Written at the outset of the seventeenth century and based on accounts of several centuries earlier, Hamlet is often regarded as remarkably modern in its treatment of themes concerning mental health, political health, and spiritual health.
Hamlet describes himself as afflicted with a melancholy, which he does not completely understand. English Renaissance audiences of Hamlet based their ideas about psychological disturbances such as melancholy and madness on medieval theories of body humours, or fluids. The humours correlated with the four basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The humours consisted of black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. A predominance of one of these humours resulted in a personality type. The person with an excess of blood was called sanguine, or cheerful. The excess of phlegm resulted in a phlegmatic, or passive, inert sort of person. An excess of black bile resulted in melancholy, or sadness. An excess of yellow bile resulted in choler, or anger. Treatments for melancholy ranged from advice about types of clothing and colors to wear or avoid to settings for one’s house to types of food to eat or avoid. The early seventeenth-century work The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, contains a special section dealing with two difficult-to-treat types of melancholy, love melancholy and religious melancholy. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet suffers from love melancholy. Although Hamlet says he has lost his ability to enjoy his usual activities, several observers, including the king, express the opinion that Hamlet is not mad but brooding over something and thereby is dangerous.
Ophelia, by contrast, is assumed by all of her observers—the queen, the king, Horatio, her brother—to be truly mad. In medieval times, the mad person was thought to be inhabited by an evil spirit. The treatment was identification of the spirit and exorcism by a cleric. Exorcisms of evil spirits were still conducted in Shakespeare’s day. The indigent mad person was allowed to live in an almshouse and go about freely unless dangerous. General medical practice in Shakespeare’s day emphasized hygiene, herbal remedies, and dietary recommendations. Even in medieval times, teaching hospitals kept botanical gardens and made herbal medicines, and the discovery of the Americas and also voyages to India led to the introduction of many more plants and herbs to Elizabethan England. Ophelia’s songs contain herbal lore linking properties and symbolism of various plants, including rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbines, rue, daisies, and violets.
In modern times, the medical community has a wide range of approaches available for the treatment of mental illness. Many patients of longer term psychotherapy, defined as extending over more than six months, report satisfaction with the improvement of their mental health. Some are as well-pleased with this ‘‘talk therapy’’ alone as with a combination of therapy and prescription medication, which can have such unwanted side effects as drowsiness and disorientation. Available treatments include the following therapies: Freudian, cognitive, interpersonal, behavioral, drug, and shock. Techniques such as meditation and biofeedback are also used.
Just as maintaining individual physical health was and is viewed as important, maintaining the political well-being of the state is also considered to be of utmost importance, especially to political leaders to whom a good portion of this responsibility falls. Threats against the state in the form of plots, actual or imagined, intended to overthrow the ruler were concerns of the Elizabethan court. Poisons were a cause of concern. In some political settings, including Italian and French courts and sub-kingdoms, ingenious poisons were sometimes resorted to as a way of eliminating enemies. In Hamlet , Hamlet’s royal father is killed by a rival claimant to his throne by the method of pouring a poison into his ear while he was sleeping. The poison,...
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