Lord Hamlet’s Melancholy
In a lecture given to The British Academy, C. S. Lewis defends Hamlet against the various schools of criticism that have attacked the play. Lewis breaks up such criticism into “three main schools or tendencies:” those who believe that Shakespeare has not been given proper explanation for Hamlet’s delay (and Hamlet is therefore a theatrical failure}, those who do not think Hamlet delays at all but goes right to work as situation allows him, and lastly, those who see Hamlet’s procrastination as due to some quirk of psychology (Lewis 1-2). Like Lewis, I hold with the later understanding of the play, as Lewis defends himself by relating Hamlet’s enigmatic nature to the ……………………………, I intend to justify my point while disproving the first, that Hamlet has no adequate explication for his inaction and delay. He most certainly does and it can be justly represented by a deeper look into the troubled psychology of a man suffering extreme melancholy.
Dr. Johnson is one of the first critics to acknowledge that for “the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause” (Lewis 1). Eliot is a more modern critic, who for the above reason, views the play as “most certainly an artistic failure” (Eliot 123). He believes that “Mr. Robinson is undoubtedly correct in concluding that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother (Eliot 124). How anything about this play can be seen as “certain” or “undoubtedly true,” I am not sure, but I do believe there to more than “adequate cause” to be present in this play, and it is not Hamlet’s emotion toward Gertude solely but his melancholy that encompasses this and many other causes.
The more orthodox interpretation would align with Coleridge, Goethe, and Lewis, that Hamlet procrastinates because of something in his psychological makeup. It is in this cause where many critics differ by great variation. Shakespeare gives too little certainty to supply any interpretation with enough evidence to convince such skeptics as Eliot. No one has ever created an enigma such as Lord Hamlet. But today, there is a better understanding of the condition which he “undoubtedly” (dare I use the term) suffers from. Hamlet complains about “how ill’s all here around my heart” (V.ii.186). Hamlet rarely speaks, as he does here to Horatio, sincerely about his melancholy. It is implicit everywhere in his irony and his soliloquies. What he calls 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.
Hamlet’s melancholy is most clearly put forth in his first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstrern, but pervades the entirety of the play:
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of excises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that his goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory . . .The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. (II.ii.280-291)
Generally, Hamlet is not to be believed when speaking in company. He feigns madness through a rich and intelligent irony that often does betray his motives, though secret to his observers. However, in the company of Horatio and in the solitude of his soliloquies he should be perceived as honest and straight.
When alone, Hamlet pours out his heart with the weight of great sadness. “What a rogue and peasant slave am I!” seems always to be his self-analysis (II.ii.502). He questions, “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain,” but it is only him (II.ii.523-524). This is Hamlet’s own feeling toward himself. The word coward is repeated by Hamlet numerous times in his soliloquies. If Hamlet is not attacking himself, he is contemplating 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.
His melancholy is sincere and will prove to be extreme. As Eliot believed, it is anger toward his mother for her ostensible betrayal of the dead King Hamlet. I believe this to be only one of a number of causes, all contributing the vast sullenness of Hamlet. As already noted, Hamlet is melancholic at the start of the play. Gertude, in seeking the cause of Hamlet’s madness, names the cause of his melancholy best, saying, “I doubt it is no other but the main: / His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.56-57).
If this alone were not enough, Hamlet would soon learn that his father did not only die but was murdered. This knowledge given by his father’s ghost sends Hamlet into a frenzy of rage and despair. He is given the daunting task of revenge which means killing a king. He ghost beckons Hamlet, “remember me,” and Hamlet responds (to himself), “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / . . . / And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (I.v.91, 99-103). This remembrance is two fold. First, it is his filial obligation to avenge his father. Secondly, and most interestingly, it is a remembrance of the materialization of death that is branded into Hamlet’s mind. The thought of his father “confined to fast in fires” is a burden all but unimaginable (I.v.11). Is Hamlet’s melancholy not “certainly” substantial and severe? As depression, couldn’t it “undoubtedly” be the cause of Hamlet’s delay?
Life still gets worse for Hamlet. Shortly after Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, the King and Queen notice some change in him. It is here in Act 2 that they summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet and attempt to divulge his secret sorrow. It would be amiss to think that anything in Shakespeare happens by accident, and this just so happens to be precisely the time that Ophelia begins repelling Hamlet’s letters and favors. At Ophelia’s burial Hamlet shows that he truly did love her. This rejection then must have been difficult at a time when his life is already crumbling down on top of him. Ophelia not only rejects him, but betrays him as well. It is impossible to know whether Hamlet senses Polonius is spying on Hamlet and Ophelia’s conversation, but it is possibly implied and is also one of a few explanations of Hamlet’s later cruelty toward Ophelia.
Maybe less painful then the betrayal of Ophelia is the betrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He finds their cause out quickly and easily, and they are fuel on an already blazing flame of Hamlet’s depression.
Hamlet never mentions that his throne has been usurped by his uncle. This is telling of his deep sorrow for the loss of his father that to stand up for something of value is so far beyond him. Isn’t it conceivable that the best way to exact his revenge on Claudius would be to first steal his throne. By gaining the throne, Hamlet would no longer have to kill a king. Claudius would be much more vulnerable and much less attended. Yet 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. His flaw is not visible or understandable but in these terms.
A further verification of this is Hamlets desire to kill himself. Death itself is everywhere in the play. The play opens with a ghost, death incarnate, and ends with a scene of great carnage that “becomes the field, but here, [in the palace hall,] shows much amiss” (V.ii.381). 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. In Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Roland taints and warps his whole reality because of his never ceasing thoughts of death and what would come after. The same could be said of Hamlet. 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
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 himself does not understand his disease. He doesn’t know why he is so “unpregnant of [his] cause” (II.ii.520). He craves his vengeance but is unable to initiate it. He compares himself against the player who can summon such emotion for Hecuba: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her? What would he do, / Had he the motive and the cue for passion / That I have?” (II.ii.511-514). The soldiers on their way to fight in
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’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. What is especially interesting to note is that shortly before writing this play he lost his son, Hamnet. Dostoyevsky, after losing his son, Alyosha, wrote The Brothers Karamozov in which Alyosha (Alexie) is the luminary. In Hamlet, Shakespeare does similarly. Hamlet is not Hamnet, but Shakespeare himself. In the play, it is the father that is lost and not the son so the name cannot be the same. The emotional power, the melancholy and remorse, the anger and self-pity are what the author himself experienced and wrote about so vividly. It has been said that only Hamlet could have written Hamlet.