Shakespearience 4: Hamlet’s Depression

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For this first Shakespearience blog of the new year, let’s turn to the most famous speech in all drama. You’ll know which one I mean:

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished: to die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his own quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away
And lose the name of action. (Hamlet, 3.1.57-89)

Now, if this is the most famous speech in all drama, it’s also notoriously difficult and confusing. And that’s partly because ‘To be, or not to be’ fundamentally breaks down the opposition between life and death, being and not being.‘To be, or not to be’ it begins, and what does Hamlet choose?

Well, Hamlet clearly chooses NOT TO BE.‘To die is a consummation devoutly to be wished’. Given the pervasive humiliations of life described around the middle of the soliloquy

the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong,
The proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love,
The law’s delay,
The insolence of office
And the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes

Given these, who wouldn’t make their quietus with a bare bodkin—stab themselves and end all the shame and pain of living? Hamlet sees life in exclusively negative terms in this speech. But death is negative, whereas life is positive—isn’t it? To see life as negative is to see it as a kind of death. Life, in this great speech, is in fact a worse death than death, because it is death which is ongoing and experienced—living death, if you like. For some of Shakespeare’s near contemporaries, Luther, for instance, this is a spiritual opportunity. There is nothing in our life—nothing in ourselves—that can save us, and so we must turn to God.

But Hamlet departs from Luther in seeing all being as intrinsically degraded. This is heretical. What of the life lived by God’s gift, life lived in God, on which Luther staked everything? What, for that matter, of God’s life? Hamlet rejects this life, which Luther rejects too, but Hamlet also rejects all life to come. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep life and death apart in Hamlet’s speech because the only thing that restrains him from choosing death itself is that death may inaugurate another form of life: that’s what he means about ten lines from the end of the speech when he talks about ‘the dread of something after death’. Hamlet sees life as more deadly than death but he chooses not to kill himself from fear of a new life which may be worse than this one. Hamlet rejects creation as such, and to do so is to reject the creator. Like Ivan from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, he wants to return God’s ticket to existence. ‘To be or not to be’ seems to reveal a peril which dogs the Protestant Reformation: it can initiate a distaste for life which is so intense and goes so deep as to involve an irreligious distaste for all being as such.

This isn’t much fun for he or she who experiences it, but it is strangely attractive from the outside. Hamlet’s career in the end conforms to a more Lutheran pattern. He finally sees to the bottom of human degradation and mortality in the Graveyard scene and this seems to facilitate a kind of mysticism. He reconciles himself to a life which he sees as mysteriously propelled and motivated by an obscure providence. And yet, we remember—we are haunted by—the sin-struck Hamlet who wallows in sin and self-loathing, who makes of negativity a kind of vocation. We barely remember at all the more edified creature he becomes.

Such, apparently, is the weird allure of Hamlet’s depression.

Happy New Year!

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Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.
  • E Fernie

    Yes, this is the case made by Jeffrey Burton Russell in his book *Mephistopheles*.  The possibility certainly contributes to the terror and wonder of the play.  And it raises the problem for ‘To be or not to be’ that is also raised by Phillip: how can Hamlet doubt the afterlife given his encounter with the Ghost!  Which reminds me — an interesting question about ‘To be or not to be’ is what happens to the speech if you don’t believe in the afterlife, as most people now do not.

  • Lance

    Really enjoying your discussion. Not to get off topic, but perhaps you’d shed some light on a remark that was made to me, that Hamlet is reluctant to act because he fears the ghost may have been the devil, tempting him. That that is why he demands to know the name of the spirit, if you name the spirit it cannot harm you. Make any sense?

  • Phillip Zane

    Yes, actually I agree with you more than my conclusion makes it seem.  I was rushed at the end and I didn’t know how much space I had.  The reason Hamlet was so good at acting despondent, I believe, was that he was indeed despondent.  He had much to be despondent about.  He could pretend madness because he was mad.  And he didn’t know what to do, whether to believe the ghost, or whether his mother was part of Claudius’s plot.  But I think either Shakespeare made a mistake with the “from whose bourn no traveller returns” line, or Hamlet knew or believed he was being overheard.  I suppose I lot of people think it was mistake or at least an inconsistency.  I’m inclined to think not.

