Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis

Behind Sigmund Freud’s desk chair in the Freud Museum London sits the central section of his library, his volumes of Shakespeare and Goethe. Shakespeare’s plays occupied a significant place on Sigmund Freud’s bookshelf for most of his life. He began reading Shakespeare when he was eight years old and quoted from the plays in letters to his friends, his colleagues and his beloved. He used lines from the plays to help him grasp difficult issues in his life such as failure and death.


Most significantly, Shakespeare’s plays are part of the raw material from which Freud constructed psychoanalysis. Themes, images, plots, and lines from the plays are woven throughout the foundational texts of psychoanalysis in a way that suggests their formative influence. Freud’s intertextual relationship with Shakespeare took many forms including quotation, allusion and literary interpretation. Some of the allusions are deeply embedded in Freud’s texts in a manner that even Freud may not have been aware of.

In the first half of the 20th century, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its influence, its concepts were applied to Hamlet, notably by Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, and Jacques Lacan, and these studies influenced theatrical productions. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud's analysis starts from the premise that "the play is built up on Hamlet's hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations". After reviewing various literary theories, Freud concludes that Hamlet has an "Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do". Confronted with his repressed desires, Hamlet realises that "he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish". Freud suggests that Hamlet's apparent "distaste for sexuality"—articulated in his "nunnery" conversation with Ophelia—accords with this interpretation. This "distaste for sexuality" has sparked theories of Hamlet being what is now referred to as a homosexual or asexual. John Barrymore's long-running 1922 performance in New York, directed by Thomas Hopkins, "broke new ground in its Freudian approach to character", in keeping with the post-World War I rebellion against everything Victorian. He had a "blunter intention" than presenting the genteel, sweet prince of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with virility and lust.

Freud suggested that an unconscious oedipal conflict caused Hamlet's hesitations. (Artist: Eugène Delacroix 1844).

Beginning in 1910, with the publication of "The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: Study in Motive," Ernest Jones—a psychoanalyst and Freud's biographer—developed Freud's ideas into a series of essays that culminated in his book Hamlet and Oedipus (1949). Influenced by Jones's psychoanalytic approach, several productions have portrayed the "closet scene", where Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters, in a sexual light. In this reading, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother's "incestuous" relationship with Claudius while simultaneously fearful of killing him, as this would clear Hamlet's path to his mother's bed. Ophelia's madness after her father's death may also be read through the Freudian lens: as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. She is overwhelmed by having her unfulfilled love for him so abruptly terminated and drifts into the oblivion of insanity. In 1937, Tyrone Guthrie directed Laurence Olivier in a Jones-inspired Hamlet at The Old Vic. Olivier later used some of these same ideas in his 1948 film version of the play.

In the 1950s, Lacan's structuralist theories about Hamlet were first presented in a series of seminars given in Paris and later published in "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet". Lacan postulated that the human psyche is determined by structures of language and that the linguistic structures of Hamlet shed light on human desire. His point of departure is Freud's Oedipal theories, and the central theme of mourning that runs through Hamlet. In Lacan's analysis, Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus—the cause of his inaction—and is increasingly distanced from reality "by mourning, fantasy, narcissism and psychosis", which create holes (or lack) in the real, imaginary, and symbolic aspects of his psyche. Lacan's theories influenced literary criticism of Hamlet because of his alternative vision of the play and his use of semantics to explore the play's psychological landscape.

Hamlet & Oedipus by Ernest Jones

In the Bloom's Shakespeare Through the Ages volume on Hamlet, editors Bloom and Foster express a conviction that the intentions of Shakespeare in portraying the character of Hamlet in the play exceeded the capacity of the Freudian Oedipus complex to completely encompass the extent of characteristics depicted in Hamlet throughout the tragedy: "For once, Freud regressed in attempting to fasten the Oedipus Complex upon Hamlet: it will not stick, and merely showed that Freud did better than T.S. Eliot, who preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet, or so he said. Who can believe Eliot, when he exposes his own Hamlet Complex by declaring the play to be an aesthetic failure?" The book also notes James Joyce's interpretation, stating that he "did far better in the Library Scene of Ulysses, where Stephen marvelously credits Shakespeare, in this play, with universal fatherhood while accurately implying that Hamlet is fatherless, thus opening a pragmatic gap between Shakespeare and Hamlet."

Joshua Rothman has written in The New Yorker that "we tell the story wrong when we say that Freud used the idea of the Oedipus complex to understand Hamlet". Rothman suggests that "it was the other way around: Hamlet helped Freud understand, and perhaps even invent, psychoanalysis". He concludes, "The Oedipus complex is a misnomer. It should be called the 'Hamlet complex'."

In the essay "Hamlet Made Simple", David P. Gontar turns the tables on the psychoanalysts by suggesting that Claudius is not a symbolic father figure but actually Prince Hamlet's biological father. The hesitation in killing Claudius results from an unwillingness on Hamlet's part to slay his real father. If Hamlet is the biological son of Claudius, that explains many things. Hamlet doesn't become King of Denmark on the occasion of the King's death inasmuch as it is an open secret in court that he is Claudius's biological son, and as such he is merely a court bastard not in the line of succession. He is angry with his mother because of her long standing affair with a man Hamlet hates, and Hamlet must face the fact that he has been sired by the man he loathes. That point overturns T. S. Eliot's complaint that the play is a failure for not furnishing an "objective correlative" to account for Hamlet's rage at his mother. Gontar suggests that if the reader assumes that Hamlet is not who he seems to be, the objective correlative becomes apparent. Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy not because his mother quickly remarries but because of her adulterous affair with the despised Claudius which makes Hamlet his son. Finally, the Ghost's confirmation of an alternative fatherhood for Hamlet is a fabrication that gives the Prince a motive for revenge.

Selected books on Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis:




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