Essay: Hamlet and Finding the Reality in Ecstasy

By Katherine Christians

This essay was written for Tri-City Prep’s College Composition 102 class.

The protagonist’s father appeared before him; ashen and dressed for battle. The form of his hulking parent is transparent enough to grant him the ability to see the trees behind the once-living man. The ghost of his father tells the harrowing tale of his death to his son; one not of natural causes; but of murder. The son is left alone, bloodless and shaking, with one task: to avenge his father’s death. Though the dramatic air to this moment is admirable, the fact that a ghost appeared to tell his son of it’s murder; is questionable, to say the least. If someone assaulted someone else and then proceeded to tell the jury that they did so because a ghost told them to, their sanity would most likely be questioned. But when such a thing happened in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience seemed to have no qualms believing in the actions of a madman.

The Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet, is the story of a young man who’s father just died, and an uncle who stole his throne. Wrought with anger and confusion, Hamlet is told, by the ghost of his father, that his uncle, the new king, was his murderer. Bent on getting revenge for his father’s wrongful death, Hamlet “pretends” to be corrupted with ecstasy; or madness. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s actions, and sanity, grow more questionable; until, finally, Hamlet’s deranged activities lead to the death of his uncle, mother, peer, and himself. The question that haunts the audience during the play is: was Hamlet truly mad, or was he just pretending?

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, wrote his explication of Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet; “…if anyone wishes to call Hamlet an hysterical subject I cannot but admit that this is the deduction to be drawn from my interpretation.” (Freud). Freud’s perception of hysteria was a “sexual dysfunction” that was a problem present “in the mind of the patient” that could be treated with psychology (Cloud). Freud’s interpretation of hysteria is considered erroneous by modern mental health analysts (Cloud). Upon further scrutiny of Freud’s methods of  observing his supposedly “hysterical” patients; researchers concluded that some of his cases had symptoms of epilepsy and other neurological disorders (Cloud). If Freud’s definition of hysteria was marred by misdiagnoses, does it connote that all of his conclusions from those patients are null and void, or, would one simply shift the perception of the data he collected from “hysteria” to “neurological disorders”?

If one were to look at the data that Freud compiled on his “hysterical” patients with the idea that these people suffered from a neurological disorders rather than hysteria, the data could be used for closer examination of other neurological disorders. Freud’s diagnosis on Hamlet could then be translated from “hysterical” to a manifestation of a neurological disorder; more specifically schizophrenia, which can be onset by stress (“Schizophrenia”). There is question as to whether or not schizophrenia is considered a brain disorder, or a neurological disorder; there are now established facts that exhibit evidence of neuropathology in schizophrenia (Harrison). The disorder is correspondent with an enlargement of  the ventricles in the brain, along with a decrease in cortical volume (Harrison). If Hamlet did have a neurological disorder, such as schizophrenia, how did it manifest in Hamlet?

Common symptoms of schizophrenia include: hallucinations, psychosis, delusions, emotional and behavioral problems, thought disorders, and thoughts of suicide (Sorrentino). The first hint at schizophrenia in Hamlet is when he speaks with his father’s ghost. Though other people saw the ghost of the deceased king, nobody spoke to him other than Hamlet. The other people who saw the ghost could have just been seeing what they wanted to and not what was actually there. Psychosis is “a state of severe mental impairment. The person does not view the real and unreal correctly.” (Sorrentino). Hamlet exhibits his psychosis to the audience when he believes that the ghost of his father is real. From that point on, everything that happens in the play is tainted with the question of whether or not one can trust what they see and hear in the play.

