The Ways Plath and Shakespeare Present Mental Illness in Hamlet and The Bell Jar

The human condition of melancholia remains consistent throughout history, and the presentation of mental illness remains a regular theme in literature. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (1609) is an exploration of the complexities of a human mind breached by loss, and an exposé of human melancholia. Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ (1963) considers aspects of the human psyche, explored by Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet’. The psychological concepts of both texts can be elucidated by Freud’s theories in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917). What is most interesting about the analysis of the two texts is that, although they are written over three-hundred and fifty years apart, they demonstrate the same human complications of neurosis, mania and depression. Melancholia remains a universal habit, innate to humanity.

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The protagonists in both texts create a strategic pose. Hamlet creates an “antic disposition” to feign his own madness, in order to uncover Claudius as his father’s murderer. The artifice that Hamlet adopts is a common device used in revenge tragedy. Shakespeare’s use of this device is parallels ‘Hamlet’ with Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (1587). Kyd follows the devices used in a revenge tragedy plot through Hieronimo. Hamlet mirrors the actions of Hieronimo in most ways: the devising of a play to unfurl secrets; erratic and unsociable behaviour; and desperation for vengeance. Unlike Hieronimo, Hamlet’s delay in revenge makes him unsuitable for the revenge tragedy plot, while illuminating the complexity of Hamlet’s psychology. As Hamlet becomes further distanced from the structure of the revenge plot, his antic disposition as a force of feigning madness becomes questionable in that it becomes Hamlet’s reality, as he develops legitimate tendencies of a manic depressive person. Although their motive for pretence differs, the portrayal of mental illness as a prominent human trait remains a parallel between the texts. Whereas Hamlet becomes his artifice, in ‘The Bell Jar’, Esther use of a guise distances her from her depressive struggle and inner division of self. Edward Butscher says that Plath intends to explore her inherent dilemma of “evil double” using an “alter-ego” as her protagonist. He believes that Plath decides to discover the cruel depths of the modern world by inflicting pain on her “innocent” mirror image, Esther. Esther’s inner division leads to a fissuring of her identity, from usual human functioning, to mental imbalance. Her progressive self-fragmentation is expressed through her alter egos – Elly Higginbottom and Elaine. Esther describes herself as having “split personality or something”. By saying “or something”, Esther becomes reluctant as she masks mental illness – dismissing a prospect that she cannot control. Esther fictional double ‘Elaine’ mirrors the way that Esther acts as Plath’s fictional self. The split in Esther’s psyche is projected onto Doreen and Betsy, whom Esther regards as opposed aspects of herself. As Doreen is “like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones”, and as a “testimony to (Esther’s) own dirty nature”, Betsy who Esther “resembled at heart”. In projecting her own traits onto others, the reality of Esther’s transitionary phase from girlhood to womanhood is shown – she is unable to place and accept her own self which structurally creates opportunity for a moment of anagnorisis at the end of the novel.

Madness allows psychological insight of sexuality. Esther’s relationship with Joan Gilling is shown as one of rejection and identification, whereby Joan is seen as an excluded margin of Esther’s character. Tracy Brain suggests that Joan functions as “Esther’s alter ego and potential lesbian lover”. While Esther loses her virginity in an effort to become ‘my own woman’, Joan’s despair deepens and she commits suicide. Esther asks Dr. Nolan “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?” to which her response is “Tenderness”. At Joan’s funeral Esther remarks upon ‘what (she) thought (she) was burying’ – her own suicidal urge, or the “tenderness” of same-sex desire? Similarly, in ‘Hamlet’ sexuality is critically explored in direct relation to mental illness and as a platform for self-discovery. In Freud’s analysis of the text he concludes that Hamlet has an ‘Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt (is) preventing him from murdering the man (Claudius) who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do’. In his exploration of the Freudian idea of Hamlet’s sexual repression, Ernest Jones argues that Hamlet’s inaction is a product of the fear he has of Claudius’ death leaving him a path to his mother’s bed- liberating his repressed incestuous desire. Hamlet’s sexual denial is masked by the anger he shows his mother- ‘O most pernicious woman’. Similarly, Esther represses her potential homosexual urges by the initiation of a sexual encounter with a man.

A sense of inaction is created by mental illness. Hamlet questions his delay in taking his revenge on Claudius: ‘I do not know/ Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do” …Examples gross as earth exhort me’. In saying this, Hamlet exposes his obsessional rumination, aggravated by his depression. By questioning the purpose of why he “yet” lives in a state where “This thing’s to do” – the “thing” being avenging his father’s death, Hamlet shows his frustration of inaction. Instead of reflecting on his inaction and dealing with it, Hamlet is fixed in a cycle of ruminative fear, duty and consequence. This leads Hamlet to state of self-laceration as he exclaims ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I’, showing a dissatisfaction with himself as a ‘rogue’ son unable to avenge his father’s death. This self-disgust is further portrayed through Hamlet’s self-comparison with others. When reflecting upon the actors’ performance, Hamlet questions: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba/ That he should weep for her?”. The actor’s emotional interpretation of Hecuba’s death causes Hamlet to doubt himself- his feelings pale in comparison and he cannot assume the role of the avenger. Hamlet proclaims himself a “John-a-dreams”, belittling any emotion felt for the death of his father; as he dreams, he is “not thinking about (his) cause”. Hamlet’s depression now manifests itself as insecurity and doubt. He displays an instability in his own perception of himself as he challenges his own human emotions with the trauma of a fictionalised character. This perception of instability translates through to the audience through Hamlet’s on-stage introspection – creating a bond.

