Psychoanalytic Criticism: Hamlet as a Victim of Oedipus Complex

The psychoanalytic concept Oedipus complex refers to the emotions and psychosexual desires during the phallic stage in the developmental process, which a boy child possesses towards his mother creating a parallel sense of rivalry towards the father (Liu and Wang 1420). The psychological complex was introduced by Freud with the term being derived from the character in Greek folklore, Oedipus, who unintentionally slew his father and subsequently married his mother (Liu and Wang 1420). Freud asserted that the complex manifests in children at a young age but ends with the child identifying with the parent of the same sex hence repression of carnal instincts. However, Freud analyzed further that the suppressed yearnings of the subconscious manifest in later years dictating the child’s behavior. Freud analysis of Hamlet with his psychological theory argued that the titular character’s behavior and decisions are subconsciously driven by Oedipus complex. In the play, Hamlet is demonstrated as unveiling the traits of the complex through his possessiveness over his mother. According to Freud, the portrayal of Hamlet’s relationship and his mother has also shown repressed sexual desires and connotations that resemble the oedipal complex philosophy. Furthermore, Hamlet’s reluctance and procrastination to avenge his father’s death has been attributed to the concept of rivalry or opposition towards the father in the theory. Hamlet is a victim of Oedipus complex due to his hesitancy to take revenge and his repressed psychosexual fondness and fixation towards his mother.

Hamlet’s reluctance and indecision to avenge his father’s murder is an indication of Oedipus complex. Hamlet’s obligation seems to be all forgotten on his return home and does not exhibit any indication of planning to murder Claudius. The reason for Hamlet’s hesitance to abide by his father’s command to avenge his death is Hamlet’s subconscious gratitude to Claudius for murdering his father (Rashkin 24-25). According to the Freudian concept, Hamlet suffers from deep-rooted aspects of the complex hence still exhibits rivalry towards the father and wishes to replace him. The play is about Hamlet’s seeking revenge but there are no clear reasons for his indecision to kill Claudius. Hamlet’s consciousness is heavily under conflict due to the fact that he is obligated to undertake the revenge but is also secretly glad about his father’s death. Jacques Lacan argued using the Freudian concept and indicated that Hamlet’s melancholy and reluctance to kill Claudius is because he views Claudius as a reflection of his repressed oedipal self (Rashkin 25). Hamlet still retains his oedipal instincts and desires and because Claudius was able to kill Hamlet Sr. and sleep with Gertrude, Hamlet lives his oedipal fantasy through him. Hamlet’s decision to finally murder Claudius comes in Act 5 which is a long period after discovering he is his father’s murderer. In Scene III, Hamlet kills Claudius with no hesitation only after the death of his mother Gertrude. Hamlet’s reluctance was associated with his repressed desires towards Gertrude and due to her death, his oedipal instincts died too hence had no inhibitions anymore. Moreover, Hamlet’s oedipal instincts are also exhibited through his hatred of Claudius and Gertrude’s relationship.

Hamlet’s anger and jealousy towards Claudius and his marriage to his mother illustrate Hamlet as a victim of Oedipus complex. Hamlet demonstrates hostility and hatred towards Claudius because of his hastened nuptial to his mother. He views Gertrude’s remarriage and affection to his uncle as revolting; in his first monologue he asserts “O, most wicked speed, to post/with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (Shakespeare 1.2.157-158). Due to his suppressed yearnings towards his mother, Hamlet experiences jealousy when Gertrude directs affection to any other man apart from him. He is shown as being concerned with his mother’s remarriage more than his father’s death. Hamlet’s jealousy is fully exhibited when he scolds his mother in his chambers about her sexual deeds with Claudius and confesses his true feelings towards their marriage. Hamlet wishes to be the object of love and desire for his mother and not his uncle. His Oedipal instincts believe that he should be with his mother now that his father is now deceased (Jamwal 123). However, Claudius taking the position of his father which he subconsciously craves awakens rage and hatred towards him. In the third Act, when Hamlet stabs Polonius assuming it is Claudius, illustrates his desire to eliminate the ‘father’ figure for his mother’s full affection which is a clear manifestation of Oedipus complex.

