Hamlet (Vol. 44)
See also Hamlet Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 37, 71.
The psychoanalytical criticism of Hamlet is dominated largely by discussion of Hamlet's apparent oedipal issues, namely his focus on his mother's sexuality and his murderous intentions toward the father-figure in his life, his stepfather (and uncle) Claudius. In fact, Philip Edwards (1985) notes that the psychoanalytical criticism of Hamlet was sparked by a single footnote regarding Hamlet's Oedipus complex in Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud notes that "Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father's place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized." In addition to Hamlet's oedipal anxiety, his delay in obtaining revenge as commanded by the ghost is also a source of psychoanalytical study.
C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler (1986) introduce their analysis of Hamlet by reviewing Freud's views on individual and social development. The critics assert that the psychological framework of Hamlet is informed by Hamlet's efforts to "cope with the desecration of his heritage." While they argue that Hamlet's problems cannot be simply reduced to the Oedipus complex, Barber and Wheeler state that an understanding of Hamlet "must be consistent with the presence of that complex, for the Freudian explanation clearly works." Emphasizing Hamlet's guilt, which is focused on his father, not his mother, the critics argue that this guilt refers to Hamlet's wish to kill his father, which he cannot do since Hamlet's father is already dead. The wish, Barber and Wheeler explain, is diverted from Hamlet's father to his uncle. Taking another approach to Hamlet's oedipal issues, Janet Adelman (1992) centers on the role of the mother. Adelman illustrates that in earlier Shakespearean plays, such as Henry IV, the son must choose between two fathers and shapes his own identity in relationship to his image of his father. With the appearance of a mother/wife—Gertrude, in Hamlet—the father takes on a sexual role; this disables the son's relationship with his father and creates in the son a sexualized image of his mother. In Hamlet, Adelman points out, Gertrude's sexuality "is literally the sign of her betrayal and of her husband's death." H. R. Coursen (1982) identifies a number of problems related to the Freudian analysis of Hamlet, including, among others, the tendency of Freudians to focus on Hamlet's inner conflicts, while ignoring the external issues with which Hamlet is faced. After surveying several Freudian analyses of Hamlet, Coursen suggests that a Jungian approach may help clarify some of the problems with Freudian analyses: "the oedipal problem may itself be symptomatic of a deeper disturbance within Hamlet's psyche, that is, his inability to contact his 'feminine soul' or anima." Coursen defines the anima as the energy of the male's recognition and integration into consciousness of "his androgynous nature" and goes on to demonstrate a link between introverted thinking (such as the kind that occupies Hamlet), the fear of women, and the Oedipus complex. While Coursen accepts the Oedipus complex as symptomatic of Hamlet's larger psychological problems, Arthur Kirsch (1981) dismisses the notion that Hamlet is motivated by unconscious psychological fantasies or disturbances. Kirsch argues that "the source of Hamlet's so-called oedipal anxiety is real and present, it is not an archaic and repressed fantasy." Rejecting the idea that Hamlet's thoughts and actions are psychological responses to repressed fantasies, Kirsch argues that they are legitimate reactions to external events, specifically Hamlet's mother's incestuous marriage within a month to his father's brother and murderer. Additionally, Kirsch maintains that "such oedipal echoes" are an inextricable part of Hamlet's grief, and that Hamlet is forced to deal with them while still mourning the death of his father. After reviewing Freud's distinction between grief/mourning and depression/melancholia and noting that Freud fails to incorporate the emotions of anger and protest (against mortality) in his discussion of grief, Kirsch traces Hamlet's personal journey through his grieving process. Kirsch concludes that Hamlet's preoccupation with delay, with the relationship between thought and action, demonstrates that no action "can be commensurate with grief, not even the killing of a guilty king. . . ." Where Kirsch comments on the relationship between Hamlet's grief and the delay of Hamlet's revenge, Joanna Montgomery Byles (1994) focuses on the psychological origins of revenge in Hamlet. Byles discusses the concept of the Freudian superego "as heir to the Oedipus complex, the internalization of parental values and the source of punitive, approving and idealizing attitudes towards the self." In Hamlet, Byles argues, revenge is presented as "an inward tragic event" motivated by the aggression of Hamlet's superego and externalized and emphasized by destructive family relationships. Byles concludes that the delay Hamlet experiences stems from the conflict between his ego and his superego, and by the end of the play, the self-destructive superego wins, and Hamlet dies.
Stephen Booth (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "On the Value of Hamlet" in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, edited by Norman Rabkin, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 137-76.
