The Guiltiness of Hamlet’s Mother Gertrude: Depression is what Leads to his Death

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Updated: Apr 30, 2024
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Depression is a mental illness that causes the person to feel sad and uninterested in any daily activities. Some of its common symptoms are extreme sadness, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, loneliness, doubt, and thoughts of death and suicide, along with attempts on one’s life. Throughout one of Shakespeare’s famous plays, Hamlet, the audience comes to the conclusion that Hamlet has lost his sanity. While insanity is one of the things that Hamlet has dealt with, that is only towards the end.

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In the beginning, all that Hamlet has dealt with was depression, not insanity. Depression is known as the silent killer. Depressed over his father’s death, Hamlet seems to just want some peaceful time to mourn, but his mother and uncle’s actions prevent him from doing so, which causes his depression to become worse. Hamlet’s depression becomes worse, and those around him, including himself, contribute to it becoming more severe, leading up to his own death.

Hamlet is already overwhelmed by the pressure of seeing his mother marrying his uncle (his father’s brother), and in addition to that, his father’s ghost appears and demands that Hamlet should avenge his murder. These are all contributing factors to his depression, and that’s only the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, so you can only imagine how bad it gets for him in the end. Hamlet’s psychological state can be seen through his reactions and how he expresses his opinion over his mother’s attitude. Hamlet begins to look at Gertrude, his mother, with shame and betrayal, leading us to question: is Gertrude guilty in Hamlet and part of the problem that led to his death? He perceives his mother’s marriage to his uncle, Claudius, as an act of incest and a terrible betrayal, filling him with complete doubt. (Decarlo 2). As Hamlet continues to explain his view on his mother’s behavior, we can clearly see that he is overwhelmed due to it going against his morals and personal philosophy to the point that it pains him mentally.

Hamlet, at this point, isn’t mentally stable, so this whole situation does affect him on a psychological level. It is only logical to say that he must feel terribly betrayed as well as completely worthless. Here is where Hamlet shows one of the first symptoms of depression, the feeling of worthlessness. Because not only did he fail to protect his position as king, but he was not able to protect his parents’ love and his mother’s loyalty to his father. Hamlet is greatly ashamed of his mother’s actions and accuses her and his uncle of committing the crime of incest. The fact that his mother decided to move on only a month after his father’s death is very shocking to him and raises suspicions: is Gertrude innocent or guilty of King Hamlet’s death? All of which adds to Hamlet’s depression over the tragedy.

King Claudius and Gertrude wonder why Hamlet is making a big deal and acting dramatically over his father’s death when in their opinion, it is something that is common and happens to everyone. Hamlet responds, saying, “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “Seems,” ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forced breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected behavior of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,” For they are actions that a man can play. But I have that within a passeth show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe.” (Shakespeare 1.2.76-86).

With this reply, Hamlet explains to his mother and uncle that even though he is wearing something common, or if he’s acting in a common way every person acts when they lose someone close to them, these things are not even close to describing the real grief inside of him, and it is only a hint of it. This explains to us that Hamlet is describing an emotional downfall that he himself can see and understand, hence his depression. Since most victims of depression don’t expect those around them to understand how they feel, this is a strong sign that Hamlet’s true mental downfall is depression. Through this, we can see that his grief had worsened as his mother and uncle have proved him right by questioning his over-dramatic actions without understanding the situation from his point of view. With this, we see a second sign of depression, loneliness, or the feeling of one being isolated. It’s because his family doesn’t understand that he feels alone; it’s because he’s the only one mourning and the only one that can’t seem to move on. He feels very isolated from the people that surround him on a daily basis.

Throughout the whole play, Hamlet suffers from a severe internal conflict. He holds in a powerful feeling of guilt, which is the third sign of depression that he shows. He can’t understand how he should avenge his father, with no evidence or idea on how to deal with his own mother. He feels guilty for having a hard time fulfilling his father’s request. His feelings are scattered, and he has no clue how to cope with them, which is probably why it took him until the end of the play to finally complete his mission, even though he’s lost so much in the process. A lot of research shows that Shakespeare originally wantedHamlet to be a character that does actually suffer from severe depression, which can be seen through Hamlet’s guilt, along with all of his scattered emotions, which causes him to develop a habit of obsessing over what he thinks he must do, but can’t due to his continuous struggles dealing with heavy responsibility.

Even though, at the time this play was released, Hamlet’s condition was only looked at as a case of melancholy and a mere character defect; the concept of depression did not exist. Nonetheless, all the evidence found does prove that he is, in fact, a victim of depression. (Shaw 1). Shaw strongly states that Shakespeare has created a character that would severely suffer from depression. Even though such illnesses in the past were only labeled as a character defect, if you were to closely analyze Hamlet’s actions, you will see that he shows almost all indicators for depression. This shows us that Hamlet is a victim of depression, and as Shaw stated, his depression is the reason he keeps delaying his revenge, despite his constant feeling of guilt and the feeling that avenging his father is fully his responsibility. Not only did that severely impact his mental health, but it led to his irrational actions that end in many innocent deaths, including his own.

Some common symptoms of depression are sadness and anger. These are symptoms that Hamlet clearly shows in the fifth scene of the first act. After the ghost of King Hamlet explains to his son Prince Hamlet how he was murdered and that the killer was his own brother, King Claudius, Hamlet is shocked, and all he starts to think about is to punish all those who wronged his father, even his mother.

