In Shakespeare’s tragic drama, Hamlet, the multi-faceted character of the hero is so complex that this essay will enlighten the reader on only one aspect of his personality – his melancholy dimension.
Our understanding of the true extent of the protagonist’s melancholic mental state needs to be informed. A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy presents convincing evidence regarding the true depth of the hero’s melancholy sentiment:
Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognizes Horatio at first, and speaks as if he himself lived at ...view middle of the document...
There is a social gathering of the court, where Hamlet is present, dressed in black, the color of mourning, for his deceased father. His first words say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a disapproval of the new king’s values. Hamlet’s first soliloquy is quite depressing; it emphasizes the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother:
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman! [. . .] . (1.2)
Soon Horatio and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore. Philip Edwards’ “The Ghost: Messenger from a Higher Court of Values?” explains what the protagonist wants from the ethereal messenger: “The Ghost may have some secret, some unimaginable truth to bring relief from those ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’, an explanation why things are as they are and a directive for meaningful action” (66-67).
At one a.m. the ghost reveals to the protagonist that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests revenge by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” If the hero was melancholy prior to the ghost’s visitations, he is even more depressed now.
But there are complicating factors. For one thing, he does not know if the ghost is telling the truth. And secondly, if he is, then Hamlet has a huge job ahead – regicide itself. Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” tells why the ghost’s visit provides no relief for the prince’s melancholy: “The young man growing up is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it. Yet how to begin, among so many enigmatic surfaces: Even Claudius, whom he now knows to be the core of the ulcer, has a plausible exterior” (258).
The hero resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions while he seriously works on establishing the truth of the ghost’s words. Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, is unfortunately the first to experience the hero’s new “madness,” and she is terrorized by his disordered appearance. Her father, Polonius, diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate him on behalf of Claudius and Gertrude. Ophelia agrees to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. At the time of the “chance” meeting, Hamlet is already feeling quite dejected, and perhaps even contemplating suicide:
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;