Hamlet’s oedipal complex is apparent through the deep fondness for his mother and the frequent sexual allusions. In the third scene Hamlet converses to his mother in soliloquies that are filled with sexual inferences, he reproaches her of “…honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” (3.4.93-94). The Freudian concept asserts that sexual behavior and thought shapes a person’s psychology and Hamlet’s discourse is an exemplification. The strong sexual desires for his mother triggers his disgust and jealousy of the thought of sexual encounter between her and Claudius (Cameron 170). Hamlet gets explicitly sexual in his words further into the conversation by obsessing over physical contact between Claudius and his mother. He also advises Gertrude to refrain from laying in bed with the king once and it will be easier to refuse his sexual advances in the future. Hamlet obsession with his mother’s carnal pleasures alludes to his unconscious sexual jealousy and desires that stem from the psychological complex.

Additionally, the nature Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship is as a result of the unresolved oedipal feelings towards Gertrude. The unrequited love amid Ophelia and Hamlet is due to his unhealthy psychological bond with his mother (Jamwal 123). Hamlet never views Ophelia as a lover and does not express strong sexual or emotional attraction for her as it is subconsciously reserved for her mother. Hamlet’s complex feelings for his mother is paralleled through Ophelia; He despises Ophelia for being obedient to his father Polonius as it subconsciously reminds him of Gertrude’s submission to Claudius (Cameron 175). His Oedipal instincts do not allow Hamlet to express affection to another woman and he only uses Ophelia as a target for outbursts and frustrations he has towards his mother.

In the play, Hamlet is evidently a victim of Oedipus complex as reflected through his behaviors and decisions throughout. According to the Freudian concept, the boy child’s behaviors are dictated by the repressed psychosexual desire and emotions towards the mother. The point of focus in the play is Hamlet’s obligation to avenge his father’s death which only takes place after a series of internal conflicts. The theme of indecision can only be linked to Hamlet’s unresolved oedipal feelings and instincts. His reluctance in taking revenge is attributed to his mental conflict between his obligation and the oedipal instinct to exult his father’s death. More explicit indications of Hamlet’s psychological complex is his hatred and disgust of his mother’s quick remarriage to Claudius. He obsesses about Gertrude’s decision to marry and engage in sexual activities with him and relentlessly rebukes her for it. A child’s fixation with the parent’s sexual life is an unusual endeavor and can only be explained through the concept of Oedipus complex. Lastly, Hamlet’s complex relationship with Ophelia is a clear reflection of the suppressed sexual feelings and the unnatural psychological bond with his mother.

Works Cited

Cameron, Eileen. “The Psychology of Hamlet.” International Journal of Language and Literature II.3 (2014): 161-177. Web. 25 April 2018.

Jamwal, Rishav. “Was Hamlet a victim of Oedipus Complex: A peep into his psyche.” International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities III.2 (2015): 118-125. Web. 25 April 2018.

Liu, Yan and Chencheng Wang. “Oedipus Complex in Literature Works.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research II.6 (2011): 1420-1424. Web. 25 April 2018.

Rashkin, Esther. Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative. Princeton University Press, 2014. Web. 25 April 2018.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark .” n.d. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Web. 25 April 2018.

