Dutch Prince and Murderer King
“The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognize others as worthy of compassion.”
-Shirley Lynn Scott, What Makes Serial Killers Tick?
“They are not near my conscience.”
Hamlet, after condemning childhood friends to death.
Most readers regard Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet as the archetypal hero: a man torn between duty and denial, between revenge and reserve. Throughout, Hamlet stands alone against a vast conspiracy of regicide, incest and espionage. Alone he remains, until the tragic finale when the dying Hamlet strikes down Claudius, his murderous uncle. Yet, upon further study, regarding Hamlet as a hero poses a great problem. For in creating Hamlet, Shakespeare achieved what no one would until the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation did some 400 years later. William Shakespeare, in the sixteenth century, provides in Hamlet not the archetype for a hero, but the prototype for today’s modern psychopathic killer. Prince Hamlet meets many requirements for such a distinction, for he comes from an unnatural home environment; he feels an overriding sense of vengeance towards others; he disguises himself in another personality; and finally, he kills unmercifully anyone who crosses his path. All of these traits can be used to describe some of the most vicious and deplorable murderers of today, and unfortunately for lovers of the “hero Hamlet,” all of these traits can be applied to Shakespeare’s Danish Prince.
For instance, the study of Hamlet’s family reveals quite tellingly that Hamlet may have been the recipient of some very faulty genes. Hamlet’s father, Old Hamlet, was murdered secretly while sleeping in his orchard by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Therefore Hamlet does have a familial link at least, to someone cold enough to commit murder. A University of Washington School of Medicine study revealed, “Individuals whose relatives are murderers are four times more likely to become murderers themselves.” While not automatically making Hamlet a killer, Claudius’ implication in the regicide weighs heavily on Hamlet’s eventual outcome. One would argue, however, that Claudius did not bring Hamlet up as a child, so therefore his actions should not be considered. This is a valid point, but there remains the problem of Gertrude, Hamlet’s biological mother. While it is not specifically stated in the play, Gertrude could be implicated in her husband’s murder for she marries his murderer “within a month” of Old Hamlet’s funeral. This also suggests an adulterous affair with Claudius before the murder. Sexually promiscuous mothers have long been blamed as a factor towards the ill development of a child, and in fact some of today’s most notorious psychopathic killers (such as American Carroll Edward Cole) blame their mother’s extramarital affairs solely for their heinous actions. Due to these possible implications involving Gertrude, Hamlet develops an unnatural preoccupation with his mother’s sexuality (another trait shared among some psychopaths). This is proven when he tells her that she is destined to live:
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
Instead of simply making the point that Gertrude has married a murderer, Hamlet becomes infuriated at the fact that his mother is also sleeping with Claudius. This should be the last thing on a rational person’s mind, yet Hamlet forces the subject of his mother’s sex life to the forefront. Hamlet’s family is not well, and in the eyes of many of today’s experts, this type of family begets today’s modern killers.
Hamlet’s commonness with the serial killer, however, does not end with his family. Hamlet develops a need for revenge against his oppressors. Again, this trait can be seen in most of today’s killers. Modern psychopathic murderers will feel an overriding sense of vengeance towards a person or people, so much so that this sense will take precedence over all others until that vengeance is exacted in some way. Now seeking out and destroying the object of one’s injustice is a vengeance most people would understand, but Hamlet’s (and the psychopath’s) idea of revenge is much different. It must be perfect. In his efforts to get everything perfect for his uncle’s murder, five others will die. Hamlet would not kill Claudius while in prayer –just like Ted Bundy would not kill women without dark hair parted in the middle, just like Wayne Williams would not kill children other than black ones. It is a misguided vengeance (Hamlet cannot kill Claudius while in prayer because then he is not the evil Claudius that will go to Hell; Bundy could not kill women who did not remind him of his ex-girlfriend; Williams could not kill children who did not remind him of the bullies he knew growing up) because all three are not actually taking revenge on the proper source.
For most people, Claudius is Claudius, whatever he is doing, and he should be killed whenever the chance arises—but Shakespeare’s psychopath is different. Hamlet will wait after receiving his orders from the ghost. In fact, even the idea of parents speaking from beyond the grave is not new to the serial killer. “Many…serial murderers have reported voices whose urgings forced them into criminal acts.” Herbert Mullin, killer of thirteen Santa Cruz residents, heard his long dead father repeatedly say, “Why won’t you give me anything? Go kill somebody—move!” Henry Lee Lucas heard the mother he had only recently murdered tell him to go out and kill more people. Yes, people other than Hamlet did see the ghost (therefore he is not “crazy” like the others, one would argue), but who is to question that these killers too did not hear what they thought to be an authentic voice in their heads? Shakespeare, in creating Hamlet as a haunted individual seeking the perfect revenge, effectively gave Hamlet another psychopathic trait that he shares with many modern serial killers.
Again, however, the similarities between Hamlet and the modern psychopathic killer do not end at a need for revenge. For in seeking that revenge, experts agree that the killer will adopt a different personality to both commit the crime and avoid responsibility. Hamlet adopts a different personality—that of an insane person—to lure Claudius closer to his trap and to attempt to deflect the responsibility of other murders. Hamlet admits such when he says he will “put an antic disposition on” to fool the world. Shirley Lynn Scott could have been describing Hamlet’s plot when she wrote,Because of their psychopathic nature, serial killers do not know how to feel sympathy. It is all a manipulative act, designed to entice people into their trap. Serial killers are actors with a natural penchant for performance.
