Though the illness had not been defined as such in Shakespeare’s age, Hamlet exhibits many of the major symptoms of major depressive disorder, suggesting that Hamlet was clinically depressed. It is impossible to truly diagnose Hamlet as depressed since he is a fictional character and not a real patient. However, there is evidence in the play that suggests he probably was.
Throughout the play, Hamlet seems to go through a number of mental deteriorations, though he claims that his madness is all an act contrived to fool Claudius; but when the text is coupled with what we know today about depression, it seems likely that his suicidal thoughts and tendencies are not fake--they are genuine feelings caused by mental illness. During his first soliloquy in Act One Scene Two, he cries out his longing for death, wishing that his “too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” (I.ii.129-130). He is not simply hoping to die; he is fantasizing about it in a horrific way. Thinking about death is a normal, healthy thing to do; obsessing over it and dreaming up dreadful ways to die is a red flag that something is wrong. His intentions become even clearer when he outright states that he wants to kill himself, lamenting that “the Everlasting had…fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.131-132), suggesting that the heavenly law against it is the only thing stopping Hamlet from killing himself on the spot.
As the play continues, his suicidal thoughts grow stronger, as shown by his famous “To be, or not to be” monologue. He is tormented by his inability to end his life and his inability to continue it as well. Unlike his previous suicidal soliloquy, this monologue is much more severe in its fantasies of death. The first monologue had only four lines directly dealing with suicide, whereas the entire thirty-two lines of the “To be” speech deal with death. In addition to this, the “To be” monologue includes the passing thought of ending life “[w]ith a bare bodkin” (III.i.78). This small line is significant because it indicates that Hamlet may have begun planning out how to kill himself. His fantasy of his flesh melting, while horrific, was not a realistic way for Hamlet to die; however, ending life with a dagger was easily accessible to him. His shift in thought may well show that Hamlet is preparing to end his life. Another distinction in this soliloquy is that Hamlet is does not mention God, signalling that it is no longer a concern for him.
He is still held back by his fear of the unknown afterlife, but even this defense against self-slaughter seems to fall away as the play progresses. He becomes increasingly more reckless, as though he no longer cares about his life. During the final duel with Laertes, Hamlet continues to fight even after winning the match and not ending until both men are poisoned. Hamlet’s behavior here indicates that he could tell that his opponent’s blade had been tampered with and was capable of delivering a lethal blow, which would then mean that Hamlet was trying to make Laertes kill him. This would fit with the idea that only God’s command against suicide kept Hamlet from killing himself.
Other signs are present that shows that Hamlet was clinically depressed beyond his thoughts of suicide. One of the most common symptoms of depression in adolescents (Hamlet is only supposed to be 16) is the inability to feel pleasure from activities once enjoyed. In his opening monologue, Hamlet cries out to God for “[h]ow weary, stale, flate, and unprofitable/Seem to [him] the uses of this world” (I.ii.133-134). Later on, as he speaks with his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet reaffirms this feeling of deadness inside, saying “I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory” (II.ii.287-290).
Another symptom in depressed adolescents--especially in boys--is indecisiveness. Following his encounter with his father’s ghost, the prince swears to take vengeance on Claudius; but within two scenes, his resolution is already broken. He resolves to try and place guilt on Claudius through the play within the play in the hopes that it will confirm his suspicions and move him to action. Claudius shows his hand during The Mousetrap; and in Act Three Scene Three, Hamlet is given the opportunity to kill Claudius and end the turmoil within himself. He debates with himself on whether he should kill Claudius while he prays; and through his hesitancy, he loses the chance, walking away to let the King live another day, a decision that ultimately costs the lives of most of the characters.