Hamlet: The Melancholy Prophet

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The following was a college essay written by Zach Watters. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Zack Watters

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, everyone in the Danish royal court, including the eponymous royal prince, agree that Hamlet is mad. Furthermore, they all trace his madness to various species of melancholy. Winfried Schleiner, in his magisterial work, Melancholy, Genius, and Utopia in the Renaissance, aptly lays out the contemporary context, showing that a fierce scholarly and socio-political conversation raged over the relationship between melancholy and genius, whether celestial, mundane, or diabolical. I will give a brief exploration of Hamlet’s relationship to prophecy in light of this context. I hope to show that through Hamlet’s act as a prophetic character he transitions from vicious melancholy to heroic melancholy.

According to Schleiner, the Renaissance speculated greatly on the relationship between melancholy and genius. Many contemporary medicinal, literary, and philosophical texts attempted to understand why melancholy is a precondition of genius. One noteworthy set of melancholics were the “sibyls and soothsayers […] and all that is divinely inspired.”[1] Classical and humanist authors saw a link between melancholy and the gift of divination.[2] However, fierce debates in modern Europe, one center being Wittenberg, were either optimistic or pessimistic about melancholy, since it also seemed to attract bad spirits.[3] In Elizabethan England especially, distrust and eventual skepticism about melancholy prompted laws against prophecy, divination, or otherwise miraculous manifestations.[4]

A more detailed sketch of English skepticism towards the miraculous is warranted. A generation prior to Shakespeare already witnessed increasing political scrutiny on the miraculous, and prophecy in particular. England passed laws prohibiting the circulation of prophecies, especially those with political content.[5] With the Catholic monarchs in the 16th century, the law was repealed, but Elizabeth quickly re-introduced her father’s prohibition against any “fond, fantastical or false prophecy.”[6] Closer to Shakespeare’s time, Henry Howard, the Earl of Northampton wrote Defensative Against the Poyson of Supposed Prophecies in 1583, in which he associated prophecy with falsification and pretense. In particular, he aimed at showing how the melancholic, the temperament universally acknowledged to be associated with prophecy, could not indeed possess any supernatural gift of divination, because the melancholic humor is earthy and heavy.[7] Later authors, such as Thomas Walkington, who wrote in 1607, even called melancholics dangerous citizens.[8]

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1599, which closed a decade that was particularly antithetical to supernatural explanations of prophetic, miraculous, or spiritual phenomena. England was experiencing an even greater cultural and institutional skepticism towards spiritual phenomena. Disagreements were divided into three groups, between those who believed in the existence of witchcraft, those who believed that, though witchcraft existed, most cases of witchcraft were just diseased imagination, and those who believed that witchcraft was always due to imagination and credulity. In fact, the “diseased imagination” featured heavily as an explanation for the melancholic claiming preternatural occurrences.[9] Works such as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft argued for naturalistic explanations such as melancholy and the laesa imaginatio for cases of possessions and witchcraft.[10] For Scot, the imagination is the main cause of any kind of preternatural maladies, and the healing of the imagination is also the chief engine of any kind of efficacy in ‘magical’ rituals that heal these maladies. The prevalence of superstition, especially about witchcraft, was associated with “popish” sensibilities.[11] King James argued that witchcraft did indeed exist, and was an obstructive force. He directed the opening of his book Daemonologie against Scot by claiming to refute the reasons “of all such as would call it [witchcraft] but an imagination and Melancholique humor.”[12] However, in the late 1590s, Scot’s view prevailed in the institutional Church of England. The triumph of the naturalistic etiology for witchcraft, possession, and miracles had political implications, given that preternatural phenomena were mostly associated with Puritans and Catholics. Church authorities argued that miracles and oracles ceased after Christ, the goal of which was to “demolish at one blow all modern Catholic miracles… instead of having to show that each single one is fraudulent or produced by superstitious magic.”[13]

The apologetic tactic of English Church authorities was simply to restrict preternatural phenomena to biblical times, but not to cast doubt on biblical prophecy. That next step, however, towards skepticism in the biblical narrative was a natural move. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who was born in 1588, was a famous early interpreter for politically motivated prophecy in Scripture, applying to the Bible the condemnation of the rulers of his parents’ generation that anyone who speaks against the sovereign is a false prophet.[14] When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, then, the country was on its way to an unprecedented skepticism of prophecy. While Hamlet was being written, the country was still divided on its assessment of the preternatural and the prophetic. The institutional church, however, had officially decided that the miraculous no longer existed, and any kind of modern preternatural phenomena should be explained through medical and natural means. 

