The Issue of Insanity and Isolation in Shakespeare's Play Hamlet Essay Example

Insanity and isolation are two intertwined issues. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Herman Melville’s short story ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, and the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald all have interrelated themes relating to insanity and isolation. In all three works, the titular characters Hamlet, Bartleby, and Jay Gatsby all have insane or unusual behaviors, and these behaviors are either caused by their feelings of isolation, or the reverse relationship applies. In the first example, Hamlet is described as insane throughout the novel, but it is ambiguous at first whether or not he is faking his insanity.

In Shakespeare’s play, it is evident that many other characters believe that Prince Hamlet is insane. The daughter of King Claudius’ councilor, Ophelia informs her father, Polonius about her strange interaction with Hamlet when she says, “And with a look so piteous in purport /As if he had been loosed out of hell/To speak of horrors--he comes before me.” (Shakespeare 2.1.81-83). Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet went into her room looking disheveled, and grabbed her by the wrist in addition to not saying anything. Later on in Act Two, Polonius is perplexed by Hamlet because Hamlet mistakenly calls him a Fishmonger after he asks if Hamlet knows him. Polonius is confused because he has known Hamlet ever since he was a young child. In Act Three, when Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude confronts him about his strange behavior, and Polonius spies on their interaction behind a tapestry. Their interaction is heated, and it gets to a point where Gertrude thinks he might murder her. Gertrude’s concern for her own life prompts Polonius to cry out for help, and Hamlet, being startled, reacts to him by stabbing him through the tapestry, thinking the hidden man is Claudius. Gertrude’s reaction demonstrates she is disturbed by Hamlet’s sudden, violent action: “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” (2.4.28). Overall, Ophelia and Gertrude’s commentary on Hamlet demonstrate that the people around Hamlet believe he is mentally unsound, but it is initially ambiguous whether he is actually insane or faking it. In the middle of Act 3, Hamlet switches back and forth from someone making normal conversation to someone making uncomfortable and sexual remarks to Ophelia. As the play progresses, Hamlet acts more out of the ordinary, and his behavior is heightened in Acts Three and Five when he contemplates suicide, and jumps into Ophelia’s grave respectively. Similar to Hamlet, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ features a judged character.

In Melville’s short story, the titular character’s sanity is also questioned by the people around him. Initially, Bartleby is hired by the narrator as a Scrivener, or someone who would copy documents by hand, and at first, he is a diligent but quiet worker. When he is asked to help with a different task, however, he simply responds by saying, “I prefer not to” (Melville 27). The narrator then tries to rationalize Bartleby’s odd behavior, but to no avail: “It seemed to me that, while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion;” (27). Bartleby’s strange refusal to do anything asked of him leads him to first getting fired by the narrator, then taken to prison due to refusing to leave the building, and to finally die in prison by refusing to eat anything while there. Similar to Hamlet, not only was Bartleby’s life ends in his story’s final moments, but it was due to his insane behavior. Also similar to Hamlet, Bartleby’s behavior also becomes more unusual as the story progresses; what initially started as a refusal to do office tasks devolves into refusing to leave an office and to eat food altogether, which was the reason for his death. While Bartleby is a strange, quiet and poor character, Jay Gatsby is a rich and charismatic man who is known for his extravagant parties.

While Jay Gatsby does not demonstrate obvious insane behavior like Hamlet and Bartleby, his obsession with his previous, but currently married lover does cross the line into an obsession, which is a subset of insanity. Before Jay Gatsby acquired his vast wealth, and before he served in the military, he met a young woman named Daisy Buchanan, and the two of them fell in love. Gatsby, however, was not able to stay with Daisy for much longer because he was drafted to serve in the military. When Gatsby returned, Daisy found another man named Tom Buchanan and got married, but Gatsby was still determined to win her back. To do so, Gatsby bought a mansion across a body of water from the Buchanan’s house, and he hosts so many parties only for the sake of one day finding Daisy again in person. The narrator, Nick Carraway observes Gatsby: “...nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished…” (Fitzgerald 11). The green light Gatsby is looking at is the light coming from the Buchanan’s house. All in all, for Gatsby to buy a mansion, and host parties to attract a married woman shows that Gatsby is willing to spend so much time and money for something that is unlikely to come to fruition. This indirect example of insanity is similar to Prince Hamlet’s indirect feelings of isolation.

Isolation indirectly exists in Hamlet. When he is not soliloquising, Hamlet spends a significant portion of the play interacting with other characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his mother, Horatio, and a few others. Claudius states that the reason why him and Laertes need to be discreet about killing Hamlet is that “Is the great love the general gender bear him,/Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,” (4.7.17-19.). According to Claudius, the public adores Hamlet, so killing him would make the public loathe Claudius and Laertes. Despite his frequent interactions and supposed adoration, Hamlet is untrusting and lonely throughout the play. Not only did Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all spy on him, but his own mother, Gertrude married his uncle Claudius, who he despises, as opposed to staying as a widow after his father’s murder. With the exception of Horatio, there is not another character who either breaks his trust, dislikes or rejects him, or wants him dead. In Act One, Hamlet finds the ghost of his dead father, and the ghost tells him to avenge his uncle for killing his father by poisoning him. The loss of Hamlet’s father represents an identity of near complete isolation. To see if the ghost is telling the truth about his uncle, Hamlet then deliberately acts crazy in the player’s scene in Act 3 to make his parents uncomfortable, in order to make his uncle confess to his father’s murder. Hamlet’s insanity, represented by strange, sometimes sexual comments that are often filled with a deeper meaning, are caused by the sense of isolation he feels by losing one of the only people he trusted and loved, his father. Hamlet and Bartleby’s insanities both cause ostracism and judgement among their peers.

Bartleby feels immense isolation in his office setting: “Meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own particular business there.” (32). Bartleby’s workspace is separated from the other 4 workers at the company who are the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, and his desk faces a large window that is covered by a brick wall. In addition to his designated workplace being separated, Bartleby never interacts with anyone in the workplace, with the exception of responding to the narrator’s requests with, “I prefer not to.” (27). The story also implies that Bartleby has no friends, family, or home to come back to, because he stays and sleeps in the office. Unlike with Hamlet, it is unclear whether Bartleby’s isolation causes his insanity, or it is the reverse relationship, but the two personality traits are intertwined. Gatsby’s version of insanity, however, is caused by his isolation from Daisy.

After his time in the military, Gatsby reminisces on how much he misses spending time with Daisy: “...revisiting the out-of-the-way places to which they had driven in her white car.” (125). These emotions of longing for his experiences with Daisy prompts him to buy his mansion and host his parties. Despite having hundreds of people over at a time, Gatsby is very isolated, even in his own house. At his extravagant parties, Gatsby locks himself away, and in the story, Gatsby only tries to befriend the narrator Nick because he is Daisy’s relative. Gatsby’s isolation from Daisy caused him to spend an absurd amount of time and money, which is Gatsby’s version of insanity. The Gatsby’s insanity is similar to Hamlet because of how isolation caused the character’s insanity, and it is not ambiguous like ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’.


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