On Hamlet

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 18, 2016
Volume VI, No. 16/276


Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet


by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

This week our city, Raleigh, North Carolina is going through a seismic mania, but a pleasant sort of mania, in that the citizens are holding a marathon of “Shakespeare Round The Clock” reading the bard in all hours of day and night. Yes, the citizens are reading Shakespeare day and night ‘round the clock in various cultural venues of the city, such as the museums, theaters, concert halls, etc., all over the city. .

Reading, re-reading, not only in English, but some half of dozen other languages; watching, and re-watching the bard’s plays, I must confess that one stands out. This one play of my choice is daunting and all consuming. It is Hamlet. Hamlet could be addicting. But it is not an unwelcome or a bad form of addiction. The arts in general, and the opera and classical music, in special, are good addictions to have. Addiction to opera is life giving, uplifting and almost transcendental. So let me say a few words about Hamlet as a play, and Hamlet as an opera.

Why Hamlet?

The play Hamlet is the Elizabethan intellectual maturity to the fullest. Cloaked in a tragedy, it unfurls the mystery of the universe. It speaks to today’s life as it did when it was first performed at the Globe Theatre in 1602, and perhaps before that as early as 1200, the Thomas Kyd’s (born 6 November 1558) production, The Spanish Tragedy of a Ghost.

The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke is a play by William Shakespeare. It is one of his best-known works, and also one of the most-quoted writings in the English language. Hamlet’s delicious language, poetry, rhythm, sequence, presentation has such power and intensity to absorb, to intimidate, to engage and ultimately to transform. The rhythm and construction give us the obliquity, the solidity and clarity which are the hallmark of Shakespeare’s genius. Reading Hamlet repeatedly is never boring. There is always the unknown, the unpredicted, and the unforeseen fresh events, and heretofore unknown facts that jump out of some dark corner, ambush and thrill us. Hamlet’s humanity reminds us of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, yet it depicts the tragedy of ambivalence, consuming revenge, and pre-occupation with death, killing and incest. The presentation of the ghost of King Hamlet in Elsinore is intriguing. It displays the struggle between the medieval concept of God in the Catholic Church and the renaissance/protestant concept of God, doing away with the intermediaries, the Popes, the Cardinals, the Bishops, and dealing directly with God. The play sets the scene for the teachings of the likes of Martin Luther, Professor of Theology at Wittenberg and emergence of northern German disciplined and dispassionate thinking of that region. Wittenberg University was established by the Elector of Saxony (Fredrick the Wise) in 1502. It developed a curriculum strong in matters related to renaissance and protestant theology.

And finally, We like, read, and watch Hamlet in live plays and movie productions, celebrating and showcasing the performances of theatre luminaries such as Sir Lawrence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Plummer, Richard Chamberlain and Franco Zeffirelli, because the events speak to us directly. The exquisite language, syntax and elegance of stringing words together like a jeweler producing a masterpiece lift our heart, and satisfy our intellect.

The Psychoanalytic Implication of Hamlet

In the service of clarity, we must elaborate on Hamlet, the father, the King of Denmark who was killed by a usurping brother, Claudius. Then, there is Hamlet the son, an intellectual and lofty student at Wittenberg who is on his way back to Denmark, and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play. Not enough can be said or written on the elegance of style and all-consuming literacy of the writings of the Bard. The first soliloquy of five lines in iambic pentameter appears with words, subjunctives and no verb. Hamlet’s subsequent speech, 30 lines long, in unparalleled eloquence and beauty, belittles the “low habit of Danish drinking.” and Denmark’s reputation for drunkenness. It is followed by another 14 lines of convoluted syntax in which Claudius’ drinking is blamed. The mere talismanic language, appealing rhythm, and unerring choice of words, pamper one’s intellect and deepen one’s emotional engagement.

While psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious, it equivocates with issues of ghosts, astrology and fate. However, Shakespeare, like some of the literary giants who preceded him, namely, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas, refers repeatedly to the Aristotelian concept of “tragic flaw.” The theory suggests that one fault, like addiction to gambling or alcohol may ruin the otherwise pristine life of an individual. The question of evil, its genesis and why God allows for evil to exist, is another important matter. Hamlet, the Wittenberg student forges a document and uses his father’s stolen seal to give the document authenticity, which leads to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his childhood friends and schoolmates. The young Hamlet, a brilliant intellectual and student at Wittenberg University, is troubled by “doubt, ambiguity and evil.” He often contemplates how “A dram of evil destroys all…” Hamlet and his close friend, Horatio, are studying philosophy, but it does not help him resolve his indecision and lust for revenge, which eventually leads to his killing of Polonius.

Psychoanalytic theory, invoking the Oedipal triangle, presumes that young Hamlet’s thirst for revenge is his ever escalating anger and jealousy of Claudius. Claudius married Hamlet’s mother and did not give Hamlet a chance to marry his mother (just like Oedipus Rex.) Hamlet, encouraged by the teachings he is receiving at Wittenberg, is intrigued by introspection. “To thy own self be true” is his motto. He wants to know himself better. In the process of his intense self-examination, he becomes extremely depressed, even suicidal. He asks/informs his friend Horatio, “I have lost my wit. I see man, noble in reason, infinite in faculties, expressive and admirable in action…yet useless and melancholic…”

At the end of the play, Hamlet kills Claudius with a poisoned foil and makes him drink poisoned wine. Hamlet himself dies of injuries. When Hamlet dies, Horatio says, “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Psychoanalytic theory is one of many ways of looking at Hamlet’s actions. Freud and other theorists were able to take the play and analyze it scene by scene, giving a more in-depth meaning to the actions of the characters. In a sense, Shakespeare wrote two plays in one; one play dealing with a tragedy, leaving the stage with many corpses; the other standing the test of time, in a captivating exploration into an unconscious world of the unknown.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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