Given the universal association of melancholy to prophecy, as well as the contemporary political censure on the preternatural, Hamlet’s melancholy and prophetic character come into sharper focus. Hamlet’s melancholy is a well-established feature of the play, but Hamlet’s claim to be prophecy has been less noted. He first alludes to his particular capability for insight when he tells Horatio he sees his father, “in [the] mind’s eye” before the ghost’s appearance.[15] When the ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, the prince ejaculates, “O my prophetic soul.”[16] Similarly, before Polonius comes to tell Hamlet about the players, Hamlet remarks to Rosencrantz, “I will prophesy.”[17] Right before he dies, Hamlet says again, “I do prophesy” when referring to Fortinbras’ eventual election as the new king.[18]

The Danish court, though, echoes the full gamut of contemporary historical opinion on Hamlet’s melancholy, from medical explanations to the diabolical. The play courts the various contemporary diagnoses, fears, and suspicions of melancholy. Even Hamlet wonders whether he has been deceived by the devil out of his own “weakness and melancholy.”[19] Horatio, the Wittenberg scholar, first broaches this topic when he warns Hamlet that secluding himself with the ghost might deprive him of his “sovereignty of reason, and draw [him] into madness.”[20] Horatio then says of Hamlet, while he walks away, that he “waxes desperate with imagination.”[21] Hamlet later says of himself that his “imaginations are as foul as Vulcan’s stithy.”[22] Again, he says, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his “wit’s diseased,”[23] which is a direct echo of the contemporary medical theme of a laesa imaginatio. Most notably, Hamlet’s animosity toward the crown because of a preternatural revelation would be incredibly suspicious, both to the Danish court and to the contemporary English court. However, if my analysis is correct, Shakespeare’s exploration through the many explanations of Hamlet’s melancholy leads to the conclusion that Hamlet is, at least by the end of the play, the kind of melancholic that the Church of England officially no longer believed in.

One Renaissance voice to offer a more generous treatment of melancholy was Melanchthon.[24] The Wittenberg preceptor zealously proffered Aristotle’s dulcissima doctrina that some melancholy can lead to intellectual accomplishment. Melanchthon named this kind of melancholy “heroical melancholy,” also known as the temperamentum ad iustitiam (temperament of justice). While other forms of melancholy arise from poor mixtures with other humors, the heroical melancholy arises from the melancholy humor being “’aptly mixed’ with well tempered blood” which leads to sharper mental faculties.[25] In other words, Melanchthon calls it the crasis temperata, or “tempered temperament.”[26] The heroic melancholic has a special constitution which is “aided and guided by God” and is therefore capable of great deeds given them by God.[27] For Melanchthon, genial melancholy is actually the particular temperament of heroes, and especially, the Christian hero. The Christian melancholic acknowledges the influence of the divine in daily action. Since all great deeds are God’s deeds, the melancholic who is aware of his weakness and God’s action in his life is more prepared to be influenced by providence. The melancholic acknowledges that something is given to him, illustrating his weakness in relation to God’s power.[28] That Melanchthon was an authority at Wittenberg, the university at which Hamlet and Horatio are students, is surely one very good reason to believe that Shakespeare used the Lutheran theologian as a source for narrativizing heroic melancholy in Hamlet. 

Perhaps another source from Wittenberg was Luther himself, whose thoughts on melancholy were quite divergent from Melanchthon. For the majority of Luther’s writings, melancholy was a species of despair and was unequivocally bad. In fact, the “spirit of sadness” is none other than Satan, who uses melancholic humans as his instruments.[29] In one memorable Medieval phrase, which Luther took to heart, was that “the devil has a bath ready for a melancholy head.”[30] Luther preached that anyone who experienced the spirit of sadness ought to seek clergymen for consolation, and he also warned against loving miracles and waiting for private revelations.[31] The melancholic is especially susceptible to being fooled by the devil through visions and dreams. Perhaps, then, Horatio the Wittenberg scholar was mostly Lutheran in his approach to visions. The authority to pronounce on the veracity of dreams and visions was clearly granted to him by Marcellus and Bernardo, calling him a “scholar” when the ghost of King Hamlet was upon them.[32] They further defer, though wondering whether the ghost is more, when asking him “is not this something more than fantasy?”[33] Horatio’s interpretation of Hamlet and the ghost is, perhaps, a voice for Luther’s thoughts amid the Elizabethan skepticism.

