Hamlet and Melancholia: Why Hamlet Can’t Kill Claudius

One of the strangest parts of Hamlet is the protagonist. Hamlet’s behavior is entirely erratic. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he will act crazy around others to help uncover Claudius’s treachery. However, at times it doesn’t appear as if he is acting crazy; instead, he seems to actually be crazy, such as with his “To be or not to be” speech in which, as far as he knows, there is no one around to witness his apparent insanity. It is never quite clear whether Hamlet is actually crazy or simply acting crazy. Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis can help us understand Hamlet’s odd eccentricities. Using “Mourning and Melancholia” by Freud, we can see that Hamlet’s odd behaviors are symptoms of melancholia, and this melancholia is the reason for Hamlet’s indecisiveness concerning revenge against Claudius.

In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud indicates the differences between mourning and melancholia. In both of these conditions, there is some sort of object-loss, which can be a loss of a person, freedom, faith, ideal, or something like that. The two are similar in that there is a lack of interest in the outside world and activities the person once enjoyed, profound grief, and and inability to love (Freud 244). However, melancholia also includes a lack of self regard, meaning that the person feels bad about him or herself. While mourning is healthy and needed, melancholia is not. Put simply, in mourning, the world becomes sad and gray; in melancholia it is the self. Mourning revolves around the loss of the object, while melancholia revolves around the loss of the ego. This lack of regard and loss of the ego stems from the person “identifying,” or seeing themselves in the object. Characteristics they see in the person that they lost are characteristics they identify within themselves. Because of this identification, the loss of the object is almost like losing yourself, because you see yourself in the object. Freud makes clear that the identification of oneself in the object happens long before the development of melancholia and the object-loss. The identification of oneself in others, according to Freud, is narcissistic; it is rather egotistical to formulate a strong relationship through seeing oneself in another. This narcissism contributes to sadism in people with melancholy. Instead of taking it out on themselves, melancholic patients turn to others to vent their frustrations. Freud believes this aspect of sadism is why suicide is a riddle. Due to the narcissism, it does not make sense for a melancholic person to destroy themselves. However, Freud thinks people commit suicide when the lost object becomes more powerful than the ego. So, in view of the play, because Hamlet never kills himself, the object never means more to Hamlet than his own ego.

So what exactly is Hamlet’s loss of object? Janet Adelman’s essay “‘Man and Wife is One Flesh’: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body” uncovers that Hamlet loses his impression of an idealized father through the discovery of Gertrude as a sexual being. Adelman argues that the loss of Hamlet’s father causes him to be subject to his mother’s power, and the realization of his mother’s sexuality destroys the idealized view of his father. The presence of the sexualized mother threatens the idea of the idealized father being in control. Furthermore, Hamlet’s obsession of his mother’s sex life likens him to the negative image of Claudius. Hamlet’s rudeness to Ophelia and Gertrude stems from his inability to control his mother’s sexuality as his father once did.

Because of the loss of the idealized father, one who can control Gertrude’s sexuality and ensure her obedience, Hamlet loses his own sense of himself. Hamlet is like his father; even their names are the same. We have to differentiate the two using “Old Hamlet” for the murdered king. Hamlet loses an idealized view of his father, and therefore loses an idealized view of himself when he notices his sexualized mother because of her marriage with Claudius. Furthermore, being subject to his mother’s power causes him to recognize his own lack of power. This loss of himself as strong and able to control the women in his life results in his uncertainty and indecisiveness.

Throughout the play, Hamlet is incredibly self-deprecating; he never seems satisfied with anything he does. His lack of self-regard shows itself in many of his speeches. For example, he arranges for the Players to perform the play and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away. While he is alone, Hamlet delivers a speech full of feelings of worthlessness:

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear [father] murthered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A stallion. Fie upon’t, Foh! (2.2.561-567)

In this scene, Hamlet is feeling terrible about himself because he is unable to take action to get revenge against Claudius, his father’s murderer. Instead of actions, Hamlet is using words to try to find out if Claudius actually killed Old Hamlet. To figure out if the ghost was telling the truth, Hamlet puts on a play with words, instead of just acting in revenge and killing Claudius. Hamlet believes that using words is something a “whore” would do, and so he believes himself to be one. The word “whore” is rather interesting to use because it is usually associated with women; in Hamlet’s mind, women are inferior. Because women use words and not actions, they are not as capable as men. Through comparing himself to a whore, Hamlet also compares himself to a woman, revealing that he believes himself to be inadequate. This comparison shows the externalization of blame present in melancholic patients; when he compares himself to a woman, he is comparing himself to his mother. Because Hamlet loses his idealized father through discovering his mother as a sexual being, Hamlet lashes out at the person that caused his loss. Hamlet is not seeing the world as terrible; rather, he is seeing himself as inadequate, which according to Freud is a symptom of melancholia. Hamlet’s self-deprecation is another symptom of melancholia that Freud explains, indicating Hamlet is not in a state of mourning.

