Performing Melancholy

As might be anticipated, there is a certain reflexive quality to Hamlet's antic disposition. He is aware of the popular images of madness, and plays with and against these cultural clichés throughout the play, but particularly in the second and third acts. In her book, Voices of Melancholy, Bridget Gellert Lyons discusses Hamlet's love of theater and his resultant 'performance' of the clichéd roles of melancholy. For her, these performances serve as a mask for a deeper and more profound heaviness of heart. He cleverly exploits the amateur psychologists who attempt to sift out the causes of his affliction and to discover some relief from it.

Hamlet's playing of a great variety of stereotyped melancholy parts, for example, is itself symptomatic of a character who refuses to be identified entirely with any of the roles he plays, and whose real melancholy is made evident through the evasiveness and aggressive wit with which he manipulates such roles.
 - Bridget Gellert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy, Barnes and Noble, New York. 1971. p.78.

The drama of the portrayal of madness is one of the aspects of Hamlet which has not only persisted, but augmented throughout the history of the play. In particular, we developed a wide range of psychological theories in the twentieth century which serve to shed new light on the play.


Chicago, 14 November, 1994

American newspapers carry an Associate Press article about an event held in Chicago in which Hamlet is tried for the murder of Polonius. His attorneys, George Cotsirilos and James Montgomery, argue that he was clinically depressed and probably hallucinating when he killed Polonius. Dr. James Cavanaugh of the Rush Medical College provided expert testimony for the defense while Dr. Alan Stone, a professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard University served as expert witness for the prosecution. In this picture, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy presides. Hamlet is played by actor Curt Kaplan.

For another twentieth century view on the question of the nature of Hamlet's madness, here's a scene from the 1990 film version of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.