Furthermore, Lutheran opinion might not just apply to Hamlet, but also to Ophelia as a possible foil for heroic melancholy. The dominant Wittenberg tradition after the first Reformers primarily accepted Luther’s opinion. Echoing Luther’s colloquia, posters against melancholy warned that by consenting to melancholy “we are drawn by Satan into his melancholic bath.”[34] Further variations on the theme were produced, such as the popular saying that “the melancholic head is the devil’s bath” or the warning that “when the melancholic devil has pushed or thrown us into his hellish bath of heavy-heartedness.”[35] In particular, the Lutherans associated Calvinism with melancholy. Charges against “melancholic ideas of the election by grace” were leveled against the Calvinists, and such associations were encouraged by a high-profile Calvinist suicide case, which was reported to have been caused by the wandering of the mind on the topic of election.[36] The connection is not hard to miss with Ophelia’s apparent suicide. Though I have not found any allusions to Calvinist theology in Ophelia’s mental demise, what is clearer is that she slowly succumbs to melancholy. In act 4, scene 5, after meditating on her father’s death and the inevitable conflict between Hamlet and Laertes, she says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance – pray you, love, remember – and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”[37] Her brother, Laertes, worries that her words are “a document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.”[38] Ophelia is going deeper into her own thoughts and her own melancholy and dwells further on her father, that “he is gone, he is gone, and we cast away moan…”[39] Ophelia’s death by drowning, then, is reminiscent of the Lutheran proverb that the devil’s bath awaits the melancholic. Though Ophelia’s death can be more complexified, for my purposes, her death serves as a foil for Hamlet’s growth out of a possible Lutheran melancholy and into Melanchthon’s heroic melancholy.

While the majority of the play seems to court the idea that Hamlet may indeed be either medically mad or diabolically influenced, I suggest that Hamlet’s melancholy, by the end of the play, resembles Melanchthon’s understanding in the midst of the surrounding Elizabethan skepticism and institutional censure. For example, when Gertrude accuses Hamlet’s vision of being “coinage in your brain. This bodiless creation ecstasy…” he tells her, “my pulse as yours doth temperately keep time, and makes as healthful music. It is not madness that I have uttered.”[40] Hamlet no longer suspects that his imagination is diseased, but rather that his humors are in healthful balance. He then adjures her, “Mother, for love of grace, lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks.”[41] Hamlet invokes grace, and like the biblical prophet, calls his mother to repentance. Hamlet continues to upset the expectations of his madness when he rejects Horatio’s suggestion that they use augury to determine the outcome of his contest with Laertes.[42] He does not participate in the very thing that Elizabethan anti-melancholics would expect him to do, since divination is the province of melancholy. Rather, he tells Horatio that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”[43] He continues, “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now… Let be.”[44] Hamlet is the voice of sense and providence. No longer does he rage against injustice, but in fact submits death to the purview of God. He is now acting like Melanchthon’s heroic melancholic by acknowledging God’s action and providence. Indeed, when Claudius asks Hamlet how he knows that he intends him to go to England, Hamlet answers, “I see a cherub that sees them.”[45] Hamlet claims as his source of information, not a ghost, nor diabolic deception, nor distempered temperament, but an angel.[46] Though Claudius’ would have even greater reason to be suspicious that benevolent forces guide Hamlet’s treasonous behavior, Shakespeare, by including Hamlet’s very sane trust in providence, seems to be saying Hamlet is the real deal. Being guided by cherubim, Hamlet has Melanchthon’s temperamentum ad iustitiam which allows him to do the great deed of bringing justice to the royal court.

While the play remains agnostic as to whether Hamlet’s melancholy begins as medically or diabolically induced, in my reading, Hamlet’s trust in providence is the surest key to believing his prophetic character. My speculation is that, though previous signs exist in the play, Hamlet submits himself most fully to providence in Act V, scene I, at the graveyard. For Melanchthon, the Christian heroic melancholic can cooperate most heroically with God’s providence when he acknowledges his own weakness and God’s grace and action upon him. The graveyard scene acts as the occasion for Hamlet’s confrontation of mortality, which then leads him to a greater reliance on providence.

