Bright’s Treatise of Melancholie (1586) was, in Shakespeare’s day, the most important work on the subject. Melancholy, the ‘sadde and fearful’ humour, was a common, even fashionable malady in Elizabethan England, especially after 1580. It was associated with sadness and abnormal psychology, but also refinement and male intellect. Melancholic poets, languishing lovers and introspective students appear frequently in the art and literature of the time. They are seen – and at times parodied – in Shakespeare’s plays, through characters such as Romeo, Jacques (As You Like It), Don John and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) and, most famously, Hamlet.
The physician Timothy Bright (c. 1549–1615), addresses his work to an unnamed ‘melancholicke friend’, hoping to give him comfort from his ‘straunge affliction’ (sig. B1r). Bright explores the causes and treatments of ‘feare, sadness, desperation, teares, weeping, sobbing, sighing’, as well as irrational laughter (sig. A7v–A8r); and he makes a subtle distinction between melancholy and conscience which often ‘nourish’ each other (sig.A8v).
In his discussion of melancholy, Bright suggests that the mind and body are interdependent; melancholy affects not only the ‘bodely sense’ but also the ‘soule and spirite’ (sig. A6v). This draws on the theory of the humours – in which emotions were thought to be governed by four bodily fluids, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An excess of black bile, arising from the spleen, was seen as the root of melancholy (p. 101).
Read a full facsimile text of Bright’s Treatise online
Hamlet and melancholy
There is much debate over Shakespeare’s subtle and complex portrayal of Hamlet: what explains his ‘transformation’ (2.2.5), whether his apparent ‘lunacy’ is just a ‘crafty’ deception (3.1.8) and how to ‘define true madness’ (2.2.93)? But many agree with Claudius’s claim that ‘there’s something in his soul’ which seems to be ruled by ‘melancholy’ (3.1.164–65).
Although there is some dispute over whether Shakespeare read Bright’s Treatise, there are striking parallels with the play. These give us a strong insight into how contemporary audiences might have viewed the character. Bright says melancholy can cause ‘distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire’, leading both to anger and ‘false laughter’ or sardonic wit (p. 101). Sufferers are distracted by ‘phantasticall apparations’ and ‘counterfeit goblins’ (p. 103). Their ‘dreames are fearefull’ and their ‘resolution’ delayed by ‘long deliberation’ (p. 131). Even their house may seem ‘a prison or dungeon, rather than a place of repose or rest’ (p. 263).
Hamlet is, of course, troubled by his ‘conscience’ (3.1.2). He is plagued by distrust of the Ghost’s words and Ophelia’s purity; he suffers despair over his own delay in avenging his father’s murder; and anger over his mother’s ‘o’ erhasty marriage’ (2.2.57). The Prince is playfully sardonic in his interactions with the players and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is troubled by a ghostly ‘apparition’ whom he fears ‘may be a dev’l’ (2.2.599) or a ‘goblin damn’d’ (1.4.40). Like Bright’s melancholy man, Hamlet is tormented by ‘bad dreams’ (2.2.256) and for him ‘Denmark’s a prison’ (2.2.243).