By RAPHAEL MORALLO, Manila, Philippines
As a highly valued literary work of William Shakespeare, Hamlet has been a focus of many literary analyses that reveal the underlying messages that the text has that may shed light on the creative genius behind the writer, the significance of such pieces of literature in the age that they were written, and its effect on potential readers today. One possible link between the modern age and the Shakespearean classic is how the portrayal of psychologically troubled individuals in the story represents and foreshadows how the obsession over consumerist ideas leads to mental instability. This is shown through the various psychological aspects of the characters that, in turn, contribute to character and plot development as well as the central theme of the play. At the same time, these aspects may be linked to similar conditions that may be seen in today’s consumerist-driven society since the circumstances that affect both the play and modern society may have close similarities. Displaying how consumerism may be found within the internal and external conflict points of the characters creates a comparison that allows Hamlet to continue its recognition as an exemplary piece of English literature.
A Psychoanalytical Analysis of Hamlet
Mental Instability as a Central Theme
William Shakespeare, hailed as one of the most iconic and most influential figures in English literature, is well-known for composing works that introduce elements of mental instability. Some characters are portrayed to have signs of conditions such as depression and anxiety in order to enhance the dramatic and tragic elements of his writings. The play Hamlet, King of Demark is no exception to such rule; in fact, the inner worlds of the characters are what primarily dictate the story of Hamlet and the royal family of Denmark.
By examining the plot of Hamlet on how each event is a resultant or cause of another, it can be concluded that it is because of the insanity of Hamlet that triggers the succeeding events in the story. The following three examples illustrate how the psychological dynamism displayed by each character of the play drives the plot forward by creating conflict and complication leading to their uneventful fates. The first example is Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, who has long desired to be in a relationship with Hamlet. However her distance from Hamlet increases due to Hamlet’s insanity, and she falls into mental instability as well, particularly after the death of her father. Without Hamlet realizing the extent of his behavior, he has indirectly caused the death of Ophelia. The second example is Polonius, who has been protective of Ophelia at the onset of Hamlet’s insanity. In the process of attempting to uncover the true intentions of Hamlet, Polonius is killed by Hamlet himself. This shows how the curiosity of Polonius about the insanity of Hamlet has driven him to a point that was dangerously close to infuriating Hamlet even more. The third example is King Claudius, who has been the primary reason why Hamlet took on an insane character.
Throughout the course of the play, the Ghost appears to Hamlet a few important and key periods in order to provoke Hamlet’s emotions to pursue answers to the injustice committed against his father. Therefore, the Ghost stimulates the superego of Hamlet into creating a reality that is ultimately satisfying by convincing Hamlet to commit to certain tasks in order to smoothen out the complications in the dynamics of the Danish royal family. In a similar light, Barber and Wheeler, on their analysis of Hamlet, deduce the primary purpose of the Ghost in the play.
“The creation of the Ghost is itself a piece of theatrical aggression for it stops Hamlet's initial fierce self-restraint; allows him to express his deeply conflicted feelings about Claudius, and his desire to kill him. The Ghost's revelation of murder, incest and adultery —'Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast' (I. v. 42)—is a validation of Hamlet's suspicions and justification of his loathing of Claudius the man who, with ‘traitorous gifts'(I. v. 43), seduced his mother, that seeming-virtuous queen'(I. v. 46).” (Barber and Wheeler)
This further strengthens the key role that the psyche plays in the development of characters and plot since these elements interact with each other through the interaction between individuals who possess unique psychological qualities.
The Significance of Character Psychology in Hamlet
Because of the nature of the plot, it follows that the psychology of each of the main characters of Hamlet must be a key factor in the narrative of the story. Because the words and actions encased in the thoughts of the characters that the story progresses, the psychological state of each character of Hamlet can be deduced through analyzing the lines of each character. For example, the character of King Claudius has very calculated words put into his speech, and his actions during the course of the play have been crucial in hiding his guilt about the death of Old Hamlet. Because of these keywords, it can be concluded that the psyche of King Claudius operates primarily on his ego, which represents his desire of pleasure and satisfaction through power and influence of Denmark using his calculative and manipulative skills. Since each character’s psychology is easily read within their respective lines, it can be said that having a clear distinction between each character’s personality contributed to the character development.