Hamlet learns about death from the clown, while looking upon the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Hamlet apparently cared for Yorick, whom he praises as being a fellow of “infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”[47] For Hamlet, Yorick’s “fancy,” or imagination was praiseworthy, though now the thought of Yorick is “abhorred in [his] imagination.”[48] He then uses his imagination to think about the greatness of Alexander now reduced to dust. His melancholy musings seem to have turned to their lowest point. My speculation is that Hamlet’s encounter with the clown and Yorick have a cathartic effect which leads Hamlet to a greater trust in providence. Only after meditating on the death of Alexander and Caesar is he able to confront the royal party and assert his claim to the throne by calling himself “Hamlet the Dane.”[49] A turn seems to have occurred when Ophelia’s procession enters and Laertes attacks Hamlet in vengeance, the prince says, “Yet have I in me something dangerous, which let thy wisdom fear. Hold off thy hand.”[50] The something dangerous is, to the surrounding characters, clearly “mere madness.”[51] However, Hamlet closes the scene by comparing Laertes to Hercules, a comparison that Hamlet had applied to himself a couple times earlier in the play. Schleiner notes that Hercules was, for Melanchthon, an example of melancholy gone wrong, and so it is noteworthy that Hamlet no longer sees himself as a vicious melancholic, but Laertes.[52] Soon after, he begins to speak to Horatio of a divinity that shapes our ends.[53] Hamlet, content that he, like Alexander and Caesar, will return to dust, is free in his melancholy to submit to God’s action, and so he is able to be both true king and prophetic witness to the Danish court.

Seen in the light of contemporary conversations on the relationship between melancholy and divination, Hamlet appears as a true contribution to the tradition. In my reading, Shakespeare allows for different voices of the tradition, whether Lutheran or Elizabethan, to voice their skepticism on Hamlet’s madness. According to various characters, Hamlet’s melancholy could be diabolical or medical or political. However, Hamlet’s melancholy does not lead to Luther’s understanding of melancholy as despair, to which Ophelia succumbs. Instead, Shakespeare ultimately shows that Hamlet ends with Melanchthon’s heroic melancholy and so is used as God’s “scourge and minister” on the Danish court while retaining his sanity.

Works Cited

Hahn, Scott and Benjamin Wiker, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700. New York, 2013.

Schleiner, Winfried. Melancholy, Genius, and Utopia in the Renaissance. Otto Harrassowitz, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Quoted from Schleiner, 21

[2] Ibid., 23

[3] Ibid., 26

[4] Ibid., 112

[5] Schleiner, 112

[6] Rupert Taylor, quoted in Schleiner, 113

[7] Schleiner, 116

[8] Ibid., 119

[9] Schleiner, 98

[10] Schleiner, 183

[11] Ibid., 186

[12] Daemonologie, p. 12 quoted in Schleiner, 187

[13] D.P. Walker, as quoted in Schleiner, 188

[14] See Hahn and Wiker, 321

[15] 1I.2.185

[16] 1.5.40

[17] 2.2.354

[18] 5.2.333

[19] 3.1.554. Hamlet’s original self-comparison to Hercules is relevant here. Melanchthon adduces the classic Greek hero as an example of melancholy gone wrong. See especially I.2.151-153 and Schleiner, 57.

[20] 1.5.73-74. See also Nicolas Piso’s idea that the “melancholic is characterized by false and ridiculous reason because of a harmed imaginative and ratiocinative faculty” in Schleiner, 100

[21] 1.5.87

[22] 3.2.73-74

[23] 3.2.291

[24] Ibid., 56

[25] Schleiner, 59

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 61

[28] Ibid.

[29] See Schleiner, 66-67

[30] Ibid., 67

[31] Ibid., 68

[32] 1.1.42

[33] 1.1.53

[34] Ibid., 74

[35] Ibid., 77, 79

[36] Ibid., 75

[37] 4.5.174-175

[38] 4.5.176

[39] 4.5.192-193

[40] 3.4.137-138, 141-143

[41] 3.4.145-147

[42] 5.2.192

[43] 5.2.10

[44] 5.2.192-194, 196

[45] 4.3.45

[46] Notably, at Hamlet’s death, Horatio says over him, “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (5.2.339), which is reminiscent of the last antiphon of the Requiem Mass, in paradisum deducant te angeli. Is this a “sage requiem” given to Hamlet because of his heroic melancholy but denied Ophelia by the priest because her vicious melancholy, lead to suicide? The connection between melancholy and suicide featured in Lutheran critique of Calvinism. See, Schleiner, 75.

[47] 5.1.157

[48] Ibid., 158-159

[49] 5.1.224

[50] 5.1.229-230.

[51] 5.1. 252

[52] See note 19

[53] 5.2.10

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