Brain Pickings

Shakespeare, Sadness-Shaman: How Hamlet Can Help Us Through Our Grief and Despair

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“Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming…”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on grief. Our coping strategies can be among the most disorienting defiances of expectation — it’s a given that nothing gives comfort per se, but the things that bring even marginal relief aren’t always the ones we imagine. From The Long Goodbye (public library) — poet, essayist, and editor Meghan O’Rourke’s stirring memoir of losing her mother — comes an exquisite case not only for finding a semblance of consolation in a timeless work of art, but for what Susan Sontag once termed the “self-transcendence” that reading affords us.

In the first few days following her mother’s death, O’Rourke had received such grief classics as C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961) and On Death and Dying (1969) by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who pioneered the famous theory of the five stages of grief. And yet the book that enchanted her the most was even older — centuries older: Hamlet.

Illustration by Kate Beaton from 'To Be or Not To Be,' a choose-your-own-adventure reimagining of the Shakespeare classic. Click image for details.

O’Rourke writes:

I returned over and over to key speeches as if they were prayers or clues. I’d always thought of Hamlet’s melancholy as existential. His sense that the world “is out of joint” came across as vague and philosophical, the dilemma of a depressive young man who can’t stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But now it seemed to me that Hamlet was moody and irascible in no small part because he is grieving: his father has just died. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the days while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has changed.

For the trouble is not just that Hamlet is sad; it is that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. When Hamlet comes onstage, his uncle greets him with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is “common.” No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey; he is told that how he feels is “unmanly” and unseemly. This was a predicament familiar to me. No one was telling me that my sadness was unseemly, but I felt, all the time, that to descend to the deepest fathom of it was somehow taboo. (As my dad said, “You have this choice when you go out and people ask how you’re doing. You can tell the truth, which you know will make them really uncomfortable, or seem inappropriate. Or you can lie. But then you’re lying.”) I was struck, too, by how much of Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, people flinch away from your pain.)

Above all, Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion — emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief — providing a kind of kindred comfort. It is no small gift.

Hamlet also captures an aspect of loss I found difficult to speak about — the profound ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth continuing to live. In A Grief Observed, Lewis captures the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer letters. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy invokes that numb exhaustion:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter.
O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

“Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”: yes. I shared with Hamlet the pained wish that I might melt away.

Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicidal thinking than the depressed. But Hamlet, I thought, is less searching actively for death than wishing futilely for the world to make sense again. And this, too, was how I felt.

The Long Goodbye is enormously poignant in its totality, a must-read for anyone who has ever lost a loved one or ever will — which encompasses just about all of us, to the extent that we’re capable of love. Dive deeper into it here.

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