"He's Depressed": The Implications of Hamlet, II.ii.278-292

In his famous speech, "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth[...]" (II.ii.280), Hamlet illustrates an Elizabethan fusion of medieval and humanist ideas, perhaps lost on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but not on E.M.W. Tillyard. Tillyard, in The Elizabethan World Picture, says that "what is true of Hamlet on man is in the main true of Elizabethan modes of thought in general" (4). This assertion is unprovable, but to read Shakespeare's Hamlet in light of Tillyard provides at best an explication of Elizabethan thought and at worst an interesting point of view. Such a reading finds Hamlet not merely pontificating on the state of man and universe, but manipulating this orthodox view in order to decieve those who hold it.

Hamlet goes out of his way to demonstrate his depression to his two schoolfellows. "'I have[...]lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises'" (Ii.ii.280-1) he tells them, a sure sign of melancholy's depressive side. It goes "heavily" (II.ii.281) with his disposition, another warning, for melancholy is associated with earth, the lowest and heaviest element (62, 69). "'[T]he earth seems to me a sterile promontory'"...

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