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Hamlet: The Empitome Of Melencholy Essay, Research Paper

Hamlet: The Epitome of Melancholy

In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, the tragic hero, is profoundly

affected in actions and thoughts by his unwavering state of melancholy. Melancholia is a medical condition

defined as ?A mental disorder characterized by severe depression, apathy and withdrawal.? The term was

invented in ancient Greece and was associated with the belief that melancholia was caused by having an

imbalance of black bile in the bloodstream. Black bile was one of the four humours that the Greeks

believed were responsible for the temperaments of individuals. Hamlet succumbed to this ?illness? and

displayed several of the characteristic signs of the ailment. Hamlet’s self-centeredness keeps him from

performing the duties that he has been assigned to by his father’s ghost and himself. He is also prone to

falling from the grips of an intense emotion directly into another, often, equally extreme pathos. Hamlet

develops a wariness of friends and family that keeps him from incriminating himself and destroying his plans

of revenge. Finally, Hamlet’s perseverance keeps him focused on his charge and provides him with an

admirable relentlessness with which he pursues his goal. Hamlet’s conduct causes him to become the very

definition of a melancholic, as set out by various scholars and doctors throughout the ages.

In the late sixteenth century when Shakespeare was creating and developing his play Hamlet, the work of

the scientific and medical communities relied on long-standing principles and theories which are no longer

in practice today. It was believed that there were four elements, air, wind, fire and earth, that, in different

combinations and concentrations were the basis of all matter. To aid in the classification of material, primal

qualities were associated with the elements. The qualities, as theorized by Aristotle, were warm, cold, dry

and wet, and reflected the nature and state of each of the four elements. Wet and warm were the common

characteristics of air, wet and cold signified water, dry and warm represented fire, and dry and cold

exemplified the earth. In direct relation to these elements and their primal qualities, different temperaments

and humours resulted from the common belief that the body was the product of several fluids, namely,

blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, which, in turn, led to the disposition or temperament of the

person. A person with an excess of blood was therefore considered sanguine, or, in respective cases,

either phlegmatic, choleric or melancholic. Hamlet was seen to have been composed of too much black

bile, which led to the medical condition of melancholia. Some widely regarded and well-known symptoms

of this state of being were self absorption, an excessively sentimental response to recent events, skepticism

and an obstinate outlook and attitude in life; all of which are applicable and relative to the case of Hamlet.

It is this fulfillment of the qualifications necessary for the diagnosis of an imbalanced humour that leads one

to the conclusion that Hamlet is, indeed, melancholic.

Hamlet’s constant thoughts and assessments about himself stem from his melancholy. His incessant

introspection as to how he is thinking, feeling, and behaving at any given moment prevent him from acting

on the directions given to him by his father’s ghost. Hamlet manages to deny himself the act that he craves

which consequently gives him more to dwell on when evaluating himself and the progress he has made.

Quickly his reflections on himself compound, as, being an educated man, Hamlet refuses to perform his

assigned duty without first questioning each aspect of the task at hand. In fact, he wonders about the

ramifications of the chore and then further ponders his own position on the issue. Subsequently, his

?thinking too precisely on the event? (IV, iv, 41) has been so lengthy that he has finally missed his

opportunity to fulfill his responsibility. Hamlet is led to more contemplation before he is able to move on to

the secondary plan of action resulting from the failure of the first. He is, however, able to recognize this

pattern of behavior when he says, ?I do not know why yet I live to say ?This thing’s to do;? sith I have

cause and will and strength and means to do it? (IV, iv 43-6). By determining the source of his inablility to

act, he is now capable of correcting it, whether he does so or not. This important step of realizing his fault

was inevitable when one considers how unconsciously he murdered Polonius, under the false assumption

that he was the king. Suddenly, one finds Hamlet submitting immediately to his passions and whims rather

than debating them, which gives rise to more positive acts than long-winded excuses for his inaction.

According to experience, Hamlet would rather follow what he knows is the more logical course, but is

forced, under the circumstances, to alter his modus operandi when faced with such a situation.

Hamlet’s melancholy is also displayed by his overwhelming, all-encompassing emotion for any mood that is

currently concerning him. Foremost is the death of his father, after which he sinks into a deep depression

that traps his mind and spirit for the remainder of the play. He is not merely in a state of mourning; he has

become nearly obsessive about preserving the memory and integrity of the former king. Hamlet is the last

person in the kingdom to continue grieving for his father, and indicates his sadness by dressing only in

?nighted color? (I, ii, 68). He is making a statement to any and all who observe him that he will not dismiss

the death, perhaps in regard to the havoc set upon the state of Denmark in its wake. While his mother sees

his choice of clothing as showing the whole of Hamlet’s sentiments, Hamlet informs her that it ?does not

denote me truly? (I, ii, 83). He refers to the fact that his black attire barely shows how immense his

sadness is; his true emotions run much deeper than can be expressed by the petty decision of what to

wear. Hamlet is unable to live a long and fruitful life, the same opportunity which was stolen from his father.