Does this term “penchant for performance” not bring to mind Hamlet’s “insane” jump into Ophelia’s grave after her brother? This is a woman whom Hamlet thought high enough to unmercifully play with her emotions, feigning love and then disgust, until she was finally driven to suicide, mad with emotion. This jump is supposed to make the reader believe that Hamlet actually loved Ophelia? No, this jump merely proves how far Hamlet will go to put up this faade of insanity. Even in death Hamlet the psychopath will not stop using Ophelia as a means to an end. His blatant use of others as a tool is discomforting.
Furthermore, as Scott attests, when he is caught, the serial killer will assume a “mask of insanity” – pretending to be a multiple personality, schizophrenic – anything to evade responsibility for his actions.
Anyone familiar with the play knows that Hamlet uses this exact tactic – pleading insanity – to deflect responsibility. In explaining to Laertes exactly who killed his father, Hamlet cries “Never Hamlet,” and that instead it was “his madness” that killed Polonius. This must remind one of the Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi’s flimsy multiple personality disorder defense, or The Son of Sam David Berkowitz’ tales of demon-possession. These defenses did not work for those cold-blooded killers, nor should they work for Hamlet. Hamlet was in full control when every one of his murders occurred, yet he would resort to the now often used insanity excuse to try and escape punishment. This tactic of employing a different personality to achieve results is merely another trait that this “hero” shares with some of the vilest murderers of all time.
Of course, to finally become a psychopathic killer one must eventually kill another human being. Many psychopaths never complete this final hurdle into the abyss. Hamlet, however, has no problem overcoming this last hurdle to become a prototypical chain murderer. In fact, if one correctly blames Hamlet for the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius, then it is apparent that England’s greatest playwright has created a man with a higher body count than England’s “greatest” murderer. Jack the Ripper only killed five people. However, it is not the amount of kills that Hamlet achieves that proves his psychosis (for that would define anybody who went to war as a serial killer), it is the way he goes about doing it. His cold-blooded murder of Polonius is a prime example. Upon realizing a spy behind his mother’s curtains, Hamlet runs his sword through the sheets without even knowing whom it is he is dispatching.
When Hamlet discovers his victim, it is not an apology he offers, but a simple, “I took thee for thy better.” Hamlet wishes he had killed the King! This proof of a lack of remorse or guilt on the part of Hamlet is the last thing a reader should need to convict Hamlet of being a psychopathic killer, for most experts agree that this “missing conscience” is the key to identifying a psychopathic personality. It is his murders in the end that betray Hamlet as a psychopath. Hamlet’s callous set-up of his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed by the English is another prime example. Yes, Hamlet did have to re-write the letter to save himself from death, but did he have to write that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were to die instead? No, for Hamlet could have written to the English that they were to just pay the tribute and move on – but Hamlet merely wanted the satisfaction of knowing he had killed two more men that he felt were in his way. Even Horatio is surprised at this, yet Hamlet coldly replies to him – in a classic psychopathic response – that his former friends “are not near my conscience.”
Does Hamlet even have a conscience? All the aforementioned should prove that he does not. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, driving her to suicide, as well as his continuation of the bout with Laertes after Hamlet knows the sword he is holding is unbated, these actions both are a testament to his dangerous nature. Even his final kill, his murder of Claudius, is ripe with overkill—a classic serial killer trait. Not only does Hamlet run Claudius through with a poisoned sword; he also forces the King to drink the rest of the poison prepared in the court. Every one of Hamlet’s homicides can be seen, not as glorious heroic actions, but as disturbing work of a serial killer. Furthermore, Shakespeare then even predicted the common demise of most psychopathic murderers; Hamlet’s reign of terror ends among the bodies of many of his victims. When Fortinbras announces,
This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast strook?
One realizes anyone walking into the apartment of Jeffery Dahmer’s, or the farm belonging to Ed Gein, or countless other instances could have uttered those exact words and not have been out of place. Psychopaths must kill if they are to become psychopathic killers and Hamlet more than fulfills this requirement. Hamlet’s murders, and more particularly his attitude towards them, provide more proof that Shakespeare’s Prince was almost an exact model for the modern psychopathic killer.
In conclusion, then, it should be fairly obvious that Shakespeare’s archetypal hero was nothing more than a brooding psychopath. Hamlet meets all of the requirements: he comes from a dysfunctional family; he harbors a burning vengeance within himself; he puts on an act of insanity towards the outside world; and his lack of concern towards his cold-blooded murders. All of these traits point to Hamlet being an outline that modern killers would follow almost completely. This should not diminish one’s view of William Shakespeare – one must credit the man for creating the fabled “F. B. I. Psychological Profile” of psychopathic killers 400 years before the F. B. I. did. However, Hamlet himself has escaped literary persecution all these years. All who praise Hamlet seem forgetful of Shakespeare’s own words; “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.”
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