Hamlet’s Bipolar Disorder

In studying the arc Hamlet’s moods throughout the play I came across an idea that became stuck in my head. Hamlet’s moods cycle through episodes of depression and mania. This cycling is very common with Bipolar Disorder. The show begins with Hamlet in a depressive state with Claudius commenting that “the clouds still hang on” him (1.2.66). When he describes to Gertrude the manner of his mourning he says “But I have that within which passeth show– / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-86). Hamlet is stating here that he is not simply in mourning, but that his grief is something still deeper, a heavy depression. In Hamlet’s soliloquy at 129 of this same scene, he tells us(the audience) that he is suicidal.

In 1.4 his countenance changes. At the entrance of the Ghost of his father, he bursts into action. Suddenly everything is rushed, there is an extreme sense of importance. He says at 29 “Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love / May sweep to my revenge.” Hamlet finds himself ready to avenge his father’s death, he starts planning rapidly, making sure that the witnesses do not give his cause away. He uses it to trick Polonius, Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into thinking that he has lost his mind. This episode of productivity and sense of importance lasts until after the First Player’s ‘for Hecuba’ speech. After this, he becomes unsure again. Though still resolved to plan the players’s part in his revenge scheme, he is now slower again, he ruminates more on each action. He thinks everything through much more, almost to the point of inaction.

This depressive episode is when he has his famous “to be or not to be” speech, again weighing the value of continuing life against the release of death. He then somewhat accidentally throws himself into another manic episode when he needs to fake his insanity again when Ophelia approaches him, by prompting of Polonius. This episode takes him through the planning of the play, the play itself, and right up to when he is standing behind Claudius, ready to strike. For one brief moment, he seems to level out, being able to stop his impulsivity and back that decision up with reason. He does not kill Claudius because he does not want him to go to heaven when he should rightfully go to purgatory, as his father’s ghost wished. This manic episode continues throughout the closet scene– leading him to his impulsive murder of Polonius. He’s able to finish hiding the body and goad Claudius before he is sent to England.

The next time we see him, in 4.4, he gives a long monologue (in Q2) lamenting his depressive episodes and the inaction that they cause. He resolves to action once again, but remains in his depression through the beginning of 5.1, when he gives the “alas poor Yorick” speech, one of despair, and highlighting the unimportance of man’s impact on the world. Suddenly, upon seeing Ophelia’s body, he is thrown back into a manic episode, and she is the most important thing in the world to him. So much so that he is ready to be buried with her.

In 5.2 he explains to Horatio the actions of an episode of mania that he had while on the way to England. He says “Ere I could make the prologue to my brains, / They had begun the play,” meaning that he acted before he consciously thought it through (5.2.31-32). This was a serious impulse, as it lead to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He also recognizes that his bout with Laertes at Ophelia’s grave was another like moment, saying the the “bravery of his grief” put him “Into a tow’ring passion” (5.2.80-82). He also starts the scene saying that “in [his] heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let [him]sleep.” A decreased need for sleep is a symptom of mania, but also of hypomania, a less extreme episode of mania, which Hamlet might be experiencing here. But after Laertes wounds him, and he wounds Laertes back, he enters another episode of full-blown mania. He quickly disposes of Claudius before collapsing into Horatio’s arms. His last moments could be of mania or depression, though I tend to think depression, it could be interpreted either way.

One other thing that stood out to me constantly was Hamlet’s inconsistent sense of time. Many people diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder experience the speeding or slowing of time, or feel like they experience time differently than others seem to. The example that most stands out to me is lines 3.2.113-117:

HAMLET: O God, your only jig-maker. What should a man do

but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my

mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.

OPHELIA: Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.

HAMLET: So long?

Olivia’s Sexuality: Contracted to a Maid

In discussing the duplicity of Cesario/Viola’s appearance during this reading of the play, it struck me what Cesario’s feminine appearance means for Olivia’s sexuality. It is stated several times before Olivia appears onstage that she is refusing admittance to men, and is remaining veiled in the presence of those she does see. In 1.4, when Orsino is giving Cesario their job to woo Olivia, Orsino makes a point of say to Cesario that anyone “shall belie thy happy years / That say thou art a man.” He points out specifically Cesario’s lips and voice and says that “all is semblative to a woman’s part” (1.4.28-33). In the next scene, Malvolio describes Cesario to Olivia as “not old enough for a man” and “as a squash before ‘tis a peascod” (1.5.139-144). There is a very heavy emphasis on Cesario’s femininity — or at least their lack of masculinity. In her speech at 261 Olivia first points out those parts of Cesario that Orsino described as the most feminine as the parts that she likes, namely his “tongue” or voice and his “face.”

In 3.1 Olivia fixates on Cesario’s voice, saying that she would rather hear Cesario speak that hear the planets move. This meaning that she cares more for them than for the innermost workings of the universe. Later in this same scene, she focuses on Cesario’s “lip” which in 1.4, Orsino described as “more smooth and rubious” than Diana’s (1.4.30-31;3.1.137). She then swears her love upon “maidenhood,” even after Cesario tells her “That you do think you are not what you are” and “I am not what I am.” In Cesario’s last speech in this scene, they say “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth / And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I.”

While much of this could be excused in saying that Olivia simply likes effeminate men, there is something to be said for how she reacts to Cesario’s wooings. She consistently rejects the speeches that Orsino has given to Cesario. She specifically says that she “cannot love him,” something she repeats several times. Not that she will not, or does not, but that it is not possible, it is not within her ability. It is only after Cesario’s speech at 1.5.233 and 237, when they tell Olivia their own composition, that she reacts, and becomes nervous, asking “what is your parentage?” At the end of this scene Olivia says “I do I know not what, and fear to find / mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind” and “Ourselves we do not owe.” She acknowledges that her feelings are out of her control, and that she is surprised by them.

Olivia’s primal reaction to Cesario is based on her instinctual feeling of their feminine energy. Olivia is, at some level, aware that Cesario is different than other men, and though she cannot pinpoint why, I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that it is because she is reacting to the woman and not the man. Her strong reactions come from admiration of Cesario’s feminine qualities and affections. They are the opposite of every other suitor Olivia has had: rather than pushing her with aggressive masculinity and overly-poetic verses, Cesario enchants her with their high voice and sweet heart-felt words. Olivia is attracted to the femininity that she recognizes from herself, because Cesario can understand her in a way that men cannot.