Monday, December 7, 2009

Hamlet: The Epitome of Melancholy

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, the tragic hero, is profoundly affected in actions and thoughts by his unwavering state of melancholy. Melancholia is a medical condition defined as “A mental disorder characterized by severe depression, apathy and withdrawal.” The term was invented in ancient Greece and was associated with the belief that melancholia was caused by having an imbalance of black bile in the bloodstream. Black bile was one of the four humours that the Greeks believed were responsible for the temperaments of individuals. Hamlet succumbed to this ‘illness’ and displayed several of the characteristic signs of the ailment.

Hamlet was seen to have been composed of too much black bile, which led to the medical condition of melancholia. Some widely regarded and well-known symptoms of this state of being were depression,excessive mourning,self absorption, an excessively sentimental response to recent events, Indecisiveness,skepticism and an obstinate outlook and attitude in life; all of which are applicable and relative to the case of Hamlet. It is this fulfillment of the qualifications necessary for the diagnosis of an imbalanced humour that leads one to the conclusion that Hamlet is, indeed, melancholic.

Hamlet's constant thoughts and assessments about himself stem from his melancholy. His incessant introspection as to how he is thinking, feeling, and behaving at any given moment prevent him from acting on the directions given to him by his father's ghost. Hamlet manages to deny himself the act that he craves which consequently gives him more to dwell on when evaluating himself and the progress he has made.


Melancholy is nothing less than what in modern terms is called depression. Depression is not only a legitimate cause for inaction, but next to being dead, may be the best. Depression is a chemical imbalance of the brain that induces inactivity. If ever there was a man who had cause to depression it is Prince Hamlet.

The only action Hamlet can summon is inaction. Feigning madness is only an externalization and an active response to his depression. To that, he is embracing his sorrow instead of combating it. Today it is well accepted that severe depression can rarely be repaired without the use of drug related therapy. As noble as Hamlet may be, his mind has betrayed him with sorrowful thoughts and lead him down a path that has no clear return.

Excessive mourning

Hamlet's melancholy is also displayed by his overwhelming, all-encompassing emotion for any mood that is currently concerning him. Foremost is the death of his father, after which he sinks into a deep depression that traps his mind and spirit for the remainder of the play. He is not merely in a state of mourning; he has become nearly obsessive about preserving the memory and integrity of the former king. Hamlet is the last person in the kingdom to continue grieving for his father, and indicates his sadness by dressing only in “nighted color” (I, ii, 68). He is making a statement to any and all who observe him that he will not dismiss the death, perhaps in regard to the havoc set upon the state of Denmark in its wake. While his mother sees his choice of clothing as showing the whole of Hamlet's sentiments, Hamlet informs her that it “does not denote me truly” (I, ii, 83). He refers to the fact that his black attire barely shows how immense his sadness is; his true emotions run much deeper than can be expressed by the petty decision of what to wear. Hamlet is unable to live a long and fruitful life, the same opportunity which was stolen from his father.

Sudden emotional response

Hanlet is later consumed by a passion for the players who visit Elsinore to perform ‘The Mousetrap’ for the royal family. While his thoughts continue to have the underlying theme of the king's murder, he is overjoyed at the prospect of having the players perform for him. Quickly, he focuses all of his time and energy on the play, its perfection, and the speech which he will write out to be included in the performance. When he has finished setting down the lines for the player to recite, he spends an incredible amount of time directing the player on how it should be read. This action seems redundant since he has witnessed the player performing and was astounded at his intense emotion. The player is also very experienced and would be excellent in his performance, regardless of Hamlet's intervention. Hamlet then continues to plan how the play will be set up in order to achieve the goal of catching “the conscience of [the] king” (II, ii, 610). He has again become interested only in one small part of his life and has nearly forgotten everything else that he was once concerned with. Hamlet's behaviour shows that he is “disposed to be... absorbed in the feeling or mood that possessed him, whether it were joyous or depressed” (Bradley, 1904, p. 201); a clinical sign of melancholia.


Hamlet's hubris is his indecisiveness. Throughout this play, Hamlet's melancholy fuels his indecision. Hamlet’s indecisiveness leads him to present Claudius with the Mousetrap so Hamlet can judge Claudius’ reaction to the re-enactment of King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet then uses Claudius’ reaction to decide that he will kill Claudius but then changes his mind when he sees him praying: "A villain kills my father, and for that I sole son, do this same villain send to heaven" (III; iii; 76-78). The source of Hamlet's indecision is that he can't decide whether or not to kill Claudius. This is Hamlet's hubris.

Laertes is a fine example of how Hamlet would act without the weight of such melancholy upon him. All in the play agree that Laertes is “a very noble youth” (V.i.191). Laertes sweeps to the revenge of his father in a way Hamlet wishes he could. Laertes even gains the opportunity to seize the throne as Hamlet should. Laertes is untroubled by doubts or fears of failure although he is arguably less endowed than is Hamlet. It is Hamlet’s superior brain that is also his undoing. Laertes acts while Hamlet is muddled in the darkness of his own indecision and grief.


Hamlet is preoccupied with the thought of death.He often contemplates ending his life. Before he even knows of his father’s murder, he wishes for “self-slaughter,” except that it is against God’s “canon” (I.ii.132). Before his “feigned madness,” his melancholy is already present, already torturing his mind, even in the first scenes of the play.

