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Hamlet: He's Just Like Us

Updated: May 23

by Sam Downey

A greyscale image of people assembled to watch a play. The crowd is grouped on the left and right sides of the stage, facing each other more than the actors. On the stage, a man crouches over another man who is sleeping. On the floor before the stage, Hamlet lounges at Ophelia’s feet, glaring to the right at his mother and Claudius who sit facing them.
Daniel Mclise (1806-1870), "The Play Scene in 'Hamlet," 1842, National Gallery

Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, Hamlet the Dane, the hesitant avenger, That Guy With The Skull. Possibly Shakespeare’s most iconic character, or at least the most widely known.


For some people, Hamlet evokes little more than a pose with a skull and the “to be or not to be” soliloquy—often mistaken as the same scene. For others, Hamlet is iconic for his hesitance, eloquence, neuroticism, grief, and complicated portrayal of masculinity. Despite this kaleidoscope of interpretations—or, perhaps, because of it—many find the character of Hamlet to be a mirror that reflects or exemplifies some deeper part of themselves.


Audience identification with Hamlet is nothing new. In 1817, William Hazlitt wrote extensively on Hamlet in his work Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, asserting that Hamlet is one “whose thoughts we seem to know as well as we do our own,” and claiming that “It is we who are Hamlet.” Hazlitt proceeds to recite a list of experiences and emotions that would have the DSM checkboxes dinging in the mind of any cognitive-behavioral therapist, concluding that “whosoever has” done and felt these things, “—this is the true Hamlet.”


Hazlitt's "True Hamlet" check! Have you ever...

  • Become thoughtful & melancholy through your/others' mishaps?

  • Borne about with you the clouded brow of reflection?

  • Seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists?

  • Found in the world before you nothing but a dull blank?

You can vote for more than one answer.



The Play’s the Thing


In Hamlet (the play), Hamlet (the man) is pulled home from college by the passing of his father and the subsequent marriage of his mother to his murderous uncle. Charged with revenge by his father’s ghost, Hamlet determines to uncover the truth of his uncle’s guilt by acting mad to the point where it becomes unclear how much of a grasp he actually has on reality. Ultimately, he hesitates in killing his uncle, only committing to the murder once his own death warrant has been signed.


The bones of this plot are reminiscent of (or borrowed entirely from) the story of Amleth, prince of Denmark, recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in approximately 1204 BCE. Minus the ghost, the play-within-the-play, and the titular character’s climactic death, Amleth’s story maps onto Hamlet’s almost perfectly. It would have been well-known even by Shakespeare’s time: the Icelandic version of Amleth/Hamlet’s name, “Amloði,” had by the 16th century become a nickname for “an imbecile weak person, one of weak bodily frame, wanting in strength or briskness, unable to do his work, not up to the mark” (The History of Amleth 23).


Hamlet’s very name would have evoked scorn and derision, advertising physical and mental weakness in the cultural context of Shakespeare’s time. This begs the question: what kind of person looks at that description and goes he’s just like me fr? Well, maybe people who have been repeatedly told, overtly or by implication, that they themselves are weak.


a greyscale image of a young man in Elizabethan clothes in the center of a room, holding his arms out towards the viewer with his head turned to the left. The room is filled with others observing him, some dressed as actors, some as members of the court.
Hamlet is almost always depicted in mourning black, separated from the other characters on the stage. (Thomas, "Hamlet, Act II - Hamlet and the actors," from "The Victrola Book of the Opera," 1917, Harold B. Lee Library)

Were it Not That I Have Bad Dreams


One group that might identify with this experience is those who themselves are living with mental illness. Hamlet’s grief, overthinking, and possible madness have given countless depressed high schoolers a moment of resonance in AP Lit. This isn’t baseless: psychologists have long studied Hamlet under the lens of different psychological frameworks, from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to more modern cognitive-behavioral approaches.


Gertrude Morin argues that Hamlet “is, essentially, a portrayal of a tortured, depressed young man who loses his way in the labyrinth of his negative thoughts,” and claims that the play “is a study, par excellence, of the role of consciousness in depression” (Morin 2). Hamlet’s soliloquies reveal, according to Morin, trademark depressive cognitive distortions such as rigorous self-criticism, arbitrary inference, and an “all or nothing” approach, among others. For example, as Hamlet castigates himself for cowardice in not killing his uncle, Morin points out that he exhibits the “type of rigorous self-criticism frequently manifested by depressed patients,” which ultimately results in pressure, apathy, and resistance instead of action: “Hamlet tries to stir himself into an act of revenge; the reality of his behavior falls short of his standards, and his subsequent style of self coercive reprimand can create nothing but self-loathing, shame and guilt.” (Morin 10).