    As to Wittenberg, you are of course correct.  Audiences in the late 16th and early 17th century surely heard “Wittenberg” and thought about Martin Luther.  But Hamlet was no Protestant:  it is Hamlet’s adherence to what Luther regarded as a superstition that kept him from killing Claudius when he believed Claudius was praying.  Perhaps Hamlet in some sense stood for Luther, and Laertes, a student in France, stood for the Catholic church.  Claudius stood for himself, poisoning both.

  • E Fernie

    Thanks.  And well no, of course Luther isn’t in the speech (and I never said he was!), but Hamlet is from the University of Wittenberg, irresistibly and powerfully associated with Luther at the time.  The point’s a comparative one, meant to set off what’s distinctive about Hamlet.  The dead end of despair that leads Luther to desperate faith and, hence, salvation leads nowhere so positive for Hamlet, or perhaps for us.  You make the good point that he *could* be pretending.  Yes.  But then such is the authority of the speech that it exceeds that pretence, for many of its readers or hearers, if not for Hamlet himself.  A Hamlet who is all the time closing in on Claudius is admirably cunning but less complex, mysterious and appealing from a Hamlet who suffers so terribly then strangely *changes* into a liberated activist at the end of the play.  This Hamlet also spans more of the range of human experience in general.

  • Phillip Zane

    I’ve always thought that the odd mixed metaphor of taking arms against a sea of troubles was an allusion to mad Emporer Caligula demanding his army, on the shore of the English Channel march into the sea to attack Neptune.  It was, therefore, a sign of Hamlet’s madness, real or feigned.  Caligula imagined he had won and retreated from the water in victory.

  • Phillip Zane

    I think the interpretation of this soliloquy depends on whether we believe Hamlet believed he was being overheard.  In other words, are the sentiments part of Hamlet’s depression or part of his feigned madness?  Hamlet describes death as “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
    No traveller returns.”  But King Hamlet’s return as a ghost haunting Elsinore is the motivating event of the play.  Hamlet knew his father had returned, but, as he made Marcellus and Horatio swear, he keeps this a secret.  Now examine the wrongs he lists that make life unbearable:  except for one, they are all aimed at Claudius:  “The oppressor’s wrong” — Claudis oppresses Hamlet; “the proud man’s contumely” — Claudius’s pride leads Claudius to conclude he should be king; “The pangs of disprized love” — this is the one aimed at Ophelia or, more probably Polonius, I think, and seems to give support to Polonius’s view that Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet caused Hamlet’s supposed madness; “the law’s delay” — subtly aimed at Claudius again because the rightful king is Prince Hamlet and his claim has not yet been recognized; “The insolence of office” — Claudius again because he was a usurping king; and, finally, the kicker for me, “the spurns/That patient merit of the unworthy takes” — Hamlet is patiently suffering the usurping king, spurned by his mother, the sycophants at court, and the Danes that follow the unworthy king.
    I think Hamlet intended the overheard soliloquy as a dig at Claudius and part of his feigned madness to lull Claudius into concluding Hamlet would take no action against the king.  In this respect, compare the interpretations of two truly excellent screen interpretations of the play and this soliloquy in particular:  Olivier’s Hamlet just couldn’t bloody well make up his mind and the soliloquy is the central symptom of that.  Branagh’s Hamlet seemed to know Claudius and Polonius were there:  he grew up in the palace; he must have known that some of the mirrored doors allowed spying into the hall; he insulted Claudius to his face from the protection of the mirror as Claudius and Polonius watched from the protection of the glass.
    This interpretation is consistent with Hamlet’s escape from the lethal trip to England and from the pirates, which a despondent and indecisive Hamlet could not have managed.  It is consistent as well, of course, with the concluding scene of the play:  Hamlet plainly had chosen “to be,” even when it was plainly too late for him:
    HAMLET:  . . .  Horatio, I am dead;/Thou livest; report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied.
    HORATIO:  Never believe it:/I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:/Here’s yet some liquor left.
    HAMLET:  As thou’rt a man,/Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I’ll have’t./O good Horatio, what a wounded name,/Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!/If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart/Absent thee from felicity awhile,/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/To tell my story. [text from
    Hamlet was trying to convince Claudius that he was despondent and would not take action against Claudius while he was in fact waiting for an appropriate time to kill Claudius unshriven, and perhaps to prove to all that Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father (the law’s delay).  He thought he had his moment when he caught, he thought, Claudius spying on him in his mother’s chamber; but it was Polonius sent on Claudius’s mission (once again, Claudius had someone else do his dirty work) and Gertrude was not yet convinced of Claudius’s regicide.  Claudius realized then that Hamlet was a real threat and sent him to England to be executed.  And off the play goes to its tragic conclusion. Shakespeare was an astute enough student of psychology to show us what depression looks like, and, I think here, so was Hamlet.  Luther had nothing to do with it.

