Modern Connections

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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, distilled henbane, was an extraction made from a Mediterranean plant using the relatively new and popular method of distillation just becoming better known in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth feared plotters, and several sensationalized alleged or actual poison plots were uncovered and tried during or shortly after her reign.

In Elizabethan England, suspicion and intrigue played a role in the defense of the realm against dangers from within. Court spying in England and abroad reached an accomplished level under Queen Elizabeth. Her employee Francis Walsingham has the distinction of being the first master of developing the modern spy state. In Hamlet, the intelligence-gathering done or attempted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was considered, at least by King Claudius, to be a necessary part of maintaining order. Disorder in a state could also be mirrored by disorder in a family. Hamlet is forced to live in a family scarred by murder and what was considered a form of incest by Elizabethan standards. Hamlet laments the disorder in his family and in the realm and exclaims against it when he says: ‘‘The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!’’(I.v.188-89).

In twentieth-century society, concerns about sophisticated poisons inherent in chemical and biological hazards extend in a number of directions, from industrial pollutants, to medical/biological hazardous wastes, to biological and chemical warfare, to the potential actions of state-sponsored terrorists, private pathologically oriented citizens, or cult leaders. Safeguards are present in the form of environmental groups, federal and state legislation, industry watchdogs, and government agencies. Governments worldwide have become more aware of the necessity of guarding against attacks on both political leaders and ordinary citizens by terrorists and anarchists. In addition, people of all views along the political spectrum seem to be acknowledging the need for strong, well-functioning families as a basis for a strong society.

Physical health and political health are related to, to some extent, society’s view of the universe and the place of humanity in it. The Elizabethan world view, as it was expressed in a classic phrase by the critic E. M. W. Tillyard, was hierarchical and pyramidal. The structure depicted God at the apex, angels and the spiritual world below God, the king below God and receiving his power from God, followed by nobles, gentry, and ordinary people. Below this was the animal kingdom, then plants, then minerals and stones. Each subdivision had its own order of excellence as well. This view is based on biblical passages, including verses in Genesis. A brief, lyrical expression of the view is found in Psalm 8. Hamlet’s own beliefs may be represented by this view, though when he discusses it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is in, if not a state of disbelief, then a state of melancholy, disgust, and world-weariness. He says of himself, ‘‘I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises’’ (II.ii.295-97); he refers to man as ‘‘this quintessence of dust’’ (II.ii.308) and says of the rest,

this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this
brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof
fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other
thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

A related theological view is that each individual is called to an accounting of his actions at the moment of his death. Although in the Christian view atonement was gained for all men through Christ’s death, the individual believer must nevertheless maintain himself in a state of grace and be a follower of Christ in his own actions. The individual who dies in a state of sin rather than a state of grace may be judged in need of purging (purgatorial) punishments or even deserving of everlasting torments, depending on the severity of the sin(s) and the disposition of the sinner. Because the fiery torments described by the ghost in Hamlet have a terminal point, the ghost is often thought of as coming from Purgatory rather than Hell. Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius while the king is in a praying, repentant state. Instead, Hamlet says he will wait to catch Claudius when he is drunk or ‘‘in the incestuous pleasure of his bed’’ (III.iii.90) so that Claudius will die in a state of sin when his ‘‘soul may be as damn’d and black / As Hell, whereto it goes’’ (III.iii.94-95).

In modern society, a range of views is held by both Christians and non-Christians on the nature and extent of what have been called the ‘‘Four Last Things’’—Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Some people believe that the list of the elect (those saved) is small and is determined ahead of time, while others doubt the existence of Hell or question whether Hell lasts forever. Some people believe that only the members of their own particular religious sect can be saved, while others believe salvation has been gained for all who have faith, regardless of their adherence to the precepts of an institutional church.

Finally, in today’s society, many views are also held about the place of humanity in the universe. Each new scientific discovery brings with it a re-examination, restatement, or reformulation of previous views. For example, the recent (August, 1996) apparent discovery of microscopic life on Mars has caused some people to re-examine the question of whether or not the inhabitants of Earth are the only examples of intelligent life in the universe.