Relationship between Humans and the Natural World

In it’s traditional sense, the natural world can serve to act as the utter antithesis of the man-made human world. It is possible to consider them to both be their own microcosms, circulating in their own introspective cycles, however, it may be conceded that one has a profound effect on the other and thus causes a simultaneously fluctuating correlation; as one falls, so does the other. Perhaps the natural world is placed as humanity’s antithesis as to highlight man’s impurities and faults, when contrasted with the perfect functions of nature’s own microcosmic cycle. When considering this idea in Shakespeare’s works, it is seemingly equitable to bolster this somewhat pagan ideology in an Elizabethan setting, in that nature was believed to be a divine being; thus aligning it to the roles of kings and even gods. When aligning this to Ficino’s claim that ‘the human race is born naked…empty’, it may be conceded that it is the responsibility of the natural world and divine beings to appropriately guide humanity in its quest for purity and goodness; which in turn places heavy emphasis on the Christian idea that it is in human nature to sin and without intervention there is a descent into chaos. This belief is seen to be illustrated in both the Shakespearian tragedies Hamlet and more prominently King Lear, with Edmund overtly labelling nature as a his ‘goddess’ (Lear 1.2 1). This in itself seems to indicate that the natural world does hold some significant power over humanity, which in turn intensifies its role as a type of omnipotent over-lord or god. In this sense, it is possible to align nature’s role as the perfect equivalent to the human world with this idea of the natural world as a divine being opposite an imperfect and flawed humanity.

When considering the natural world as a ‘goddess’ (Lear 1.2 1) it is important to further explore its power and authority over its human counterparts. For instance, Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear’s interaction with the storm in Act 3 Scene 2, in which his cathartic outburst of ‘blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!’ (3.2 1) opens the scene, does overtly exemplify the physical tenacity and ability for destruction that nature can hold against man. The violent imagery evoked in this instance, also poses a somewhat unsettling and threatening tone to nature’s power in its strife to ‘singe [Lear’s] white head’ (3.2 6), which further embellishes the literal relationship between the natural world and humanity. Alternatively it may be equitable to argue that while this exchange between Lear and the natural world does highlight the storm’s power, Lear’s tone does seem more imperative as opposed to submissive. Lear commands the elements to ‘smite flat’ and ‘crack nature’s moulds…that make ingrateful man!’ (3.2 6-9), thus possibly unconsciously utilizing his divine kingship that he seemingly wants rid of. This, therefore perhaps indicates a flushed capacity of sovereignty between the natural world and Lear as equal commanders; Lear thus appeals to the natural world as a means to condemn the sordid facets of humanity, specifically the absence of gratitude, in this instance. This can also been seen in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in Vindice’s assertion ‘when thunder claps, heaven likes the tragedy’ (5.3.47), which is a literal link to the storm in King Lear in terms of the natural world’s authoritative stance as a ‘goddess’ (Lear 1.2.1). Vindice’s claim arguably certifies the natural world as a divine power to judge humanity and when linking this back to humanity’s ‘emptiness’ (Ficino) and contrasting it with the natural world’s divinity, there is yet again a lucid conclusion that nature is autonomous over humanity, and its actions largely affect human action.

The theme of humanity’s impurity is rife throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and when linking this with the role of the natural world it is equitable to consider the famous utterance of Marcellus – ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ (Hamlet 1.4.90). This allusion to natural and social order yet again delves into Shakespeare’s representation of the relationship between man and the natural world; more specifically, Hamlet’s inability to act. Grinnell argues that when ‘we talk about the rottenness in Hamlet, we rarely consider it in environmental terms’, but in fact, it seems a more logical step to consider it in ‘environmental terms’ first and foremost. In Hamlet, Shakespeare largely utilizes facets of the natural world as a means to reveal the soiled reflection of humanity’s own microcosm; using the motif of the incestuous relationship between Gertrude and Claudius to emphasize sin in humanity. Hamlet himself names their relationship an ‘unweeded garden’ (1.2.135) which ultimately serves to emphasize the Pagan belief that there is an intrinsic link between human sin and their environment, with the sin of incest acting as an infesting weed, further weaving through the state of Denmark and infecting all inhabitants below the sinful sovereign.