  • E Fernie

    Absolutely.  It’s God’s choice, not the individual’s, for Luther and Protestantism.  But this recognition of individual bankruptcy and the necessity of faith in a redeeming God comes before the reform of corporate worship.  For Hamlet, here and elsewhere, there is no redeeming God just the inadequacy of life.  Hence the depression.  Well, till his strange consciousness of a God of ‘rashness’ kicks in…. 

  • Richard Baldwin Cook

    Hamlet, fearing the unknowable after death, ends this speech in irresolution, inaction. Here, in prospect of death, the promptings of religion and secular sensibility (both contained in “conscience”) make “cowards” of “us all.” But there is not anything here that speaks specifically of Luther or Protestantism, which was a reaction against the intrigues as well as the cultural tastes and political and military ambitions of the Renaissance Popes. The reformers called believers “ad fontes” (back to the sources), by which was meant an idealized view of the New Testament and the early church, and which rejected Canon law and the accretions of tradition. The reformers were just that, reformers, who stressed the corporate nature of worship. They are misunderstood when viewed as stressing individual choice in matters of religion; Luther, Calvin and their philosophical heirs, emphasized strict, enforced morality. I think Luther would have pitied Hamlet for his inaction, in this speech. Calvin would have dismissed him. Zwingli would have offered him a beer, clapped him on the back and shouted, “It’s not so bad as all that!”

  • E Fernie

    Thanks Humphrey!  And yes, choosing is too active a verb, isn’t it, particularly since Hamlet’s ‘choice’ FOR being is really a double choice AGAINST in (a rejection of both this life and the next).  Did I say that in the interview?!  I find it hard to  imagine  a contented and reconciled Hamlet (with a takeaway and a four pack in front of the telly…) and would suggest he does too, which maybe just sharpens the pathos of his wanting what is, in some way, impossible for him.  But all this would need rigorous working out of course!


  • GregK

    That the external world has _extrinsically_ degraded, but the internal world makes us bear the ills, the thousand shocks to flesh, &c. As you can see below, the difference between the the quartos is “evils” vs the milder “ills.” Hamlet felt the evils, and with no where to turn – even internally – he even bids his lover to flee. He can’t turn to his mother (although he tries) because she’s bedding his uncle too soon after the death of his father. I fail to read anything related to the separate world of “God’s life” (is that a Luthernism for limbo?) but I definitely read (between the quartos) about his desperation in facing evils again after a cowardly death (in Hell).

    Here’s Q1:With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,But for a hope of something after death?Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,1735Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,Than flie to others that we know not of.I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of vs all,
    Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred.(

    And Q2:With a bare bodkin; who would fardels beare,To grunt and sweat vnder a wearie life,But that the dread of something after death,The vndiscouer’d country, from whose borneNo trauiler returnes, puzzels the will,1735And makes vs rather beare those ills we haue,¶Then flie to others that we know not of.Thus conscience dooes make cowards,And thus the natiue hiew of resolutionIs sickled ore with the pale cast of thought,1740And enterprises of great pitch and moment,With this regard theyr currents turne awry,And loose the name of action. Soft you now,The faire Ophelia, Nimph in thy orizons¶Be all my sinnes remembred.(

  • Humphrey

    Great article only… does Hamlet really ‘choose’ anything? I should rather think he is merely ‘entertaining the notion’, ‘humouring the arguments’ or ‘considering well all circumstances’ as Buckingham would say.

