The Melancholy Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet is an exercise in the study of melancholy. Let’s explore the in’s and out’s of this aspect of the drama in this essay.
Gunnar Boklund gives a reason for the highlighting of the melancholy aspect of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his essay “Judgment in Hamlet”:
In the tragedy of Hamlet Shakespeare does not concern himself with the question whether blood-revenge is justified or not; it is raised only once and very late by the protagonist (v,ii,63-70)and never seriously considered. The dramatic and psychological situation rather than the moral issue is what seems to have attracted Shakespeare, and he chose to develop it, in spite of the hard-to-digest and at times a little absurd elements it might involve. . .(118-19).
Imagery is a factor in the melancholy. The imagery in Othello “enhances the strain of melancholy in Hamlet by dwelling on sickness and decay [. . .]” (Levin 14). The initial imagery is very bleak and depressing: “The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father” (Chute 35).
Horatio and Marcellus exit the ghost-ridden ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet. The prince is dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father. There is a social gathering of the court, where Hamlet is present, dressed in black, the color of mourning, for his deceased father. His first soliloquy is quite depressing; it emphasizes the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother:
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman! [. . .] . (1.2)
Hamlet is a study in grief, with Hamlet’s passion “intemperate and excessive” (Campbell 95-96).
Horatio and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore. This encounter of old school chums, according to A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy, presents convincing evidence regarding the true depth of the hero’s melancholy sentiment:
Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognizes Horatio at first, and speaks as if he himself lived at Elsinore (I refer to his bitter jest, ‘We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart’). Who would dream that Hamlet had himself just come from Wittenberg, if it were not...