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, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct-true&db=khh&AN=26650478&site=eds-live&scope=site.
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, www.mh.bmj.com/content/28/2/92.full
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1524/1524-h/1524-h.htm

Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Project Gutenberg. www.gutenberg.org/files/1524-h/1524-h.html 
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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/