When referring to the psychological contributions of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, we can further analyze the inner consciousness of those who have been affected by the loss of a loved one. Freud’s early ideas of the ego’s way of grieving gives the audience much insight into the characters of Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, especially its main character, Hamlet, himself.
Freud shares many theories to explain how a person’s ego reacts to loss in his work Mourning and Melancholia. He claims the ego undergoes a certain process depending on the economic circumstances of the person and the position of their loss; they either enter a state of mourning or melancholia. Mourning, he explains, is a normal and healthy process a person will take to overcome the departure of a loved one. Melancholia, on the other hand, is a state that has intense symptoms that could reach many pathological levels and affects one’s ego greatly. Freud elaborates on the difference between the two saying, “In mourning, it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancolia it is the ego itself,” meaning that the person who experiences mourning is having a shift in their external environment, whereas melancholia is an internal ailment that directly affects the ego of the grieving person (Freud 244). The symptoms of the two are very different as well. ]Freud explains,“Distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity of love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self regarding feeling to a degree…” (244). Each individual displays some or all symptoms based on the intensity of their grief. The greatest perplexing symptom of melancholia, Freud calls “psychologically very remarkable” is that “this picture of delusion [melancholia] of (mainly moral) inferiority is completed by…an overcoming of the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” meaning the grieving person contemplates suicide (244). Even so, further levels to melancholia appear in Freud’s research that intensify the impact of the loss loved one.
The profound and distinct causes of melancholia help to determine if one is in fact a sufferer of melancholia. This grieving process is much more rooted than mourning. Due to the loss, the grieving person’s libido that was once attached to the lost person was shattered and the relationship was ended yet the libido does not want to withdraw from the person [object] (249). Freud explains in melancholia, instead of attaching to a different object, the libido instead identifies itself with the lost object. As a result of this “object choice”, the person regresses to narcissism because they are refusing to give up on the relationship of love for the lost person (249). Freud elaborated on the sufferer’s narcissism saying, “when in his heightened self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egotistical, dishonest, lacking in independence…” (246). These causes ultimately result in the characterization of melancholia and prove to be very consistent when analyzing the actions and symptoms of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s work.
Since the play begins with Hamlet’s father already deceased, we are able to follow along with most of Hamlet’s grieving process through his melancholic stages. It is evident from the beginning of the play that he has lost interest in the world around him, a known symptom of grieving. But, when having a casual greeting with Polonius, a servant to the King, Hamlet intermittently plunges into dismal verse hinting at his melancholic state saying:
Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason how
infinite facilities, in form and moving how express and admirable…
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and to me, what is the
quintessence of dust? Man delights me nor women neither…” (101).
Hamlet shares that he is aware there used to be beauty and admirable aspects of the world, but now he is amused by nothing, regressing back to his narcissistic state. Hamlet also states that none of his previous acquaintances, are of interest to him whether they are men or women. He seems to have a complete disconnect to the life that he once lived due to the fact he has completely replaced his ego with his lost father. We see this as evidence that Hamlet has entered the step of melancholy where he has a “cessation of interest in the outside world” as well as showing the traits of narcissism (244). Hamlet’s dialogue portrays his life darkening and reducing to only thinking and feeling the death of his father. With the evidence from the dialogue of the scene and Freud’s support we see Hamlet’s libido identifies with the loss of his father because it is now all he feels. Furthermore, his narcissistic behavior means that he is beyond suffering normal mourning, but rather these characteristics must be the cause of melancholia.
Another result of melancholia Hamlet portrays is a “loss of the capacity of love” (244). Hints revealed in the beginning of the play allude to Hamlet having a prior relationship and/or love interest to Ophelia, young, daughter of Polonius. Following his father’s death, however, Hamlet makes it very evident that he is incapable of maintaining any further romantic feelings towards her. Hamlet at first tried to deny any past love for Ophelia during their confrontation in Act 3, but in the end admits his prior feelings:
Hamlet: …This was a paradox, but now the times gives it proof. 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)
Now that Hamlet’s father has passed and he is in such a melancholic state, he is denying both the relationship and the conversations with Ophelia had ever happened as the scene presents. He answers Ophelia which an egotistical tone which alludes to a narcissistic ego, a tip off that Hamlet is experience more than just mourning. Due to his overwhelming melancholia to be able to love and uphold any relationship further with Ophelia or uphold any other kind of relationship with anyone else. He is simply thinking narcissistically and that he is only putting forth emotional effort into his grieving, for he has soley identified himself with the loss of his father.
As Hamlet continues to grieve his father, Hamlet exhibits more symptoms of melancholy and soon he shows evidence of reaching the most dangerous level. In the most renowned scene of the play, Hamlet is contemplating whether his suffering would be better off if he were dead:
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… (3.1 55-60)
As Freud explained as the most “psychologically very remarkable” symptom of melancholy, Hamlet has reached the stage of contemplating suicide. He uses a confusing, metaphoric way to depict his longing to be free of the suffering he is undergoing. In the line,“Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” he is considering his life a constant battle he would have to face if he continues to live. Hamlet is experiencing another cause of melancholia in which he is engaging in self torment and resorting to sadism. This is also due to his already narcissistic state of mind where part of his ego moving towards ‘ambivalence’ as well as the loss of his father (254). In Freud’s work he states that a final cause of melancholia that can drive oneself to take their own life through sadism (244). Therefore we see that the dialogue not only portrays Hamlet’s state of complimplating suffering through life or killing himself, it is also confirms that Hamlet is feeling melancholy due to reaching the level of cruelty and sadism towards himself.
The process of Hamlet’s grieving over his father’s death can be seen throughout the play and are supported by Freud’s ideas from his work Mourning and Melancholia. Hamlet’s replacement of his ego, self-cruelty, as well as his thoughts of suicide all add up the Freud’s ideas surrounding the causes of melancholia. The insights of Freud’s work helps the audience to put a name to Hamlet’s madness as the play unfolds.
Shakespeare, William, and Susanne L. Wofford. Hamlet: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Bedford Books of St. Martins Press, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud” On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works: Mourning and Melancholia. 16th ed., 16 Translated by: James Strachey. Hogarth Press, London 1914-1916