Monday, June 07, 2021

Hamlet: Depression Unchecked Leads to Tragedy

“To be or not to be” (3.1.56) is one of the most famous literary lines in fiction. Even people who have never read William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet have heard this phrase, however many would be surprised to learn that it is a line about the contemplation of suicide. Hamlet may as well have been saying, “To live, or to take my own life?” That was his question. Unfortunately, that same question has been contemplated by many people in the Elizabethan era and throughout the decades to our current time period. That Shakespeare was able to portray characters with issues of depression as well as some of the causes of mental health, demonstrates the brilliance he had of tapping into issues that plagued everyday people. Or perhaps it was his ability to observe people around him and then flesh out their issues into his characters. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores mental illness through word play, allusion, and the pressures of family and society’s expectations. 

In regards to hinting about a character’s state of mind, William Shakespeare was very clever with how he played with words. Clues are given of Hamlet’s “melancholy” and building depression as well as the cause of it when Hamlet first comes onto the stage. The first glimpse of Hamlet’s depression is foreshadowed subtly with a word that can be interpreted two ways. At the beginning of the play, right after the marriage of Claudius and Hamlet’s mother, Claudius asks Hamlet why he still looks so sad. “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (1.2.66). To which Hamlet answers, “Not so, my lord. I am too much I’ th’ sun” (1.2.67).  There can be two meanings of this, yet both are correct. “Claudius may interpret the word ‘sun’ as celestial, or Hamlet may be referring to ‘son,’ as he is experiencing stress over being a son and the duty which comes with it” (Hall 9). Another play on words has to do with Ophelia and a hint of her upcoming mental struggle when Hamlet sees her reading a book and exclaims, “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in they orisons” (3.1.97). A beautiful nymph on one hand, who is in prayer on the other hand allude to the causes of her later insanity. Shakespeare had Ophelia holding a book, which was also how the Virgin Mary was often depicted during the Catholic era of England. Then Hamlet seals the allusion to the Virgin Mary in his next breath when he asks her, “Be all my sins remember’d” (3.1.98). While Shakespeare played with the meaning of words to express encroaching insanity, he also utilized allusion to express the mental state of his characters.

Shakespeare revealed Ophelia’s madness to his audience by alluding to what was going on in his society. When Hamlet was written, the Protestant reformation from Catholic beliefs was firmly in place. Earlier female characters of Shakespeare had the option of fleeing to a convent, yet when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, it is all the more hurtful because it isn’t an option. “With her avenues to both marriage and the female community of a cloister blocked, Ophelia seems to fall by default into madness. Instead of reciting lauds in the company of nuns, Ophelia must voice them alone” (Chapman 113). She drowns “chanting snatches of old lauds/As one incapable of her own distress” (4.7.176-177). By alluding to old Catholic based lauds, which have no place in the time of the play, Shakespeare is showing his audience how Ophelia has fled into her own mind. I see Hamlet as a depressed young man struggling between duties, however Ophelia’s mental illness became more than she could deal with and unable to cope, she retreated. The causes for this are stemmed in the family and social expectations that were firmly placed on both Hamlet and Ophelia. 

When a person is depressed, any kind of stress will seem compounded. For Hamlet, he is already sorrowing over the death of his father and with how quickly his uncle has married Hamlet’s mother. This is a source of his saddened state, however “it is not the death of Hamlet’s father, but the struggle to define the death that is the central problem for Hamlet’s family” (Hall 5). Hamlet is sad, yes, yet it is when the ghost of his father shows up and places upon Hamlet the duty to avenge his death, that Hamlet begins to spiral. “Shakespeare has depicted a man with an acute depressive illness with obsessional features, unable to cope with a heavy responsibility” (Pickering 1). Hamlet falls into a struggle to honor his father’s wishes while not wanting to hurt his mother. “Hamlet contemplates suicide to escape the discourse of sonly duty to exact revenge on Claudius, when he knows the action will destroy his mother, his family, and himself” (Hall 7). Hamlet believes that he has to either kill Claudius or kill himself. He ruminates on this decision throughout the entire play. Hamlet is trapped within the idea of doing his duty as a son for his dead father and in doing what society expects to not destroy himself or his mother to the point that he feels that he has no control to make his own decisions because he is bound by his duty as a son. To make it worse “in Hamlet’s case, what may be perceived as madness may be his way of protesting against the dominant narrative that his father has been forgotten” (Hall 9). Hamlet bemoans the fact that the marriage took place so quickly in the following lines:

Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle, 
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month?
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue. (1.2.147-155)

Polonius later declares that Hamlet is insane and everybody else starts seeing him that way because Polonius is so resolute about it. He affirms, “Your noble son is mad./Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,/What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” (2.2.92-94). Everyone believes Polonius’s declaration that Hamlet is insane. This same scenario between one’s duty and what one wishes is echoed with Ophelia.

