is the sort of like the Green Lantern's ring but for monarchy, instantly passing from one king to another upon death (hence, "The king is dead; long live the king") and suggesting that monarchy overrules the very laws of relativity by moving faster than even light.
So as Richard sits on the throne looking regal in Act One, as he arrives in Wales and is reunited with his kingdom . . . basically whenever he is at one with his kingliness, he is infallible. But then his moral self takes over and that infallibility fades, in proportion to the image of kingship fading as Bolingbroke's rebellion continues. He loses his faith in his own abilities, and that loss of faith is precisely what limits his infallible rule, because his mortal insecurity and weakness interfere with doing the job of a god damned king. At the end he releases his body politic, giving away his crown, scepter, and anointing balm. In Act IV, scene 1 when he stares into a looking glass and then shatters it in disgust, realizing that the face he looks upon is a stranger, a mere mortal bereft of all the kingly attributes he once possessed. Mortal, fallible, a body normal.
Dick 1.0 (king) is perfect, but Dick 2.0 is a very fallible character. At times he shows great regality and bearing, but the whole point of the play is kinda how bad he is at being a king. Not evil, per se, like some kings (we're looking at you, Titus!) but just a colossal bonehead. He makes such a serious of bad decisions he might as well have thanked Florida for winning the election.
Mocking W. will never get old. We will be in nursing homes and still giggle over "nuke-u-lar."
So when a director wants to highlight this dichotemy, the simplest way is to actually get two Richards. Dress them the same, but choose one actor who embodies awesome and one who looks kind of frumpy. It can be confusing, but people don't exactly go to Shakespeare plays expecting to walk away with more than a passing idea of what actually happened. And it makes Act IV, Scene 1 cooler, especially if you have them fight to the death!
With light sabers! And ninjas! And ninjas with light sabers!
Speaking of dying kings, let's get to Lear.
Near the end of his life, King Lear realizes he is dying. He calls his three daughters in and announces he would like to divide his kingdom up between the three of them, asking only that they assure their dying father of their love, with the largest share to whichever daughter loves him most. Regan and Goneril flatter their pater, but his youngest Cordelia will not sully her true love for papa with mere words.
Indeed, Cordelia loves Lear so much that she has nothing with which to compare her affection, nor words to properly express it, and so winds up speaking so bluntly that Lear gets insulted and disinherits her. Thus proving himself totally deserving of that love.
He also banishes Kent, a loyal retainer, for his audacity at suggesting this may be a bit rash or, y'know, fucking insane. Lear then splits his time living between the two daughters who both abuse him like a 60 Minutes special on senior citizens homes. Gradually made powerless, impotent, and alone, Lear is driven to madness. He runs out and howls naked at a storm, his only remaining companion the mocking Fool. The heath turns out to be a fortunate location to be, since around this point one son-in-law murders his brother, his daughters start vying over another man, and much murder, offstage suicide, political intrigue, and eye-gouging ensues. Lear, still half-mad, kills the assassin sent after Cordelia but not before the one loyal daughter is murdered, and the grief kills him.
Act III, Scene 4. The tempest.
Another reoccurring theme throughout Shakespeare is how the state of the kingdom is directly related to the state of the king. When the king is kind and good, the land prospers. When he is vile and cruel, the land grows desolate and barren. Nowhere is that more apparent than in King Lear, where the "tempest of [his] mind doth from [his] senses take all feeling else save what beats there." His mind is a whirlwind of writing fury, echoed by the storm about him.
Unless there is no storm.
"BAM! You've been Shyamalaned!"
This storm has been shown a hundred different ways, from full wind and rain effects to flashing the stage lights and shaking a metal sheet offstage. But one particularly effective ways of portraying it is dead silence.
The only people around for this part of the play are Lear, his Fool, and Edgar. Edgar is in his own little world as Poor Tom, and the Fool is hardly a reliable witness, so there is no real reason to discount the idea that the tempest really is entirely in Lear's mind.
Instead of a king driven to desperation and despair standing out in the rain and howling to god at the injustice of the world amidst the thunder and lightning, a man pushed to the point of madness at the betrayal of those dearest to him, you get a senile old man staggering around naked and shouting at the air.
The same reason we had to send grandpa to the home.
He was king - which is to say, remember, one step removed from god - and the treachery of filial ingratitude has brought him as low as a drunken wino.
And in doing so his reunion with Cordelia is all the more poignant. Because no matter how good the stage effects are, this scene is basically the follow-up to someone saying, "Well, it could be worse. At least it's not raining." It is just one more shovel-full of shit added onto the pile that eventually humbles Lear into realizing Cordelia was a good daughter. But if there is NO storm, if it is all in his head, then this tempest is the very mental representation of Lear coming to grips with that fact. He is a man who is losing his mind, but on the way down gets reunited with his heart.
