freud on melancholia and hamlet


If my cigar was that small I wouldn’t let
people take pictures of it!


In Freud’s great essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he makes a sustained comparison between normal sadness (associated with grieving for the loss of a loved one) and the disturbed self of dispirited mood states and self-hatred (which he associates with the clinical condition of melancholia). By introducing the concepts of object-relations theory, projective identification and introjection, Freud’s theoretical constructs in this essay informed most psychoanalytic thought on melancholia and depression in the twentieth century. Whereas previous thinkers had considered melancholia to be a state of imbalance or a mood of despondency, Freud recasts it as a frame of mind characterized by the loss of something. Indeed, melancholia is properly characterized by loss of an object of which its subject may be unconscious. In this respect it seems to mimic the earlier characterizations of melancholy as a nebulous mood state of fear and sadness without cause. And by choosing the character of Hamlet as an exemplar, and admitting that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic,” Freud seems to allow that melancholia may have a glamorous aspect. Despite his scientific ambitions, Freud concedes that the categories of melancholy and melancholia elude formal definition: “the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms . . . that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity.” 


In her anthology The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (2000), Jennifer Radden highlights the technical contents of Freud’s great essay as follows:


Three aspects of “Mourning and Melancholia” distinguish it from earlier writing: the theme of loss, the emphasis on self-accusation and self-loathing in melancholic subjectivity, and the elaborate theory of narcissism, identification, and introjection it introduces. Melancholia represents loss of the “object,” that is, the beloved parent whose love has been perceived to be withdrawn. Self-accusation and self-hatred, which Freud describes as central characteristics of the melancholic patient, are a form of rage redirected from the loved object to the self.


Such redirected rage can occur because the self is deeply identified with the other. (This identification is so strong that Freud speaks of the other person as incorporated by the self. Introjection is Freud’s term for this process of incorporation.) In developmental terms, the infant’s love energy is at first directed exclusively upon the ego; later it turns to the other, a loved person with whom the infant is intimately identified. That identification allows the fantasy that the ego has incorporated the mother, or “object.” In those suffering from melancholia, some adult sorrow or slight reignites those infantile experiences. Now with the characteristic ambivalence of the oral phase, the ego attacks the loved, introjected “object” in self-accusations whose curious quality of indifference, Freud believes, proves their true object to be not the self but the incorporated other. (282)



Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917) 


Now that dreams have proved of service to us as the normal prototypes of narcissistic mental disorders, we propose to try whether a comparison with the normal emotion of grief, and its expression in mourning, will not throw some light on the nature of melancholia. This time, however, we must make a certain prefatory warning against too great expectations of the result. Even in descriptive psychiatry the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms (some of them suggesting somatic rather than psychogenic affections) that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity. Apart from those impressions which every observer may gather, our material here is limited to a small number of cases the psychogenic nature of which was indisputable. Any claim to general validity for our conclusions shall be forgone at the outset, therefore, and we will console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal to-day, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, at least of a small group if not of a whole class of disorders.


A correlation of melancholia and mourning seems justified by the general picture of the two conditions.1 Moreover, wherever it is possible to discern the external influences in life which have brought each of them about, this exciting cause proves to be the same in both. Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on. As an effect of the same influences, melancholia instead of a state of grief develops in some people, whom we consequently suspect of a morbid pathological disposition. It is also well worth notice that, although grief involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a morbid condition and hand the mourner over to medical treatment. We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful.


The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in grief. The fall in self-esteem is absent in grief; but otherwise the features are the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved person, contains the same feeling of pain, loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one—loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean a replacing of the one mourned, the same turningfrom every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription in the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests. It is really only because we know so well how to explain it that this attitude does not seem to us pathological.


