King Lear and Hamlet: Freudian Interpretation of Two Plays
Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear both contain a multitude of driving forces at work behind the actions of the main characters, but common to both works exists an obvious Freudian interpretation of what is driving two of the most interesting characters in all of Shakespeare’s canon, Hamlet and Edmund the Bastard. Shakespeare is dealing with two characters whose desires happen to be such that they upset the accepted balance of nature. The Freudian drive at work in both characters is the infamous “Oedipal Complex,” which basically boils down to a desire to kill the father and take his place beside the mother. Hamlet and Edmund both wish to accomplish actions that will destroy the patriarchal system currently in place, and both thirst for unhealthy relationships with a mother or mother figures. If Hamlet and Edmund both succeed in their respective plots, the natural order of the world would be put into jeopardy, and that order is already being upset merely by the attempt of the two characters to carry out their wish-fulfillment of having their father (figures) replaced by themselves.
The chief aspect of the Oedipal Complex lies in the desire for the son to kill the father and take his place as head of the governing authority, and both Hamlet and Edmund are vigorously compelled to carry out this deed. This desire may very well be natural as part of the circle of life, but the successful completion of this crime results in a most unnatural unbalance in the system. Killing the father usually results in chaos rather than in bringing about a new order of governance. The chaos resulting from the attempt to invoke this new order results in disorder in the universes of both Hamlet and Edmund even before they have killed the father figure. Both Edmund and Hamlet clearly desire that their father or father figures be overtaken by force and both engage in ruthless behavior in order to carry out their missions and accomplish the act of taking over as head of the patriarchal system. The system, as is clearly shown from the utter devastation in which their actions result, cannot handle the rebellion and so fails miserably, resulting in death and disorder of a cosmological degree.
Edmund unquestioningly wants to upset the hierarchical system that exists and so schemes to defeat and succeed his father. For Edmund the question of the validity of primogeniture arises and he challenges the reasons why it must be the only system in place for the inheritance of lands and power, especially considering that he is-or so he thinks-the more intelligent and sophisticated and, ultimately, deserving of the two brothers battling for Gloucester’s legacy. Edmund says that “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” (King Lear, I.ii.1), and he may have a case. Nothing could be more natural in the world than succession of the son over the father. But nature does not rule in the fixed world of man, especially in the confines of kingly legacy. The king exists as the sovereign ruler over all, with no questioning. The father is but an imitation of the king, ruling over his family. The long-instituted hierarchical structure of human society expressly forbids the killing of a parent. Everywhere in the world and throughout history has this action been viewed as contrary to the established moral code under which we live. You do not kill those who gave you life. And yet Edmund considers the taking of his own father’s life-albeit physically at the hands of another-part and parcel of the natural order of things. Edmund’s overweening ambition puts every possible action into play; no moral sense overrides his choices. He willingly leaves his father alone with his father’s enemies, knowing full well that his father is going to be tortured. To what extent this torture will go Edmund seems not to care. After all, he has already achieved the title Earl of Gloucester, symbolizing and foreshadowing the death of his father and Edmund’s ascension to his place of honor. The hierarchical system has been tampered with and already chaos begins to overwhelm the inhabitants of the play.
For Hamlet, the question of killing the father and taking his place is a bit more muddled than Edmund’s considering that his true biological father is already dead as the play opens, thus bringing up the question of who does Hamlet look for in a father figure in his ambition to usurp. Since the elder King Hamlet has already been put aside by murder at the hands of his own brother, why does not Hamlet take his rightful place as the legitimate heir to throne? For whatever reason, Hamlet does not take over the kingship and instead finds himself left as a princeling under the rule of his uncle, who has carried out the other desire that Hamlet subconsciously wanted: to take his place as the husband of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Claudius goes so far as to state that he has taken Hamlet’s real father’s role when he describes Hamlet as being “my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” (Hamlet, I.ii.63). The identification with the father is made complete as Claudius envelops Hamlet into a tighter familial knit. So for Hamlet, Claudius becomes the father figure who must be ousted and in this way Hamlet can idealize the memory of his actual father and thus escape the guilt of wanting to get him out of the way. Claudius makes for a much more appetizing victim for Hamlet contrasted as he is in Hamlet’s mind with his almost God-like biological father.
Edmund does not just wish to unbalance the position of authority which his biological father represents; as the play progresses a collection of father-figures begin to take shape which Edmund plots to overthrow or usurp or at the very least cuckold, which can be seen as a symbolic castration thereby taking away the power source of those men. The Duke of Cornwall plays right into the Oedipal mix when he says to Edmund “thou shalt find a dearer father in my love” (King Lear, III.v.24). Both Cornwall and the Duke of Albany appear as father substitutes for Edmund in his voracious climb to power. They can be seen as potential enemies and obstacles in his true quest for power. They stand in the way of his eventually assuming the kingship, which does seem to be his ultimate, final goal. It quickly becomes apparent that Edmund has expressed a sexual interest in the wives of both Cornwall and Albany. In this way Edmund is achieving part of his Oedipal longings. Perhaps Edmund never even knew his biological mother and so his search for a mother figure is never ending. More than likely both Goneril and Regan are older than Edmund and can therefore be seen as mother figures. Edmund assumes the role of father/husband in his taking of the two women. With Cornwall conveniently killed by another, he can easily stand in for Cornwall and assume his power and take Cornwall’s wife as his own, thereby achieving the aim of the Oedipal drives within him. As for Albany, things become a bit more complicated. To take over Albany’s power as well, it’s obvious that Albany himself must be dealt with in a most severe manner. Goneril and Edmund conspire to make sure that the father figure is, indeed, dealt with in time. Unfortunately, for them both, that time did not come soon enough. Edmund’s final father figure is King Lear himself, the personification of the standard, accepted order of things in the universe. No one could be more symbolic of what Edmund is striving to fight against. Lear stands for exceptional order in the greater scheme of things. And, significantly, he is the only one of Edmund’s victims, which Edmund expressly sentences to death. The death of the king is the ultimate death of order and birth of chaos in the cosmos. Edmund consistently maneuvers to make sure that almost all who stand in his way to power and glory are handled with extreme prejudice. The patriarchal order of things undergoes its most severe test under the tunnel vision of Edmund’s ambition to upset it.
Hamlet seems unnaturally drawn toward his mother, and his attentions to Ophelia suffer because of it, eventually leading to yet more of a breakdown in the natural order of things. Hamlet constantly questions the rashness of his mother’s and Claudius’ marriage. His reaction to the hasty nuptials seems overly dramatic and incredibly immature. Why would a 30-year-old man harp so on such a thing as his mother’s remarriage? Doesn’t he have his own love life to worry about? The details of his prior relationship with Ophelia are sketchy, except that he has written her love notes. But upon the marriage of his mother to Ophelia, these appear to have ended. In fact, his entire relationship with Ophelia undergoes a significant change. He instructs her to “get thee to a nunn’ry” (Hamlet, III.i.120), hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a man supposedly so interested physically in a woman. He seems to use Ophelia to try to make his mother jealous when his mother asks him to sit by her. “Here’s metal more attractive” (Hamlet, III.ii.109), he says to his mother of Ophelia. At first glance this may seem like a man interested in the more attractive woman, but the line seems to suggest that Hamlet instead is trying to make his mother envious of the younger woman and his supposedly romantic interest in her. Why would a grown man struggle so to make his mother jealous? The only obvious answer is that Hamlet subconsciously desires his mother in a sexual way that perhaps even he isn’t sure about. This desire is patently unnatural and the order of things gradually unravels. Before Hamlet can achieve his goals of uniting sexually with his mother, Ophelia dies and his mother dies. Chaos reigns supreme as all those about Hamlet are touched by the fact that he is eventually letting go of his repression of his true feelings for his mother. The repression breaking down, the moral universe is taking yet another whack from which it can only struggle to survive.
Both Edmund’s and Hamlet’s worlds are given over to a temporary disorder as they go about their unnatural missions to replace their father figures and conjoin with their mother figures. Edmund’s brother-who is entitled to all that Edmund most desperately wants-is reduced to appearing as a nearly naked beggar man. Edmund’s father has his eyes plucked out, is blinded and eventually dies. Cornwall, Goneril, Regan and Lear all are dead. The universe is questioning who is in charge. Only after Edmund dies does a sense of order return to the world. For Hamlet, almost everything goes awry once he sets out to kill Claudius and reconcile his true feelings for his mother. His friends conspire against him and he has them killed. He becomes a murderer himself when he stabs Polonius, an act significantly done in his mother’s bedroom. Before he can even fulfill his quest of killing Claudius, his beloved mother dies at the hand of her own husband. He finally does accomplish the task set before him, and what comes of it? Nothing short of his own death. Nothing can be fulfilled and this is a good thing. Hamlet has to die, he cannot succeed in killing Claudius and taking his place beside his own mother as her lover. The patriarchal world does not revolve that way. The system is in place and must be adhered to or else there is calamity.
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