Actors can’t play Hamlet as simply mad in world of mental health awareness, actor says

How does our 21st century understanding of mental health affect our understanding of Hamlet?

As a teacher, I have for decades approached the play like this:

If everyone in the audience agrees that Hamlet was sane or Hamlet was mad, then the production was a failure; Shakespeare’s text was ambiguous, and a good production should preserve that ambiguity. The director should guide the actor to make conscious choices about what motivates this line or this action, so the *actor* should know what’s going on in Hamlet’s head, but a faithful production should leave the *audience* about as divided as the readers. With Polonius we are invited to observe, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” Having Hamlet stab the raisonneur is like the ensemble of Into the Woods ganging up on the narrator in Act II… it’s a sign that the story isn’t going to progress the way you think.

All that’s well and good…

But just now I read something that will forever change the way I think of this play. I already teach that Shakespeare’s willingness to see the humanity within an otherwise stereotypical stock Jewish villain has elevated Shylock above his origins in The Merchant of Venice. What I realized just now was that Shakespeare has found empathy with Hamlet’s grief, depression, self-loathing, and over-thinking; we can’t treat Hamlet’s mental health like a rocker switch, such that he is “sane” when he says this line but “mad” when he says this other line, any more than we can call a Jew “evil” and a Christian “good.” By calling Shakespeare’s text “ambiguous,” I have overlooked an important part of his genius.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet cannot be played simply as “mad” nowadays because audiences are so tuned in to mental health issues, the actor Andrew Scott has said. | Scott, who is currently playing Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre, said analysis of the play has previously focused on the questions of “is he mad or is he not mad”. | But with a newly-enlightened focus on mental health issues, aided by the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, it is no longer enough to make it that simple, the actor said. —Telegraph

See Also

“My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” — an introductory literary close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130

3 thoughts on “Actors can’t play Hamlet as simply mad in world of mental health awareness, actor says

  1. Greg, that’s an interesting role to mention. During our rehearsal process for “Sweeny Todd,” I was always conscious that the Beggar Woman is the devastated and broken public rape victim, Lucy. The scene just before her death in the barbershop beautifully reminds us (in SR’s production) that trauma caused her mental illness, or at least pushed her beyond any semblance of coping. One wonders if, had the Judge not distorted and traumatized each of them, if the Barker family might have just lived slightly eccentric but happy lives. It’s an intense study in the three family members how cruel experiences, as well as loss, grief, and fear, push each into mental illness.

    • Just to add: Mental illness is not always caused by trauma, and trauma does not always lead to mental illness. But the interplay between the two is strong. I’ve been feeling lately that the impacts of rape and sexual abuse are less talked about societally lately, as other issues are in the foreground.

  2. This is very interesting… I’m curious to hear thoughts from Lena Gabrielle about this, as she’s very outspoken about mental health issues and advocacy, but has also had the experience of playing the Beggar Woman in “Sweeney Todd,” one of the showiest “mad roles” in theatre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *