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In Hamlet, explain Hamlet's inaction as an example of an "Oedipal complex"?

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lehcir | Student | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted April 24, 2013 at 4:50 PM via iOS

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In Hamlet, explain Hamlet's inaction as an example of an "Oedipal complex"?

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:04 PM (Answer #1)

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Critics have long debated the reasons for Hamlet’s long delay in taking action against his usurping, murdering uncle Claudius. Generally speaking, it can be attributed to his melancholy, even depressive, temperament which causes him to brood too much on things and paralyses his will to act.

Perhaps the most notorious explanation that has been advanced for Hamlet's hesitation is that he is suffering from an Oedipal complex, meaning that he harbours a secret incestuous desire for his mother. Some critics have expressed this view, taking their cue from influential early-twentieth century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who coined the term. According to this explanation, Hamlet does not move against Claudius because deep down he is racked with guilt for wanting to do just what Claudius has done – to get rid of his father and possess his mother.

To supporters of the Oedipal complex reading, the fact Hamlet does not ever admit of such a reason even to himself is no surprise at all because it is not something that he would be aware of at a conscious level. But throughout the play he does appear rather unhealthily obsessed with the details of his mother’s marriage to his uncle. The fullest expression of his disgust occurs in the so-called ‘closet scene’ (Act III, sc iv) when he meets with his mother privately, and upbraids her for wallowing

in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

Over the nasty sty- (III.iv. 93-95)

This gross description of the bed his mother shares with his uncle, is indicative of just how revolted Hamlet is by their marriage.  However, it is fair to say that Hamlet appears repulsed not just by his mother’s sexuality but by sexuality in general – he also rails against the meek Ophelia – and this in turn is part of his general disaffection with the ways of the world.

Hamlet is appalled at what he regards as his mother’s unseemly lust. However, his strong reactions against her second marriage are not necessarily due to his own secret longings for her, but simply to his dismay at what’s happening in the family and in the kingdom. 

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