However, it is of paramount importance to consider the view that ‘the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws we have prescribed for them’ (Pico della Mirandola 117), which perhaps signifies that, while the natural world holds a weighted sense of authority and omnipotence in its physical strength and capacity for destruction, this power is ultimately conjured by humanity’s need to prescribe the depth of meaning to their surrounding environment. When considering this, in light of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the relationship between man and nature, it seems equitable to establish that man’s own microcosm that he has created for himself largely serves to define every other microcosm in existence, as these are also the product of the mind of man. Nature as a its own facet, derives its power from the power of man’s imagination, thus continuing a cycle of authority between the two, with man as its sole creator.

Works Cited

Ficino, Marsilio. The book of life: a translation by Charles Boer of Liber de vita. Spring Publications: 1980. Accessed via VLE on 11/10/15.

Grinnell, Richard. “Through an Un-Weeded Garden Teaching the Unsustainable Hamlet”. Moderna Språk 106: 1 (2012). Accessed: 10/10/15.

Middleton, Thomas. Tourneur, Cyril. Edited by Foakes, R A. The Revenger’s Tragedy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 9 May 1996.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Oration on the dignity of man: a new translation and commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. pp 108-123.

Shakespeare, William. Edited by Thompson, Ann. Taylor, Neil. Hamlet (3rd Edition). London: Arden Shakespeare Bloomsbury, 1 Jun, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. Edited by Foakes, R A. King Lear (3rd revised edition). London: Arden Shakespeare, 9 May, 1997.

To Be or Not to Be…. That is the Monologue

Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech in 3.1.56-90 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is perhaps the most famous section of dialogue in the English language. It has been quoted an innumerable number of times in all forms of media, it continues to grab the attention of audiences and leave them bewildered, and it is perhaps the greatest line penned by one of the greatest authors of the English language. It certainly helps that the speech can ride on the coattails of William Shakespeare’s reputation, but this monologue has significant literary merit on its own, regardless of its author. It comes at a time in the story when life has gotten so bad for Hamlet that he is not sure whether or not he wants to go on living; but rather than shying away from those feelings, Shakespeare addresses them head on and actually weighs the pros and cons of life and death through Hamlet. It is the sort of conversation that people would generally not like to entertain, yet Shakespeare was able to able to touch on something universally confounding that continues to garner attention 400 years later. It is through his deep rooted understanding of human nature and his ability to effectively convey to audiences it that Shakespeare was able to create a monologue so well-read and well-loved.

In scanning the first line, the reader gets a great deal of information from looking only at the stressed syllables. The line “To be, or not to be – that is the question” becomes “be…not…be…that…quest[ion]” (3.1.56). From the very beginning of the speech, Shakespeare forces audiences to consider two rather profound ideas: whether or not to exist, and the fact that this question of existence is the most important question, above all others. While society often questions what it means to exist, it is not often that people are prompted to consider why they exist, or if existence is the best option. Shakespeare was well aware of this, and rather than letting audience members instinctively shy away from these questions, confronts them with the question of whether or not to exist at the very beginning of the monologue, making it a line that carries a great deal of weight. It grabs the attention of readers and audience members alike for good reason. With an opening line so powerful, it is no wonder that the speech stands head and soldiers above so many others.

As the monologue continues, the audience’s attention is held by Hamlets’ ability to discuss life and death so freely and casually. Although he’s discussing heavy topics, the tone of the monologue is almost flippant. He rapidly bounces back and forth between life and death through the lines “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” as if he’s considering whether or not to go to take a walk on a cloudy day (3.1.57-60). His casual approach to the idea of suicide would have especially shocked almost exclusively Christian audiences in the early 17th century who would be quick to point out that suicide leads to damnation. Even in our more secular and desensitized modern society, audiences are not accustomed to hearing people show such blatant disregard for their own life. Shakespeare’s ability to capture the attention of audiences in this way demonstrates his understanding of the human condition. What’s perhaps most impressive about Shakespeare is that he understood people so well that he was able to write a monologue that would shock people and turn heads for over four-hundred years, and will likely continue doing so for years to come.

