An Overview of Elizabethan’s Era Schizophrenia in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare

“Schizoaffective disorder is a big mental mash-up of a disease. It combines just about every disorder, from depression, delusions, and paranoia to mania, schizophrenia and hallucinations.” Shawn Amos’ assertion details the broad spectrum of disorders that are prevalent in people suffering from schizophrenia. In his play, Hamlet, William Shakespeare provides an insight on his preceptive of mental illness and employs schizophrenia to both Ophelia and Hamlet. This play provides an overview of schizophrenia in the seventeenth century and their understanding of the disease, Shakespeare’s utilization of the disease with Ophelia and Hamlet and subsequently their mental deterioration.

Modern society has a vastly different understanding of schizophrenia than the people of the Elizabethan era. Throughout the seventeenth century, civilization had minimal knowledge of mental health. As a result, all diagnoses, therapies and treatments developed during that period are considered pre-scientific to modern psychology. Consequent, to humanity’s lack of comprehension of schizophrenia people who suffered from the brain disease were often accused of witchcraft and in effect tortured or murdered.

In A Noble Insanity, Peckham explains the indicted “…were indeed sufferers of a variety of mental disorders, including senile dementia, compulsive anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia” (Peckham, 32). Throughout this era, the popular conception was that individuals who embodied these mental illnesses were freaks of nature and hence treated horribly. Four centuries later, humanity has been able to research and develop a proper cognizance of the mental illness, and its science. While studies have shown, one percent of the population suffers from schizophrenia, scientists have developed a treatment for the ailment that helps reduce the psychotic symptoms. Researchers have also discovered its origin correlating it to the genetics of each individual as Gilmore states in Understanding What Causes Schizophrenia, “…schizophrenia is an end result of a complex interaction between thousands of genes and multiple environmental risk factors” (Gilmore, 9). After numerous decades of research and studies, the medical community has a broader and more in-depth understanding of the science behind this complex illness.

Moreover, scientists have been able to identify the behaviors and triggers associated with schizophrenia, providing accurate diagnosis’ and treatments. Nancy C. Andreasen summarizes that schizophrenia “…is characterized by symptoms that reflect multiple mental processes: hallucination or abnormality in perception; delusion, or abnormality in inferential thinking; disorganized speech, or abnormalities in language; absence of normal behaviors, or disorganized behavior” (Andreasen, 107). This discovery allows physicians to fully understand what the ill are experiencing enhancing their aptitude to treat the sick. In contrast to the Middle Age modern society is more educated on the subject of schizophrenia. However, Shakespeare differed from the popular belief in the seventeenth century as he was able to identify schizophrenia as a mental illness applying it as a central theme in the play Hamlet.

William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet revolutionized society’s view of mental illness and how it is written in literature. Schizoaffective disorder is a concept rarely applied in writings before Shakespeare popularization on this subject. Peckham article states, “…the brief few decades in which mental illness was popularized could not have reached absolute glorification of pathology without Shakespeare 1601 Hamlet…” (Peckham, 34). Shakespeare is able to provide the audience with a clear picture of schizophrenia through Ophelia and Hamlet’s journey in the Elizabethan era. The characters in Hamlet demonstrate societies misinterpretation and ignorance of mental illness. This lack of comprehension is evident in Claudius’ remarks questioning why Hamlet continues to grieve,

“But to persevere In obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschooled.” (Shakespeare .I.II. 96-102)

Claudius is unable to recognize that Hamlet is suffering from depression and instead correlates his grieving process as a sign of weakness. Furthermore, Shakespeare is able to vividly depict the tendencies and actions of characters suffering from a mental illness. The portrayal of schizophrenia is precisely shown in Ophelia’s madness as she demonstrates an array of symptoms. Nancy Andreasen states in her essay Schizophrenia the Fundamental Questions, “[b]y the era of Elizabethan drama, however, we have portrayals of schizophrenia that closely resemble modern concept. The madness of Ophelia in Hamlet is quite similar to modern Schizophrenia” (Andreasen, 109). Hamlet accurately depicts the nuances and thoughts of senile individuals in a way that was never seen before. Shakespeare utilizes psychological theories that have never seen before in the Middle Ages to describe his characters. Hamlet transcends time as it applies modern psychology in a pre-colonial world.