Ophelia is also trapped between two duties. Her father has asked her not to talk to Hamlet anymore, yet she is in love with Hamlet. She is trapped between what she wants to do, and her duty as a daughter to her father. Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, and he later kills her father. Ophelia “finds herself at a point from which she cannot escape so she appeases all by going mad…losing contact with one’s reality” (Hall 8). “In act 3, Ophelia appears to think that cooperating with her father will help Hamlet’s madness and thus secure her future marriage. What she cannot predict is the fact that Hamlet will read that choice of loyalties as an unforgiveable rejection of him” (Chapman 117). Retreating into madness is the way that Ophelia can satisfy the duties placed upon her by both Hamlet and Polonius. By safely tucking herself away in her mind, she stayed away from Hamlet (as her father required), yet also avoided all men as though she had gone to a nunnery (as Hamlet demanded of her). 

This theme of mental health is common today as many people struggle with conflicting duties and become depressed over it. Some examples put forth by Hall are a gay adolescent who is taught that being gay is not normal, or a career-minded woman with feeling of guilt over not being a homemaker for her family (7). Shakespeare understood the internal conflict between the messages that society says we should do, and what we (being true to ourselves) want to be. There may always be someone like Polonius that states, “he depressed, he needs counseling, he is wrong” with such conviction that the diagnosis is readily accepted by friends and family whether it is entirely accurate. For Hamlet and Ophelia, could the outcome have been different if someone listened to them? If Hamlet’s mother had simply listened to what her son was feeling and given his conflictions some relief, instead of parroting Polonius’s diagnosis of madness, could Hamlet’s sonly duty been assuaged? And what of poor Ophelia? She had no one to turn to. Had Shakespeare written a sympathetic character to give Ophelia a listening ear, or guide her to some sort of herbal anti-depressant of the time, would she not have entered the river? Yet Hamlet is a tragedy, with a tragic ending for all the characters involved. Perhaps the lessons of their tragedy helped people in the Elizabethan time and our current time avoid the same. William Shakespeare plays with words, utilizes allusion to the Protestant Reformation, and the pressures of family and society’s expectations to demonstrate a vivid portrayal of madness in his play Hamlet. 

Works Cited
Chapman, Alison A. “Ophelia’s ‘Old Lauds’: Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet.” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, vol. 20, Jan. 2007, pp. 111-135. EBSCOhost,
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction of Western Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 1-13. EBSCOhost, doi; 10.1521/jsyt.2016.35.2.1.
Pickering, Neil. “Depressive Illness Delayed Hamlet’s revenge” BMJ Journals: Medical Humanities,
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Project Gutenberg,

Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Project Gutenberg. 
Image: "Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881), 'Hamlet and Ophelia'" by sofi01 is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Monday, May 31, 2021

Hamlet: Insane or Pretending?

There are many levels of mental illness and emotional stress and William Shakespeare deftly portrayed the two young characters in Hamlet in different levels of this mental state, although the cause of stress was similar to both. The focus tends to be aimed at Hamlet as the main protagonist, yet I believe that poor Ophelia had the same dilemma and wasn’t able to handle it as well so sank into full insanity, while Hamlet’s depression didn’t go into quite the same depths. Both of these characters are caught between what they want and what others expect of them. Hamlet’s father shows up as a ghost and demands that if Hamlet is a good son, he will kill Claudius. Claudius is the king and no one, including Hamlet’s mother, wants the new king dead. Plus, Hamlet isn’t sure that Claudius murdered his father, although he is fairly upset that life has just gone on for most people, including his mother, who got remarried as quickly as she could. According to Christopher J. Hall, “what may be perceived as madness may be his way of protesting against the dominant narrative that his father has been forgotten” (Hall 9). Then of course, Ophelia’s father, Polonius tells everyone that Hamlet is insane. Polonius says, “Your noble son is mad./Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,/What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” (Act Two, Verse Two). Since everyone thinks that Hamlet is mad, he can get away with a lot more crazy behavior and questions if he goes along with. 

Ophelia, on the other hand, is also trapped between being a dutiful daughter and her love for Hamlet. Her father forbids her to speak with Hamlet and she ends up unable to cope with the conflict between them and retreats within her own mind. She “finds herself at a point from which she cannot escape so she appeases all by going mad…losing contact with one’s reality” (Hall 8). She ends up floating peacefully down the river, happily singing old Catholic hymns that have been outlawed by the Protestants so it’s the closest she can get to escaping into a nunnery as Hamlet had told her to do in a moment of anger.  

