A Psychoanalytic Critique of Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is rife with themes of despair and depression, or as Freud would say, mourning and melancholia. Both mourning and melancholia are seen within the titular character. Before the play has even begun, Hamlet’s father has died, and his mother has remarried–to his uncle no less. By looking at Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” we can take a deeper look at Hamlet’s feelings to see if he is simply mourning, or if he has moved on to the unhealthier melancholia.

Freud describes the differences between mourning and melancholia by saying first that they are very similar (both are categorized by dejection, a lack of interest in the outside world, lack of ability to love, and lack of motivation to do anything), but melancholia also has “a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment” (Freud 244). Meaning that mourning and melancholia are the same up until the part of melancholia that expects some sort of punishment, where mourning would not. Melancholia requires that one sees some aspect of themself in the lost object, whereas mourning is more removed.

Throughout the entire play, Hamlet is dealing with the relatively recent loss of his father, and in this scene, he seems to have reached a state of melancholia.

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

Whether it ’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 (3.1.55-61)

Hamlet wonders if he should even remain alive. He contemplates if it is nobler to continue to suffer as he is, or if it’s better to fight back against this suffering and possibly kill himself. He uses sleep as a euphemism for dying and continually asks if he should “sleep” and “end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks”. Hamlet’s father’s death can, in a way, be seen as the de3ath of Hamlet himself. After all, Hamlet and his father shared their name. When Hamlet wonders if it is “nobler… to suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” the outrageous he is talking about is the fact that, whether he realizes it or not, he himself has, in a way, died, and the one person he would expect to mourn for him the most, his mother, immediately remarried.

Throughout Hamlet the prince of Denmark displays all of the signs of the illness that Freud calls melancholia in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia”. He has a distinct lack of care for himself, he lashes out at those that he would call his friends and he even contemplates suicide.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund, and James Stratchey. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the

Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, The Hogarth Press, 1914, pp. 243–258.

Wofford, Susanne Lindgren. William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Bedford Books of St. Martins Press,

1994