When reading Hamlet, I could not help but notice Hamlet’s drastic mood swings between depression and mania and his inconsistent sense of time. These happen to be signs of Bipolar disorder. It made me want to look deeper at the mental history within some to the characters in the play. The show begins with Hamlet in a depressive state with Claudius commenting that “The clouds still hang on” him (1.2.66). When he describes to Gertrude the details of his mourning he says “But I have that within which passeth show/These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-86). Hamlet is saying that he is not simply in mourning, but that his grief is something still a deeper, heavier depression. In Hamlet’s soliloquy at 129 of this same scene, he tells the audience that he is suicidal.
In 1.4 his energy changes. At the entrance of the Ghost of his father, he bursts into action (this, of course, could be due to the fact that he is seeing his father’s ghost). Suddenly everything is rushed, there is an extreme sense of importance. He says at 29 “Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.” Hamlet finds himself ready to avenge his father’s death, he starts planning rapidly, making sure that the witnesses do not give his cause away. He uses it to trick Polonius, Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into thinking that he has lost his mind. This episode of productivity and sense of importance lasts until after the First Player’s ‘for Hecuba’ speech. After this, he becomes unsure again. Though still resolved to plan the players’s part in his revenge scheme, he is now slower again, he ruminates more on each action. He thinks everything through much more, almost to the point of inaction.
During this depressive episode is when he has his famous “to be or not to be” speech, where he once again weighs the value of continuing life against the presence of death. He then somewhat accidentally throws himself into another manic episode when he needs to fake his insanity again when Ophelia approaches him. This episode takes him through the planning of the play, the play itself, and right up to when he is standing behind Claudius, ready to strike. For one brief moment, he seems to level out, being able to stop his impulsivity and back that decision up with reason. He does not kill Claudius because he does not want him to go to heaven when he should rightfully go to purgatory, as his father’s ghost wished. This manic episode continues throughout the closet scene, leading him to his impulsive murder of Polonius. He is able to finish hiding the body and goad Claudius before he is sent to England.
The next time we see him, in 4.4, he gives a long monologue sulking in his depressive episodes and the inaction that they cause. He resolves to action once again, but remains in his depression through the beginning of 5.1, when he gives the “alas poor Yorick” speech, he is highlighting the unimportance of man’s impact on the world. Suddenly, upon seeing Ophelia’s body, he is thrown back into a manic episode, and she is the most important thing in the world to him. So much so that he is ready to be buried with her.
In 5.2 he explains to Horatio the actions of an episode of mania that he had while on the way to England. He says “Ere I could make the prologue to my brains, / They had begun the play,” meaning that he acted before he consciously thought it through (5.2.31-32). This was a serious impulse, as it lead to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He also recognizes that his bout with Laertes at Ophelia’s grave was another like moment, saying the the “bravery of his grief” put him “Into a tow’ring passion” (5.2.80-82). He also starts the scene saying that “in [his] heart there was a kind of fighting/That would not let [him]sleep.” A decreased need for sleep is a symptom of mania, but also of hypomania, a less extreme episode of mania, which Hamlet might be experiencing here. But after Laertes wounds him, and he wounds Laertes back, he enters another episode of full-blown mania. He quickly disposes of Claudius before collapsing into Horatio’s arms. His last moments could be of mania or depression, though I tend to think depression, it could be interpreted either way.
One other thing that stood out to me constantly was Hamlet’s inconsistent sense of time. Many people diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder experience the speeding or slowing of time, or feel like they experience time differently than others seem to. The example that most stands out to me is lines 3.2.113-117. Hamlet tells Ophelia that his father has died a mere two hours before and Ophelia states that it has actually been two months. Hamlet is shocked by this passing of time.
During this time, mental illness was not understood very well. His illness would have likely been immediately diagnosed as melancholy or despair. The symptoms of Shakespeare’s characters are evidence of a common misunderstanding of mental health problems.