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One might expect a psychoanalytic study of Hamlet in Shakespeare's play by the same name might deal with his mental and emotional issues.
Hamlet learns that his father has been murdered at his Uncle Claudius' hand, and Hamlet announces his intent to pretend madness to gather evidence. We also know that Hamlet is plagued by indecision, which is very much based on his need to prove that the ghost who has accused Claudius is an "honest" one—not a lying demon who might try to trick Hamlet to lose his immortal soul by killing a king.
One of the strongest debates about Hamlet is whether he is, in fact, insane or just pretending. Though he tells the audience that he is only mad when "needed," his behavior is sometimes so erratic that it is difficult to know for certain if he is as mentally sound as he insists.
It is during the first half of the twentieth century, that psychoanalytic theory is applied to Hamlet, by several people—in particular, Sigmund Freud, the pioneer in explaining "the inner mental forces determining human behavior."
Based on his study of a variety of literary theories, as well as his own psychoanalytic theories, Freud does not concentrate on Hamlet's "madness" as much as Hamlet's sexual proclivities, seen through a psychoanalytic lens...
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.'
Freud also identifies Hamlet's desire to kill Claudius as killing the "father figure" who stands in his way. Freud goes on to explain that Hamlet's repressed sexual desires for Gertrude make him feel as sinful as Claudius, who Hamlet describes as [a]...
..."incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane." (V.ii.335)
Freud's analysis of Hamlet has been taken quite to heart and supported by others such as Ernest Jones and Jacques Lacan. Freud's influence has also had an enormous influence in the way that the Prince of Denmark has been portrayed over the years by the actors who have chosen to interpret this tragic figure as a man with an Oedipal-complex.
H. R. Coursen insists that criticism of Hamlet must be "psychological" in nature. However, he states that psychoanalysis can only be subjective because it is based upon the perceptions/theories of a particular psychoanalyst. He explains that no matter how objective the "critic" may be, he/she is driven to answer the question presented in the first line of the play: "Who's there?" In trying to be objective, the critic becomes subjective.
Any claim to critical objectivity signals an inevitable surrender to unperceived subjectivity.
Coursen goes on to write that with Hamlet, all anyone can hope to do is provide a personal response to Hamlet's character, not an objective one.
The greatest critics...admit their [subjectivity] and do not claim to tell us 'what Hamlet means,' but 'what Hamlet means to me.'
So while the most "popular" psychoanalytic evaluation of Hamlet—by Freud—says he is a man with a secret desire for his mother, Coursen argues that analyses of this nature reveal more about the psychoanalyst than that of the character of Hamlet. After all, psychoanalysis as a science is a mixed bag at best, depending on whose theory you accept.
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