Shakespeare uses the expectations of the revenge plot to create a tension with the reality of Hamlet’s inaction: dramatizing his psychology as a transitional state, from feigning madness to manic depression. The dissatisfaction felt by Hamlet is similar to that felt by Esther in ‘The Bell Jar’. Esther idealises the person she used to be and creates a perfectionists’ fantasy of her old life. Plath creates an intensity to Esther’s past disposition by the suggestion that she spent “nineteen years…running after good marks and prizes”. This creates a rigid environment for Esther and, when breached, causes mental collapse. When Esther believes her intellect is lost and her education jeopardised, her stringent view of her identity is broken and her mental incapacity to adhere to her adolescent dreams leads to her withdrawal from society. Similarly, in Hamlet, Ophelia remains disconnected from reality. She regrettably says: “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died”. In this instance the “violets” can be interpreted as her connection to reality and happiness in domesticity, which withered after the death of her father. Ophelia’s losses define her present state as she cannot she the growth of flowers, only how they wither. Esther’s disengagement with the present is reflected in the way that the novel undergoes a lull, which acutely mirrors the voice of a depressed individual. Plath’s writing style represents a stream of consciousness that changes from present thought to past event. The use of line breaks throughout the text gives the impression of Esther’s distorted mind. The abrupt shift from Esther’s conversation with Joan, to a sexual encounter with Irwin transitions through the line break and is made clear by Esther’s thought that “It hurts”. Esther’s depression disables her from focusing on the present. She is plagued by past suffering as she recalls how much her sexual encounter “hurt” in a moment where she is discussing the future. The constant temporal shift that happens throughout the novel takes focus away from moments of Esther’s life, giving the illusion of inaction.

Esther and Hamlet are conditioned by loss. The past creates memory and trauma for characters within both texts: the dead control the living. In ‘Hamlet’ there is a complexity of loss as Hamlet undergoes loss, of the living and the dead. The structure of the play explores the correlation of grief and revenge – both as direct effects of loss. Hamlet himself talks explicitly of sorrow and blood, relating them directly to each other and the ghost, as it appears for the last time. He tells his mother: “Look you, how pale he glares! His form and cause conjoin’d preaching to stones, / Would make them capable. Do not look upon me; / Lest with this piteous action you convert / My stern effect then what I have to do / Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood”. These lines suggest synapses between grief and vengeance, and emphasize Hamlet’s focus on grief and the impact that the ghost has had upon it. The play becomes a conflict between duty of revenge and Hamlet’s complex psychology. Using the ghost as a dramatic device also evidences how loss becomes an integral part of the play’s structure. As the ghost appears throughout the play, Hamlet is unable to forget the loss of his father and constantly relives the guilt of his inaction. The narrative delay that occurs due to Hamlet’s inaction is a direct effect of loss. In turn, loss becomes a structural device and is engrained within the minutiae of the play. Like Shakespeare, Plath uses flashbacks as a structural device consistently throughout the novel, which gives Esther a preoccupation with the past, displacing her from the present. The temporal structure of the novel reveals Esther’s psychology as a mind disturbed with the past and distracted from the present. Esther’s constant recollections augment the trauma of her reality, which allows her depression and anxiety to further manipulate her attitude of the world around her, burying her in memory. 

The ghost in ‘Hamlet’ acts in the same way as Esther’s father in ‘The Bell Jar’. The memory of her father and her life before his death constantly reminds Esther of her current depressive state. She reveals that she was “only purely happy until (she) was nine years old. After that (…) (she) had never been really happy again”. She recalls the memory as one with her father, meaning that structurally, his death was a turning point in Esther’s psychology. When Esther goes to visit her father’s grave for the first time she realizes that she has never cried about her father’s death; she did not see the corpse, and was not allowed to attend his funeral: his death was never real to her. Unlike Hamlet, Esther has no experience of death and therefore cannot truly understand the potential consequence of her suicidal thoughts. In contrast, Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost grounds his understanding of death. Perhaps this is the reason why Hamlet is merely contemplative in suicide, unlike Esther who repeatedly seeks to end her life. Hamlet understands life as he has witnessed death, Esther in comparison, has a juvenile perception of the sanctity of life. 

07 April 2022

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