Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford.
From the opening of the play Hamlet has been marked as a melancholy man. Apparently this had not
been his previous character, for the king has spoken of it as "Hamlet's transformation." This change in him was brought about by brooding on the events that had just happened, and had been not only a mental but especially a moral reaction.
Hamlet is portrayed as having a very sensitive and a very moral nature. He had been greatly shocked by the things that had happened, and the suspicions he harbored constituted a direct challenge to his moral faith. If the truth was as he feared, then there was occasion to question the righteousness and justice of the world, and to wonder if life were worth living. This, apparently, was Hamlet's first encounter with great trouble, with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and it proved a great trial to his moral nature.
When the first of these disturbing events occurred, Hamlet was at the university, and apparently he did not arrive in Denmark until they had all come to pass. The first of these was the sudden death of his father; caused as it was given out by a serpent's sting. The circumstances were suspicious and pointed to his uncle, Claudius, but there was no certain evidence.
Then followed immediately the election of Claudius as the new king, apparently before Hamlet could reach Denmark. The great popularity of Hamlet and the great love the people bore him, were doubtless known by him, and would cause him to think his uncle had tricked him in the matter of the election.
Within two months followed his mother's marriage to his uncle Claudius, which she herself afterward spoke of as their "o'erhasty marriage." To Hamlet this seemed so improper, and followed so hard upon the funeral of his father that he sarcastically spoke of it as due to
"Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."
(I. ii. 180-1.)
These events had all occurred before the opening of the play, for when his uncle and mother appear on the stage for the first time (I. ii.) they are already king and queen. Hamlet, then, confronts these as accomplished facts, and his mind is troubled. The suspected villainy of his father's sudden death caused him great worry. He was not much concerned about losing the crown. But he was stirred to the depths of his moral nature by what he regarded as his mother's incestuous
and o'erhasty marriage.
Added to these was the further fact that under the rule of Claudius his beloved Denmark was degenerating and being given over to corruption and to pleasure. Everything seemed to him to have gone wrong. His father is dead, his mother dishonored, and his country
disgraced and weakened.
Under these conditions it is little wonder that he became melancholy, and was in doubt whether or not it was worth while to live. All he was chiefly interested in had failed. The men who were left did not interest him nor the women either. He was thrown cruelly back upon himself, and obliged to weigh everything anew. His confidence in the moral government of the world was shaken, and his moral faith was shattered. Everything that was most dear to him had apparently been forsaken of heaven, and he was left to struggle on alone. Under these adverse circumstances he wishes
he were dead, and exclaims against the world:
"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!"
(I. ii. 133-4.)
This, then, is Hamlet's melancholy. It is the melancholy of the philosophical mind, and is induced by the evils into the midst of which his young life is suddenly plunged. The course of the play discloses his efforts to overcome his doubts and to regain his native faith in
God and in goodness and to right the wrongs about him. The greatness of his mind and character is seen in the fact that he soon recovers from the first rude shock, and holding his faith in the ultimate victory of truth and right, he concludes that "It is not, nor it cannot
come to good." (I. ii. 158.) Never again does he allow himself to fall into the slough of despond, but through darkness and light he holds to his faith in right.
How to cite this article:
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletmelancholy.html >.
Did You Know? ... Some of Shakespeare's most violent plays were by far his most popular during his lifetime. Although modern audiences are often repulsed by its gore and brutality, Titus Andronicus was a huge success in Tudor England, coveted by several of the finest touring companies. And certainly it is no coincidence that Shakespeare's most profound psychological masterpieces have their share of sensational melodrama. Read on...