A few lines later, the monologue begs another question of the audience: what sorts of extremes would a person have to be driven to in order to be in the same state as Hamlet? In lines 70-75, Hamlet says “For who would bare the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?” (3.1.70-75). As Hamlet talks about everything going on in his life that might make him consider suicide, even though the audience members already know his situation, it is better understood through the monologue, and it lets the audience see the world through Hamlet’s eyes for a moment. It is concise, but it effectively conveys Hamlet’s mental state, which is very impressive considering he is bordering on insanity at best. One of the reasons the speech has endured is Shakespeare’s ability to let the audience into the head of somebody who is so far gone.

It is also important to note that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, had only recently died at the time of Hamlet’s publication, and the similarity between the show’s name and the name of Shakespeare’s son is no coincidence. While it is true that Shakespeare’s talent on its own was enough to propel several speeches and lines of dialogue to fame, the deeply personally nature of Hamlet no doubt added a level of intimacy with the work that is not necessarily seen in some of his other plays. This is especially apparent through the lines “and by a sleep to say we end / The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” (3.1.61-63). While Hamlet is wondering whether or not it is worth it to go on with his life, Shakespeare’s own raw heartbreak and internal strife comes through as well. Combined with Shakespeare’s ample amount of talent and ability to connect with audiences, the intimacy Shakespeare was able to include in this speech adds a great deal to its memorability.

Towards the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy, he comes to a conclusion on the subject of why people choose to stay alive. In the lines “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” he states that it must be the fear of the afterlife and the unknown that makes people think life has meaning (3.1.80-84). This is an ingenious ending to the monologue, because it allows the play to continue to move forward (as Hamlet is satisfied) while not satisfying the audience. The people watching the show, in all likelihood, will disagree with the sentiment that they only choose to stay alive because they are afraid of death. The fact that they cannot agree with Hamlet’s conclusion to the soliloquy means that they will have to consider “the question” that Hamlet poses for themselves in order to come to one that is satisfying. Not only would it make the audience consider the meaning of life for a brief period after the show, but the soliloquy has continued to captivate the minds of the masses, even centuries after it was written. It was Shakespeare’s knowledge of people that allowed him to write a monologue that could both move the story forward while leaving the audience with something it would grapple with indeterminately.

Throughout Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Shakespeare uses his knowledge of writing and form, along with his innate talent, personal experience, and ability to effectively and directly convey complex and difficult emotions to write one of the most memorable lines in the English literary canon. William Shakespeare had a spark of genius in his work and an ability to understand people that remains unrivaled to this day. Between his natural proclivity for human understanding and his ability to convey such raw emotion, he remains simply unmatched. it is Shakespeare’s’ capacity to understand people that allows his work to adapt, evolve, and even change in meaning in order to stand up to the scrutinizing eye of modernity; and it is Shakespeare’s capacity to understand people that makes him the most celebrated author of the English language.

A Star is Born: Hamlet and Reader Response Theory

William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely regarded as one of the English language’s greatest plays. It captures the attention of audiences like few other plays can, and it has held their attention for over four-hundred years. It certainly helps that Hamlet can ride on the coattails of Shakespeare’s reputation, but there is undeniably something about the play that makes it stand out, even among Shakespeare’s other shows. Temma Berg’s 1987 essay “Psychologies of Reading” provides an excellent composite image of reader-response theory, and may help to shed some light on the success of Hamlet. As a play, and especially as a tragedy, Hamlet is constantly being filtered through a plethora of lenses, as audience members cannot help but to view the play through the lens of their own life experience. The audience is constantly responding to the action on stage. That being the case, the success of Hamlet may be partially attributed to reader-response theory. Because Hamlet is fraught with ambiguities and dialogue that is open to interpretation, it lends itself to reader response, and the audience has the power to interpret scenes and dialogue as they please.

