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Mind Over Pop Culture: Hamlet

William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, telling the story of a prince dealing with the death of his father and the quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle. The play uses mental health, both real and faked, as a way to show human behavior. Commonly studied in high schools all over America, this tale has had a profound effect on the way mental health is viewed.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tells the story of Hamlet, the young prince. When the play opens, his father has just died, and his mother has just married his father’s younger brother Claudius. A few soldiers on guard report to him that his father’s ghost has been seen, and he sees the ghost when he goes with them the next night. The ghost tells him that his uncle killed him to get his crown and his wife, and makes Hamlet swear to avenge his death. Hamlet decides to pretend to be insane to make sure the king doesn’t suspect him. Ophelia, the daughter of king’s advisor, Polonius, also rejects him, adding to his melancholy. He and his friend Horatio create a trap to observe Claudius’ reaction to a play depicting his murder, after which Hamlet is convinced that the ghost is telling the truth. A meeting with his mother in her room, in which Polonius is eavesdropping, ends with Hamlet killing Polonius, for which he is sent to Britain. Ophelia is distraught at his death and ends up raving mad. Her brother Laertes hears rumors of his father’s death while at school in France, and teams up with Claudius to kill Hamlet. Ophelia dies by drowning in a lake, and Laertes is killed during his fight with Hamlet. Claudius’ plan also kills Gertrude and Hamlet, but not before Hamlet kills him, finally avenging his father’s murder.

As it turns out, summarizing Hamlet is a harder task than I realized, but you get the picture of how mental health is used in the play. It is seen both fake and real. Hamlet uses “madness” as a disguise, allowing him to get the information he needs about Claudius’ actions. He also uses it as an excuse for his actions, mainly Polonius’ murder. Claudius also uses it as an excuse to have him exiled instead of executed since Hamlet is very popular with the Danish people. In addition, though, you can see his genuine grief over the death of his father, and at one point says, “I know of late- but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.” His depression over his father’s illness is very real but often rolled up in his faked madness. On the other hand, Ophelia is genuinely “mad,” sick with grief over her father’s death and unable to fit in with the court society. Her scene with her brother, who just confirmed his father’s death, is heartbreaking. She doesn’t recognize him at all. Her death is still debated by scholars whether it was an accident or suicide. These two opposing views of madness exist side by side.

This play, with its  uncountable stage adaptions and over 500 movies, has had a major impact on how people view mental health conditions, even if they aren’t aware of it. It is taught in high schools all over America (and the world), and most of the population of the country is at least aware of it by name. It is one of the most common views of mental health in this country. But is it a good view? That depends on how it’s taught. Hamlet’s madness is both real and faked, and the real part often gets overlooked. Unconsciously, by focusing on his faked illness, mental health conditions are minimized or connected to someone faking it to get what they want. Combined with the repeated images the media reports about people with mental health conditions, the idea that all “madness” is faked gets reinforced.

On the other hand, the play is genuinely seen as one of the most humanistic stories ever written. All of the characters are recognizable people, even after 400 years, with motivations you can understand and reactions that make sense. Ophelia’s illness is very real and dealt with sympathetically. Her illness is treated with sympathy, and her death is treated with respect. The treatment of her mental health condition is truly powerful, coming from a time when people with mental health conditions were often abused or neglected. The grief after her death is another instance of Shakespeare’s understanding of how people actually behave.

Hamlet’s depiction of mental health conditions is a mixed blessing. It has brought the discussion of mental health conditions to many Americans who might not ever think about them, and it has the potential to help reduce the stigma around these conditions by showing them honestly and respectfully. It also has the potential to be taught without that respect, and with a focus on Hamlet’s acting and not his grief. Ultimately, the play has opened the discussion about mental health conditions for teenagers for a long time and will do so in the future.

If you’d like to see an excellent version of the play, I recommend Kenneth Branagh’s complete text version of it. For something just as good and little shorter, try Michael Almereyda's version, starring Ethan Hawke. For a classic view, you can’t go wrong with Laurence Olivier’s version, which he directed and starred in.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Lars and the Real Girl, an indie movie that embraces community support in its purest form. Have you read Hamlet since high school? What do you think of the handling of mental health conditions in the play?

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