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Understanding Hamlet's Madness: Melancholy and Folly

Teodora is a bilingual writer and translator. She is the author of two books, a poetry volume, and a collection of short stories.

Hamlet's Vision - a painting by Pedro Américo

Hamlet's Vision - a painting by Pedro Américo

Was Hamlet Mad?

Hamlet’s madness has been discussed in various contexts, beginning with the 17th century and up to the present time.

Robert Burton, English scholar and vicar, may have regarded Hamlet’s lunacy as being caused by melancholy (called 'melancholia'). Erasmus, the extinguished Dutch Renaissance Humanist, had a different approach, touching upon social and moral issues.

1. Melancholy in Hamlet

The Greek term "melancholia" meant "sadness." It actually has its origin in the ancient medical theory of the four humors, which claimed that an imbalance in one or more of the four bodily fluids could and often caused diseases. Melancholy was caused by an excess in black bile, hence it adopted the meaning of “black bile.” A person whose constitution had the tendency of having black bile in excess was thought to have a melancholic disposition.

Maybe the most extensive documentation on this subject is the Anatomy of Melancholy written in 1621 by Robert Burton. In his treatise, Burton describes in detail what he considered to be the causes, symptoms and solutions for the illness. The scholar may not have had actual medical research to back up his theories, but the observations he provides are the result of his personal experience and cannot be completely dismissed. W.D. Nicol quotes Burton’s definition of the affliction: “a kind of dotage without a fever, having for its ordinary companions fear and sadness, without any apparent occasion” (Nicol 199).

The eighth edition of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The eighth edition of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Hamlet May Have Suffered From Humoral Imbalance

In a description of the melancholic behavior, we can almost recognize the portrait of Hamlet: “he is dull, heavy, lazy, restless, unapt to go about any business” (see Anatomy of Melancholy). Hamlet’s antic disposition can be a case of humoral imbalance. Just like his contemporaries, Shakespeare believed in the connection between the physiological processes of the body and the four humors.

Laurentius, a prominent physician from the 17th century, describes a case of a man with a dangerous excess in black bile: “out of heart, fearful, and trembling. He is afraid of everything ... suspicious, solitaire” (Holland, “Hamlet-A Humoral Diagnosis”). Judging by those symptoms, the prince of Denmark suffers from a severe humoral imbalance. Hamlet is “out of heart”; others can’t help but notice that he does not resemble his old self: “th’exterior nor the inward man resembles what it was” (Hamlet 2.2.7).

In his encounter with Ophelia, he is “fearfull and trembling,” and he is pale, “his knees knocking each other” (Hamlet 2.1.80). Moreover, Ophelia observes that the look in his eyes is that of a man who has been “loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors” (Hamlet The impression is so strong that we may be inclined to believe that Hamlet is not feigning madness, but has truly fallen victim to melancholy.

One suggestion is that Hamlet potentially suffered from humoral imbalance.

One suggestion is that Hamlet potentially suffered from humoral imbalance.

Hamlet does not sleep well; the “watchfulness” consumes him. He tries to explain his distress to Horatio: “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let me sleep” (Hamlet 5.2.4). When confessing to his friend, he is honest, so the problem he experiences is assumed to be genuine. Horatio is concerned to see how Hamlet’s state “forget unto itself a thousand false and vain imaginations” (Holland, “Hamlet-A Humoral Dignosis”). Therefore, Horatio’s thoughts can be regarded as an argument in favor of the humoral imbalance.

All through the play, Hamlet appears as a sad individual, permanently tormented by something. At one point, he forgets about the mission of avenging his father and contemplates suicide. As Burton states, melancholy fits “continue not, but come and go” (Schoenfeldt 25). Hamlet soon renounces his suicidal thoughts and embarks once again on his vengeance quest.

Is Hamlet Pretending to Be Mad?

Hamlet's Inconsistent Feelings

Fluctuations in behavior are a sign of melancholic imbalance. Sometimes Hamlet speaks in a calm voice, although he is gloomy and sad. Other times his speech is chaotic and resembles the ramblings of a madman: “I humbly thank you well, well, well” (Hamlet 3.1.92).

The French essayist Montaigne observed that “The force of extreme sadness inevitably stuns the whole of our soul, impeding her freedom of action.” It may thus be said that the prince, shocked by his father’s murder and his mother’s betrayal, finds himself paralyzed, unable to act upon his desires.

Hamlet is seized by melancholy and sadness the moment he finds about the monstrous deed. In Hamlet, grief and geniality waltz together to the point of exhaustion, which ultimately leads to confusing thoughts.

Hamlet is unable to pinpoint what caused the loss of his mirth. The earth is to him a “sterile promontory,” yet he can cleverly choose his words, showing that his mind is agile. He enters and exits the “coat” of madness, making it hard for the critics to place a certain label on his “antic disposition.”

