“The act of writing might be described as a conversation between two workmen muttering to each other at the workbench. The self speaks, the other self listens and responds. The self proposes, the other self considers. The self makes, the other self evaluates.” (Murray 140)
Writers pen what they know, what they question and what they need to work through in their own lives. There is no doubt that throughout history they have used their personal struggles as inspiration for their works. Shakespeare saw the world around him, questioned the justness and in the process informed his generation on universal truths that remain prevalent in today’s society. Hamlet is no exception; The Bard explored his own relationships with his recently dead loved ones, and embarked on a personal endeavor exploring a complex form of grief, mourning and loss and theatre’s place in authentically presenting this.
Written in first person and largely considered to be autobiographical in nature, Shakespeare’s sonnets potentially provide a look into his mind at the time of writing Hamlet. Sonnet 30, written between 1595 and 1600, certainly hints at a grieving writer:
‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sign the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe;
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrow ends.’
(Shakespeare & Pooler 34-35)
Shakespeare was no stranger to loss. In his time, the average life expectancy was thirty years old. As was the fate of one in three children, during the 16th and 17th century, his own sister died when she was just seven years old. Shakespeare’s son, named Hamnet, died in 1596 at 11 years old, and his father followed shortly after in 1601. The exact dates that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet are not known, but early versions of the text were published in the First Quarto in 1602, the Second Quarto in 1604, and the first Folio in 1623. It is thought that it was written shortly after he wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, and performed by the company that he was a member (Shakespeare, Spencer, Muir, Hunter, & Barton 3-43). This alone is pretty strong evidence that Shakespeare himself was grieving or mourning multiple losses within his own family while writing Hamlet.
Had Freud pre-dated Shakespeare, it could be suggested that Shakespeare was reading Freud’s writings. The fact is that Shakespeare pre-dates Freud by two hundred and fifty years. Freud has, however, been noted as calling his predecessor “the greatest of poets” and has quoted his works regularly (Holland 163-166). While the majority of Freud’s comparisons have looked at Hamlet’s Oedipus complex, his research into mourning and melancholia provides insight into Shakespeare’s process himself and the objectives of Hamlet throughout the play.
Freud describes melancholia as:
“profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment… the mood of mourning is a painful one… ” (Freud 244)
The difference between the two, however, is that mourning is brought on by a loss of an object, a person or thing, whereas melancholia is the loss of the ego. Hamlet’s mourning is complicated because he is faced with both.
On the surface Hamlet is confronted with the death of his father (soon to be realized as murder), the deception of his uncle (taking Hamlet’s path to the crown), and the loss of his mother (due to his uncle and her deception) in a short period of time. He is pushed into a deep state of mourning. He has lost his path to the crown, something to which he had been prepared for his entire life, as he is now the stepson of the King, “KING: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son – / HAMLET: (Aside) A little more than kin, and less than kind! / KING: How is it that the clouds still hang on you? / HAMLET: Not so my lord. I am too much in the sun” (Hamlet 1.2.64-67). Hamlet is clear in his aside that he resents being called his son, especially after being denied his return to Wittenberg. Hamlet’s second line could be referring to being in the presence of the King to which he resents being in the light of.
Light, however, is not how Hamlet is feeling. He wears black, his breath is uncontrollable and forced, he cries, his face behaves in a dejected manner, and as he states “Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, / That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem’;” (1.2.77-83). Before even knowing that the King has killed his father, in the first interaction between the King and Hamlet, everything Hamlet has been brought up to be is now in question. Will he be king? Why is the only thing that he can do right now is grieve? Why can’t he love? Does he even want to live? All signs of Freuidian mourning and melancholia.
It could be suggested that even Shakespeare struggled to answer these questions. The famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy appears immediately after he rejects Ophelia in Act II, Scene 2 in the First Quatro, but in other editions it appears in Act III, Scene 1, immediately before the play-within-the-play. If Hamlet was intended to be only about love, madness and revenge, the proper placement probably would have been after his mistreatment of Ophelia. Hamlet’s treatment was loveless and mad, but madness was not Shakespeare’s intention. Someone who is mad wouldn’t have gone through the intentional process of finding the truth. Placing this speech before he finds out the truth about his father’s death, at the climax of the play, suggests that the play is more about a search for what ‘seems’, what is authentic, and what is true. In fact, authenticity, or truth, is a more common and explored theme throughout the play.