"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." (2.2.249-51)

Driven mentally “weak” by grief, Hamlet is a point of shame for his mother and uncle, who urge him to move on from his father’s death. This imposed weakness becomes powerful, however, as he exaggerates it to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.192). It’s debatable whether this feigned madness is as false as Hamlet initially intends it to be, but nevertheless, it allows him to get away with challenging his uncle, his mother, and the systems he is trapped within. When Polonius and other characters dismiss Hamlet as mad, they underestimate him. He gets away with insulting powerful figures (to a point) in part because his perceived separation from reality excuses his claims about the corrupted truth of things.


So Hamlet becomes a mirror for mental illness, his overthinking and doubt and fits of madness finding footholds in the psyches of those who have perhaps been told to “cast thy nighted colour off” at their own family gatherings (1.2.70).


a drawing of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. She leans against a curtain that reads "Shakespeare," one hand on her sword.
There is a long tradition of women playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt was simply the first to do so on screen.

‘Tis Unmanly Grief


Beyond (or perhaps as a part of) his melancholia, Hamlet personifies an unconventional masculinity. Suffering from “unmanly grief” (1.2.98), he “must, like a whore, unpack [his] heart with words (2.2.614). His hesitancy in avenging his father, especially compared to Laertes’ swift vengeance, makes him all the more seemingly deficient in a culture where violence and honor are paramount to manhood.


In fact, since at least 1775 there has been a tradition of women playing Hamlet, either in drag, as a female version of the character, or in some undefined middle ground. Sarah Bernhardt, who became the first woman to portray the character on screen in 1900, said of the Danish prince that “[t]he things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman” (Bennetts, 1982).


This ambiguous gender presentation makes the character relatable to people across the spectrum of queer identities. On top of this, the text itself has the capacity to “accommodate, encourage, and benefit from queer (and trans) readings,” (Adelante 9). Hamlet’s conception of university life as freedom (and home as a prison), his close friendship with Horatio, and even his tense rivalry with Laertes can be read in a queer light without too much squinting. His theatricality and chameleon-like performances likewise resonate with what we might today call gender non-conforming identities.


A greyscale image of Hamlet sitting with Yorrick's skull in his hand. He is young, dressed in black, and seated at Horatio's feet.
Hamlet contemplates the skull. (Eugene Delacroix, "Hamlet and Horatio at the Cemetery," painting in oil on canvas, 1835)

The Rest is Silence


So, queer and depressed people relate to Hamlet, a character whom the public defaults to picturing with a skull in hand, staring death in the face. It’s not called the Comedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Is it worrying to identify with a suicidal prince who eventually attains his “consummation / devoutly to be wished” (3.1.71-2), especially for populations with increased risks of suicidality?


Or does it not matter that the curtain closes on a stage strewn with bodies? Perhaps Hamlet’s ill-gotten, long-awaited vengeance proves that his hesitant “weakness” and “unmanly” masculinity were in fact keeping him alive. Perhaps the promise of Horatio telling his story is enough. Perhaps Hamlet exists in the nebulous space between the first and last page, dramatic and dithering, for generations of lonely, gay, grieving, depressed, trans, intellectual, overdramatic, or just plain sad people to see and think, would you look at that, he’s just like me.




 

This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.


Further reading


ADELANTE, BECK O. "IN THIS HARSH WORLD, WE CONTINUE TO DRAW

BREATH: QUEER PERSISTENCE IN SHAKESPEARE AND HAMLET."

ACCESS*: INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL OF STUDENT RESEARCH AND

SCHOLARSHIP 5.1 (2021): 5.


“FACTS ABOUT LGBTQ YOUTH SUICIDE.” THE TREVOR PROJECT, 25 OCT 2022, HTTPS://WWW.THETREVORPROJECT.ORG/RESOURCES/ARTICLE/FACTS-ABOUT-LGBTQ-YOUTH-SUICIDE/.


F. J. FURNIVALL, LL. D., HORACE HOWARD FURNESS, LITT. D., EDWARD

DOWDEN, LL.D., AND OTHER AUTHORITIES. THE SHAKESPEARE

GALLERY. LONDON ; MONTREAL ; PHILADELPHIA :ROYAL

SHAKESPEAREAN SOCIETY, 1908.


HAZLITT, WILLIAM, 1778-1830. CHARACTERS OF SHAKESPEAR'S PLAYS.

LONDON, PRINTED BY C.H. REYNELL, FOR R. HUNTER, 1817.


MORIN, GERTRUDE. "DEPRESSION AND NEGATIVE THINKING: A

COGNITIVE APPROACH TO "HAMLET"." MOSAIC: A JOURNAL FOR THE

INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDY OF LITERATURE 25.1 (1992): 1-12.










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