If everything that occurred in the play was shown to the audience from the perspective of Hamlet; all the acts and scenes were shown how Hamlet saw them; nothing could be trusted due to his possible psychological problem. Every event in the play could be something that Hamlet hallucinated in order to fit the illusions that his irrational mind created. If one’s senses cannot be depended on throughout the play, then who is to say that Hamlet’s father was murdered? Or that Hamlet was oppressed by his uncle? These could be manifestations of Hamlet’s schizophrenic delusions. Common types of delusions include those of persecution, and those of grandeur (Sorrentino). Delusions of persecution are defined as: “False beliefs that one is being mistreated, abused, or harassed” (Sorrentino). Hamlet exhibits such chimeras of persecution during the entirety of the play; predominantly with his mother, Gertrude, and his uncle Claudius. He feels that he is mistreated by his mother because she married Claudius, and is undeterred by the fact that Gertrude had no say in the matter. With his uncle, Hamlet determines that he is being patronized by the supposed murderer of his father, and treats Claudius with venom and contempt throughout the entirety of the play. Hamlet’s delusions of grandeur are made known when he is determined to be the only one worthy enough to avenge the supposed murder of his father. The next question to ask would be: how does Hamlet’s emotional problems manifest themselves?

Emotional problems are revealed when “normal functions are impaired or absent. This person may: lose motivation or interest in daily activities, be unable to plan or do activities, seem to lack emotions, neglect personal hygiene, withdraw socially” (Sorrentino). Hamlet loses interest in his normal routines due to the fact that he is focusing all his attention on the imaginary threat of his uncle. Though Hamlet shows a clear capability of planning revenge for his father, he seems incapable of acting on any of those plots through almost the entirety of the play; save for the very end. Hamlet does not seem to exhibit a lack of emotions; however, he does respond inappropriately to situations, which is another sign of schizophrenia (Sorrentino). Hamlet’s neglect of his personal hygiene is made apparent when he is harassing Ophelia, his ex-lover, she describes him as so: “…with his doublet unbraced, no hat on his head, his stockings fouled…” (II. i. 78-79). Finally, Hamlet’s social reclusiveness is thoroughly dispersed throughout the play when he avoids his friends and, when he does have any social contact with anyone, he babbles incoherent riddles. The unintelligible ramblings of Hamlet could also be indicative of a thought disorder.

A thought disorder is revealed when “The person has trouble organizing thoughts or connecting thoughts logically” (Sorrentino). An apparent illustration of such is during Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” monologue; he contradicts himself while pondering whether he should commit suicide or choose to live on. Him, talking in circles the way that he did, is demonstrative of the deeper underlying issue that is plaguing Hamlet: his schizophrenia.

Hamlet’s sanity has been an inescapable question since the origination of the play. Was everything in the play spurious, if so what was imagined? Should one put so much stock into the experiences of a deranged protagonist? One will never know what Shakespeare thought of his character as he composed the play; if he was a madman or a just an average man with a difficult mission ahead of him. Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, Hamlet will be one of his more famous creations that will continue to baffle and incite the curiosity of whomever reads or watches Hamlet.

Works Cited

Cloud, Duane. “What Is Hysteria in Personality? – Definition & Overview – Video & Lesson

Transcript.” Study.com, Study.com, 2017,

study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-hysteria-in-personality-definition-lesson-quiz.html.

Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Material and Sources of Dreams.” Translated by A. A. Brill.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Paula Kepos, vol. 38, Gale, 1991. 20th

Century Literature Criticism Online,

proxy.yc.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=yava&v=2.1

&id=MMGAWL298410944&it=r&asid=ce57d5f00d0deccb76117e36b507f7ea. Accessed

10 Mar. 2017. Originally published in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, Edited and,

edited by A. A. Brill, The Modern Library, 1938, pp. 238-318.

Harrison, Paul J. “The Neuropathology of Schizophrenia: A Critical Review of the Data and

Their Interpretation.” Brain, Oxford University Press, 1 Apr. 1999,

academic.oup.com/brain/article/122/4/593/295835/The-neuropathology-of-schizophrenia

A-critical#3796359. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

“Schizophrenia – Causes.” NHS Choices, NHS, 11 Oct. 2016,

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Schizophrenia/Pages/Causes.aspx. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Group, Inc., 1998.

Sorrentino, Sheila A., and Leighann N. Remmert. Mosby’s Textbook for Nursing Assistants.

Ninth ed. Elsevier, 2017.

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