Madness and melancholy

Shock and lethargy

The idea of madness is explored in several ways in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. 

The terms “madness” and “melancholy” are primarily unrelated. Madness refers to both nonsensical and unreasonable thinking and acting as well as a mental disorder, while melancholy is a term for dejection and depression.

However, what both terms have in common, is that they have a negative meaning and can be mutually dependent. Insane behavior, in the long run, can lead to depression and dejection, while dejection and depression can lead to acting insane.

At the beginning of the first act, Hamlet does not suspect anything of Claudius' murderous plot against his father. The death of his father and the incestuous marriage of his mother to Claudius are, however, reason enough for him to doubt the meaning of his future life: "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" (1.2.132-135).

Although Hamlet deeply despises his mother and her new husband, he continues to show them respect: at their mutual request, he agrees not to return to Wittenberg. He himself seems listless and trapped in his own depression. Instead of trying to confide in someone, he piles up his contempt for Gertrude and Claudius and his grief inside himself: "It is not nor it cannot come to good: But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue." (1.2.161-162).

Intervention of the ghost

When the ghost of Hamlet's deceased father reveals to him that he has been treacherously murdered by Claudius, Hamlet is momentarily jolted out of his initial lethargy. He loses his composure and seems almost feverish as he puts into words his hatred for Claudius and Gertrude. He seems to see his uncle figuratively before him and addresses him as if in a delirium: "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" (1.5.46-47).

He seems to be out of sorts. When his friends Horatio and Marcellus find him again shortly after the revelation of the ghost, Hamlet has not yet regained his composure. He responds to Marcellus' greeting with the cryptic words, "Come, bird, come!" (1.5.124) and to the questio...

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