Hamlet: The Multiple Melancholy Dane

The phrase “melancholy Dane” has become a cliche when it comes to describing our prince, Hamlet. A quick glance at Google’s Ngram application shows the first usages of the phrase come from the 1830’s; then there’s a dormancy period, followed by a slightly larger spike in the 1850’s, with the phrase really taking off in the 1870’s and hitting twin peaks in 1909 and 1922 with a fairly steady decline since (interestingly, usage has remained pretty steady for the last three decades, matching the frequency of 1875, when it was in its ascension).

So, the phrase has been used. A lot.

But correctly?

I’m not so certain.

During our discussion of Twelfth Night, I talked a little about the concept of the humors and their corresponding personality if that humor dominated. Remember this graphic?

Humors and Elements
Humors and Elements

Well, it plays a part here in Hamlet, as well.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “melancholy” most likely meant for Shakespeare’s audience

a pathological condition thought to result from an excess of black bile in the body, characterized in early references by sullenness, ill temper, brooding, causeless anger, and unsociability, and later by despondency and sadness.
  • “melancholy, n.2.a”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    March 2015. Web.
    17 April 2015.

For all the association of the phrase and the word itself to the play and its main character, I find it interesting that it is used only twice in the play.


The first time comes in Hamlet’s soliloquy after the arrival of the players and as he is describing his plan to “catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.544):

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.
  • II.ii.537-42

He has doubts of the veracity of the Ghost, who he fears has preyed upon his own “weakness and melancholy.” Hamlet himself says he has melancholy at this point in the play (or at least he did when he met the Ghost).

Claudius questions Hamlet’s past melancholy in the word’s second and last usage in the very next scene. After witnessing or at least “hear(ing) it all” (III.i.180), Hamlet’s emotional abuse of Ophelia and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy (if he and Polonius heard the abuse, how could they not hear the soliloquy?), Claudius wonders on the cause of Hamlet’s

not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger.
  • III.i.164-7

Yes, Claudius says, Hamlet has melancholy, but there’s “something in his soul” which that melancholy is “sit(ting) on so as to hatch them” (“brood, v.I.1.a.”; OED Online). It will be dangerous when that melancholy-“incubate(d)” (“brood, v.I.1.a.”; OED Online) “something” breaks through to reveal itself. Melancholy, yes, but it’s a cover for something else. Claudius is more correct than he even knows.

Earlier in the scene, when tormenting Ophelia (and at this point in the scene, is he aware that they have an audience? good question), Hamlet lists his negative traits: “very proud, revengeful, ambitious” (III.i.124-5). I argue that all three could be seen as choleric traits. Yet in the previous scene, he soliloquizes that he is “pigeon-livered and lack(s) gall” (II.ii.516). If he lacks gall at that point in the play, that might put him in the phlegmatic quadrant, choler’s opposite; possible, given the predominate phlegmatic personality traits are calm, thoughtful, patient… Hamlet could be argued to be all of these to the extreme (maybe Olivier was on to something when he says that Hamlet is “the story of a man who could not make up his mind.”). Since the liver is the center of choler and the producer of yellow bile, or gall, he had felt in the previous scene that he wasn’t choleric, but here in Act Three, Scene One, he says he is. Or this may be for the benefit of his audience–Ophelia to be sure, the king and Polonius possibly.

By the time of his departure to England in Act Four, Hamlet is calling for his “thoughts (to) be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV.iv.66). This sounds like movement into the sanguine quadrant, with its heart and blood, courage and hope. Sound crazy? While he is gone from Denmark, when his ship is attacked by pirates, “on a compelled valor, and in the grapple (he) boarded them…(and) alone became their prisoner” (IV.vi.18-9, 20). One way to read this is that he was forced to fight, and that when it was done he was the only prisoner of worth (to be ransomed), and the rest were killed. Another way, a more sanguine way to read it is that he forced himself to be courageous enough to fight, and he alone boarded the pirate ship.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Hamlet was truly melancholy in the first act. Can the sheer will of taking on an “antic disposition” (I.v.175), change one’s humor? For the Elizabethans, the humors were physiological, with the psychological being only a byproduct. The thought is fascinating, though.

Regardless, by Act Five, Hamlet’s self-awareness takes him away from the melancholic as he tells Laertes as they tussle in Ophelia’s grave, “Though I am not splenitive and rash, // Yet have I in me something dangerous” (V.i.251-2). He is no longer controlled by his spleen, the center of melancholy and the source of its causing (and caustic) humor, black bile.

If Hamlet has been in each humor’s quadrant, does this help define his sanity/negate his insanity? Does this make his a “whole” man, or as Harold Bloom has called him “a multiple man”?

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