| Quote #1
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
From the play's beginnings, Hamlet is distressed. Here, his desire for his "flesh" to "melt" and dissolve into "dew" registers his anguish over his father's death and his mother's remarriage to his uncle. Clearly, Hamlet's thoughts here are suicidal and register some mental and emotionally instability. We also know from his earlier conversation with Gertrude and Claudius that he's been in a melancholy mood.
History Snack: Elizabethans believed the human body was made up of four basic elements, called humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. These elements were supposed to influence a person's disposition and mood. Hamlet seems to be suffering from what Elizabethans referred to as "melancholy," which was associated with too much "black bile" in the body. This state led to lethargy, irritability, distorted imagination, and so on. Basically, it sounds a lot like what we call "clinical depression" today.
Textual Note: Some modern editions of the play read "sullied flesh" instead of "solid flesh." This is because the first folio (published 1623) edition of the play (which reads "solid") is slightly different than the first quarto (published 1603) edition, which reads "sallied." Modern editors who prefer the first quarto reading update the word "sallied" to "sullied." Both words seem to work so why are we making a big deal out of this? Well, the terms have slightly different connotations. Some editors and literary critics prefer "sullied" flesh because it suggests that Hamlet feels that he personally has been soiled, stained, or contaminated by his mother's incestuous relationship with his murderous uncle. This has some important implications for the play's theme of "Sex."
| Quote #2
After the Ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet begins to plan his next steps. Here, he warns his friends that he will put on an "antic disposition," which results in the delay of Hamlet's revenge. What does "antic" mean, exactly? Well, it means "clown" or a performer who plays the role of a "grotesque," which means that Hamlet is going to pretend to be a madman. (This has some important implications for the play's ideas about theater and acting, which you can read more about in "Art and Culture.")
Here's something you might like to know. Shakespeare borrows the idea of feigned madness from one of the play's major sources, the story of "Amleth," a legendary Danish tale that dates back to at least the 9th century. In the source story, Amleth clearly pretends to be mad after his uncle kills his father and marries his mother, Gerutha. (The idea is that if the uncle believes Amleth has lost his mind, he won't suspect that Amleth knows the truth behind the murder. Amleth, then, will be safe from his murderous uncle.)
Famously, Hamlet's "antic disposition" is so convincing that we often wonder if he isn't truly mad. Audiences and literary critics have debated this question forever. Here's out position: there's plenty of evidence to argue either way, which seems to be Shakespeare's point. Like so many other issues in the play, the question of Hamlet's sanity is utterly ambiguous. So, if you're interested in taking up one side of the "is he or isn't he debate," just keep in mind the following things: 1) Hamlet says he's going to pretend to be mad ; 2) Hamlet's already "melancholy" at the beginning of the play ; 3) Elizabethan ideas about "madness" are unstable and they're different than modern notions of mental illness. As we'll see, the play itself offers multiple definitions of madness.
| Quote #3
The last time we heard from Hamlet, he told his friends that he was going to play the part of a madman or "antic." This, as we know is a central component of the little game of cat and mouse he plays with Claudius, which ultimately delays Hamlet's revenge. In this passage, we see that Ophelia is genuinely frightened by Hamlet's disheveled appearance and disturbing behavior. Even Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is "mad for [Ophelia's] love" (1.2.8). This seems entirely plausible given that Polonius has forced Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet and to reject his letters. Some literary critics see Hamlet as a deeply disturbed guy in this moment, possibly because he's feeling rejected and betrayed by the hapless Ophelia.
History Snack: Elizabethans thought that love really could make a man sick and mentally ill. They called this state "love melancholy." Check out what a doctor, Bernard Gordon, had to say in Lilium Medicinale:
The illness called heroes is melancholy anguish caused by love for a woman. The cause of this affliction lies in the corruption of the faculty to evaluate… [men forget] all sense of proportion and common sense…it can be defined as melancholy anguish. (Cited in Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.)
In light of Hamlet's plans to play the "antic," we can't help but notice that Hamlet looks and acts just like a guy who's playing the stereotypical role of an unrequited lover. Is he faking here? If so, why would Hamlet do this to Ophelia? One answer is that Hamlet seems to know that Ophelia will report his behavior to her father (Polonius is notorious for spying and sucking up to the king), who will then share the information with King Claudius. One could argue, then, that Hamlet is purposely playing the role of a melancholy lover.