Simultaneously, the distinction between each character by their personality assisted in the formation of relationships between each of the characters. This means that the main reason behind why one character has a particular view of another and how one character collaborates with another in the achievement of a common goal is because of the cohesion between personalities. For example, towards the end of Act IV, Laertes and King Claudius collaborate in an attempt to kill Hamlet, and it is because of how they both see Hamlet that prompted these two characters to work together. Laertes, furious over the death of his father, Polonius, desires to take revenge and seek justice in court. Claudius sees the rage ensuing the Laertes, and in order to further his interests, he asks Laertes to conspire with him against Hamlet, thus showing how the outward anger that Laertes exhibits is complemented by the strategic and calculated Claudius in order to satisfy themselves.
An Evaluation of Hamlet’s Insanity
Readers may note that Hamlet continues to exude his insanity from the moment he was tasked to do so by the Ghost; however, an important issue arises from an examination of the actions of Hamlet as the plot progresses: does his planned insanity transcend into being real? The answer to this question deeply lies in an analysis of the character of Hamlet and the possible reasoning behind his actions throughout the play.
In Bloom’s Shakespeare Through the Ages: Hamlet, Philip Edwards, a modern editor of Hamlet suggests the idea that Hamlet’s renowned “To be or not the be” soliloquy is a central piece in the determination of Hamlet’s true intentions and motivations in continuing to take on an insane character throughout the play.
“…the speech is of “profound importance for the ultimate meaning of the play.” Hamlet has not forgotten his plan and uncle so quickly but has gained a deeper awareness of life, says Edwards; he realizes that simply killing Claudius and restoring order to Elsinore will not end the “heartache” of living…the speech’s traditional placement in Act III demonstrates that Hamlet is no traditional avenger, but a Renaissance philosopher confronting the bleak truths of human existence.” (Foster, Brett 28)
The preceding quote confirms how it is portrayed that his insanity has evolved from a mask that should have been kept temporary into a permanent identity that has triggered the distress of the Danish royal family. Throughout the play, Hamlet commits actions that may suggest that he is truly insane, which include the murder of Polonius and his disposition at the funeral of Ophelia. These events have shown the overflowing amount of mental instability that has prompted him to act beyond what is deemed necessary for the situation. However, at a moment wherein questions about his father’s murder have yet to be answered, it seems rather normal for a son to confront possible conspirators in hiding the guilt of his own uncle over the said murder with such behavior.
In conclusion, Hamlet has adopted an insane personality that has evolved into a condition that was not merely superficial. However, it must be noted that this transformation was not completely under his own accord since the communal environment, societal standards, and perceived wealth that Hamlet is surrounded is a primary contributor. The relatively higher standards of living that royalty entails must have been linked to Hamlet’s change of personality because the formation of such behavior requires an unforgiving environment that allows such behavior to be tolerated. In relation to this, the descriptions of the overall environment that Hamlet lives in conforms with modern standards of overtly consumerist ideals that include attachment to wealth and power as well as affinity to reputation associated with societal standing and worth. Therefore, there must exist a link between over-attachment to consumerist ideals and behavior and mental instability as exhibited by the Danish royal family depicted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Psychology of Wealth
The Perception of Wealth in Modern Society
Discussion about wealth both in the academic circle and the casual realm have most certainly ended in a divide of perceptions regarding wealth. Because of the relatively ambiguous definition of wealth and the different perspectives of people towards wealth, society has a broad perception of wealth in general. This is also primarily caused by the growing influence of wealth in an individual’s perception of other individuals and society as a whole by creating the idea that a person’s wealth is directly correlated to their worth.
Suniya S. Luthar, through research on the psychological effects of material wealth, introduces the pressing issues regarding children and their affluence about how the psychological health of a child is affected by their material wealth.
“Children of affluence are generally presumed to be at low risk. However, recent studies have suggested problems in several domains notably, substance use, anxiety, and depression and 2 sets of potential causes: pressures to achieve and isolation from parents.” (Luthar 1581)
The preceding passage briefly states the perception of affluence as something that society has deemed desirable and satisfactory. It is only human that a person desire to improve every aspect of his life to attain personal achievement, and being wealthy is only one of many desires that humans are innately attached to. However, the passage also mentions how the very pressure to attain personal achievement is detrimental to development especially for those who are affluent enough to obtain the resources necessary to garner such goals. At the same time, the inclusion of isolation from parents as a cause of psychological stress in affluent children is valid since the cost of being in a consistently affluent family is having parents who are focused on maintaining such status through work.