While looking at Hamlet’s mental state with the comparison of Ophelia’s true insanity right next to it, his ability to question his emotional state “To be or not to be” (Act Three, Verse 1) in many instances throughout the play, show that Hamlet was able to reason and weigh  possible outcomes for any actions he would take. In my opinion, he pretended to be insane in order to gain information of the truth of his father’s death, and he did it well. Was he also suffering emotional trauma and probable depression? Very likely, yet he was far from insane.
Works Cited
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction of Western Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 1-13. EBSCOhost, doi; 10.1521/jsyt.2016.35.2.1.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Project Gutenberg,


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf wrote To The Lighthouse after living through both the First World War and seeing that a second war was on the horizon. She grew up through the wars and economic depression and saw how everything about cultural, political, and economic life in Britain had vastly changed. “The First World War broke out suddenly in the summer of 1914 and dragged on far longer, and at vastly greater cost, than anyone had dared to predict. In Britain, thousands of young men responded to appeals to join up in defense of nation and ‘civilization,’ and found themselves stuck, in Ezra Pound’s words, ‘eye-deep in hell,’ living in trenches alongside rats and corpses, and measuring their progress and victories in inches. The destruction of the landscape of battle, of human bodies, and of lives was unprecedented and indescribable, and for many writers and artists like Woolf, grouped under the loose term ‘modernist,’ it represented a decisive, irreparable break from the past and a need for new forms of representation in art and literature” (Scutts).  

Woolf herself, took part in the Bloomsbury Group, where she was able to think and discuss concepts freely instead of trying to be a standard of the outdated Victorian ideal woman. To the Lighthouse seems to have been written as a farewell to the Victorian age as the family looks across the sea to the austere Lighthouse that they can only imagine what it is really like. Going to the lighthouse in a way represents emerging “from the period of painful recovery from the war” (Scutts) and for the family it becomes the symbol of healing when they finally cross over the sea to reach it. 

In her introduction in the Everyman’s Library edition, Julia Briggs notes that “the last part of the novel is free from the idealizing presence of Mrs Ramsay and all that she stood for; in the absence of feminine beauty, the eye is now drawn to objects rather than people, to the boat in the bay or the lighthouse itself; and the search for a moment of happiness when life stands still is replaced by the more masculine and end-directed goal of reaching a particular destination (if Mr Ramsay cannot arrive at R, at least he can get to the lighthouse)” (xxii). Getting to the lighthouse for Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James marks “the final stages in this movement towards forgiveness and acceptance, the emotions that the mourning process aims to induce” (Briggs xxiv). Mr. Ramsey knows that his wife loves the lighthouse and wished to go there. In the beginning of the novel, he sees her staring at “the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst” (Woolf 14). He notes that as she looks across the water she grows “greyer-eyed, that her husband loved” (Woolf 14). At the end of the novel, the lighthouse is described again in an austere view. “There it loomed up, stark and straight, glaring white and black, and one could see the waves breaking in white splinters like smashed glass upon the rocks . . . so it was like that, James thought, the Lighthouse one had seen across the bay all these years; it was a stark tower on a bare rock” (Woolf 231-2). 

It is almost as if what they have been hoping for all this time has been reached. For James, it is when they are almost there that he receives the praise that he has earned for from his father. Cam “knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at any one” (Woolf 235). For the others, according to Julia Briggs, “James and Cam come to see their father not as a tyrant but a sad old man, their sense of pain and anger, in part deflected from Mrs Ramsay to Mr Ramsay, is transformed into a generosity that is releasing and empowering, bringing peace to the children ” (Briggs xxiv).   

It is interesting to note, that the three members of the Ramsay family who make the journey to the lighthouse do so with a parcel to take to the lighthouse keepers, almost as an offering to this new way of life and forgiveness and relationships with each other begin. Nor do we get to see what happens when they step on shore as Mr. Ramsey “rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying: ‘There is no God,’ and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock” (237). Moving into a new way of living, pulling oneself from the wounds of the past, is like taking a leap with your offerings as the lighthouse has always been there as a guide. The Ramsay family, and I suppose, all of Britain in the modernist era, had to first go through the pain of war and loss to be at a stage when they were ready to go to the lighthouse.
Works Cited
Briggs, Julia. “Introduction of To the Lighthouse.” To the Lighthouse. Everyman's Library. 1991. Print. 
Scutts, Joanna. “Historical Context for To the Lighthouse.” Columbia College.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Everyman's Library. 1991. Print. 
Image: "Cuckolds Lighthouse, ME" by hatchski is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0