During one scene in the show, Shakespeare openly pushes the audience in the direction of analyzing his show through reader-response. Hamlet is trying to get his uncle to oust himself as the King Hamlet’s murderer. Prince Hamlet’s plan entails putting on a play in which a murder occurs under similar circumstances, and then watching his uncle’s reaction. He outlines his plan in act two, scene two, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, telling them “in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all his visage wann’d, / Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect, / A broken voice, and his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit” (2.2.511-515). Through these lines, Hamlet describes several ways the play might have an impact on King Claudius. That being the case, these lines may also signify Shakespeare inviting his audience to react and respond to the show. Although reader response theory wasn’t developed until hundreds of years later, the idea of a work art or literature having an impact on the reader and changing them was also outlined by Rosenblatt, a reader response theorist who saw “the reading process as an interaction between text and reader. Though the reader will bring his psychological, social, and cultural environment to bear during any reading of a particular text, the text will exert its own force on the reader” (Berg 253). Rosenblatt’s idea of a work exerting force on the reader or an audience member is exactly what Hamlet is trying to employ in his plan. Perhaps the show became and remained so famous because it empowered its audience and gave them the freedom to respond to the work.

As the play continues, Shakespeare continues to invite the audience to respond to the play. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech in act 3 scene 1 is delivered as a soliloquy directly to the audience and as a question. Asking the audience to consider the merits of life and death is shocking in its own right, but the fact that the speech is a series of questions is significant because it prompts the audience for a response. Inviting the audience to let the play affect them again lines up with Rosenblatt’s writings, but the end of the speech aligns with Holland’s theories on reader response as well. Towards the end of his speech, Hamlet says “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (3.1.79-83), which prompts the audience to consider what exactly lies in wait after death. It also makes the audience think about the difference between existence and non-existence, and ergo the difference between real life as they experience it and the play. The audience is forced to consider just how different their world is from Hamlet’s. Reader response theorist Norman Holland wrote on that same subject, and said “final reality is neither ‘objective’ nor ‘subjective’ but the transaction between them, between the me and what I relate to as not-me” (Berg 268). Here, Holland is suggesting that reality is ultimately a blend of how everything really is and how we perceive it, which also plays into Hamlet’s point when he says that even though we don’t know what is in the afterlife, people perceive it as being bad, and so they are afraid of it. Even though this sort of thinking was certainly ahead of its time, it’s possible that the success of Hamlet can be attributed to its connections to reader response theory, and the way reader response liberates the reader and the audience member alike.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that Hamlet was a deeply personal play for Shakespeare. His son had just died, and much of the play includes material Shakespeare wrote in trying to cope with his son’s death, including the “To be, or not to be” speech. The trauma, fall-out, and ambiguities present in Hamlet may be a reflection of what Shakespeare himself was dealing with when he wrote Hamlet. Throughout the play, Hamlet deals with ambiguity surrounding his identity, his relationship with his mother and uncle, his friends, and morality. Life changes drastically for him, and so his choices do as well. This is another parallel with reader response theory, this time through Fishman, who wrote “The text changes for any particular reader as he moves from one interpretive community to another or as the communities themselves follow a process of growth and decline” (Berg 256). Just as text changes for people depending on what lens they are looking at the text through, life changes for Hamlet as his role and his self-image changes throughout the show. The audience can relate to the turbulence Hamlet experiences and the subsequent shifts in his character because they, like Hamlet, see their life differently depending on what is going on it. This allows the audience to connect to the work on another level through reader response, and it may contribute to the play’s longevity.

It is likely that one of the reasons The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has endured is the connections it has to reader response theory. When watching the show or reading the script, the audience or reader is empowered. They are able to gain a deeper understanding of the work because they are not only able to relate to it, but they are told that they should both through Hamlet overtly asking them questions and Shakespeare showing the audience a reaction to a play. While Hamlet may have been able to survive for 400 years simply because it was written by Shakespeare, it has been able to stand out as one of his best because of how well people are able to connect to it. These connections are formed, no doubt, because Shakespeare lets people both connect and respond to it naturally.