These two concepts are the foreground of the psychological and emotional distress in Hamlet by portraying a main character who has to endure the troubled dynamics of the people who live with him and who is faced with dramatic loss and intense anger of the death of his father. The environment that he lives in, which is primarily characterized as a very affluent one riddled with friction between the members of his family, continuously drives him insane by being a detriment to his mission of seeking answers about his father’s murder. At the same time, Hamlet is pursuing this mission alone, even without the help of his own widowed mother, which contributes to a more psychologically troubling experience. Consequently, he must pursue this difficult task without any other person to look to at times of distress, and in the situation of Hamlet, leaving him without anybody as a guide can cause serious damage.
Two Opposing Claims on the Effects of Wealth on Psychology
A highly contested topic regarding the relationship between wealth and individuals revolves around the effects of wealth on the mental health of people. Generally, the debate is split into two main sides: the first is that an abundance of wealth promotes happiness and decreases general negativity in a person’s psychology while the second is that an abundance of wealth does the opposite by introducing wealth-related issues into the lives of people, thus depriving them of better mental health.
The first side of the debate highlights how an increase wealth opens up more opportunities, especially those who have not been exposed to such lifestyle before, and how the idea that one makes himself closer to being the ideal individual that he desires to be. Jennifer Foster, on her opinion article contrasting the definitions of being wealthy and being rich, forwards the idea that material wealth is a concrete motivation that will aid in the formation of an ideal self.
“…while the whole world speaks of getting rich, and getting rich quick, most only have ambitions to make money. As cliché as it sounds, money is an “easy come, easy go” road in most cases. For the rest of us, though, who place a higher value on passion, innovation, and making a difference in the world than we do some dollar amount, wealth is being built at every step in life. From relationships that are fostered, ideas that are developed, and experiences that are gained, destination wealth is closer than you might think. And the best part of all? Wealth in life will bring happiness and fulfillment that no amount of money can. Choose to be wealthy, not just rich.” (Foster, Jennifer)
In Hamlet, the character of Claudius puts this idea into practice by exuding a relatively calm and conserve mannerism and personality, which tells of his satisfaction of his assumption to the throne after the death of his brother. This shows how the desire to be more wealthy is a valid stimulus for Claudius to continue his reign as king of Denmark amidst the controversy he is surrounded with regarding his responsibility over the death of King Hamlet.
The second side of the debate focuses on how decision-making in more affluent individuals is made more difficult by their wealth because of their capability to grasp more opportunities that a person of average affluence may have. This is strengthened by the idea that an individual’s desires are proportional to their affluence, which means that a person who can afford, for example, product A, will desire for product A more than those who cannot afford the said product. Luthar argues that being exposed to higher level of autonomy and choice regarding individual development brought about by higher affluence does not actually promote happiness but instead cultures depression.
“ Extraordinary material wealth usually implies high levels of autonomy and choice, so that many affluent people can live exactly the kind of lives they want…Whereas all these options might be assumed to engender happiness, they often lead to depression instead. Why? Because increases in experienced control are accompanied by increases in expectations about control. ‘‘The more we are allowed to be the masters of our fates in one domain of life after another, the more we expect to be. In short, life is supposed to be perfect’’ (Schwartz, 2000, p. 85). Continuing this argument, Schwartz noted that when perfection is not achieved, the ethos of individualism biases people toward attributing failures to personal rather than to external causes.” (Luthar 1586)
In Hamlet, the namesake character greatly contributed to support this idea by being presented with several situations and possibilities wherein he can avenge his father’s death by murdering Claudius. At a larger perspective, he is even troubled by the choice between pursuing this mission or completely abandoning it because of the circumstance and consequences that each situation has. It may be linked that the very possibility that Hamlet himself could be interested in the throne could also be a contributing factor the emotions of regret and grief that he may be feeling throughout the execution of his mission.
In conclusion, society has come to a deadlock on how it perceives wealth as a whole and affluent people in general because of the different perspectives of wealth in a society wherein power and influence are tagged to reputation and affluence. Similarly, the struggles of Hamlet may find its roots in the idea that each person is driven by their desire to either assume the throne as king of Denmark or find justice over who should be in power of the nation.