He is later consumed by a passion for the players who visit Elsinore to perform ?The Mousetrap? for the

royal family. While his thoughts continue to have the underlying theme of the king’s murder, he is overjoyed

at the prospect of having the players perform for him. Quickly, he focuses all of his time and energy on the

play, its perfection, and the speech which he will write out to be included in the performance. When he has

finished setting down the lines for the player to recite, he spends an incredible amount of time directing the

player on how it should be read. This action seems redundant since he has witnessed the player performing

and was astounded at his intense emotion. The player is also very experienced and would be excellent in

his performance, regardless of Hamlet’s intervention. Hamlet then continues to plan how the play will be set

up in order to achieve the goal of catching ?the conscience of [the] king? (II, ii, 610). He has again become

interested only in one small part of his life and has nearly forgotten everything else that he was once

concerned with. Hamlet’s behaviour shows that he is ?disposed to be… absorbed in the feeling or mood

that possessed him, whether it were joyous or depressed? (Bradley, 1904, p. 201); a clinical sign of


Hamlet’s suspicion as to the motives for the actions of those around him are also borne out of his

melancholic nature. He does not like to be taken advantage of and would prefer that others be as honest

with him as he is, naturally, with them. Different people he comes in contact with try to hide an ulterior

purpose: to deceive Hamlet into revealing either what he should not know or the extent of what he knows

to be true. His friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have been sent for by the king and queen to find the

reason behind Hamlet’s ?antic disposition? (I, v, 72). When Hamlet says, ?Were you not sent for? Is it

your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me,? (II, ii, 277-9) he is demanding

an answer from his schoolmates as to their unexplained arrival. Hamlet’s melancholic skepticism is an

invaluable aid to him, since, had he told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about his ?madness,? his cause

would have been discovered and impeded by his parents. He will not allow himself to be ?easier played on

than a pipe? (III, ii, 373-4) by them; they should hold the sanctity of their camaraderie in higher esteem.

Instead, they are betraying a long-time friendship because they are too weak in character to refuse their

sevices to the monarchy. Hamlet’s mistrust again becomes evident when he doubts the source of the ghost

of his father. In Hamlet’s third soliloquy, he says to himself, ?The spirit that I have seen may be the devil:

and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my

melancholy – as he is very potent with such spirits – abuses me to damn me? (II, ii, 603-8). Hamlet would

like to believe the ghost but is wary because the Devil might be trying to tempt him into killing Claudius. He

is reluctant to do the bidding of the ghost lest he go to Hell for the heinous act he is being asked to commit.

By killing a king, Hamlet would suffer the same fate as Claudius, that of eternal torture in Hell, and be

denied Heaven by his deeds. Hamlet is aware that he is in a fragile state of mind which the Devil may

abuse to bring his spirit down to Hell, unless he can find a way to discover the true origin of his father’s

ghost. The perception that Hamlet ?has a keener eye for the truth than those who are not melancholic,?

(Freud, 1915, p. 255) coincides with his relentless pursuit of justice and veracity around him.

Hamlet’s stubbornness is one of the survival tactics he has developed to counter his own reluctance to kill

Claudius. From the time the ghost originally speaks to him to the final act of the play, Hamlet is a man

possessed by his sense of obligation. Nothing can deter him from what he knows he must do to avenge his

father. When, exasperated, he cries out, ?The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, that ever I was born to

set it right,? (I, v, 189-90) he is giving voice to his obstinacy. From his point of view, deciding not to

comply with the instruction of the ghost is not an option. He must follow through, without being selfish to

his own needs and to ?revenge [his father's] foul and most unnatural murder? (I, iv, 25). Because of his

love for his father, he is sacrificing his pure mind, body and destiny (Heaven) to free the ghost from the

?sulphurous and tormenting flames [of purgatory]? (I, iv, 3). Hamlet also refuses to allow Denmark to go

on living in sin as it has been since his father was killed. He is the only character in the play who cannot

ignore what is happening around him. Hamlet takes it upon himself to stop the incest at Elsinore by

confronting his mother in a vain effort to prevent her from continuing with her unforgivable behaviour.

Neither she, nor Claudius, has made an attempt to hide their affair and the people of Denmark have been

unwilling to make them reprehensible for their transgressions. The prince is thus left to wallow further in his

failures and dwell on himself and his melancholia.

Hamlet, the protagonist in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Hamlet: Prince of Denmark suffers from

melancholia, to which most of his actions can be credited. Caused by an excessive amount of black bile, as

the physicians of Shakespeare’s time had determined, melancholia was a common disorder of the four

humours in the body. Hamlet’s perpetual challenging of himself and his actions makes him unable to act on

his inclinations consistently during the course of the play. Hamlet then becomes deeply absorbed in various

emotions and moods that are currently affecting him, such as the rage of his father’s death followed by the

happy occasion of the players’ visit to Elsinore. His natural apprehension allows him to be unbiased in his

questioning of the motives of those around him, which protects him from his ignorance. The inflexibility he

displays is the final sign of his melancholia. He will not permit his plans to be changed or delayed, except

by himself, in order to remain in control of his own fate. As one can see, each of Hamlet’s decisions and

subsequent actions was determined and, in part, predicted by his melancholic nature. Without knowing it,

Hamlet is predisposed to an imminent demise by the prognosis of an untreatable case of melancholia.

Written for English 12


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