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Was Shakespeare mad?

By Cireena Simcox - posted Wednesday, 8 March 2006

For centuries scholars, students and audiences have puzzled over the perceived dilatoriness of young Hamlet in acting to revenge his father in one of the most famous plays in the English language. Nor is this the only behavioural question raised in this enigmatic text. Hamlet’s reaction to his mother’s sexuality is also somewhat disturbing and can at times appear inconsistent with the reaction of an adult male.

The question of Hamlet’s madness is, as well, difficult to come to grips with. When is Hamlet feigning and when is he not? His contrary nature dominates the play and raises questions pertaining to his state of mind that have never been definitively resolved. Hamlet, in fact, has always been regarded by scholars as one of Shakespeare’s most disturbing “problem” plays.

The dearth of biographical data pertaining to Shakespeare precludes the formation of any conclusions regarding his psychological profile. It is tempting, but fruitless, to conjecture that the withdrawal of his father, John, from civic duty could be ascribed to mental illness. The only accounts we have concerning John were written posthumously - though it seems unlikely that aberrant behaviour would go unremarked. However, in view of his high profile in civic circles, and of his recorded good humour, it is at least possible that other town fathers closed ranks around the figure of one who suffered from any sort of mental disturbance.


It is indeed a matter of record that, at one period, William’s lodgings in London meant he would have passed the Bethlem institution for the insane each day. This institution was regarded as a legitimate entertainment source and was open for public viewing of the inmates. However, the probability of Shakespeare using the incarcerated as an insight to portray the madness of Hamlet (or Lear) is remote when one considers the way in which Hamlet’s madness is presented.

In order to flag the incidents that relate to bipolarism in the text of Hamlet it is necessary to describe this illness. According to “Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) is a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behaviour. It is known as bipolar disorder because a person’s mood can alternate between the pole of mania (high, elevated mood) and depression.” This change in the mood or “mood swing” can last for hours, days, weeks or even months. In a 2001 study of bipolar disorder, more than 50 per cent of patients attempted suicide: the risk was highest during depressive phases.

Bipolar disorder affects about 1 per cent of the population. Men and women are equally likely to develop this often disabling illness. Cycles, or episodes of depression, mania, or “mixed” manic and depressive symptoms typically recur and may become more frequent, often disrupting work, school, family and social life.

Armed with this basic definition and information it is immediately possible to see Hamlet’s vacillation and dilatoriness in a different light. The reasons for Hamlet’s bitterness and anti-social behaviour have been ascribed to grief, mourning and depression. His behaviour, however, is not consistent with a sustained period of depression, though he does exhibit all of the symptoms of depression within the course of the play.

On meeting his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we learn that he is encountering disturbed sleep patterns when he cries, in what seems to be genuine - if momentary - despair: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” This confession is highlighted seven lines later when he admits, “I cannot reason” (2.2.).

The ability of depression to rob a sufferer of the ability to gain pleasure from life or to enjoy normal activities is famously illustrated in a soliloquy which resonates for anyone who has ever experienced clinical depression:


How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
seems to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden
that grows to seed.
Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely

Another common symptom of depression is that associated with paranoia - that of feeling “physically or cognitively anxious, agitated or very slow”. Instances of this are littered throughout the text. In Act I Hamlet displays an agitation which could be construed as a natural reaction to the news that his dead father still walks the ramparts when he adjures himself “Would that night were come! Till then sit still, my soul” (1.2).

While such agitation might be considered normal in the context, his dealings with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could certainly be posited as a paranoiac episode. There is no textual evidence to explain his feelings towards his two fellow students when he first encounters them. Horatio also is a visiting student friend yet he is treated with trust and dignity. The different reception Hamlet gives to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern however, occurs when he finds they have arrived at the instigation of his “uncle/father” Claudius, and his mother Gertrude.

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About the Author

Cireena Simcox has been a journalist and columnist for the last 20 years and has written a book titled Finding Margaret Cavendish. She is also an actor and playwright .

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