#MindTheBard: Madness (Hamlet)

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Hamlet
Photo credit: Charlotte Graham Photography

Madness. Not the most sensitive or appropriate term, but simply extracted from today’s play: Hamlet. There are various different displays of what might have been understood to be ‘madness’ when Shakespeare wrote the play, but what we could now diagnose as depression, anxiety, paranoia, schizophrenia… The list goes on. But what of the Prince of Denmark himself? Is he really just putting on an “antic disposition”, or is there more to it than that?

Depression (a relatively common mood disorder) causes a range of symptoms which can affect day-to-day activities (e.g. sleeping, eating, working), as well as how you think or feel. There are different forms of the condition, such as dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), postpartum depression, psychotic depression, seasonal affective disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (children & adolescents) & premenstrual dysphoric disorder. People with bipolar disorder experience bipolar depression, though they will also have periods of extreme high moods as a contrast. Symptoms must be experienced daily for at least a fortnight in order to diagnose depression, and they include: persistent sad/anxious/empty mood; difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions; suicidal thoughts and/or attempts; irritability; feelings of restlessness, or trouble sitting still; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness. Depression is likely caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental & psychological factors – family history, major life changes/trauma/stress, and some medications & physical illnesses are common risk factors.

Image credit: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education & Research
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures
Image credit: Harvard Health Publishing
Image credit: Shakespeare’s Words

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”
Claudius, Hamlet (Act 3 Scene 1)

“His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.”
Hamlet, Hamlet (Act 5 Scene 2)

There are two quotes provided by Giant Microbes for today’s play, though in reality so many others could have been chosen, as the words ‘mad’ & ‘madness’ pop up very frequently in the text. Hamlet himself is most often the subject of any talk of madness, though Ophelia later suffers from what could be termed ‘hysteria’ (characterised by anxiety & excessive displays of emotion) in the wake of her father’s murder at Hamlet’s hands. In these two quotes, both Claudius & Hamlet seem to be using the prince’s supposed mental illness as an excuse – Claudius sees it as justification for keeping his nephew under close scrutiny, and Hamlet blames his apparent illness to try & get Laertes back onside.

There are far too many adaptations & productions of Hamlet available for me to give a complete list of recommendations, but (typically) I suggest starting with The Show Must Go Online. The RSC’s production starring Paapa Essiedu is still on BritBox, and their David Tennant-led version can be found on DVD/Blu-ray or digital. Also available to purchase is the Royal Exchange’s production from 2015 starring Maxine Peake. And if you want something a tad different, there’s always The Lion King (though make sure it’s the excellent original animated version rather than the remake). Wordsworth Classics, as ever, for reading purposes.

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