We should regard it as a just comparison, too, to call the temper of grief “painful.” The justification for this comparison will probably prove illuminating when we are in a position to define pain in terms of the economics of the mind.2


Now in what consists the work which mourning performs? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in the following representation of it. The testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object. Against this demand a struggle of course arises—it may be universally observed that man never willingly abandons a libido-position, not even when a substitute is already beckoning to him. This struggle can be so intense that a turning away from reality ensues, the object being clung to through the medium of a hallucinatory wish-psychosis. The normal outcome is that deference for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its behest cannot be at once obeyed. The task is now carried through bit by bit, under great expense of time and cathectic energy, while all the time the existence of the lost object is continued in the mind. Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and the detachment of the libido from it accomplished. Why this process of carrying out the behest of reality bit by bit, which is in the nature of a compromise, should be so extraordinarily, painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics. It is worth noting that this pain3 seems natural to us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.


Now let us apply to melancholia what we have learnt about grief. In one class of cases it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object; where this is not theexciting cause one can perceive that there is a loss of a more ideal kind. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love (e.g. the case of a deserted bride). In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost. This, indeed, might be so even when the patient was aware of the loss giving rise to the melancholia, that is, when he knows whom he has lost but not what it is he has lost in them. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss.


In grief we found that the ego’s inhibited condition and loss of interest was fully accounted for by the absorbing work of mourning. The unknown loss in melancholia would also result in an inner labour of the same kind and hence would be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. Only, the inhibition of the melancholiac seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that absorbs him so entirely. Now the melancholiac displays something else which is lacking in grief—an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, an impoverishment of his ego in a grand scale. In grief the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any effort and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and chastised. He abases himself before everyone and commiserates his own relatives for being connected with someone so unworthy. He does not realize that any change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism back over the past and declares that he was never any better. This picture of delusional belittling—which is predominantly moral—is completed by sleeplessness and refusal of nourishment, and by an overthrow, psychologically very remarkable, of that instinct which constrains every living thing to cling to life.


Both scientifically and therapeutically it would be fruitless to contradict the patient who brings these accusations against himself. He must surely be right in some way and be describing something that corresponds to what he thinks. Some of his statements, indeed, we are at once obliged to confirm without reservation. He really is as lacking in interest, as incapable of love and of any achievement as he says. But that, as we know, is secondary, the effect of the inner travail consuming his ego, of which we know nothing but which we compare with the work of mourning. In certain other self-accusations he also seems to us justified, only that he has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic. When in his exacerbation of self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, for all we know it may be that he has come very near to self-knowledge; we only wonder why a man must become ill before he can discover truth of this kind. For there can be no doubt that whoever holds and expresses to others such an opinion of himself—one that Hamlet harboured of himself and all men—that man is ill, whether he speaks the truth or is more or less unfair to himself. Nor is it difficult to see that there is no correspondence, so far as we can judge, between the degree to self-abasement and its real justification. A good, capable, conscientious woman will speak no better of herself after she develops melancholia than one who is actually worthless; indeed, the first is more likely to fall ill of the disease than the other, of whom we too should have nothing good to say. Finally, it must strike us that after all the melancholiac’s behaviour is not in every way the same as that of one who is normally devoured by remorse and self-reproach. Shame before others, which would characterize this condition above everything, is lacking in him, or at least there is little sign of it. One could almost say that the opposite trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac.

The essential thing, therefore, is not whether the melancholiac’s distressing self-abasement is justified in the opinion of others. The point must be rather that he is correctly describing his psychological situation in his lamentations. He has lost his self-respect and must have some good reason for having done so. It is true that we are then faced with a contradiction which presents a very difficult problem. From the analogy with grief we should have to conclude that the loss suffered by the melancholiac is that of an object; according to what he says the loss is one in himself.



1. “Abraham, to whom we owe the most important of the few analytic studies on this subject, also took this comparison to his starting point. (Zentralblatt, Bd. II., 1912.)”


2. “The words ‘painful’ and ‘pain’ in this paragraph represent the German Schmerz  i.e., the ordinary connotation of pain in English) and not Unlust, the mental antithesis of pleasure, also technically translated as ‘pain’.—Trans.”


3. “The German here is Schmerzunlust, a combination of the two words for pain.—Trans.” 

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