Hamlet and his process of Mourning
The loss of a loved one can cause one to act out of the ordinary. In Freud’s essay titled Mourning and Melancholia, he explains the feelings of mourning and melancholia and how they relate and differ. By look at applying Freud’s ideas to Hamlet, one can get a better grasp on why he acts the way he does and start to understand Hamlet better. Once one looks at Hamlet through Freud, one can see that the way Hamlet is acting and speaking is not normal.
Freud starts his essay off by giving how he views mourning and melancholia and for him, they relate to each other very much. Both feelings occur after the loss of something; mourning in Freud’s words is a ”regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person”(p243) while melancholia is that plus more of a pathological condition. To put it simply, mourning is an outside world problem while melancholia is an inner world problem. Freud also states that these two feelings show the same outward symptoms such as loss of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity of love, and others symptoms but melancholia unlike mourning involves the symptom of self-regard. Although these feelings are very similar when one looks at them side by side the differences can be seen clearly which is what Freud examines in his essay.
One place that mourning can be seen is when Gertrude and Claudius speak to Hamlet about his actions of mourning:
Queen: Good Hamlet,cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a Friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ‘tis common all that lives must die,
Passing through eternity.(1.2 68-73)
The short and sweet version of what the Queen is saying here is that everyone dies and Hamlet needs to move on; take off his clothes of mourning and stop being so mean to the king. The Queen is also hinting that Hamlet needs to move on because it has been two months since the passing. Mourning that long is no longer need and as Claudius, later states is making Hamlet less of a man in the eyes of God. Overall the Queen is stating that Hamlet needs to start acting more like the prince Denmark needs. Claudius also states that:
King: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
But you must know you father lost a father,
That father lost,lost his and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow.(1.2 86-92)
Here the King is reinforcing that death of a loved one is normal by saying that everyone has lost a father. He also states that they, the previous fathers, each mourned the loss for a certain period of time continuing to say that Hamlet needs to stop with this mourning and move on. Claudius and Gertrude in the way that they expressing actions of mourning follow along with how Freud defines mourning as a normal thing that everyone feels and then moves on with their lives. Hamlet, on the other hand, exhibits language and behaviors that seem to follow more of a path of melancholia in Freud’s definition.
Hamlet in this scene, as Gertrude states, in his mourning clothes which is seen as an outward expression of mourning; but Hamlet’s response to his mother’s comment shows that there is more going on:
Queen: Thou know’st ‘tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature eternity…
Hamlet:“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.(1.2 71-86)
Hamlet explains to his mother that all understand that death happens all the time and the signs of grief that he is showing, wearing dark clothes, sighing loudly, crying and so on, do not compare to the grief that he has inside of him which they can’t see. For Freud, this is a sign of not just mourning but melancholia which is very similar to mourning.
Melancholia shows all the same signs of mourning but the grief is not an outside world problem, but one that is affecting the ego. When one loses an object, in Freud’s mind, there is a hole that needs to be filled with something else. For Hamlet, the hole is as of now left open with nothing to fill it. The hole is present because Hamlet attracted part of his own identity with his father so when his father passed away which is also something Freud mentions in his essay.
Hamlet loved his father very much and once Claudius and Gertrude leave he expresses this love:
Hamlet: But two months dead, nay, no so much,not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr(1.2 138-140)
Here Hamlet is acknowledging that has not been quite two months since the passing of his father but he still remembers how good of a king he was; far superior to his brother who is now king. Hamlet feels as though there is nothing to feel this hole until Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and learns the truth about the death of his father.
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther
Ghost:The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
Hamlet: O my prophetic soul!
Ghost: Upon the secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vail,
And in the porches of my ears did pour..(1.5 25-63)
With this information, the hole is now filled with a motive to avenge his father’s death and set what is right in Hamlet’s ego and also acts as an outlet for his anger. Now Hamlet has something that will be able to connect him with his father again with something positive instead of the negative of the death of part of him but at what cost to himself.
That hole soon becomes with something else rather quickly. Hamlet states:
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)
In this speech, Hamlet reaches the outer rim of melancholia which Freud states as mania; he reaches the point of questioning whether it is worth living anymore. Should he suffer the pain of grief anymore or just end his life and not have to deal with it. Here Freud would bring up the point that now Hamlet is in a narcissistic in his thoughts; he is only thinking about how to better himself and not how it will affect others. Eventually, Hamlet does being to turn his narcissistic feelings into more of sadistic feelings towards those who love him. In the end, Hamlet got the hole filled but the expense was that he lost many of those who he loved.
How Hamlet deals with mourning doesn’t really make sense to many people; he pushes all the people he loves aside, he talks about suicide, he treats those who love him poorly and many other odd behaviors. Through Freud’s discussion in Mourning and Melancholia one begins to see that both feelings appear similar but vary in many ways. Melancholia as Freud even say is very complex and hard to understand completely so one may never really understand why Hamlet acts the way he acts. With Freud, one can see that Hamlet is struggling with something that everyone struggles with, the death of a loved one and he behaves in a way that is very complex even in today’s world. Today one might even go as far to say that what Hamlet suffered from was depression which is still a complex feeling that does not a have a clear definition.
Wofford, Susanne. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: William Shakespeare Hamlet
Strachey, James The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.
Mourning and Melancholia p243-258