For 400 years, people have been writing about and criticizing William Shakespeare’s plays.
Especially one: Hamlet.
It is the most well known and most produced of Shakespeare’s plays. Around the world and in every language, people know, “To be or not to be.” Always pondering it’s meaning, people spend hours, never coming up with the answers.
The central question of the play is Hamlet’s “madness.” He is described by most critics as “crazy” and “insane.” Somehow for me, all the interpretations didn’t fit. Something didn’t quite seem to be an accurate description of what Hamlet is experiencing and expressing.
I became fascinated…. no…obsessed! What was all that irrational behavior about? I don’t believe that Hamlet is actually insane; I believe he feels like he is going insane, and this explains his odd, often irrational behavior.
The source of Hamlet’s turmoil is the 1-2-3 punch of the Ghost’s revelations. In Act I, Scene 4, the beginning of the play, Hamlet sees and speaks to the Ghost that his friends have seen and told him looks like his dead father, King Hamlet. Speaking only to Hamlet, the Ghost tells him three stunning things:
- The King has been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle (the King’s Brother)
- The Ghost charges Hamlet to avenge his death
- The Ghost has him swear not to tell anyone.
Hamlet is in shock. He has been charged by a ghost to go and kill the murderer, Claudius – without proof – and he has to keep it secret.
After his meeting with the ghost, everyone in court notices Hamlet’s erratic behavior. Everyone is watching and talking about him, but they don’t know what is causing it. Hamlet knows they are watching, but still can’t control his behavior. The question of whether he is mad or not becomes the main issue in the play.
By Act II, Hamlet says he feels like he’s in a prison. The terrible secret he is keeping has become his prison. Hamlet must decide what to do, alone. He has sworn that he will avenge, but has no one to help him make the final decision.
He is paralyzed by indecision.
This is the key to Hamlet’s behavior. Keeping secrets can create a false reality. To keep a secret requires that we compartmentalize our lives. Sometimes, even lead a double life. Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, found that traumatic secrets cause the brain to fight with itself. One part of the brain wants to tell the secret and the other wants to keep it hidden. The longer you hold a secret, the more tension becomes a source of chronic stress (“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”). This psychic tension often causes us to compartmentalize our lives and become out of touch with our true selves.
A paper in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Michael Slepian, Jniseok Chun, and Malia Mason; has a different interpretation. They suggest that a potential problem with keeping secrets is that you have a goal to keep the information secret. People obsess more often about goals that have not yet been achieved. With secrets, this mechanism might keep you thinking about the information you are trying to keep a secret, even when the people you are hiding information from are not around. As a result, keeping secrets maybe stressful – but not because of the activity of hiding it from a person. It may be stressful because you may fixate on the information, constantly reminding you that you have a secret. Knowing you have a secret may make you feel as though you are not acting authentically, and that can depress your mood.
Clearly keeping secrets is not good for a person‘s mental health and Hamlet seems to suffer the consequences. Not until the very end, when he enters his mother’s bedroom, does Hamlet finally blurt out what has been torturing him. Released from his secret, he rails against his mother, and he is finally able to move on to do what he must. He stabs the figure behind a curtain, who he thinks is Claudius. After telling the secret and killing Polonius, there is no going back. The scene leads him into the second half of the play, where he takes action, makes plans, and moves forward.
Hamlet struggles throughout the play with his three part secret: the murder, the charge of revenge, and keeping the truth to himself. Only the audience shares Hamlet’s secret – and his heavy burden. This connection is what makes Hamlet feel so human and real, and why we get so attached to him.
It’s also why this play has been so popular. You, the audience, are with him, sharing his anxiety, unable to help him.