Hamlet's Complex Personality and Madness

Categories: Hamlet

William Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" has long been celebrated as one of his greatest works, primarily due to the enigmatic nature of its protagonist. Hamlet's intricate personality, coupled with his convoluted thoughts and actions, has perplexed scholars for centuries. In this essay, we will explore the depths of Hamlet's psyche, analyzing his rational and irrational thoughts, his melancholic state, and his potential descent into madness. We will also delve into the concept of the Oedipal complex and its influence on Hamlet's behavior.

The Melancholic Mindset

At the heart of Hamlet's complexity lies his profound melancholia. The play opens with Hamlet dressed in "nighted" colors, signifying his deep sorrow and mourning for the death of his father, King Hamlet, and the swift remarriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude, to his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet's melancholic state is vividly portrayed in his soliloquies, where he contemplates suicide as a means to "thaw and resolve [himself] into a dew." This dark contemplation of self-destruction hints at the depths of his mental anguish and raises questions about his sanity.

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In the Elizabethan era, melancholia was often viewed as an imbalance of the humors, a concept of medical theory from that time. While not as overt as Ophelia's madness, Hamlet's melancholic disposition would still have been seen as a form of insanity. Modern interpretations may argue that Hamlet is not fully aware of his insanity, but rather it resides in his subconscious, influencing his volatile conscious state, which is presented on stage.

Sigmund Freud's analogy of the conscious mind being like a fountain rising from a vast subterranean pool, the subconscious, is apt here.

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Hamlet's contemplation of suicide, albeit restrained by his fear of divine retribution, suggests emotional and mental turmoil. He clings to his conscious sanity by channeling his hatred towards Gertrude's "incestuous sheets," but his subconscious mind has already been tainted by depression.

The Contradiction of a Renaissance Man

Some scholars, like Stoll, argue that Hamlet is a "Renaissance man," characterized by intellectual contemplation rather than participation in murder and insanity. However, this argument seems flawed. Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be," reflects his inclination towards suicide, which does not align with the ideals of a Renaissance man focused on intellectual growth and progress. This contemplation of self-annihilation is a product of his deteriorating mental state, stemming from his melancholia.

Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia

Hamlet's interactions with Ophelia provide a clear glimpse into his descent into madness. Wilson Knight aptly describes Hamlet as "murdering his love for Ophelia, on the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty." However, it is crucial to note that Hamlet has already crossed the brink of insanity. His erratic behavior towards Ophelia is indicative of this descent, and his paranoia is palpable when he suspects others present during their encounters.

One instance illustrating Hamlet's paranoia occurs in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of 'Hamlet,' where Hamlet hears a faint sound, providing him with evidence that Polonius is present. In the original text, no such pause or sound is mentioned, emphasizing the disarray of Hamlet's thoughts and reinforcing his paranoia.

Hamlet's contradictory statements about his love for Ophelia further showcase his deteriorating mental state. In the graveyard scene, he exclaims that he loved Ophelia, contradicting his earlier statement that he "loved" her "not." This inconsistency can be attributed to his insanity, which has fragmented his mind.

Another instance of Hamlet's conscious insanity occurs during his conversation with Polonius, where he employs irrational responses and even calls Polonius a "fishmonger." While Hamlet may attempt to feign madness to deceive Polonius, his performance is so convincing that he inadvertently reveals his true mental state.

The Oedipal Complex

Hamlet's complex psychology extends to the realm of the Oedipal complex, a theory proposing that he represses subconscious sexual desires for his mother, Gertrude. This repression, in turn, influences his conscious behavior, leading to obsession and temperamental paranoia.

Ernest Jones suggests that Hamlet's anguish stems from his father's replacement in his mother's affections and that he harbors erotic feelings for her. The arrival of Claudius, who takes Gertrude as his wife, triggers Hamlet's resentment and jealousy, as he views Claudius as an intruder encroaching upon what he perceives as his rightful place.

In the "closet scene," Hamlet's ambiguous statement to Gertrude, "I will set up a glass where you can see the inmost part of you," carries undertones of reflection and evaluation, but it also hints at sexual implications. Some interpretations, like Kenneth Branagh's adaptation, emphasize this ambiguity by portraying Hamlet as if he were about to assault Gertrude sexually. Whether intentional or not, this scene underscores Hamlet's obsession and descent into madness.

Hamlet's preoccupation with the "incestuous sheets" and "adulterous" nature of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius further aligns with the notion of the Oedipal complex. If Hamlet's sole focus were revenge, he would have acted swiftly after the play-within-a-play. His delay in exacting revenge reflects his internal conflict between his subconscious sexual desires and his conscious need for vengeance.


In conclusion, Hamlet's character is a complex tapestry of emotions, thoughts, and actions that leave us questioning his sanity. His melancholic state, erratic behavior towards Ophelia, and hints of an Oedipal complex all contribute to the portrayal of a character on the brink of madness. While some may argue that Hamlet's actions can be attributed to his intellectual nature, the evidence suggests a deeper, more troubling psychological turmoil. The character of Hamlet continues to fascinate and challenge scholars, making it a timeless exploration of human psychology.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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Hamlet's Complex Personality and Madness. (2017, Jul 27). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/hamlets-antic-disposition-is-feigned-essay

Hamlet's Complex Personality and Madness essay
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