And on the topic of tempests . . .
Banished ten years ago to an island, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been busy. His research has been fruitful and taught him alchemy and sorcery, given him control over the air spirit Ariel and the savage monster Caliban as well as the forces of nature. He uses this magic to whip up a tempest that pulls his usurping brother Antonio onto the island, along with a few others innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders. Antonio's son falls in love with Prospero's daughter Miranda, so to test the love (lest "too lightly winning make the prize light") Prospero puts him through several tests for the boy in between setting up a revenge scheme on Antonio and thwarting Caliban's clumsy attempts to rebel.
The whole play, but let's consider the Act I, Scene 2, where Prospero brags about using his magical powers to SINK A FUCKING SHIP because he's the good guy.
He probably just couldn't stand that damned Celine Dion song anymore.
Read this play again with the mindset that Prospero is actually a dickhead. <skim skim skim> Holy shit! He IS!
Consider the evidence. He enlists Ariel's services by promising freedom that he never delivers. He enslaves Caliban, whom he treats worse than a dog. He manipulates his daughter and Ferdinand to fall in love but then puts the boy through the ringer. He is so clearly evil that Stephano and Trinculo are on the island five minutes before they assume he is a space alien and decide to kill him (seriously. They think he's from the moon).
Also, keep in mind that a ship requires a crew, most of which probably drowned. Even if the titual storm was pure illusion, the captain and his crew still got cheated out of their wages when the mage magicked the paying customers overboard.
Even if he's not evil, he's still Machiavellian as hell, with a revenge scheme more prolonged and elaborate than the Count of Monte Cristo. In fact, if people actually understood what the actors were saying, it would take a very loveable actor to pull Prospero off without looking like a giant douche.
Again, it's the director's choice in casting that decides this, as illustrated below:
One of these actors, there's no way he's evil. The other one, there's no way he isn't.
Shakespeare's greatest romance, possibly the greatest romance ever written short of sparkly vampire not-porn for the pre-teen set, is Romeo & Juliet. To set the scene, Houses Montague and Capulet are having a good old-fashioned feud. But in the midst of this two kids from either side, Romeo and Juliet (natch), fall in love with one another. Since their families hate each other (and because it makes the sex super-hot) they keep their relationship a secret. Unfortunately, Juliet's cousin Tybalt figures things out, confronts Romeo, and winds up getting into a duel with Romeo's buddy Mercutio. Tybalt makes a grave man of Mercutio, Romeo kills him in revenge, and then the shit hits the fan. Romeo faces exile from Verona, and Juliet can't exactly follow him, so she fakes her death so she can be with her lover. Unfortunately, no one bothers to tell Romeo that she's faking it (that's what she said!). He kills himself out of grief, and when Juliet comes out of her fake death trance coma thing she sees her boyfriend is dead and kills herself as well.
Act III, Scene 1, the death of Mercutio. A rather minor character up until now, Mercutio is usually characterized as a flamboyant hot-head. He's the comedy relief with a bit too much importance in the story, like Seth Rogan. Even his name hints at his mercurial nature. iHs and Tybalt's death serve as the catalyst to move us out of Act II, turning romance to tragedy. But . . .
What if Mercutio knew about Juliet? That changes everything.
Let's examine this logically. Bros know when their pal is in love. Mercutio even gives Romeo crap about his new attitude, asks if Romeo is seeing someone, which the dude does not deny. In fact, he's been acting lovey-dovey since he snuck off at the Capulet ball; even if Mercutio doesn't know about Juliet specifically, they originally went there because Romeo had another infatuation with the Capulet girl Rosaline. So it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what Tybalt's so pissed about.
Here's the thing, though: Mercutio is Romeo's friend, but he is not a Montague.
Side by side, if you look closely you can see the distinction
The Capulets and the Montagues are Verona's own Hatfields and McCoys. They literally cannot pass each other on the street without a fight breaking out. Their hatred is tearing the city-state apart so badly that the only thing stopping them is the prince's threat of death for dueling (which is why Romeo has to book out later). In fact, the only thing keeping them from an all-out bloodbath is that these two house are "both alike in dignity." In other words, neither has an advantage, and the real war they're hankering for will result in mutually assured destruction. In the meantime, Verona is in exactly the same state Washington D.C. would be in if the Senate were equally split between Bloods and Crypts.
A dance-off is rarely an effective diplomatic solution
This sort of hatred goes to the bone, and historically speaking, there is one way to end that type of animosity: mingling the bloodlines. Whether Juliet, Rosaline, or any other Capulet, Romeo's willingness to boink the opposition is a path to peace.