“O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? And shall I couple hell? Oh, fie! Hold, hold, my heart,…Now to my word.”(Shakespeare 1.5.92-110). Hamlet strongly expresses the feelings of sadness and anger through his reaction to his father’s words. He shows sympathy towards his father’s ghost and anger towards the actions of his uncle and mother. Hamlet shows anger towards the end of his statement not only for her actions but because the ghost of his father asked him not to harm her and leave her to God and her own guilt (1.5.85-88). Though not able to punish his mother, he is still furious towards his uncle and vows to show no mercy if what the ghost is saying is true. For someone who deals with depression, anger can be easily turned into sadness. The overwhelming feeling of anger and struggling with executing his plan does really wear on Hamlet to an excessive level. His scattered feelings continue to build up and overlap with each act as he continues to realize his overwhelming responsibilities for the tasks that he just can’t seem to complete, causing his anger to grow and leading to the increase of his sadness. All this does to him, in the end, is that it severely affects his mental health giving him yet more conflicted thoughts to deal with.

One of the strongest symptoms of depression, and the reason why this illness goes by the name “the silent killer,” is the contemplation of suicide. Hamlet eventually reaches a breaking point where his feelings of guilt, anger, doubt, and worthlessness clash, and he begins to think it would be better for him to just give up on life. He states this thought with his famous soliloquy in Act 3, “To be, or not to be: that is the question…And lose the name of action.” (Shakespeare 3.1.58-88)

With this, Hamlet asks himself if he should just die so he could forget all of his struggles. Hamlet is at a point where he despises himself for not taking action and avenging his own father. To him, this is a responsibility that he took upon himself, yet he can’t bring himself to do anything about it. He is furious with himself and thinks of himself as a coward and an unworthy son. So to him, sleeping became dying. He thinks he should just end it all since, to him, it became identical to sleeping. This important insight into Hamlet’s thoughts contributes as solid evidence of his depression. Hamlet reaches a point where he begins to contemplate suicide, a breaking point commonly found in cases where the person is a victim of severe depression. He is completely worn out and overwhelmed with what he must do and with himself for being so hesitant or, as he put it himself, a “coward.”

Figuring out a particular psychological illness in a fictional character is very difficult because, most of the time, you have to rely on analyzing the character’s behavior and pay close attention to the tone they use. Many people would just assume that Hamlet had really gone insane. Let’s say it’s true, maybe Hamlet’s act did become a reality, and he did go mad, but what contributed to it? What exactly caused Hamlet to fall victim to his own act and seriously lose his mind? Hamlet doesn’t go mad just because he says he’ll act that way. Decarlo also agrees with this as he states that he agrees with Eliot’s prediction that something else, other than insanity, leads to Hamlet’s conflicted thoughts. (Decarlo 2).

That is indeed true. It’s absolutely not logical that Hamlet acted the way he did because he was insane from the start of the play when he only started to show signs of madness in Acts 4 and 5. This means that there was another factor that was present in the beginning of the play that was a strong contributor to Hamlet’s insanity towards the end. Depression was a struggle for Hamlet from the beginning; if it was not before his father’s death, then it would be after his death. We can say that Hamlet did lose his sanity by the end of the play. Nonetheless, he was sane in the beginning, which proves that he suffered from depression which could be the strong contributor that led to his madness and eventually his death.

In conclusion, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the protagonist Hamlet was accused of losing his sanity, and that is the factor that led to his death. Though that could be true, it is not logical to say that his madness started from the beginning of the play, when it makes more sense for one to ask what did Hamlet exactly deal with internally that led him to losing his sanity, especially as insanity is an internal conflict itself. To put it in simpler words, depression is what led to Hamlet’s death, not insanity.

Hamlet expressed depressive symptoms throughout the whole play very vividly. Whether it was in the way he reacted to his mother marrying his uncle, feeling isolated due to no one understanding how he felt after his father’s death, his anger over his family, and over his hesitation in taking action to avenge his father’s death, and finally when he actually began to contemplate suicide. So depression is the factor that led to Hamlet’s death, not madness.

Frequently Asked Questions
How guilty is Gertrude in Hamlet?

Gertrude in Hamlet is innocent of any wrongdoing. She cannot be held accountable for the death of Hamlet’s father or for any other tragic events that occur in the play. While some might argue that Gertrude failed to recognize Hamlet’s mental state, this does not make her guilty of any crime or wrongdoing.

Why is Gertrude a bad mother in Hamlet?

Gertrude’s parenting in Hamlet is widely criticized for its inadequacy. Her neglect, lack of empathy, and irresponsibility towards her son are all reasons for concern. Gertrude fails to offer her son the necessary emotional guidance and support, and her actions often lead to tragic outcomes. Her poor decision-making skills also contribute to the unfolding of tragic events in the play.

How does Hamlet feel about his mother Gertrude?

Hamlet has complex feelings towards his mother Gertrude. He experiences both love and a sense of betrayal towards her, which causes inner turmoil and confusion.

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The Guiltiness Of Hamlet's Mother Gertrude: Depression Is What Leads To His Death. (2022, Jun 23). Retrieved from