Shakespeare questions how theatre ‘seems’, he questions whether theatre can have the effect on the citizen that he intends. He is quite concerned with the theatre and authenticity of performance, as he doesn’t find displays of emotion to be trustworthy. Ironic, however, that in most productions of Hamlet, rightfully so, we see quite an outward display of emotion. The idea of the trustworthiness, or deceit, of theatre is apparent throughout. Returning to an earlier quote from the text, it is first apparent when his mother questions his outward appearance, she asks “Why seems it so particular with thee?” (1.2.75), to which he responds:
‘Seems’, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’,
‘Tis no alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem’;
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passes show —
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” (1.2.76-86)
His mother questions why his grief is so outward, more than those around him. Hamlet questions grief itself, and what make the “performance” of grief particular at all.
When Hamlet considers that his mother’s mourning of his father, is deceitful, after learning from the Ghost that he was murdered, he again questions authenticity, “O Villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! / My tables — meet it is I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain (1.3.106-108).” His mother and uncle’s deceit are in a way a performance. This questioning continues throughout the play.
Deceit and authenticity in theatre appear again when he later explains to the first player, “You could for a need study a speech of some dozen lines or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in’t.” Suggesting that, much like Hamlet, he is adapting an original piece. Though, at the time, directors did not exist, he later explains exactly how important it is that the performance of the play does not sound like the words of ‘the town crier’, it should not be just an announcement, but a truth. “It offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings,” Hamlet pleads with the players in an attempt to get an authentic performance (3.2.8-10).
It is particularly relevant that Shakespeare chose to extrapolate on the idea of authenticity in Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene 2, which as Hamlet’s most inner thoughts, also represent Shakespeare’s most inner thoughts. Hamlet calls himself a player, a peasant slave (to the theatre?), and places his tears on a stage:
“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
It is not monstrous that this player here,
but in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing.”
“And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears…”
Hamlet questions the deceit of his mother and uncle, the authenticity of their acting, and as a result the authenticity of that which is performed on the stage. The tears in a performance may be real, but they are not tears of pain, but that of something else quite disconnected from reality, a fiction. That fiction, however, doesn’t mean that the work on stage cannot have an affect, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. (2.2.602-603)” The King is his audience to which he intends to affect.
Shakespeare confronts performance and its ability to affect head on in Hamlet. While many of Shakespeare’s plays utilized the theatrical device of having a play within a play, the majority do not use it to further the plot. Within Hamlet, we do see the play-within-the-play as a major plot device. The players enter before the court in Act Three, Scene 2, Line 142 and perform “The Murder of Gonzago” (yet later called “The Mousetrap”), a play that Hamlet has adapted and directed to confront his Uncle, the King, and his mother, the Queen, about the death of his father. It is a play about the poisoning of a king, exactly as the Ghost has told Hamlet he was killed. This play-within-the-play represents the midpoint, or climax, of Hamlet giving even more importance to its placement and message suggesting the power and relevance of the writer and the playwright to affect those in power.
Ironic as it may be, Shakespeare chose to have Hamlet stage a play to show the deceit of the King and Queen, which the bard himself had done throughout his career to bring into question the morals and responsibilities of those living in his time. He chose to create a character that proves his own worth, as a writer. Hamlet, the character, is indeed a device used by Shakespeare to prove the theatre’s value of making a real and truthful impact on the citizen, exploring what ‘seems’. We can ask “Who is Hamlet?”, but more importantly we should ask, “Who is behind Hamlet?” The workman on the workbench using Hamlet, both his creation and an adaptation of another’s, to answer his own self-doubt in his deepest darkness of mourning.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Stranchey, XIV, ser. 1914-1916, The Hogart Press, pp. 243–258. 1914-1916.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet.” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 21 Oct. 2004, www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/10/21/the-death-of-hamnet-and-the-making-ofhamlet/.
Holland, Norman N. “Freud on Shakespeare.” Pmla, vol. 75, no. 3, 1960, p. 163., doi:10.2307/460328.
Murray, Donald M. “Teaching the Other Self: The Writers First Reader.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, May 1982, pp. 140–147., doi:10.2307/357621.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. Edited by c. Knox Pooler. Edited by Charles Knox Pooler,
Methuen, London, 1918.
Shakespeare, William. Four Tragedies. Edited by T. J. B. Spencer et al., Penguin Books,
Kevin Michael Reed is a theatre maker from New York City living in Dublin and London. His production credits have included producer, director, playwright, dramaturg and designer. He is Artistic Director of Squire Lane Theatrical UK, a theatre production company specialising in developing new works for the stage. He holds a BFA in Photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), a MA in Playwriting from City, University of London, and a MFA in Theatre Directing from The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Trinity College Dublin.