Robin Williams, Hamlet and the Undiscovered Country

Actor Robin Williams speaks to reporters at a press conference for "Campaign For a New G.I. Bill" in Beverly Hills, Calif. on
Actor Robin Williams speaks to reporters at a press conference for "Campaign For a New G.I. Bill" in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Sunday, June 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)

Harold Bloom wrote a book some years ago, titled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. The book might also have been titled, Hamlet: Character Unlimited, for the Prince of Denmark, like Shakespeare's tragedy itself, cannot be reduced to anything.

What I mean by that is that when artistic directors of repertory theaters attempt to limit Hamlet, to depict him, as, for instance, a man who simply has an Oedipal complex, or as a mama's boy, or as an over-the-top and antiquated notion of a schizophrenic who speaks in two voices, they fail not only the audience, they fail Shakespeare. And they fail Hamlet.

That is because Hamlet is the most paradoxical character ever written in the history of Western literature. He is as much a hero as he is a coward, as given to impulse as to introspection, as full of vitality as he is of melancholy.

I was thinking about this tonight as I was trying to process the tragic death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the brilliant actor, who had rare gifts for improvisation and spontaneity and who may be as well remembered for his dramatic turns in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society as for his comic roles.

Time and time again, Wolf Blitzer and Don Lemon asked their guests on CNN how it was possible that a man who seemed so alive and who was so successful could also feel so much torment.

It is understandable that most people cannot fathom what leads a gifted person to take his life. It is mysterious indeed.

But it gets back to the issue of paradox.

Hamlet is well-known for being depressed. He is also quite possibly psychotic. The Prince of Denmark is the only character in the play who can speak to the ghost of his father. And there is no denying that Hamlet is suicidal, although those who view the "To Be or Not to Be" speech as being only about suicide are mistaken. They are once again trying to limit an unlimited character.

Still, it is clear that Hamlet has gotten a glimpse at the "undiscovered country," and he has concluded that he would "rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of."

There is a wisdom there that I wish all suicidal people would consider. As bad as things may be in a person's life on this planet, nothing is worse than suicide. It wreaks havoc with families and may very well wreak havoc with one's soul, if one believes in such things.

I have witnessed up close the multigenerational repercussions of suicide in my family. My grandfather's suicide traumatized my father, whom I love, and that in turn has affected his parenting of me.

Though Hamlet suffers from feelings of worthlessness, as Robin Williams very well may have, he is also not unlike Williams in being among the most vibrant characters one will ever encounter.

While Hamlet does not engage in the kind of stream-of-consciousness rants that Williams was known for, he exhibits pure delight when he learns that the Players are coming to perform at Elsinore. Consider how he joyfully instructs the members of the troupe to "speak the speech trippingly on the tongue."

And consider the unwavering love and loyalty he expresses for Horatio, his only real friend.

It is obvious that Hamlet is not only a depressive. He is also a man who loves to play, who embraces so many aspects of life, who duels with Laertes with the zest of a swashbuckler, who flashes his wit on poor Polonius, Osric and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Robin Williams was by all accounts a sweet and generous soul, who had well-documented substance abuse problems in addition to bouts with major depression.

It is unlikely that he ever showed the cruelty that Hamlet inflicts upon Ophelia or the destructive rashness that leads Hamlet to kill Polonius by stabbing him through the arras.

Like most people suffering from major depression, Williams probably felt hopeless at times, as I did in 1997, when I had my first psychotic break, a subject I wrote about recently.

After driving around the streets of Marina del Rey and failing to find a hotel room, from which I could jump out a window, I returned to my apartment and called my mother.

As I have written elsewhere, although I did not know it at the time, I had beaten down the immediate threat to my life by reaching out to a loved one.

The suicidal person should never be alone. He or she should be with a friend, should call 911, or should check into a psychiatric ward or emergency room.

As I have written many times before, suicidal ideation abates for most people, who can go on to lead long and productive lives. This has been demonstrated by a 1978 Cal-Berkeley study, which indicated that more than 90 percent of survivors of suicide attempts on the Golden Gate Bridge were still alive many years later.

The key for the suicidal person is to reach out to others so that one can get through those times when one's life is most at risk.

As to why Robin Williams reportedly committed suicide, there is never any one reason why a person takes his or her life.

As Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.