Media Adaptations

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Media Adaptations

  • Hamlet. Universal, J. Arthur Rank, 1948. Film adaptation of Hamlet by Laurence Olivier, who directed and starred in the production. The motion picture also features Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Jean Simmons, and Anthony Quayle. Distributed by RCA VideoDiscs. 155 minutes.
  • Hamlet. Neil Hartley and Martin Rashonoff, 1969. Motion picture version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, featuring Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, and Marianne Faithful. Directed by Tony Richardson. Distributed by RCA/Columbia Home Video. 114 minutes.
  • Hamlet. BBC, Time Life Television, 1979. Television adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy and part of the series ‘‘The Shakespeare Plays.’’ Features Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Distributed by Time-Life Video. 150 minutes.
  • Hamlet. Warner Brothers, 1990. Film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Paul Scofield. Distributed by Warner Brothers Home Video, Inc. 135 minutes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barnet, Sylvan. ‘‘Shakespeare: Prefatory Remarks,’’ in William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Edward Hubler. New York: Signet Classic, 1963 (viixx).

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z, New York: Roundtable Press, 1990. ‘‘Hamlet,’’ (231–234); ‘‘Hamlet,’’ (234–241); ‘‘Quiney, Thomas,’’ (529); ‘‘Shakespeare, William,’’ (586–591).

Chute, Marchette. ‘‘Shakespeare, William,’’ in the New Book of Knowledge, vol. 5 (17). Grolier, Inc., 1980. (130b-134).

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Edward Hubler. New York: Signet Classic, 1963.

Further Reading
Bonjour, Adrien. ‘‘The Question of Hamlet’s Grief,’’ in English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 43 (1962): 336-43. Refutes the notion that Hamlet suffers from excessive grief over his father’s death by studying the critical perspective which treats him as a ‘‘slave of passion.’’

Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Hamlet (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 5). London: Edward Arnold (Publishers), 1963. Contains ten essays discussing a wide range of topics in Hamlet by such noted scholars as G. K. Hunter, R. A. Foakes, John Russell Brown, and Stanley Wells.

Burge, Barbara. ‘‘‘Hamlet’: The Search for Identity,’’ in A Review of English Literature 5, No. 2 (April 1964): 58-71. Maintains that Hamlet’s search for identity focuses on the merging of two different perspectives: external observations by Hamlet himself and others and the internal workings of his mind.

Calderwood, James L. ‘‘Hamlet: The Name of Action,’’ in Modern Language Quarterly 39, No. 4 (December 1978): 331-62. Explores the significance of proper names and titles, examining how they reflect the various roles the characters play in Hamlet.

Camden, Carroll. ‘‘On Ophelia's Madness,’’ in Shakespeare 400, edited by James G. McManaway, pp. 247-55. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1964. Argues that Ophelia’s ruined relationship with Hamlet, rather than her father’s death, is the overriding cause of her madness.

Campbell, Lily B. ‘‘Hamlet: A Tragedy of Grief,’’ in her Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion, pp. 109-47. 1930. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1960. Contends that since Hamlet’s passion is not moderated by reason, his grief becomes so excessive that it ‘‘will not yield to the consolations of philosophy.’’ This intense grief, the critic declares, causes the protagonist's reason to "fail in directing the will" to carry out his revenge.

---. ‘‘Polonius: The Tyrant’s Ears,’’ in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, edited by James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, and Edwin E. Willoughby, pp. 295-313. Washington D.C.: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948. Claims that Polonius is ‘‘a well-rounded and consistent character’’ even though Shakespeare portrays him as a meddling buffoon. Polonius is integral to the play’s plot, the critic asserts, for his death precipitates its tragic conclusion.

Charney, Maurice. ‘‘Claudius: ‘Break not your sleep for that,’’’ in his Style in Hamlet, pp. 221-41. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Analyzes Claudius’s language in Hamlet, noting that he alternates between two styles: an eloquent rhetorical style for generally formal occasions and a simple, more direct style to discuss his personal affairs.

Craig, Hardin. ‘‘Hamlet as a Man of Action,’’ in The Huntington Library Quarterly XXVII, No. 3 (May 1964): 229-37. Examines the nature of Hamlet’s procrastination, focusing on the protagonist as he appeared in the literary sources of Hamlet, and on major critical interpretations of his character.

Dessen, Alan C. "Hamlet’s Poisoned Sword: A Study in Dramatic Imagery,’’ in Shakespeare Studies V (1969): 53-69. Discusses the symbolic role of Hamlet’s sword in the play.

