Exploring a Troubled Mind


by Dr. Siri Galhenage

Any commentary on the Shakespearian play, Hamlet, without an exploration of the psyche of its protagonist - Prince Hamlet - would be, as the popular cliché goes, ‘like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark’! The mental processes of Hamlet - the most gripping, yet mysterious of all Shakespearean creations - have so enthralled successive generations of critics that the play has provoked more scholarly scrutiny than any other English drama.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare was striving for a masterpiece, and he achieved it. Hamlet is the longest of all Shakespearean plays, with the least amount of action, but with the most amount of speech, mainly by prince Hamlet, which includes his soliloquies that open the door to his inner self. Even Ernest Jones, the renowned Neurologist and Psychoanalyst, the official biographer of Sigmund Freud, made an attempt at exploring the inner self of Hamlet lured by Hamlet himself: ‘pluck out the heart of my mystery’!

I have allowed my humble self to join successive generations of explorers, in an attempt at unravelling that mystery, guided by my own theoretical compass. My purpose is to discover in Hamlet what it means to be human - one of the greatest challenges of literature.

Collective Unconscious

To place the story in context, Hamlet has its roots in the archetypal legend of Amleth, first recorded in the Gesta Danorum written by the 12th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. Such legends with parallel plots in the folklore of other cultures are embedded in our ‘collective unconscious’ and form the psychological heritage of humanity [Carl Jung]. Hamlet is one such legend portraying a wide array of patterns of emotion, behaviour and relationships, drawn from our deeply embedded storehouse of universally shared experience.


Young prince Hamlet, a student at the University of Wittenberg, is faced with a complex emotional challenge following the sudden death of his father, King Hamlet, he idolised. The late king’s brother, Claudius, usurper to the throne, marries the widowed Queen, denying the young prince of his lawful right to sovereignty. Hamlet’s grief is compounded by his outrage towards his mother for her marriage, in ‘indecent haste’, to a man he considered ‘no more like my father, than I to Hercules’. In addition he is troubled by a lingering doubt regarding the manner of his father’s death, reportedly by snake bite.

Mourning and Melancholy

Hamlet mourns the loss of his father. The ‘process’ of mourning is weighed down by the profound significance of the personal loss to the young prince and the moral and political quagmire he is drawn into. He is bereft of a trusting relationship to share his grief with: his mother, his closest kin, attracting his wrath for her alleged betrayal and lack of feeling for his late father. She chides him: ‘Do not for ever with thy veiled lids/ Seek for thy noble father in the dust/ Thou know’st ‘tis common, all that lives must die/ Passing through nature to eternity’, making light of his grief. Claudius joins in: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet/ to give these mourning duties to your father’... ‘in filial obligation for some term/ To do obsequious sorrow’...’Tis unmanly grief/ It shows a will most incorrect to heaven’..’We pray you throw to earth/ This unprevailing woe’. It appears to Hamlet that he is the only member of the court still in mourning for his father, making him ‘bounded in a nutshell’ – drifting from mourning, a natural and a healthy process, to melancholia, a pathological state. [Sigmund Freud: Mourning and Melancholia]

In the first of his soliloquies Hamlet reveals his affliction with melancholy. He describes the world as worthless, wishes he were dead, contemplates suicide but regrets that God does not sanction such self destruction. ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw and resolve itself into dew/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ His mind is ‘an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed’. In the same vein he expresses his anger towards his mother’s behaviour with sexual innuendo. ‘She married. O most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to such incestuous sheets! It is not [nor it cannot come to] good/ But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.’ Some critics tend to explain Hamlets anger towards his mother in terms of the Freudian theme of ‘Oedipus Complex’: that he loves his mother and hates Claudius, perhaps unconsciously, as a sexual rival!

The ‘Ghost’ of Vengeance

Hamlet learns from his friend Horatio that his father’s ghost has appeared at the fortification of the Elsinore castle. He ‘encounters’ the ghost who tells him that it was Claudius who killed his father by pouring poison in his ear while he was asleep in an orchard. ‘I am thou father’s spirit’... ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown’. ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’. The ghost arouses Hamlets primitive aggressive impulses that begin to break through moral bounds: ‘All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/ That youth and observation copied there/ And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain/ Unmixed with baser matter; yes, by heaven!’

I suggest that the ‘ghost’ resides within Hamlet, in keeping with his earlier pronouncement: ‘My father – methinks I see my father – in my mind’s eye’. The ghost of King Hamlet, who ruthlessly subdued his neighbour seems to ‘appear’ at a time when the country is gripped with horror and premonition of an imminent attack by the Norwegians in the wake of the political vacuum created by the sudden death of their ‘heroic Dane’ who ruthlessly subdued his neighbour. The collective apprehension of a nation [causing the shared experience of the apparition] is brilliantly expressed by Horatio, Hamlet’s erudite friend: ‘The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets’! Despite Horatio’s scepticism the melancholic prince is unwilling to evict his ghost from his mind: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’!

The Battle Within

Hamlet procrastinates over avenging his father’s murder. Instead of plotting Claudius’s death, he reads, paces and contemplates about his own life and the universe. ‘This goodly frame, the earth’ is no more than a ‘sterile promontory’; ‘this majestical roof fretted with golden fire’, the heavens, ‘a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’; and man ‘the paragon of animals’, a ‘quintessence of dust’ – his depressive, nihilistic thought expressed in philosophical terms. A three-cornered struggle has begun between the external world, the aggressive/vengeful impulses and the moral/ philosophical influences – resulting in inner turmoil.

