Hamlet is a play exploring the life of a prince after the murder of his father and his quest for revenge. Yet through this, we see the main character Hamlet struggles emotionally with melancholy and what many people assume to be his descent into ‘madness.’ Robert Burton argues that there are two types of melancholiac’s those who are sad, as sad things have happened, and those who have let themselves be consumed by their sadness. It is Those who have been consumed by the melancholy that would be seen as mad, to have become so unbalanced that they lose control. This essay will argue that yes Hamlet is melancholic but not to a point of madness that Burton suggests humans are capable of.
Hamlet, throughout the play, remains emotional often leading into long monologues, exploring his mind and situation. It is in these monologues that a reader or viewer can understand his emotional state. Hamlet presents himself as melancholic in the opening, the way he dresses, and acts can be seen as someone deep in mourning. However, this is a natural reaction to the sudden death of one’s father. As well as this, Hamlet is constantly being betrayed by his friends and family who seemingly turn on him for the favour of the new king. Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet, yet Hamlet seemingly knows this all along stating ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.’ (II.ii.312–13) Not only is this a statement of Hamlet’s awareness of his melancholic ways but also that he is aware of everything that is being plotted against him. Hamlets seemingly continually melancholy mood could be attributed not to his failure as Burton would suggest, but rather by the continual failure of those around him to support him. Hamlet seemingly becomes fuelled by the knowledge that his uncle betrayed his father and all of Denmark, his mother fails him by marrying her husband’s murder and his friends fail him by feigning loyalty to Hamlet. Yet above all this Hamlets melancholy stems from his failure to avenge his father, his inability to act. Hamlets melancholy is only soothed by when he does murder Claudius and dying himself from injury his final lines bring the hope of a new life for Denmark now purged of the sickness that was his family. Hamlet is finally free of melancholy highlights his love for his country and his hopes for its future. A philosophical conclusion for a melancholic man who was ready to die.
It can also be argued that the presence of the ghost throughout the play may prove Hamlet’s sanity rather than damn him. Hamlet only sees the ghost after several others see the spirit and confide in him. After witnessing his father’s spirit Hamlet starts to question his sanity trying to decide whether he did see his father’s ghost, crying out, “Out of my weakness and my melancholy, /As he is very potent with such spirits”. This raises a question, is it the spirit of his father? Or has his sadness made him susceptible to a demon? Although the reader may never truly know if Hamlet did see his father or a demon, what they do know is that it does mean he has relinquished himself to melancholy. A demon can choose who can see it, choosing to show itself to Hamlet yet not to Gertrude, perhaps playing on Hamlet, trying to convince not only himself but for others of his insanity. Burton states that melancholy can stem from God and therefore be deemed supernatural, ‘Supernatural are from God and his angels, or by God’s permission from the devil’ that by causing Hamlet to suffer from melancholy, he is atoning for his sins. This would contradict with common medicine of the time, that melancholy was caused by one’s failings to remain balanced, rather than a modern perspective of a possible chemical imbalance within the brain. Therefore, Hamlet’s mental state could be seen as highly ambiguous, is his melancholy a version of modern depression, his failure to live a good and balanced life? Or is Hamlets melancholy forced upon him by a higher being, with no ability to change his mood, forced to be melancholy by God himself?
While Hamlet’s melancholy is loaded with philosophic tumult and contradictions Ophelia silently suffers her melancholy, driving her not only insane but ultimately her death. Burton would argue that Ophelia was a habitual melancholic, that she fully embraced the sadness in her life allowing it to ultimately consume her. Comparing Hamlet to Ophelia we see that there is a distinct difference between their mental headspaces. People in the play, however, react to Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness differently. A gentleman reports to Gertrude that, ‘Her speech is nothing, Yet the unshapèd use of it doth move The hearers to the collection. They yawn at it And botch the words up fit their own thoughts, Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought, Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.’ It seems as though many people are trying to attribute meaning to Ophelia’s words yet comparing this to Hamlet who was disregarded as mad from the beginning. Ophelia throughout the play never truly speaks for herself simply doing the bidding of her father, brother and possible lover Hamlet. Yet even in her mad rambles Ophelia is still never allowed her own voice, there are those trying to interpret her words and put meaning into her madness. Hamlet, however, always speaks and people always listen whether they think he is mad or not, perhaps it is his ability to speak and be listened to that allowed him to remain a dispositional melancholy rather than the habitual melancholic Ophelia is driven to become.
Finally, one of the main reasons I believe Hamlet to be a dispositional melancholic is that Hamlet seems to choose when to feign insanity. I do believe Hamlet to be melancholic throughout the play but when he feels as though people are trying to manipulate him Hamlets’ ‘insanity’ becomes far worse. He becomes unravelled, talking in doublespeak confusing his friends with phrases such as ‘The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body’ (IV.ii.23.24) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take this as madness, reporting back to Claudius of Hamlets deep melancholy, however, the reader and audience may realise that it may be an elaborate metaphor for the distinction between the king’s physical body and the body of the state to which he rules. It may also refer to Hamlet’s father, the ‘king’ who is not with his body due to his untimely death. As well as there being more sense in Hamlet’s melancholic outbursts than some characters realise, there is also the fact that Hamlet often states that he is feigning madness. Hamlet uses the excuse of his melancholic madness to gain information about Claudius as well as an excuse for his actions such as the murder of Polonius. As well as this, when Hamlet is rescued from the pirates, he reveals to Horatio his plan to stop his beheading ‘Groped I to find out them; had my desire. Finger’d their packet, and in fine withdrew To mine own room again; making so bold, My fears forgetting manners, to unseal Their grand commission; where I found, Horatio, – O royal knavery! – an exact command, Larded with many several sorts of reasons … no leisure bated, No, not to stay the grinding of the axe, My head should be struck off.’ Such a clever and elaborate plan could not have been made by someone supposedly so deep in habitual melancholy that they were mad.
Hamlet is a complex character who seemingly changes emotions with the wind. Perhaps he truly is habitually melancholic, only occasionally having a moment of clarity, or he fakes it all, never melancholic just playing a role to get to an end that he had not anticipated. But most likely Hamlet was somewhere in between, choosing his moments to exaggerate his already present melancholy for his benefit while using his still very sane mind to get out of difficult situations. In this essay, I have tried to explore where Hamlets melancholy is, as to how deep within it he may be. But as well as this I have also found myself exploring the madness that seems to come hand in hand. I have concluded that Hamlet is not melancholic to the point of madness, unlike Ophelia. However, in comparison to Robert Burtons, The Anatomy of Melancholy Hamlet seems to fit many of the characteristics ascribed to the condition. Hamlet is melancholic, whether it be his fault or ascribed to him by supernatural forces.