How Consumerism is Shaping Human Psychology
Although society’s perception of wealth and its effects on human psychology has been vague, it is certainly agreed upon that the rise of consumerism is definitely shaping the mindset of the modern man. As an offshoot of capitalism, consumerism idealizes the reality that being materialistically wealthy is a legitimate end goal of individuals and that creating a society wherein consumers and producers are in agreement makes for a more harmonious collaboration between people.
An important concept that develops from this is the mid-life crisis, wherein a person is faced with multiple dilemmas that confuse the individual and question his identity. Materialism contributes to the psychological effects attributed to a mid-life crisis because the increase in affluence can introduce sentiments related to anxiety and depression brought about by the exposure to concepts that can trigger emotions such as guilt and regret. Ultimately, this mixture of emotions stem from the idea that being overly materialistic invites a personality dependent on how affluent a person is compared to the rest of society.
Although it is still understood that the perception of wealth in society is a gray area, the effects of over-materialism cannot be denied as being detrimental to the personal development of a person. By being attached to consumerist ideals that include a highly centered focus on material wealth and the desire to continuously want more than what is expected of a person, this can cause issues within the person’s emotional and mental states. Consequently, the awareness of such dangers that lie between what some individuals may consider as ideal creates a society that is shaped by how consumerism is becoming more prevalent in society.
In conclusion, there exists various perceptions towards how wealth plays a role in the movement of society, but ultimately, it is considered a major influence to the primary human perception of a world that is continuously developing. In the story of Hamlet, this may be compared to how the characters possess different perspectives towards each other, and because their relationships are heightened by the death of King Hamlet, the atmosphere continuously changes in a hostile manner that consequently blurs the psychological capacity for a character like Hamlet to process the situation and act accordingly.
The Significance of Hamlet in Modern Society
A Comparison Between the Danish Royal Family in Hamlet and a Consumerist Society
There are three main points of comparison that define the Danish royal family as an example of a society wherein consumerism has affected interactions between its members and their respective individualities. These points ultimately reference back to the operation of modern society that exhibits signs of being controlled by consumerism created by the mundane ideals and beliefs of people who are considered powerful.
First, both the Danish royal family and a consumerist society have been installed with affluence by default. This means that both groups have been abundantly wealthy because of the lifestyles they manifest, which is one that is centered solely on the individual and the material growth and development of a person in fueling success in a mundane environment. This is clearly shown in Hamlet since their diplomatic powers, especially with neighboring Norway, and political influence, in the form of being the absolute rulers of Denmark, speak of the status of the Danish royal family as a whole, the setting they are placed in, and the circumstances that they are put in to.
Secondly, the Danish royal family experiences distress and conflict that a consumerist society would face. Based on one modern perspective of wealth that links wealth with psychological stress, it can be said that the Danish royal family is experiencing such dysfunctional family dynamics because of their affluence in society that consequently affects their own perception of other people, their self-worth, and their sense of personal identity, explicitly shown by Hamlet. Through the perspective of Hamlet, readers are able to see how the distress in the family continues to exist because each character must maintain a certain status of themselves, and because these labels are being threatened, they themselves are threatened to the point that irrational action is taken into consideration.
Lastly, the members of the Danish royal family and members of a consumerist society generally display an understanding of the “other” wherein there are interests that a person may posses that are not within the context of good of another. Because of this understanding, these individuals experience emotions related to guilt and regret because their personalities create harm to other people. In Hamlet, the namesake character displays such quality by continuously talking to himself about how his action will affect the fates of characters and how this will all eventually be in favor of his own interests. This, therefore, illustrates how the power of an individualistic society brought about by the sense of wanting more in contributory to the individual and interpersonal conflicts that plague both the Danish royal family and modern society.
Manifestation of the Conscience of the Wealthy
It is undeniable that the wealthy may have contemplated about the worth of their material possessions and if these are truly satisfying to oneself. Hamlet presents a main character who has experienced the same dilemma, and it is because of this conflict of interests that he exhibits such behavior. Although the actions of Hamlet do not necessarily follow the reality of modern high class society, inspirations for such actions may be similar to actions made by the wealth of today.
Speaking of the analysis of Bradley Pearson, protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, Coursen suggests that Hamlet must be experiences a true psychological event that is a resultant of events that are being narrated in the play.