Hamlet’s madness is not an act that he portrays but rather a result of him suffering from schizophrenia. After the death of his father, Hamlet is grief-stricken, and his mental health quickly begins to deteriorate as he exhibits an array of schizophrenic symptoms. For example, he displays disorganized behavior by contradicting himself and responding unpredictably. This behavior is evident when he speaks with Ophelia expressing his past love for her, “I did love you once… You shouldn’t have believed me…I loved you not” (III.I.125,127,129). Schizophrenia disrupts interaction with others as shown in Hamlet’s impulsiveness. Another instance where he exhibits further signs of this brain disease is when he begins to have hallucinations of the ghost of his father.

Hamlet’s auditory hallucination is evident as he is the only one able to speak and see the ghost in his mother’s chamber. When asked if Gertrude also sees the ghost she replies, “[n]othing at all, yet all that is I see… This is only a figment of your imagination. Madness is good at creating hallucinations”(III.IV.151, 157-159). The tragedy of his fathers passing ignites Hamlet’s delusion as the ghost is simply a figment of his imagination. Lastly, Hamlet demonstrates an absence of normal behavior with his lack of emotions. He kills seven people without showing any signs of sympathy or emotion. His lack of remorse is most prominent after he leaves his lifelong friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to die remarking, “[t]hey are not near my conscience. Their defeat/ Does by their insinuation grow.” (V.II.65-66). Hamlet’s inability to recognize the ramifications of his actions indicates that he is experiencing psychotic behavior as he is absent from emotions of a healthy individual. The death of Hamlet’s father impacted his mental state which inevitably evolved into a mental illness.

Ophelia’s madness is caused by constant mental stress, which inevitably impacts her psyche, causing her to lose her sanity. Nancy Andreasen, an American neuroscientist, examines the reasons why people suffer from schizophrenia concluding, “…schizophrenia is produced by the influence of multiple factors that lead to the final pathway in the brain” (Andresen, 133). Ophelia’s transformation from an obedient girl to a senile woman is a result of the following three factors. The constant exploitation by her father’s commands results in the deterioration of her mental state of mind. His manipulation is evident as he forbids her from communicating and have a relationship with Hamlet, “…Have you so slander any moment leisure, / As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet./ Look to ‘t, I charge you…” (I.III.140143) Ophelia’s madness is a result of her desperation for freedom as her father constraints her from liberation. Another factor is the constant psychological abusive behavior by Hamlet towards Ophelia.

An example of Hamlet’s mistreatment occurred when he insulted her by stating she is a whore and telling her to, “… Get thee to a nunnery…”(III.I.131).Ophelia’s victimization represents the patriarchal oppression she experiences which causes her to lose her mind as Hamlets comments are, “…words like daggers …” (III.IV.108) to her mental state. Lastly, the final instance, which significantly impacts her mental wellbeing is the sudden death of her beloved father. After his passing, Ophelia is overwhelmed and loses all sanity as indicated by Camden in On Ophelia’s Madness, “Polonius’ death … is the cause of Ophelia’s madness” (Camden, 247). The loss of the most important figure in her life attributes to the psychological distress which Ophelia experiences resulting in her breakdown. The anxiety imposed by these three factors consequently resulted in the demise of Ophelia.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores the psychology of an individual suffering from a mental illness. The subject of schizophrenia and Shakespeare’s its utilization on Hamlet and Ophelia is essential to central theme of the play. Through figurative language and imagery Hamlet influences the audience and provokes thought and debate regarding social misconceptions of human psychology of mental illness during the Elizabethan era.

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