The play is Hamlet’s pursuit of his uncle’s death, his desire for his own death, and in the end, the death of all but Horatio.His vigorous morning for his father and his disgust at his mother manifest themselves as melancholy or “the loss of all [his] mirth” (II.ii.280). “The earth,” to Hamlet, “seems like a sterile promontory” (II.ii.282-283). This is an understatement of his world and Roland’s. They are grotesque. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”(---------). In part it is Hamlet’s attitude.

Living with such rancor, Hamlet has devalued his own existence. He ponders, “To be or not to be, that is the question” to question whether his life was worth the effort it takes to live, and further, whether it is worth fighting for what he believes (III.i.51). He wishes only

To die, to sleep –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That the flesh is heir to - (III.i.60-63)

He has often, however ironically, commented that his life is not worth “a pin’s fee” and (I.iv.65). In regard to Polonius’ company, Hamlet says that there is nothing he would “more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life” (II.ii.209-210).


Hamlet’s skepticism is also the result of his melancholy.Hamlet's suspicion as to the motives for the actions of those around him are also borne out of his melancholic nature. He does not like to be taken advantage of and would prefer that others be as honest with him as he is, naturally, with them. Different people he comes in contact with try to hide an ulterior purpose: to deceive Hamlet into revealing either what he should not know or the extent of what he knows to be true. His friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have been sent for by the king and queen to find the reason behind Hamlet's “antic disposition” (I, v, 72). When Hamlet says, “Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me,” (II, ii, 277-9) he is demanding an answer from his schoolmates as to their unexplained arrival. Hamlet's melancholic skepticism is an invaluable aid to him, since, had he told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about his ‘madness,’ his cause would have been discovered and impeded by his parents. He will not allow himself to be “easier played on than a pipe” (III, ii, 373-4) by them; they should hold the sanctity of their camaraderie in higher esteem. Instead, they are betraying a long-time friendship because they are too weak in character to refuse their sevices to the monarchy.

Hamlet's mistrust again becomes evident when he doubts the source of the ghost of his father. In Hamlet's third soliloquy, he says to himself, “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil: and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy - as he is very potent with such spirits - abuses me to damn me” (II, ii, 603-8). Hamlet would like to believe the ghost but is wary because the Devil might be trying to tempt him into killing Claudius. He is reluctant to do the bidding of the ghost lest he go to Hell for the heinous act he is being asked to commit. By killing a king, Hamlet would suffer the same fate as Claudius, that of eternal torture in Hell, and be denied Heaven by his deeds. Hamlet is aware that he is in a fragile state of mind which the Devil may abuse to bring his spirit down to Hell, unless he can find a way to discover the true origin of his father's ghost. The perception that Hamlet “has a keener eye for the truth than those who are not melancholic,” (Freud, 1915, p. 255) coincides with his relentless pursuit of justice and veracity around him.


Hamlet's stubbornness is one of the survival tactics he has developed to counter his own reluctance to kill Claudius. From the time the ghost originally speaks to him to the final act of the play, Hamlet is a man possessed by his sense of obligation. Nothing can deter him from what he knows he must do to avenge his father. When, exasperated, he cries out, “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right,” (I, v, 189-90) he is giving voice to his obstinacy. From his point of view, deciding not to comply with the instruction of the ghost is not an option. He must follow through, without being selfish to his own needs and to “revenge [his father's] foul and most unnatural murder” (I, iv, 25). Because of his love for his father, he is sacrificing his pure mind, body and destiny (Heaven) to free the ghost from the “sulphurous and tormenting flames [of purgatory]” (I, iv, 3). Hamlet also refuses to allow Denmark to go on living in sin as it has been since his father was killed. He is the only character in the play who cannot ignore what is happening around him. Hamlet takes it upon himself to stop the incest at Elsinore by confronting his mother in a vain effort to prevent her from continuing with her unforgivable behaviour. Neither she, nor Claudius, has made an attempt to hide their affair and the people of Denmark have been unwilling to make them reprehensible for their transgressions. The prince is thus left to wallow further in his failures and dwell on himself and his melancholia.

Hamlet, the protagonist in Shakespeare's classic tragedy Hamlet: Prince of Denmark suffers from melancholia, to which most of his actions can be credited. Caused by an excessive amount of black bile, as the physicians of Shakespeare's time had determined, melancholia was a common disorder of the four humours in the body. Hamlet's perpetual challenging of himself and his actions makes him unable to act on his inclinations consistently during the course of the play. Hamlet then becomes deeply absorbed in various emotions and moods that are currently affecting him, such as the rage of his father's death followed by the happy occasion of the players' visit to Elsinore. His natural apprehension allows him to be unbiased in his questioning of the motives of those around him, which protects him from his ignorance. The inflexibility he displays is the final sign of his melancholia. He will not permit his plans to be changed or delayed, except by himself, in order to remain in control of his own fate. As one can see, each of Hamlet's decisions and subsequent actions was determined and, in part, predicted by his melancholic nature. Without knowing it, Hamlet is predisposed to an imminent demise by the prognosis of an untreatable case of melancholia.

Hamlet’s melancholy “undoubtedly” pervades the breadth of the play and can be linked clearly to all that Hamlet does and fails to do. His disease is the invisible factor that handicaps this most “noble youth.” The fear and doubt that Hamlet expresses in his soliloquies make him an Everyman. He stands as the great figure of English literature. All people have lost and suffered so.