Diagnosing Hamlet

For my AP World Literature class, I was asked to diagnose Hamlet as if I were a psychiatrist. I answered the following.

To state it plainly, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with him. There was never anything wrong with Hamlet, unless grief is an ailment. The difference between him and society is simply his self-isolation, a consequence of intelligence and over-introspction combined. Nevertheless, he is driven to agony and feigning madness because of his exceptionally harrowing situation. My thinking process:

  1. Inspect possible ‘symptoms.’
    Hamlet is upset, to say the least, about his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. Even worse, his uncle makes no effort to comfort him, and instead insults him for “unmanly grief,” while his mother, too, seems not to understand his mourning the late King Hamlet (1.2.94). In addition to his sadness, he comes to realize that he retains no privacy in his own home, and indeed, that most in court think him mad. He is then accosted by spy after spy, all of whom claim to be his friend in order to do their duty to his uncle, and presumably his father’s murderer, Claudius. Around this time, Hamlet begins to appear more and more insane, noted by many early references as ‘madness’ already. In such an environment, it is no wonder Hamlet’s grief and over-active mind are magnified to a harmful degree. In his most vulnerable state, Hamlet has a duty thrust upon him (the ghost wants vengeance) and simultaneously loses his power in the eyes of the royal court (they refuse to comment on his behavior, while secretly condescending his eccentricity). His symptoms can be summed up as: grief, paranoia, melancholy, stress, anger, regret, self-torment.
  2. Rule out the mental disorders he cannot have.
    The easiest to think of would be depression. My explanation for this is, despite Hamlet’s famous speech “To be or not to be,” which makes obvious the severity of his melancholy, he is by no means depressed in the clinical sense. Depression is the lack of feeling rather than ‘sad’ feeling, and additionally manifests itself in the subject’s selfishness, lethargy, and senseless desire to die. Hamlet has not yet exhibited selfishness, his mind is in turmoil rather than plagued with ennui, and his reasoning that favors death above life is perfectly sound. In Hamlet’s own words, “… the dread of something after death … makes us rather bear those ills we have” (3.1.77-80). Because there are so many hardships in life, it would be much easier to die, but most do not decide this way because death is an unfamiliarity to life’s difficult familiarity. Hamlet’s capability of emotion (hate towards his uncle, disgust towards his mother, love towards his father) also stand testament to his lack of clinical depression. Other mental disorders are even less likely: no other voices are present, so he is not schizophrenic; his mood swings seem to be affected rather than true representations of his emotions, so he is not bipolar; his┬ásanity is unequivocally proven when he speaks honestly through his soliloquies, so he is not insane.
  3. So what does he have?
    There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with Hamlet. He isn’t insane, as many who observe him believe, and even if his antics aren’t completely affectation, they are better viewed as flawed choices of an instant rather than true reflections of his mental state. Hamlet displays many times his ability to think rationally and logically, and his self-criticisms are perfectly legitimate and insightful. What he has is a disposition that lends itself to anxiety, and creates the image of an inexplicable lunatic. The reason people think he’s crazy is because they do not understand what made him act this way in the first place. Hamlet’s wilder actions are first out of desperation and then out of mockery; his intentions should be taken into account as well as his behavior. The truth that he reveals only to the audience allows glimpses of a troubled individual who faces impossibly difficult challenges, but not one who has lost his reasoning. However, this does not mean he is perfectly fine. Psychological diagnoses rely on symptoms because there is no better way to delve into a patient’s mind. So, even though my ultimate ‘diagnosis’ is that he has no mental disorders whatsoever, I also think an undue amount of pressure combined with his intelligence has yielded the unfortunate result of his fall into despair.


1 Thought.

  1. Very well written article. I like the way of analysis supported with strong evidence (with references). The main point and conclusion are clear and convincing. Well-done.

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