One of the things that gives Shakespeare’s writing its impact is his deep insight into human nature. In ‘Hamlet,’ Shakespeare’s sensitive portrayal of grief and depression gives depth to the title character.
Shakespeare and the Idea of Depression
Shakespeare and his audiences used different vocabulary for mental and emotional states than we do at the turn of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, we can recognize depression in some of his characters. Shakespeare, like modern scientists (although for different reasons), believed mental health could be connected to physical well-being.
In Hamlet, depression is chiefly seen in the title character, the prince of Denmark. Prince Hamlet has two problems. Firstly, in the wake of his father’s death, trying to figure out how to move through the grief process. He’s also depressed. This is clear both through how he talks about his own feelings and how other characters react to him.
How Hamlet’s grief, depression, and possible madness are related is an enigma of the play. Arguably, it’s one of the things that has kept actors, directors, and audiences absolutely fascinated by Hamlet for centuries.
Hamlet, Depression, and Grief
When we first meet Hamlet, in Act I, scene ii, he is defined by ‘all forms, moods, shapes of grief’ (1.2.85). The fact that he’s still wearing mourning for his father is viewed with concern.
The king and queen recognize that it’s normal to be preoccupied by grief for a time – even to wear black – but Hamlet’s behaviors exceed the norm. Hamlet tries to explain that his clothing and conduct are only ‘the trappings and the suits of woe,’ a pale reflection of his feelings (1.2.89).When Hamlet is left alone, the idea of suicide appears for the first time. Shakespeare does an amazing job of showing depression and grief as different, yet related. Hamlet’s grief for his father is profound and compounded by a sense of having to hide it.
He’s also feeling an indifference that is a classic symptom of depression. Left alone, he exclaims, ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ (1.2.137-38). According to theatrical convention, Shakespeare’s audience would have taken this soliloquy, a speech made by a single character on stage, as an honest expression of feeling.
Hamlet’s Depression as Mental Illness
Throughout the play, multiple characters reflect on the nature of mental illness. Hamlet himself offers the most extended meditation on the subject in Act I, scene iv. The prince muses that an internal imbalance, or a ‘particular mole of nature,’ over which people have no control, can go as far as to drive them to madness.That Hamlet feels a lack of control over his own mind is suggested by his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, scene ii.
He exclaims ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (2.2.273-75). He tells the courtiers that he’s lost interest in his customary activities, and although he recognizes natural beauties, he can’t bring himself to feel an emotional response to them (2.2.
318-34).In the second half of the play, we see suicide in Hamlet’s thoughts with increasing frequency. His ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy in Act III, scene i, is of course one of the most famous passages in the English language. It is remarkable for the clarity with which Hamlet attempts to imagine death as a kind of sleep, a welcome alternative to suffering ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (3.
1.66). But fear of what might come after death, he says ‘makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of’ (3.1.89-90).
By the end of the play, Hamlet appears to have reached a kind of resignation. Intuiting a plot against his life, he remarks only that everyone must die some time: an idea by which he failed to be comforted earlier in the play. Hamlet’s comment that ‘the readiness is all’ is in fact perfect stoic philosophy (5.
2.236-37). This seems to suggest that Hamlet is finally getting over his internal battle with depression, even as external forces threaten him.Shakespeare leaves the question of Hamlet’s mental state deliberately open in the play’s final scene, however. Mortally wounded, the prince exclaims ‘Had I but time, as this fell sergeant Death / Is strict in his arrest, O, I could tell you– / But let it be’ (5.
2.368-70). His final words are ‘the rest is silence.’
Other Characters React to Hamlet
The reactions of other characters to Hamlet’s state of mind reveal a great deal about their priorities. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, is paranoid about the possibility that Hamlet might uncover his guilt in the old king’s death. He refers to Hamlet’s ‘turbulent and dangerous lunacy’ (3.
1.4). Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is more genuinely worried, but remains fairly passive.The only people who show deep concern for Hamlet’s well-being are Ophelia, his ex-girlfriend, and Horatio, his best friend. After Hamlet is openly cruel to her, Ophelia, while herself disturbed, cries ‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ (3.1.
163). It is in Ophelia’s grieving for who Hamlet used to be that the audience sees most clearly how depression has changed him.Horatio is a friend of Hamlet’s from university, who comes to visit because he’s worried about him. Horatio never judges Hamlet or attempts to diagnose him: he just follows him around and listens. Brokenhearted by his friend’s death, Horatio prays that Hamlet can find the rest he so badly wanted, saying: ‘Goodnight, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ (5.
Throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character is visibly affected by depression, as well as grief. Shakespeare’s portrayal of mental illness is remarkably nuanced, linking it to physical imbalances and sympathetically describing its symptoms. Hamlet clearly recognizes his own depression as separate from grief for his father’s death, as illustrated in his soliloquies.
Of the other characters in the play, only Ophelia and Horatio show genuine concern for Hamlet’s well-being.