It seems that Hamlet is mourning the death of his father, but his immediate, violent reaction towards his mother betrays the affection she shows him. Since Hamlet is in a state of what Freud would describe as melancholia, a reader can assume that there has been a loss of a less tangible element of Hamlet’s life. If we look at the conflict of the play, we realize that Hamlet’s journey is decided by his Mother’s marriage. To Hamlet, this marriage represents the ways in which order cannot be depended on. It reveals to him the ultimate loss, the loss of a belief in an ordered world and the justice that ensues. This loss of order both within his family and the court, and in a larger existential way, is what sends him into a state of melancholia and therefore is the cause of his insanity and abusive tendencies.
Freud describes mourning as a process of realigning the libido directed to an object (or person) that is lost. For example, when a person loses a parent, the affection that they feel for that parent is misplaced. There was a libido focused on the object of the parents and since those affections no longer have an object which they can place themselves, a person searches for a place to place that libido, thus giving the experience of grief. Freud’s description of melancholia also discussed how a person deals with loss, but in a pathological way. Under many circumstances a mourning period as described by Freud is normal. However, mourning under certain circumstances can be a gateway to pathological behavior such as Melancholia.
According to Freud, Melancholia is when one loses something less tangible and easily identifiable as a loved one. This leads again to the displacement of libido towards the object that has been lost, but while the loss that results in mourning is external (such as the loss of a loved one), the loss that usually leads to melancholia is internal (such as the loss of a person’s identity found in a passed loved one). This makes it difficult to identify the object which the libido was directs and therefore makes it difficult to replace it. When combined with narcissism the unidentified object that is lost is part of the ego. According to Freud, Narcissism is the tendency to identify the self in items that are not the self. In a situation where a parent is lost, the grieving child would identify the self within that parent. The loss is then felt as something within oneself. With this view, the ego is no longer a constant in a person’s life, thus leading to sadistic behavior.
The affections between the Queen and Hamlet reveal that there is a maternal foundation to their relationship, therefore the reader can assume that the largest pillar of stress on their relationship is her recent marriage. Gertrude expresses concern for Hamlet’s well-being at multiple points throughout the play. In response to being confronted with Hamlet’s madness in act 3, scene 4 she says, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (156). Although she betrays him through her marriage, her love causes her to feel pain when he is suffering. Hamlet also expresses minimal amounts of affection towards his mother. In Act 3, Scene 2 he expresses his unwillingness to limit his cruelty towards his mother:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak [daggers] to her, but use none.
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites–
How in my words somber she be sent,
To give them seals never my soul consent! (3.2.374-378)
Hamlet is at a moment in his life where violence is his primary method of expressing himself. He kills Polonius, Claudius, and indirectly Ophelia. Yet he specifically states them his mother is exempt from this violence. Although he feels betrayed, this act reveals a foundational love that lays beneath the troubled relationship between Hamlet and his Mother.
Hamlet’s actions following his father’s death do not reflect what Freud would consider normal mourning behaviours. After his father’s death, Hamlet claims that he will act as if he were mad in order to manipulate his family. Almost immediately however, it is questionable whether or not this madness is acting. By contemplating suicide, the “to be or not to be speech” clearly exhibits melancholic behavior, “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” (III.i.65-71). Not only is he considering suicide, the ultimate form of self loathing and therefore the ultimate symptom of melancholia, but Hamlet blurs the lines between existence and non-existence. Hamlet’s own self image has become so dismal that he cannot identify any good that could come from his own existence and is consequently unable to appreciate life in any form. Hamlet experiences extreme self-loathing, thus taking his grief beyond mourning and into the pathological realm of melancholia.
Hamlet’s loss is similar to the loss a child feels when their parents get divorced. Parents are supposed to remain together in order to maintain a stable family, and in this case kingdom. The sense of order that he had found security in for himself and his country is now lost. However, before the actions of the play there is no indication besides Hamlet’s rambling that chaos has ensued. Order has not tangibly been lost and therefore that loss is not easily identifiable. Hamlet then identifies the loss within himself which sends him into a spiraling tragedy of self loathing.
The death of Old Hamlet deeply affects Young Hamlet, yet that loss in itself does not motivate the action of the play. It is the marriage of his mother and the corruption of his uncle that inspire Hamlet to incite the events of the play through a melancholic mania. While the revelation of Claudius’ acts set the plot of the play into motion, the complete antipathy towards his mother and his uncle is incited at the beginning of the play, with the marriage itself. After conversing with his mother and his uncle the state of his grief he reveals his true woe in a monologue. He says:
[My mother was married] within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married — O most wicked speed: to post with such dexterity to incestious sheets, it is not nor it cannot come to good, but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue (I.ii.153-159).
Although Hamlet’s behaviour is not pathological yet, he is still aware and very much fixated on his Mother’s marriage rather than his father’s death.
The death of his father puts Hamlet into a state of mourning, but the actions of his mother and uncle shift Hamlet’s sense of grief away from his father and towards the loss of his court’s values. To say that this melancholia came from the death of his father would be to oversimplify the depth of his loss. When Hamlet learns that Claudius killed Hamlet in order to regain the throne, and that his mother has willingly married this murderer, he begins to grieve a loss of political and emotional order. We can see Hamlet’s sense that the natural order of things had been disrupted, as well as his personal obligation to address the problem after he promises the ghost of his father revenge, “Time is out of joint– O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!” (i.v.188-189). Hamlet describes the world he is living in as a world where time, the very foundation which humanity functions, has lost its order. The loss of order is so deeply felt that it affects Hamlet’s foundational understanding of loss.
The loss in the sense of order within the court is not the cause of melancholia, it is the loss of social order in itself. This becomes especially apparent in his discussions of death. When traipsing through the graves and pulling apart decayed bodies, Hamlet stumbles upon the universality of death. Hamlet discusses how irreverent our status or actions are in the light of mortality.
Hamlet: Does thou think Alexander look’d'a this fashion i’ th’ earth?
Horatio: E’en so.
Hamlet: And smelt so? Pah!
Horatio: E’en so, my lord.
Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the
noble dust of Alexander, till ‘a find it stopping a bunghole. (v.i.184-191)
In the end, political power does not bear meaning in the face of death. A king, such as Alexander will rot in the same way that a commoner will. Hamlet realizes that he too is held to the same standards as those who he has power over and those he despises. According to Hamlet, death is a unifying experience. Perhaps this is why he desires his own death. In death he is no longer subject to the corrupt social system that is at work throughout the play.
The loss that Hamlet experiences is deeper than the loss of his father. It is deeper than the betrayal he felt from his mother. His loss is the realization of chaos both within politics and as the nature of life. He has lost his belief in order and cannot help but identify this loss as a loss within himself, thus leading to the melancholy and mania throughout the play.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Philosophical Works of Sigmund Freud. 1914.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Murfin, Ross C. 1974.