Like One Distracted: The Conflict and Compensations of Hamlet’s Mind
The word “distracted” appears in Hamlet five different times in various permutations, from the first act to the final one, and upon noticing it illustrates certain key issues of the play. The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple definitions for the word, such as “drawn apart; divided”(1) as well as “mentally drawn to different objects; perplexed or confused by conflicting interests.”(3) Among these is also the definition attributed to Shakespeare’s use of the word in Hamlet, the first appearance of it in the English language; “much confused or troubled in mind; having or showing great mental disturbance.”(4) These explanations of the word’s etymology, along with its placement and usage, encapsulate various major themes such as the incarnation and question of delay in Hamlet’s actions, his negotiations between public and private, the general atmosphere of the play always being drawn apart and pulled in different directions, as well as the ways Hamlet exceeds and changes the outlines of a revenge drama.
The first appearance of the word directly follows Hamlet’s interaction with the ghost of his Father, the recently dead King, which ends with an entreaty upon Hamlet to “Remember me.” “Remember thee!/Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat/in this distracted globe.” (I.v.95-97) Hamlet, just confronted with not only an image of a ghost or his dead Father describing his untimely murder has also been asked to seek vengeance upon his Uncle for the sake of his Father’s soul. There are so many things filling his head, newly entered on top of his already present grief, fighting for understanding and demanding action that instead of replying with fervor about the impossibility of forgetting his Father he says that as long as there is some room in his newly divided, agitated mind he will remember him. The weight of these thoughts, even just after their discovery, is enough to cast some doubt on his own sanity and the functioning of his brain. This relates to the issue of identity as well, one that continues throughout the play, for, confronted with the man who is his namesake, there is still the possibility that he might forget him. Mainly, the quote serves to show the state of Hamlet’s mind, the various truths and obligations now drawing his mind in different directions and causing his delays. This line sticks in the audience and readers minds’ alike, bearing implications that come later on in the play, such as the difference between Hamlet’s thought process and what he presents outwardly to the other characters in the play, specifically those he is distrustful of.
Shakespeare uses the word “distracted” for the third time when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report back to the King and Queen about the status of Hamlet and his mind. “He does confess he feels himself distracted;/But from what cause he will by no means speak.” (III.i.5-6) They convey the changes in his disposition, an indirectness that still functions gentlemanly but “aloof” or distanced. It is a confirmation of Hamlet’s altered state; how he now perceives and navigates men and situations, recognizing something unusual and disordered in his mind, which rings true but to the characters in this scene only furthers their suspicions of his growing madness, a contentious point as Hamlet was aware enough to determine the true intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This navigation between the public and private, though skilled, shows a lack of singular direction in Hamlet’s thoughts and actions, the conflicting interests such as conscience and grief and loyalty pulling his mind in different directions and delaying his mandated act of vengeance.
On top of his initial shock in facing the ghost, in learning of his dear Father’s horrible murder, the distraction within his “globe” involves his conscience, namely over performing the murder requested from across the grave from this most respected figure in his life. Hamlet’s mental distraction seems to make him more brazen as the play continues, and as one might expect of true madness. He stages a play, confronts his Mother, all to form conviction to kill Claudius, yet he repeatedly delays. This shows a troubled mind without a complete clarity of purpose, easily attributed in part to his conscience. At the end of the play he claims to see the “portraiture” of Laerte’s desire for revenge against him in the “image” of his own situation. He overhears Claudius confessing in entirety to the murder of his Father, laying any doubts of the ghost’s veracity to rest, and yet he does not kill him. Hamlet actually speaks at times of his inability to perform the murder and allows the plot to build until he has regrets and foul deeds of his own, like killing Polonius, so divided yet aware is his mind.
Hamlet could easily be compared to a schizophrenic, giving credence to both his possible madness and the ‘distraction’ of his mind. The schizophrenic’s other ‘sane’ self is oftentimes indistinguishable from a normal man, the intelligent schizophrenic being one who is still extremely articulate and capable of cunning and presenting a fluent and able veneer to those he interacts with. (Aldus 215) This holds true with Hamlet whose mind is disordered with visions, creating a state of paranoia and unrest that makes his verbal defense with other characters a kind of offense where at any time he is potentially dangerous. He is no ordinary figure in a play seeking revenge, he is haunted and plagued by memory and self-doubt, confusions that add to his dimensions and present him as a paradigm for the lost man, torn between the two worlds of his divided mind and the deceitful enemies who surround him.
1. Aldus, P.J. (1977). Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in Hamlet. University of
Toronto Press, Toronto.