This feeling of worthlessness and inability to take action appears again when Hamlet meets Fortinbras. Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras, and finds Fortinbras to be a much braver and more honorable man than he is:

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor’s at stake. How stand I then

That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, while to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men… (4.5.47-60)

Because Hamlet sees Fortinbras and his drive to restore honor to his family, Hamlet’s own insecurities of not being the man he is supposed to be are brought to the forefront. In this time, and truthfully now as well, many people believe that they must protect their honor above everything else. Honor to the characters of Hamlet really means the expectations both of oneself and of society, and is almost like a synonym for pride. People, especially men, are supposed to take revenge “even for an egg-shell” in order to protect their honor. If someone makes fun of them or shows them to be foolish, they need to prove themselves through any means possible. Hamlet knows he needs to prove himself, but he is incapable of it unlike Fortinbras. Again, Hamlet is internalizing his loss, rather than seeing a dark world because of the loss. Fortinbras and Hamlet are in similar situations, but Fortinbras acts for revenge while Hamlet is only able to “let all sleep.” Hamlet views himself as lesser and inadequate, as Freud describes in the differences between melancholia and mourning.

Throughout the play, Hamlet has no idea what to do in order to take revenge against Claudius; he is not even sure if he should. He no longer believes in his ability to make a decision. This indecision is seen in the famous “To be or not to be” speech, in which Hamlet wavers between killing himself and persevering in life:

Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause; there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…  (3.1.55-89).

Though this speech does not directly connect with Hamlet’s indecision regarding killing Claudius, it does show how reluctant he is to actually explain in specific terms what he intends to do. Hamlet never says he is contemplating committing suicide; instead, he veils his words behind phrases like “to be or not to be” and “to sleep, perchance to dream.” He cannot face suicide head on because calling it suicide would be too decisive. Calling it suicide would make it real. Later on in the speech, Hamlet says “conscience makes [cowards of us all]” to explain why people continue on with life despite all its troubles. The word “cowards” again emphasizes how terrible Hamlet’s self-esteem is at this point, because not committing suicide is definitely not cowardly.

When Hamlet first plans to murder Claudius, he find him praying and decides to kill him when he is doing more sinful acts so that Claudius dies impure, like Old Hamlet. However, Hamlet never says, “I will kill Claudius.” Rather, he uses phrases like “send to heaven” (77-78). He is unable to face the fact that he will kill Claudius, which highlights his indecision. Hamlet continually oscillates between taking revenge and not doing anything. When he does take action, he almost always seems to fail; during his confrontation with Gertrude after finding Claudius mid-prayer, he hears someone call out:

Hamlet: [drawing] How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat,

dead! [Kills Polonius through the arras.]

Queen: O me, what hast thou done!

Hamlet: Nay, I know not, is it the King? (3.4.22-26)

In this scene, Hamlet finally takes action, but he does not succeed in getting revenge, which reinforces his lack of self regard. Instead of killing Claudius, he kills Polonius. Even when he takes action, he fails. Then, at the end of the play, Hamlet does stab Claudius, but it is not a killing wound. Claudius dies because of the poison on the sword, not because of Hamlet’s hit. Even the stage directions read that Hamlet “hurts the King” (5.2.304). Additionally, Hamlet’s miraculous decision to act only occurs because he knows he is going to die. The question is why Hamlet is so indecisive, and is answered in the symptoms of melancholia.

Hamlet reminds us that even though we are each the protagonists of our own stories, we are not always strong and courageous. Sometimes, we get melancholic because of a loss, be it a person, a belief, faith, or something like that. This melancholia causes a lack of regard in ourselves, and a lack of regard in ourselves translates into indecision and self-consciousness. Because everyone dies in Hamlet, we get the impression that in order to succeed in life, we must face the bad things as well as the good things. Hamlet is unable to face his uncle’s betrayal and his father’s death, and so he keeps changing his decisions. This delay of action does not bode well for Hamlet, and so we see that if we are melancholic, we need to get help and face it instead of avoiding it.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. “‘Man and Wife is One Flesh’: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body.” Hamlet: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Susanne L. Wofford, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. Ed. James Strachey. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, pp. 243-258.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Susanne L. Wofford, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.