Hamlet as London Hipster Circa 1597

Shakespeare, as usual, knew what he was doing. It was not the first time he had used shoddy material as the springboard for a play, and in this case his actor’s eye saw the special uses of the situation. The bloody, barbaric old plot gave him a dark backdrop for the unhappy young modernist who was his hero, and his hero’s temperament in turn gave him a solution for the chief difficulty confronting any dramatist who worked in the field of revenge tragedy. Unless there was some reason why the revenge was delayed, the play would be over in the first act; and a revenge hero like Hamlet, caught in the general backwash of gloom and indecision that characterized the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, was exactly the sort of man who was incapable of working himself up to a single course of action until he had succeeded in ruining the lives of everyone in the cast.

Hamlet was born in part of the young men who had been glooming about the universities and the Inns of Court in the fin de siècle atmosphere of the late 90’s and passing remarks on the hollowness of life, the futility of heroic action and the degrading nature of sexual intercourse; but he was also the product of a more specialized group that was interesting the doctors of the period. A competent London physician like Timothy Bright would have diagnosed Hamlet as a melancholic and put much of his “internal darkness” down to physical causes. Melancholics, as Dr. Bright explained, “be not so apt for action.” They are “given to fearful and terrible dreams,” are “exact and curious in pondering,” are “sometimes furious and sometimes merry,” and are “out of measure passionate.” They have frequently studied too much, they mistrust their memories, and they dislike color in their clothes.

Shakespeare of London
Marchette Chute