By Kelli Allred, Ph.D.
Shakespeare certainly seems to have understood human nature well enough to be considered one of the earliest English-speaking experts on human behavior and thought. So, in addition to his other monikers, might modern scholars also consider him a behavioral psychologist? Hamlet’s five soliloquies reveal enough about his cognitive reasoning to allow a mental health professional to offer a diagnosis of Hamlet Syndrome. In his book, The Hamlet Syndrome, Andrew Goldblatt identifies a segment of the general population as individuals who are “over thinkers who underachieve.” He goes on to characterize specific behaviors and attitudes of those with Hamlet Syndrome: “low stress jobs . . . people who get law degrees but never practice law . . . torn between idealism and monetary success . . . downwardly mobile jobs or unemployed . . . these folks can’t decide what to do, and so they [do] nothing. . . . Procrastinators . . . they don’t return phone calls . . . romantically they are solitary people.” (Goldblatt, Andrew and Adrienne Miller, The Hamlet Syndrome [New York: Wm. Morrow Publishing, 1989], 10).
Procrastination is a demon that most individuals recognize within themselves. Hamlet, however, takes procrastination to new heights with his waiting, his weighing, and his self-negotiating. His verbal bouts with conscience, morality, duty, and filial devotion take the observer on a circuitous journey of intrigue and revenge. “To whom is he speaking?” audiences might ask. Mostly, however, the audience must sit passively and play the role of therapist to Hamlet’s “distracted globe” (1.5.96).
The soliloquies establish a relationship between Hamlet and the audience, not unlike that of therapist and patient. This relationship exists because Hamlet has no one to whom he can bare his soul. He desperately needs a loyal and understanding friend. While his frat brothers Guildenstern and Rosencrantz pretend to be worried about him, they become traitors to Hamlet when they spy on him for his controlling and nefarious uncle Claudius. Of course, Horatio proves worthy of Hamlet’s friendship, but he’s more of a servant to Hamlet than a friend. Horatio keeps Hamlet’s secrets, listens to Hamlet’s wild stories and rants, and even laughs at his friend’s cynical quips. Nevertheless, there are some things a prince just can’t share with a servant/friend. Modern history reminds us of at least one royal who, when forced to keep family secrets, developed a form of “madness” (i.e neurotic behaviours, bulimia, depression) and eventually unburdened herself to an objective third party—a member of the press.
Whether they like it or not, the audience serves as Hamlet’s confidante throughout the play, as Hamlet bares his soul in a series of soliloquies. Each monologue precedes an action that Hamlet intends to perform, but does not. When Hamlet arrives back at the family home in Elsinore (Act 1), his father has been dead barely a month when his mother marries Claudius. Despair, humiliation, embarrassment, and a strong sense of injustice drive Hamlet’s first soliloquy, in which he reveals his wish to cease living—“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt . . . into a dew” (1.2.129–30); he rejects suicide, wishing that “the Everlasting had not fixt His canon ‘against self-slaughter!’” (1.2.131–132). The theme of this monologue is the unbearable sorrow that Hamlet is compelled to speak aloud. “It is not nor it cannot come to good; But break, my heart” (1.2.158–59). Ironically, his choice to remain silent (“for I must hold my tongue!”) comes too late for the audience. He has already spoken aloud his initial torment, and the audience is now part of Hamlet’s story.
The second soliloquy reveals complications with Hamlet’s emotional upheaval, for now he is privy to more knowledge of the rotting in Denmark: his father has been murdered by his uncle Claudius; moreover, the ghost of King Hamlet has appeared to the prince and demands vengeance for his death. When he realizes that he must kill Claudius, Hamlet turns to the audience and asks for a direct response: how he will commit this act and what may others think of him for it?
“Am I a coward?/ Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? . . ./ Tweaks me by th’nose? Gives me the lie i’th’ throat/ As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this, ha?” (2.2.572–76).
Hamlet speaks harshly of himself when he begins his second soliloquy with “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (2.2.558), and continues with his self-abasement, saying “I am pigeon-liver’d, and lack gall to make oppression bitter” (2.2.578). By now Hamlet begins to realize that he has been passed over as heir to the throne. Hamlet’s “election” to the Danish throne should have followed the old king’s death, as was the manner at the time. Instead, Claudius has aligned the king’s subjects and closest advisors to bypass Hamlet, who now sees more clearly how his uncle has rendered him powerless: “I . . . can say nothing; no, not for a king,/ Upon whose property and most dear life/ A damn’d defeat was made” (2.2.574–77).
Throughout this second monologue, Hamlet holds “the mirror up to nature” and sees himself as never before. Hamlet bares his flaws to the audience (“what an ass am I!” 2.2.591), as a contrite repentant might lay bare his soul to his confessor, and once again engages the unwitting audience as therapist. At last a lucid thought enters the young prince’s mind, and he is able to seize upon it as an epiphany. “I have heard/ That guilty creatures sitting at a play/ Have, by the very cunning of the scene/ Been so struck . . . that presently/ They have proclaim’d their malefactions” (597–601). Hamlet can see that the travelling players/actors might help to elicit a confession from Claudius. “I’ll have these players/ Play something like the murder of my father/ Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks. . . . I know my course . . . the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.603–14). Thus, Hamlet settles on a course of action and intends on revenging his father’s murder, but he makes no concrete plans to do so.
By Act 3, Prince Hamlet has sunk into a suicidal despair and madness (“To be, or not to be” 3.1.55). He tells the audience that he chooses to remain in a sick world rather than to chance an afterlife that may be even worse. The action rises during Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy when Hamlet comes upon Claudius kneeling in prayer and considers killing him at that instant (“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying” 3.3.73). The more Hamlet talks, the less likely he is to act on his impulses. This time, however, he rationalizes that killing Claudius while praying will send his father’s murderer directly to Heaven, instead of to hell.
“Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk, asleep, or in his rage;
Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing; or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven;
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.87–95).
Hamlet chooses to abandon the opportunity to kill Claudius, based on his rational thoughts; he even goes so far as to explain his rationale to the audience (a.k.a. his therapist/confessor). Nevertheless, he remains a victim of his own procrastination. The audience comes to recognize clearly this weakness in Hamlet’s character, this “Hamlet Syndrome.”
According to one Shakespearean scholar, the audience “share with Hamlet a knowledge of the truth and know that he is right, whereas the [other characters] are at best unhappily deceived by their own blind complicity in evil” (David Bevington, “From Introduction to Hamlet,” Hamlet & Related Readings [New York: McDougal Littell, 2002], 299). More than sharing values and beliefs with Hamlet, the audience takes on the role of therapist, with Hamlet the patient who, in hopes of gaining clarity, reveals all. We have little to say and nothing to offer this troubled young man, except to sit quietly and allow him to continue his journey toward self-discovery.