    He toys with the idea, for indeed tis true he longs for an escape, but surely if there’s one thing we can all agree on about Hamlet it’s his indecision, which penetrates his need to murder Claudius all the way to his need to live at all. And although, tis true, he fears the dread of something after death – of which he can be quite certain given the fact he has recently encountered a ghost from those sulphurous and tormenting flames – I think there enough examples of Hamlet’s intellecutal anaylsis of things to sustain his character even through Act III.I. I am not suggesting he is not genuinely considering suicide only that he cannot make up his mind, even as he criticises himself for doing. Plus there is a good dash of self-obsessive moaning in there too… I think secretly we all like to hope that Hamlet does want to live and be happy, as a certain Professor of Shakespeare Studies from the University of Birmingham once said in a radio interview for .44 Calibre Shakespeare.

    One bit in particular; “…living death, if you like…” – SUBLIME!

  • E Fernie

    Yes, yes, the question of action’s in there too!  And altogether much too much for any blog post.  But, subsumed as it is under the great question with which the speech begins, action (or not) also pertains to the question of what it means to be (or not).  It’s worth noting, too, that the paradoxical image of taking arms against a sea of troubles can only hope to end them because it will, inevitably, be to drown….   

  • Daniela Cox

    I think the problem runs way deeper because, what is “to be” and what is “not to be”? “To be” is “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, “not to be” is “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them” – he does not say “end me”, so I guess Hamlet is also considering to take (finally) action – and if this will be worthwhile. Of course the conclusion that all action is futile, certainly hints at the depressed state he is in. Who may blame him btw, for he is the only one interpreting things as he does and thereby seperating himslef from all the other characters – the final joke being that he had been utterly right all the time.

  • Shakespeare B Trust

    Hi there guys.  This is great.  Really great.  We’ve shared it on our FB and Twitter and we’ll see if we can work it up into a blog post. Great work, and thanks for sharing with us 🙂

  • TheVoicesProject

    Hi. We have just worked with 10 young performers to bring their own individual interpretations to the screen, in this contemporary working of the soliloquy. See: and also this piece by actor and our coach for the young cast:

  • E Fernie

    Yes, thank you.  Happy for you to defy the first person plural: one of the advantages of a blog.  I’ve written in favour of the revolutionary view elsewhere, and it is more exhilarating, certainly more ‘useful’.  But, after that, for me at least, the depression remains magnetic, strangely cherishable and luxurious….  The ‘we’ was ventured because I think the best known Hamlet IS the doubter, the tremulous one, the one averse to his task and to action.  I’m fascinated by the fact that in ‘To be or not’ Hamlet ‘chooses life’ by rejecting it twice (in the form of this life and the life to come), a very intricate sort of affirmation!  Still, yours is a useful corrective.

  • Christian Smith

    One of the problems with using the first person plural in an essay:

    “And yet, WE remember—WE are haunted by—the sin-struck Hamlet who wallows
    in sin and self-loathing, who makes of negativity a kind of vocation.
    WE barely remember at all the more edified creature he becomes”

    is that it assumes that the readers, who make up the rest of the “we”, agree with the author. S. T. Coleridge, J. W. Goethe and E. Fernie might be haunted by the depressed and wallowing Hamlet, but K. Marx, R. Williams and C. Smith are invigorated by the revolutionary Hamlet who declares the volta of the play and his life with the words:

    What is a man
    If his chief good and market of his time
    Be but to sleep and feed? A beast – no more.
    Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
    Looking before and after, gave us not
    That capability and godlike reason
    To fust in us unused…
    O, from this time forth
    My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.

    I read the play as the awakening of the revolutionary spirit – the old mole who works i’ th’ earth so fast – to transform the prince from a mourning son to an angry insurgent who strikes at the oppressive rottenness in Denmark. For me, the revolutionary is much more useful in contemporary times than the depressed self-loather.

  • Lance

    I was researching Hamlet to play it some years ago and an English professor I was consulting with had some fascinating ideas about Hamlet studying at Wittenberg where he’d be influenced by Calvinism. He saw the Danish court as Lutheran, and Polonius’ family as Catholic, with Laertes studying in Reims. All beyond me, I’m afraid, but I found something to play in the return from the pirates. If we’re so powerless that a king’s plan can be thwarted by pirates appearing why not pick up a sword, participate in the match and have a go at it.

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