Does Hamlet show that people in the 16th Century are just like us?

Shakespeare depicts Hamlet in a way that is very psychologically real, which indeed makes connections to modern day society. Hamlet addresses multiple ‘taboo’ subjects, such as atheism and mental health, which allow modern audiences make connections with 16th Century beliefs and behaviour. But how much are people in the 16th Century really like us? 

One difference I first explored when comparing people from the 16th Century to modern day experiences was atheism. Not believing in God in the 16th Century was one of the biggest sins one could commit… According to 16th century jurist Jean Bodin: “Witchery was atheism, and atheism was the biggest crime and sin.” Also, according to English cleric and Cambridge theologian William Perkins: “Witchery universally did not exist, but had an anti-Christian character, and included rejecting baptism and apostasy.” This belief on atheism almost detaches a modern audience from connecting with 16th Century people, as this could be seen as an extremely old fashioned view. According to sociologist Phil Zuckerman, broad estimates of those who have an absence of belief in a deity range from 500 to 750 million people worldwide. Other estimates state that there are 200 million to 240 million self-identified atheists worldwide, with China and Russia being major contributors to those figures. Sociologists  Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera’s review of numerous global studies on atheism, state there are 450 to 500 million positive atheists and agnostics worldwide (7% of the world’s population). This highlights how much views have changed over time, which stimulates the thought that we aren’t very similar to the people in the 16th Century. 

However, Shakespeare denotes the subject of mental health presented in multiple characters within Hamlet, including Gertrude, Opheilia and Hamlet himself. This is often a subject that a modern audience can identify with. Although, societies views and opinions on mental illness were significantly different in the 16th Century. People with psychological disorders were seen as dangerous so they were locked up to protect society and there was an increase in mortality rate. In the 16th and 17th centuries, people were obsessed with the concept of mental illness. 

This is evident throughout Shakespeare’s plays, but is especially apparent throughout his play Hamlet. Madness is one of the most pervasive themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Several of the characters in Hamlet could be considered mad. Most notably, Hamlet and Ophelia characterise the idea of madness in this play. The madness displayed by each of these characters is driven, in part, by the deaths of their fathers, however they each portray madness in different ways even though their madness is driven by similar origins. The madness of each of these characters ultimately ends in tragedy. This is perhaps also an outdated view of the taboo topic relating mental health. However, symptoms that Hamlet and Ophelia demonstrate can be applied to modern day behaviours, making us question if we actually are just like the people in the 16th Century. Another character that can be construed as mad in Hamlet is Ophelia. Ophelia is portrayed as a weak character who is unable to think clearly for herself or to have any sense of individuality. Early in the play Ophelia says to her father, Polonius, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”. This indicates that she is too weak-willed to have an identity of her own, which could indicate some type of mental illness or “madness.” Her father’s identity is her identity and this loss of identity propelled her further into madness. Ophelia’s madness is driven by the loss of the male influences in her life. According to Heather Brown, Ophelia “is Polonius’ pawn, Laertes’ chaste sister, and Hamlet’s lover. Once these male influences are removed and these descriptions no longer define Ophelia, she loses her identity and becomes mad.” Once her father is dead, she loses a major part of herself. Laertes’s expectation for her to be chaste, as well as Hamlet’s rejection further propel Ophelia into a state of madness fulled by sexual frustration. 

Madness is one of the main themes of Hamlet. Hamlet and Ophelia both display symptoms of madness, but each become mad for different reasons. Hamlet’s madness is fulled by his father’s death and his desire to seek revenge on the man who killed him. Ophelia’s madness stems from her lack of identity and her feelings of helplessness regarding her own life. While the death of Hamlet’s father made him angry enough to want revenge, Ophelia internalised the death of her father as a loss of personal identity. While these deaths both sparked madness in these characters, they each dealt with their madness in different ways. Thus, by touching on ‘taboo’ subjects, such as atheism and mental health within Hamlet, this allows us to consider the thoughts and emotions of the people in the 16th Century, comparing the differences but at the same time identifying with the characters of Hamlet. 

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Is Hamlet the greatest play ever written? 

Hamlet is argued to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, because, while the play showcases the struggles of Danish royals, what Shakespeare has really written about are the core elements that drive all of us: grief, betrayal, love and family. In just 5 acts, Shakespeare brilliantly exemplifies just what happens when it feels like the entire world has turned against us, thus why it’s been endlessly adapted and retold. With all the intense scrutiny of the play, maybe Hamlet is about intensity itself, about the desperate, inchoate yearning inside us. So, no matter how different from the prince’s our personalities and circumstances are, we each identify with his confusion of fear and outrage. 

Hamlet himself, the danish prince is one of the most complex characters Shakespeare has ever created, debatably making Hamlet the greatest play ever written. While other characters flatly want one thing- love, revenge and the throne. Hamlet is grappling with all those desires, all while dealing with grave existential despair. It is in fact this mixture that makes Hamlet so wonderfully nuanced. He is an incredible character study by Shakespeare, one that elevates any actor that plays him and any reader that reads him. Shakespeare also drew great attention to the play, as Interpretations of Hamlet in the Renaissance period were very concerned with the play’s portrayal of madness. However, by the early Jacobean period, the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatisation of melancholy and insanity. Shakespeare introduced madness in the Renaissance period, perfectly exemplifying how one can be driven towards insanity, just like Hamlet. Critic’s, who have reported on madness, have compared Hamlet to the ‘Earl of Essex’, who was executed for leading rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Essex’s situation has been analysed by scholars for its revelations into Elizabethan ideas of madness in connection with treason as they connect with Hamlet. Seen in the same context, Hamlet is quite possibly as mad as he is pretending to be, at least in Elizabethan sense. The reoccurring theme of madness is widely utilised within Hamlet, leading to a variety of interpretations. For example, from a psychoanalytical critic’s point of view, Hamlet’s madness could be repressed emotions from Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died at the age of 11 from an unknown cause, which could have influenced the character of Hamlet. Hamlets anger and madness towards his mother’s limited grief over his father’s death could parallel Shakespeare’s emotions of grieving over his own son’s death. Having said this, Hamlet is the play where most freudian interpretations arise from, yet again making Hamlet the greatest play ever written as it stimulated much controversy within the Elizabethan audience. Sigmund Freud, an Australian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, wrote a critical essay in ‘The Interpretations of Dreams’ by A. A. Brill (1911). In this, Freud explains how Shakespeare explores the fundamental concepts of modern psychology within Hamlet. Freud devised the Oedipus complex, where children have repressed desire to be with the opposite-gendered parent, (“the child yearns for love, attention and sexual intimacy with the opposite gendered parent, however the child is also rivalry with the same-gendered parent.”)- From the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. This complex Freud devised is evidently displayed through the madness of Hamlet. Freud believes that Hamlet is forced to feign madness with various characters to conceal his repressed desire for his mother. For instance, he convinces Polonius and Ophelia he is simply insane and acts irrationally due to his father’s abrupt and callous murder. Moreover, he proves to Claudius he is insane in order to divert his attention and eliminate him. Essentially, Freud believes that Hamlet feigns madness to disguise his psychological yearning for his mother’s passionate attention. Clearly, such ideas hold incredible amounts of question, adding to the idea that Hamlet is indeed the greatest play ever written.