As an outsider, Mercutio would immediately realize this, in broad outline if not in detail. look. But then that fucker Tybalt shows up and forces a duel, so that Romeo will either die in battle or get executed for defending himself. Seeing not only his friend threatened but also the sudden hope for a tenuous future peace, Mercutio steps up and tries to take Tybalt out of the equation. Unfortunately, Romeo screws it all up by getting in the middle of the battle, involving himself in the very thing Mercutio was trying to prevent. Mercutio gets a mortal wound for his trouble, but if he'd had been able to slay Tybalt the two lovers might have been able to unite their houses in marriage instead of death.
And it's so easy to do: any decent actor playing Mercutio, instead of standing in the foreground and glaring at Tybalt all pissed, just looks back and forth at the two and then gets a knowing look. When Tyblat forces the issue, Mercutio takes one for the team in the form of a lethal stab wound.
Then he realizes in his final moments that it was for nothing. Romeo kills Tybalt, ruining anychances for peace (and, if Juliet were a decent human being, the chances of her hooking up with the guy who murdered her cousin). Suddenly, his dying words "A plague on both your houses," makes a whole lot of sense.
Nor is it a tragedy just because some teenagers died. If that were the case, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street would also qualify as tragedies. It is tragic because there was the possibility of success, a light at the end of the tunnel, that simply never came about becuase the characters involved were too bound by their own fallabilities to see it.
THE PLAY (i.e., the thing wherein one catches the conscience of the king)
In Denmark, things they be rotten. King Claudius is worried that Prince Hamlet has been depressed lately just because his uncle murdered his dad, married his mum, and usurped the throne. Oh, and he's been seeing the ghost of his pops. So Claudius brings Hamlet's buddies Rosencrantz and Gildenstern to figure out why the boy ain't right. But it turns out his nephew's not crazy (or maybe he is), but is just pretending (or maybe he isn't) so he seems like less of a threat to the usurping king.
Because nothing says "unthreatening" like "visibly deranged."
When a traveling theater troop stops by the castle, Hamlet - using the same logic as many crazy people - decides that the best way to prove Claudius' guilt is to stage a play in which the exact events of murder are portrayed, sort of like the re-enactments on America's Most Wanted. Follows: murder, murder, insanity, more murder, more insanity, Ophelia's insanity, drowning, poison, poison, poison sword (double-threat) and poison. Final scores: total body count=8, total soliloquies=6, total skulls=1, to be vs. not to be=latter.
Repeatedly Hamlet assures the audience that he is actually quite sane. Act II, Scene 2 he tells Guildenstern that "his uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived," and that he is only "mad north-north-west," and in Act III, Scene 4 he assures his Mama Ham that "I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft." So Hamlet's insanity, his antic disposition, is at least partially an act. But just how much of it?
The answer is: all or nothing or something in between.
This play changes drastically depending on just how sane you think Hamlet really it.
Let's say completely. The ghost of his dad was real and he is stone-cold sober throughout the whole thing.
This means that A) he totally knows Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are spying on him, B) that's cool, because he's been keeping this front up night and day for months now and he can use them to validate it, and C) everything that follows was at least partly founded in a plan for vengeance. His every monologue, his every action, is done KNOWING that he is being watched. He is intentionally trying to appear crazy, but he is crazy like a fox, because if he is mad there is little danger of Claudius killing him as well. He's already serruptitiously checking his oatmill for glass shards, knowsing full well that the second he seems like a viable successor to the throne, or does anything to threaten Claudius's own rule, he faces an entire kingdom of opposition. Keep in mind, even his mother would appear to be The Enemy, having willingly married this monster, and the closest thing he has to a sure ally (Ophelia) goes cuckoo-bird by the end of Act IV. Hamlet's very survival hinges on acting crazy for long enough that he can work his revenge.
In fact he does it so well that we can't be sure he isn't really batshit insane. After all, if he's trying to appear unthreatening the worst thing he can do is host a play revealing that he suspects foul play and walking everyone through the steps. So let's consider that he may be completely mad.
A helpful visual aid
In this case, it is entirely possible that Claudius was really a decent dude who stepped in to take care of his dead brother's wife and psychotic son. Hamlet has paranoid visions instructing him to kill his evil stepfather and bitchwhorecunt of a mother, and he's allowed to reach this point because, like many crazy people, he can pass for sane for short periods, long enough to write up death warrants for his two closest friends until Laertes mans up and tries to get rid of this freak before he puts on a hockey mask and starts hanging out a Camp Crystal Lake. After all, it's always the crazy people who spend a whole bunch of time assuring everyone that they're not really crazy.
Or, any level of nuts in between. Maybe the ghost wasn't real but Claudius's crime was, and Hamlet's paternal specter is actually a subconscious warning. Maybe the strain of pretending to be mad is great enough to actually drive Hamlet mad, and that (and his soliloquies) is why it takes so long for him to get around to the obligatory murder spree.
As with all these plays, it's all in how you read it.
"Oh, quit nodding knowingly! You've never read even one of my plays, have you, you illiterate bastards?"