5 Resources to Help you Address Mental Illness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

madness in HamletSo last time we were talking about using the story of Amleth to introduce and frame your teaching of Hamlet.  And I promised that I have a lot to say about Hamlet, so today I want to pick up with more resources.  Specifically, resources that will help you address the issues of madness and mental illness in Hamlet.

I find this is a topic that students are naturally interested in and have a lot to say about.  Even though they’re enthusiastic, we still have work to do.  Keeping the classroom a safe environment, for one.  It might be worth your time to have students anonymously fill out a note card or check in with them in another way to make sure no one is feeling triggered.

I also think it’s a great opportunity to increase their world knowledge.  Although all teens have their own sense of what it means to be crazy, they often have a lot of questions.  They may not understand that Brits use the word “mad” to mean crazy, not angry, or that insane is a legal term and not a medical one.  (See Confronting Student Misconceptions.)  Using the following resources as part of your unit can help them deepen their understanding of mental illness while also gaining appreciation for the complexity of the text.

“Why so Pale and wan fond lover” by Sir John Suckling

I love to use this poem from roughly Shakespeare’s time period to help students make sense of Polonius.  Ophelia’s description in 2.1.87-94 of Hamlet’s behavior (“With his doublet all unbraced” etc.) is fascinating but can be baffling to students.  And Polonius’s response (“Mad for they love?” 2.1.95) equally strange.  The poem is a nice introduction to the idea of a distraught lover and why Polonius would assume that unrequited love for Ophelia would lead Hamlet to neglect pulling up his socks.  Plus students love the question “does love make you crazy?”   

Introduction to Shakespeare’s Humors

One of the things your students will probably know nothing about is the theory of the four humours that was common in Shakespeare’s time and forms the basis of his understanding of both mental and physical illness, as well as personality traits.  This website does a nice job of introducing it.  A little bit of knowledge will help students pick up on clues in the text they would otherwise miss.

 The DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)

The DSM is the manual that psychiatrists use today to diagnose mental illness.  Basically, it’s a bunch of lists of symptoms for everything from autism to schizophrenia.  If any of your students have taken a psychology course, they’re probably familiar with the DSM and can help other kids in your class understand it. (I love to use students as experts and have them see how knowledge from one class applies to another.)

So why should you talk about how psychiatrists diagnose in English class?  Because checklists make great close reading activities.  The DSM lists symptoms in general terms, so it’s an opportunity for students to find evidence and discuss Hamlet’s behavior.  For example, “disorganized speech” is one of the symptoms of schizophrenia.  Can students find an example of Hamlet exhibiting disorganized speech?  Or Ophelia?  How often does your speech have to be disorganized to be a problem?  Is Hamlet in control of when his speech is disorganized?

The DSM can be a rich discussion starter that could go in a lot of different directions.  It’s also interesting for them to see that the diagnostic criteria can change over time, and to get a glimpse into some of the current controversies.  For example, one of the issues when the DSM was revised in 2013 was whether grief is different than depression.  That’s an issue that’s both relevant to Hamlet and also interesting to a lot of students.  Just make sure your kids understand that they are not trained psychiatrists and they shouldn’t diagnose their friends (or the president).

 “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannon

I love this essay.  Bohannon is an anthropologist who describes a time when she was doing fieldwork in West Africa.  She decides to tell the people of the Tiv tribe she is staying with the story of Hamlet and then describes their response to it.  Basically, it’s a narrative that argues against universal narratives since the Tiv see Hamlet in very different terms.

Since the Tivs have a very different idea of appropriate behavior (Claudius marrying his dead brother’s wife is a no-brainer, for one), students can grapple with questions of interpretation and the universality of mental illness.  It’s also another opportunity for close reading in matching up texts.  Students can find evidence in Hamlet for statements in “Shakespeare in the Bush” like “Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly.”

Grieving Teens’ Bill of Rights

This last resource is a bit different.  It’s a bill of rights written collectively by teens involved in Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and families.  If you do have students that have trauma or grief in their lives, this can be a great place to start a conversation.  Teens trust other teens. 

But it’s also a checklist, so again you can have students look for examples in the text (are you sensing a theme here?).  So if one of the rights is “to grieve in one’s own unique way without censorship,” is Hamlet given that after his father dies?  Is Ophelia?  It’s another nice way to start conversations about why the characters in the play act the way they do and maybe even why we read literature.

Hope those resources help your students think more deeply about Hamlet and mental illness. Happy Hamletting!

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