Hamlet is torn between the need to avenge his father’s murder to restore his family honour and the immorality of such action which may result in a mass loss of life. ‘... to my shame I see/ The imminent death of twenty thousand men/ That, for a fantasy and trick of fame/ Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot/ Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause/ Which is not tomb enough or continent/ To hide the slain’.

Hamlet’s anguish, coloured by his philosophical mind at work is best depicted by his inner discourse, arguably, the most quoted piece of verse in English language – ‘To be, or not to be’ – about life and death. He questions: ‘Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ Or take arms against a sea of troubles/ And, by opposing, end them’. What happens after death? Is it a peaceful sleep or a nightmare? Do we end our miseries by putting ourselves to the ‘quietus’ with a dagger and enter that ‘undiscovered country’ from which ‘no traveller returns’ or put up with our problems? ‘Conscience’ makes ‘cowards of us all’ and makes us procrastinate.

There is growing concern in the Danish court about the mental health of prince Hamlet. Claudius is eager to find out the cause of Hamlet’s ‘turbulent and dangerous lunacy’. Polonius, the senior courtier says to Gertrude: ‘Your noble son is mad/ Mad call I it, for to define true madness/ What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?’ Polonius provides a useful empirical view of the pathogenesis: He ‘fell into a sadness, then into a fast/ Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness/ Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension/ Into the madness wherein now he raves..’ But, he is disingenuous about the cause of Hamlet’s ‘insanity’, stating that it was a consequence of his daughter Ophelia rejecting the prince who pursued her, and that he discouraged the ‘hot love on the wing’ as ‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of her star’. The truth is that Polonius discourages his daughter on the grounds of Hamlet’s ‘unreliability’.


In an attempt at better understanding Hamlet’s state of mind, Claudius and Polonius arrange to spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. During this bizarre interaction, Hamlet denies having loved her, curses her marital prospects, expresses his disregard for women, and declares that marriage should be abolished. ‘Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?’ ‘.. if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them’. But, the penny drops when he continues his tirade: ‘I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are’. One does not need to look too far to realise who that ‘one who shall not live’ is. She is no other than his mother whom he once called that ‘most pernicious woman’ for having betrayed his father. Ophelia becomes the target of Hamlet’s anger through a process of ‘transference’ – the analytical term for the unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. Ophelia laments Hamlet’s transformation: ‘Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh’.

Acting Out

‘Coming out of his melancholy’, Hamlet persuades a company of actors visiting the Danish court to stage an old play whose storyline carries a persuasive theme that acts out the murder of old king Hamlet. ‘For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/ With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players/ Play something like the murder of my father/ Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks/ I’ll tent him to the quick’. ‘The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’.

The play did catch the conscience of Claudius. He makes a hurried exit, followed by the entire court. Hamlet, the hunter, becomes the hunted. Claudius orders Hamlet to go to England, where he plans to have him killed. Hamlet escapes the plot and returns to Denmark.

The queen demands that she sees Hamlet immediately. On his way to his mother’s inner chamber, Hamlet sees the Claudius down on his knees to pray – a perfect opportunity for him to avenge his father’s murder. But, the prince desists from killing the man at prayer, since it would mean that the victim would go to heaven not hell, which Hamlet believes the killer of his father deserves. Instead he directs his anger at his mother who in turn berates him for his ‘pranks’. Noticing some movement behind a screen during this fracas, Hamlet leaps into action, draws his sword, and stabs the unknown figure, thinking it was Claudius. He lifts the curtain and sees dead Polonius, who was eavesdropping.


The story moves from words to action towards an inexorable climax. Laertes, Polonius’s son avenges his father’s death. His sister, Ophelia, grief-stricken, loses her sanity in a ‘manic swing’ and commits suicide by drowning. Claudius plots a duel between Laertes and Hamlet, doubly assuring the death of the latter by providing a poison-tipped sword to the former and poisoning the wine of the latter. In response to Horatio’s cautionary words, Hamlet, [reminiscent of Matthew] states: ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all’. The duel begins: Laertes wounds hamlet: they exchange swords and Hamlet stabs Laertes with the poisoned sword; and in the melee, Gertrude drinks from Hamlet’s cup of poisoned wine. Hamlet finally stabs Claudius before collapsing to his death. Laertes, at the moment of his death, having gained insight into the source of evil, forgives Hamlet for the demise of his family.

The Norwegians lead by prince Fortinbras invade Denmark and restore order after arranging a military funeral for Hamlet.


Shakespeare creates the sensitive and philosophical character in prince Hamlet, exposes him to a major crisis in his life, and sets him off on a journey of resolution, raising the expectation of those who read or see the play for the young prince to emerge as hero. Those adhering to convention would expect Hamlet to avenge his father’s death and redeem his family honour by taking over the rule – a ‘combat hero’. Others with high moral sensitivity would expect him to give sovereignty to his conscience - cognisant of his own mind, knowledge and remorse - and not take life for a life - a ‘spiritual hero’. Hamlet makes his exit leaving neither party satisfied. ‘Had I but time... O, I could tell you/ But let it be, Horatio, I am dead/ Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright/ to the unsatisfied’. ‘And in this harsh world draw thy breadth in pain/ To tell my story’.

I am no Horatio; but I who ‘livest’ ‘unsatisfied’ see him as a ‘tragic hero’ who fell at the battle of thought. Isn’t it the tragedy of being human?


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