Elliott, G. R. ‘‘Introduction: On Pride, Justice, and the Gentleman-Prince,’’ in his Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet as Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice, pp. xv-xxxv, 1951. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965. Maintains that both Hamlet’s and Claudius’s delay are dramatically inseparable elements of the tragedy. The critic also notes that Renaissance audiences would have considered Hamlet the ‘‘Complete Gentleman’’—a role model for the whole social structure—which would be reason enough for his hesitation.

Goodman, Paul. ‘‘Novelistic Plots,’’ in his The Structure of Literature, pp. 127-83. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954. Brief overview of the structure of Hamlet focusing on such issues as the characterization of Fortinbras, Hamlet’s disposition, the king’s plot, and the soliloquies.

Halio, Jay L. ‘‘Hamlet's Alternatives,’’ in Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8, No. 2 (Summer 1966): 169-88. Proposes alternatives to revenge for Hamlet based on various elements in the text, as well as the options dramatized in Shakespeare’s sources and by contemporary playwrights.

Hartwig, Joan. ‘‘Parodic Polonius,’’ in Texas Studies in Literature and Language XII, No. 2 (Summer 1971): 215-25. Examines Polonius as a parody of the other more serious characters in Hamlet.

Jenkins, Harold. ‘‘Hamlet and Ophelia,’’ in Proceedings of the British Academy 49 (1964): 135-51. Offers a close examination of the "nunnery scene" between Hamlet and Ophelia (Act III, scene i), defending Ophelia’s character from critics who have considered her a weak, easily manipulated decoy.

Kirschbaum, Leo. ‘‘Hamlet and Ophelia,’’ in Philological Quarterly XXXV, No. 4 (October 1956): 376-93. Provides a scene-by-scene analysis of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia.

Lawlor, J. J. ‘‘The Tragic Conflict in Hamlet,’’ in The Review of English Studies I, No. 2 (April 1950): 97-113. Places the issue of Hamlet’s delay in its Elizabethan context and relates it to the genre of the Revenge Tragedy—a popular dramatic form in Shakespeare’s day.

Reno, Raymond H. ‘‘Hamlet’s Quintessence of Dust,’’ in Shakespeare Quarterly XII, No. 2 (Spring 1961): 107-13. Discusses Hamlet’s perplexing change of attitude from the time he is sent to England in Act IV until his return to Denmark in Act V.

Smith, Rebecca. ‘‘A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude,’’ in The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Green, and Carol Thomas Neely, pp. 194-210. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Interprets Gertrude as not a ‘‘deceitful, highly sexual’’ woman as depicted in Shakespeare’s sources, but a ‘‘nuturant and loving one’’ endowed with great complexity of character.

Van Doren, Mark. ‘‘Hamlet,’’ in his Shakespeare, pp. 190-201. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939. General overview of Hamlet.


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Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A full discussion of revenge tragedy and its connections to the central action of Hamlet. Bowers’ historical account of the conventions of revenge tragedy provides an illuminating context for the play.

Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare’s Tragic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The chapter on Hamlet attempts to revise and question some of the Christian interpretations of the play. Also of value is Grene’s connecting Hamlet to the play that preceded it in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600).

Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. This guide to Hamlet provides an introduction to the play along with extensive literary criticism. Some issues discussed are Shakespeare’s influences, the different versions of the play that exist today, and various interpretations and criticisms. Includes black and white photos of actors playing Hamlet and a bibliography of resources for further research.

Prosser, Eleanor. “Hamlet” and Revenge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. Prosser uses an historical approach to try to answer such central questions as the Elizabethans’ attitude toward revenge, the nature of the father’s ghost, and regicide.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982. Considered by many to be the best edition of the play, its notes are clear and thorough, and Jenkins includes a number of longer notes that discuss such controversies as those surrounding Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech. Also includes an excellent discussion of the sources for the play and earlier criticism on it.

Watts, Cedric. Hamlet. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Includes a stage history and a critical history that provide some of the contexts for Hamlet. The discussion is intended to preserve the play’s mystery rather than offering another solution to the so-called Hamlet problem.

Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. 3d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1951. Wilson attempts to resolve all of the unsolved questions in the play by a close analysis of the text. Suggests plausible answers for some of the problems but fails to resolve the most important ones.

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Historical and Social Context