Med Humanities 28:92-96 doi:10.1136/mh.28.2.92
  • Original article

Depressive illness delayed Hamlet’s revenge

  1. A B Shaw
  1. Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A B Shaw, 2 The Stables, Weeton Lane, Harewood, Leeds LS17 9LP, UK;
  • Accepted 1 February 2002
  • Revised 7 January 2002


If Hamlet had not delayed his revenge there would have been no play. Many explanations of the delay have been offered in the last four centuries. None is convincing. The interpretation which best fits the evidence best is that Hamlet was suffering from an acute depressive illness, with some obsessional features. He could not make a firm resolve to act. In Shakespeare’s time there was no concept of acute depressive illness, although melancholy was well known. Melancholy, however, would have been seen as a character defect. In the tragic model the hero brings himself and others to ruin because of a character defect. Thus, at the time, the play conformed to the tragic model. With today’s knowledge, it does not. This analysis adds to, but does not replace, other insights into the play.