Men and Mourning
The grieving process is one that is natural for humans of all ages. Like many things in the world there are gender expectations when it comes to mourning a loss. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet readers are introduced to Hamlet who is mourning the loss of his father for longer than expected of a man. A neurologist Sigmund Freud wrote a paper on the topic of mourning that also takes a dive into melancholy which relates directly to Hamlet’s character. Hamlet suffers greatly from the loss of his father that eventually drives him to a complicated melancholic state, this play and help from Sigmund Freud’s study shines great light on the topic of male mental health.
Though literature and neurology do not seem to relate to each other, surprisingly enough it can be used to analyzed and deeply understand the characters of a piece. In one of Freud’s most known and read pieces Mourning and Melancholia, readers grasp a deeper understanding of mourning and the psychological troubles of melancholia. Mourning is the process and recovery of a loved object (person, place, idea or thing). Freud writes: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty” (246). Mourning does not have a pathological impact on the being effected, it more so is about the outside of the person. When entering a melancholic state it is the ego that is effected and from there narcissistic tendencies become common. Freud writes:
“The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are the profound painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity and lowering of self regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self reproaches and self revilings and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” (244)
A melancholic state is a complex that should be simplified for a better understanding. Melancholy is being deeply, personally and mentally impacted after a loss. With mourning the dullness is seen in the outside world, while in a melancholic state the dullness is within. The loss is attached to the person’s ego instead of the outside world. Freud writes: “In melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable.” (246) Freud’s writings on melancholia is an idea of internal struggles and a depressed state that progresses faster and longer than the typical mourning process.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play of love and loss but there is more than just that. Hamlet who is mourning the loss of his father struggles to move forward in life. After further reading it can be concluded that Hamlet transitions from mourning to the complicated menancolic state.
“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior 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 passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe”
Hamlet is confronting his mother of the deep grief he has been feeling and expressing how terrible it has impacted his life. He expresses that is beneath the surface of what anyone would see. This scene can be considered the first steps from mourning to his melancholic state. When Hamlet begins to express this is seems to be normal but when he says that “No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,” that means that his feelings are far deeper than the surface and no one could understand. When Hamlet suffers the loss of his father he does not see the loss in the outer world but feels a loss within himself, this is a symptom of melancholy as Freud states. When the ego becomes affected from a loss it is no longer mourning but melancholia.
As Hamlet’s melancholic state progresses, it begins to impact relationships with his mother as well as his friends. In a scene with Ophelia we see how Hamlet had retracted his love for Ophelia and damaged the relationship with her.
Hamlet: …I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” (3.1.113-118)
By saying “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” A melancholic person becomes incapable of love and achievement and Hamlet is expressing his inability to love and achieve anything above himself. His doubtful thoughts then interfere with Ophelia and their relationships. Hamlet does not see himself having a purpose to love Ophelia anymore. Freud writes; “The patient represents his ego to us worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable” (246) This transition of behavior is vital when analyzing Hamlet’s transition from mourning to melancholia.
Finally as the play begins to climax and Hamlet is acting completely out of character and starts his well known “To be or not to be” dialogue. After analyzing this piece it is not longer a melancholic state.
HAMLET: To be or not to be- that is the question:
Whether it ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows in outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing end them. To die, to sleep- (3. 1. 86-87
Hamlet’s feelings have transitioned from doubting himself to suicidal. His words do not make sense to readers because of the strange order. Hamlet is feeling greatly betrayed, heartbroken and lost since the loss of his father. He feels the loss within himself which had impacted him psychologically. He compares death to sleep and believes it would not be so bad. Hamlet had lost hope and motivation to live and no longer finds purpose in life. In general Hamlet is crying for help and wondering if people should exist or not. This is the climax of his melancolic state but also a transition from melancholia to mania. Mania is marked by periods of great enhanced expression and euphoria. His euphoric state began when seeing the ghost of his father but that escalated to melancholia and then mania.
In conclusion Hamlet had expressed a variety of the melancholic symptoms after mourning the loss of his father. It took a psychological toll on him and he then transitioned to a manic state towards to end of the play. The play touches of very sensitive topics of death and suicide from a male’s perspective. After reading the play then reading Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia paper it brings to light reasoning and labels for Hamlet’s behavior. Such an early piece of literature brings to light mental health of not only all people but especially the male population. The topic of male mental health has not been spoken or written about as often as it should because of gender expectations. All humans suffer greatly and their mental health should be talked about more often. This play gives a chilling glance at what loss can do to someone and Sigmund Freud then takes it another step to give the symptoms a name. Hamlet felt a loss within himself instead of the outside world, and that is what Freud diagnosis’ as Melancholia.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, ed. Susanne Wofford, 1994.