“We might pursue Pearson's suggestion further to suggest that Hamlet's belief that "things" only “rank and gross possess" his "unweeded garden" (I.ii. 135-136) signals a "mid-life crisis," that terrible moment of pause, often activated by catastrophic personal emergencies, when psychic content, dormant for a lifetime, explodes within us with bewildering force.” (Coursen)
Factoring in the high societal status of Hamlet and his family, the emotional and psychological gravity of the “catastrophic personal emergencies” increases because of the current status of the family in terms of their relationships with other people. In between dealing with international diplomatic relationships at a time of apparent unrest and the threat of being murdered by his uncle, King Claudius, Hamlet is unable to cope with the death of his own father whose impact extended into the rest of the Danish royal family. The complications that had occurred from this tragic event have plagued Hamlet and drove him into a phase similar to a mid-life crisis wherein his own identity and personality is at a tipping point.
Hamlet as an Accurate Prediction of Modern Society
Through the analysis of the psychology of the characters of Hamlet and a study on the mindset of the contemporary man, similarities between Shakespeare’s opus and the narrative of modern society can be seen. This is because the circumstances that affect the outcomes of the characters of Hamlet, such as being more affluent than average and being in the state of a family and individual crisis, are phenomena that are prevalent in a modern consumerist society with ideals that promote the longing to become more materialistically wealthy. In other words, the link between Hamlet’s psychological state and the fates of his friends and family and the link between a materialistic person’s interiority and the outlook that he has on society are similar in a way that both link operate on the idea that compromise is taken out of the equation when solving for the true intentions and interests of a person.
The stoicism of Hamlet is an enduring example on how the human spirit has always been in the search for answers, and important questions and lessons about humanity are displayed through the challenges and decisions made by Hamlet. The famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is a perfect illustration of the struggles and hardships of modern life, and in today’s progressively challenging age, there will most certainly be at least one person who will question the legitimacy of his own existence because of the different emotions that are triggered by materialistic wealth. Recalling the analysis of Philip Edwards, it can be agreed upon that the very nature of Hamlet speaks of an individual’s confrontations with the truths about human existence.
In Charles Boyce’s reference book on the works of Shakespeare, he speaks of the legacy of the character of Hamlet:
“Although Hamlet foreshadows the psychologically realistic characters of modern drama, Shakespeare did not create the prince's emotional life for its own sake but rather as a vehicle for presenting a philosophical attitude. Hamlet's troubled mind demonstrates the development of an acceptance of life despite the existence of human evil, and this is the dominant theme of the play. The critical element in this development is the prince's recognition of evil in himself; in containing both good and evil, he represents the dual nature of humankind. The reconciliation of humanity with its own flawed nature is a central concern of Shakespeare's work, and in Hamlet an evolution of attitudes leading to this conclusion is displayed in a grand and powerful portrait.” (Boyce 232)
It can be deduced that the preceding analysis of Hamlet illustrates how the operation between the good and the evil entail in a consumerist society is a revolutionary perspective on the realistic flaws of human nature that stem from man’s desire to become beyond what he presently is. In conclusion, Hamlet easily provides a window into the lives of individuals who seem like they are truly satisfied with their lives. Looking closer into the window, readers realize that the characters of the play are continuously striving to complete their lifetime goals, which is truly a reflection of the progressive and fast-developing nature of modern society.
In conclusion, there are several ways that Hamlet displays similarities to a modern consumerist society. Hamlet, as the main protagonist of the play, faces numerous issues, elaborately explained in detail by his soliloquies that challenge the range of his psychological capacity. By putting Hamlet to the test, his genuine intentions for his actions are revealed. May it be the possibility of his desire for the throne or the longing to heal psychological and emotional scars after his father’s death, these motivations pose as a challenge for Hamlet to truly satisfy his wants. Today, these circumstances are replicated with the introduction of a progressive society that moves towards the concept of wanting more. These consumerist ideas are manifested through the psychology of those who are rather obsessed with these ideas, and therefore, they are experiencing difficulties choosing a desirable course of life with the infinite number of options they are presented with. Providing such a link between Hamlet and consumerism therefore cements the lasting impression of classic literature as an unlikely window to the modern world.
Search for research papers, project reports and scholarly articles by high school students on Questioz. Search by title, author, subject, or keywords.
View Articles by Academic Field