Hamlet and Ophelia

Hamlet and Ophelia

Love Melancholy

Hamlet’s madness cannot be separated from the idea of love, which is one of the main causes of this ailment, according to scholars of that time. In Shakespeare’s days, love was regarded as a sickness itself, having similar symptoms to melancholy.

In the famous scene with Ophelia, Hamlet’s feigned madness is but a step away from the real thing. His diseased insistence upon the girl’s womanhood echoes his own obsession with chastity and perversion. His love for Ophelia seems to be stained by the shock that is the improper union of Gertrude and Claudius.

The fault he finds in his mother is projected onto Ophelia and women in general: “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet 1.2.146). Polonius believes him mad with love, failing to grasp the message hiding in Hamlet’s gibberish. He is, nonetheless, right about one thing: Hamlet sees love distortedly, which enhances the seriousness of his condition.

In Shakespeare's time, love was considered a sickness.

In Shakespeare's time, love was considered a sickness.

2. Folly in Hamlet

In Erasmus’s philosophy, the most appropriate term used to describe madness is “folly,” which actually encompasses madness. As Foucault observes, for Erasmus, madness has ceased to be perceived as divine due to its satirical nature. The Humanist writer intends to mock the flaws of humanity and society (Foucault 26).

If we look at Shakespeare’s tragedy through the lens of Erasmus' philosophy, Hamlet’s behavior may be understood in different ways. On the one hand, all grand accomplishments depend upon Folly. Hamlet’s quest has the purpose of avenging his father’s death and restoring the throne’s honor. Thus, the quest for vengeance is a noble one. On the other hand, while undertaking this mission, Hamlet defies moral and social norms. Therefore, his actions may be regarded as foolish.

Social rules and authority stifle individual freedom, and for this reason they are accompanied by Folly, which is a form of impunity for free-thinkers like Hamlet. The young man rails against the follies of his time. Hamlet criticizes “the law’s delay” the “insolence of office” and “disprized love” these are “the whips and scorns” of a time characterized by injustice, rudeness of the authorities and devalued feelings (Hamlet and

However, Hamlet is not a fool, but merely playing the fool. The sarcastic pleasure he takes in pretending to be out of his mind is attached to the hope of restoring Denmark’s old prestige by avenging his father. He enjoys mocking the hypocrisy of those whom he used to trust (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) or whose position in society demands his respect, such as Polonius.

Hamlet often pondered the meaning of life.

Hamlet often pondered the meaning of life.

Folly – A Sign of Genius?

Hamlet is a loner who spends most of his time pondering on the meaning of life. His “otherness” creates a barrier that separates him from the shallow majority. According to Erasmus, all men of genius are fools, but wisdom does not signify happiness. On the contrary, it is a burden, as these men are often marginalized and misunderstood. Hamlet’s subtleties cannot be grasped, not even by cultivated Polonius, because he lacks the prince’s geniality.

Hamlet intends to expose the rotten Denmark lurking behind inconsistent desires and false pretenses. He hides his satisfaction in a clever display of witty words. He can anticipate Polonius’s thoughts and realizes the man’s weakness and the inability to understand his soul. From this point of view, Hamlet is superior to the old, learned man, and the knowledge of this thought gives him pleasure and pride. Consequently, the prince is perceived as a danger to himself and others. Claudius and Gertrude are so afraid of him, that they send a messenger to talk to him instead of discussing the matter face to face. Hamlet is eventually banished – which symbolizes his social alienation.

Works Cited:

  • Shakespeare, William, and G. R. Hibbard. The Oxford Shakespeare: "Hamlet" Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1998.
  • Nicole, W D. "Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy." Post Graduate Medical Journal (1948): 199-206. Web. 7 Mar. 2010.
  • Holland, Sarah. "Hamlet: A Humoral Diagnosis." Dec. 1996. Web. 25 May 2010.
  • Schoenfeldt, Michael Carl. Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
  • Foucault, Michel, and Richard Howard. Madness and Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Dowdeswell, Krista. "Overview of Erasmus' "The Praise of Folly"" Web. 29 May 2010.


Teodora Gheorghe (author) on March 09, 2015:

Thank you for pointing that out, Robert. I will correct my mistake.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on March 09, 2015:

In your first section, you refer to Robert Burton, the author of "The Anatomy of Melancholy," as Richard Burton.

It's certainly true that Hamlet's mood and behavior are erratic. Yet Hamlet "renounces his suicidal thoughts" not because of a sudden disappearance of his melancholic mood but because of one of the hallmarks of melancholy, fear--of hell.

Teodora Gheorghe (author) on March 05, 2015:

Yes, before the advent of modern science people had many superstitions and odd beliefs...

poetryman6969 on March 04, 2015:

Take two mummies and call me in the morning. Some say they used to used to consume mummified flesh to cure what ailed them. Before the advent of the whole of modern science there were notions like sympathetic magic and humors and such. And so a man might consume powdered rhinoceros horn as a natural male enhancement.