Depression in Hamlet

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  • 0:03 Shakespeare and the…
  • 0:54 Hamlet, Depression & Grief
  • 2:05 Hamlet's Depression as…
  • 4:25 Other Chracters React…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
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).

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