Hamlet is by far one of Shakespeare's more enigmatic characters. We understand from the beginning of the play with Horatio and Marcellus that they think very highly of Hamlet as they decide to tell him first about the ghostly vision they saw whom they believe to be his father. However, when we meet Hamlet, we are confused. Is he depressed -- or is he simply cruel (Davies 30)? Or is Hamlet, a man who is overly sensitive, deeply melancholy, and armed with a reflective mind, simply mad? It is this dichotomy of characteristics that always leave us guessing about Hamlet's psychological state. Hamlet himself does not deny this. In fact, he says to his mother, the queen, that there is much more to him than people see.
'Seems', madam -- nay it is, I know not 'seems'.
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, cold mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor the windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed 'seem',
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe (Shakespeare
Hamlet's statement to his mother reveals that he is "inky" -- that is, he is someone who can easily hide himself "squid-like behind a studied and 'inky' obscurity" (Davies 31). Because Shakespeare was so clever, it also means that Hamlet is able to disguise himself with his words -- forever keeping those around him guessing about his psychological state and motives. He knows that he is being lied to and he wants his mother to know that he is clever enough to see it. But is Hamlet correct or merely paranoid?
The Ghost is an important part of Hamlet's new mission to avenge his father's death. The Ghost tells Hamlet that it was his uncle who indeed murdered his father and that Hamlet must be the one who carries out the vengeful deed. Hamlet is told that he must not involve his mother, yet, instead of going about his act of revenge in a normal way, Hamlet "begins to doubt the accuracy of the Ghost's information, indulging also in the surmise that the Ghost itself may have been the coinage of his own brain" (Wood 16). The Ghost is a difficult thing for Hamlet to consider because the Ghost tempts Hamlet toward revenge, yet Hamlet wants to be good In the end, Hamlet is ambivalent about what he must do. It merely becomes another obsession.
Hamlet becomes obsessed with wanting to prove this murder; however, he is nearly the entire play plotting and scheming and never taking any action. So Hamlet does what any questioning man does: he puts on a play that is of similar circumstances to what is going on and has the person who represents his father murdered in the play. It is in his uncle's eyes that Hamlet sees that he is really the murderer after all.
Still the question arises, what took Hamlet so long to act upon his beliefs? Why doesn't Hamlet go and take revenge for his father's murder? There is reason to believe that Hamlet is so obsessed with this murder because of his obsession with death, in general, and it is the excitement of all this that keeps him waiting to exact revenge. When Hamlet finally does decide to take his revenge on Claudius, he ends up stabbing Polonius mistakenly. After waiting so long to kill Claudius, he erroneously kills an innocent man.
We then see a switch in Hamlet and he seems to become overly confident. At one point in the play, he even refers to himself as Hercules. Hamlet had been what we thought was a hero, but he has somehow turned into a villain, which becomes clear with Polonius' murder. Davies notes that Hamlet takes on an "antic disposition," his "madness and tomfoolery…exaggerates and accelerates changes in his identity throughout the rest of the play. In the process, we often lose sight of Hamlet's 'character' amid his 'antic' performance" (51). It begs the question, is Hamlet pretending to be mad -- or is he just plain mad?
Hamlet spends much of his time pondering death. In his soliloquy with Yorick's skull, Hamlet asks: "To be, or not to be -- that is the question" (Shakespeare 3.1.54). Here, Hamlet seems to be contemplating killing himself. Hamlet is known for his existential musings, but one still can't help wondering if Hamlet really wants to end it for good. He, of course, decides not to because he is worried that he will go on to live an eternity of suffering. While this may seem like the decision of a sane man, Hamlet still keeps us wondering about his psycological state.
Hamlet is incredibly intelligent and, at times, he appears almost like a tormented genius. He is so readily able to reflect on his situation and give much contemplation to his problems, but it is precisely this that keeps him from acting and what keeps him from living a life that is secluded from others (mentally speaking). However, we have to admit that if Hamlet had not delayed his revenge, then there would be no play. Shaw believes that the only convincing reason for Hamlet's delay in exacting revenge is that he suffered from acute depressive illness, along with some obsessional features (92). Hamlet could not make the resolve to simply act. Though there wasn't the term "acute depressive illness" in Shakespeare's day, melancholy was quite known (92). Melancholy would not have been viewed as a character defect. Shaw states that in a tragic model, "the hero brings himself and others to ruin because of a character defect" (92). The play in Shakespeare's time thus conformed to a tragic model, but, Shaw asserts, with today's knowledge, it doesn't (92).
Hamlet has a number of problems that need to be addressed. First of all, he doesn't act even when he has proof. Second of all, even with proof, he doesn't know which course of action to take (Paris 35). He questions whether or not he is seeing ghosts; he is afraid of being eternally damned; he is traumatized by disillusionment; he is obsessively introspective; and, he is paralyzed by things that he isn't even aware of (35).
Hamlet is a character that judges harshly. He despises his uncle Claudius because Claudius represents a lot of what Hamlet tries to repress in his own self (Paris 40). Hamlet is obsessed with not becoming his uncle. His uncle is a representation of what Hamlet hates in himself. How can virtue be good, Hamlet asks, when it goes and gets people like his father killed? Isn't it thus better to be more like Claudius so one doesn't end up dead?
Hamlet's disillusionment has led to depression, which isn't abnormal considering that all of his beliefs have been shattered. His father has died; his mother has betrayed him; and his uncle, the murderer of his father, has risen to power. There is a sense of great injustice for Hamlet, which leads to great melancholy in him, or depression. He has given up on his mother, on faith, and on religion, which he merely calls a "rhapsody of words" (3.4).
Hamlet is also a person who is unable to express his own true emotions. He is so readily able to express how he feels on behalf of others -- most notably his father, but he is unable to feel things on his own behalf (Paris 41). He believes that fighting for others is virtuous and it isn't until much later in the play that Hamlet is finally able to say that…