[In the following essay, Booth reviews the events of Hamlet from the audience's perspective, arguing that the issues which critics have identified as problems with the play are made bearable in performance since the play provides the audience with "the strength and courage . . . to flirt with the frailty of its own understanding."]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hamlet as we have it—usually in a conservative conflation of the second quarto and first folio texts—is not really Hamlet. The very fact that the Hamlet we know is an editor-made text has furnished an illusion of firm ground for leaping conclusions that discrepancies between the probable and actual actions, statements, tone, and diction of Hamlet are accidents of its transmission. Thus, in much the spirit of editors correcting printer's errors, critics have proposed stage directions by which, for example, Hamlet can overhear the plot to test Polonius' diagnosis of Hamlet's affliction, or by which Hamlet can glimpse Polonius and Claudius actually spying on his interview with Ophelia. Either of these will make sense of Hamlet's improbable raging at Ophelia in III.i. The...
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H. R. Coursen (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "'Who's There?': Hamlet," in The Compensatory Psyche: A Jungian Approach to Shakespeare, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 63-99.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1982, Coursen argues that a Jungian analysis of Hamlet clarifies some of the critical problems of traditional Freudian analysis. Coursen suggests that Hamlet's oedipal issues are themselves symptoms of "a deeper disturbance within Hamlet's psyche, that is, his inability to contact his feminine soul' or anima."]
Tragic man rejects the compensatory energy of the psyche. In tragedy hamartia can often be defined as the hero's alienation from the anima, or the feminine principle within him. Iago flatters Othello's self-conception, or persona, into alienation from a Desdemona who had seen "Othello's visage in his mind" (I.iii.255), not just in his "occupation" (III.iii.362). Lear discovers the feminine in him, or it discovers him after his passionate efforts to keep "this mother" from his "heart" (II.iv.55) have obliterated his former consciousness. He awakens to the loving gaze of his "child, Cordelia" (IV.vii.72). Macbeth's nature, "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" (I.v. 17) is discarded for a "mind . . . full of scorpions" (III.ii.39). Hamlet, however, is the preeminent example of the rejection of the feminine....
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Peter Erickson (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Maternal Images and Male Bonds in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear," in Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 66-80.
[In the following excerpt, Erickson studies the importance of male bonds in Hamlet, maintaining that because both Gertrude and Ophelia fail to meet Hamlet's needs to be nurtured Hamlet transfers these emotions to Horatio.]
The tensions in the relationship between father and son in the Henriad are pushed in Hamlet to the point of full-fledged, paralyzing crisis. The patriarchal imperative equates love with obedience; love not being granted unconditionally, the son proves his loyalty by performing his duty as the father sees it. In Hamlet's case, this test takes the most drastic form imaginable:
GHOST. If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
HAM. O God! GHOST.
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Hamlet's reaction to the ghost's demand is to transform his mind into a tabula rasa fit to record the father's total claim on the son: "And thy commandement all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix'd with baser matter" (102-4). At first sight the ghost appears to be a perfect solution to...
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Hamlet And His Dilemma
Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Chapter II: Hamlet" in The Passions of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 21-43.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Kirsch argues that the source of Hamlet's anxiety is not repressed fantasy; rather, it is situated within the reality of the play's events. Kirsch also reviews Freud's distinction between melancholy and mourning, and examines Hamlet's experience with grief]
Hamlet is a revenge play, and judging by the number of performances, parodies, and editions of The Spanish Tragedy alone, the genre enjoyed an extraordinary popularity on the Elizabethan stage. Part of the reason for that popularity is the theatrical power of the revenge motif itself The quest for vengeance satisfies an audience's most primitive wishes for intrigue and violence. "The Tragic Auditory," as Charles Lamb once remarked, "wants blood,"1 and the revenge motif satisfies it in abundance. Equally important, it gives significant shape to the plot and sustained energy to the action, whatever moral calculus one may use in judging the ethos of revenge itself.2 But if vengeance composes the plot of the revenge play, grief composes its essential emotional content, its substance. In Marlowe's Jew of Malta, when Ferneze finds the body of his son killed in a duel, he cries...
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Carolyn G. Heilbrun (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: "The Character of Hamlet's Mother," in Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 9-17.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Heilbrun argues that the traditional critical opinion of Gertrude as shallow and feminine ("in the pejorative sense") is wrong. Heilbrun instead asserts that Gertrude is "strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and, apart from this passion [Gertrude's lust] sensible."]
The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves. Moreover, the traditional account of her personality as rendered by the critics will not stand up under close scrutiny of Shakespeare's play.
None of the critics of course has failed to see Gertrude as vital to the action of the play; not only is she the mother of the hero, the widow of the Ghost, and the wife of the current King of Denmark, but the fact of her hasty and, to the Elizabethans, incestuous marriage, the whole question of her "falling off," occupies a position of barely secondary importance in the mind of her son, and of the Ghost. Indeed, Freud and Jones see her, the object of Hamlet's Oedipus complex, as central to the motivation of the play.1 But the critics, with no exception that I have been able to find, have accepted Hamlet's word "fraility" as applying to...
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Aguirre, Manuel. "Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty." Review of English Studies 47, No. 186 (May 1996): 163-74.
Examines the "mythological status of Gertrude" and the themes symbolized by her presence and actions in the play.
Bennett, Robert B. "Hamlet and the Burden of Knowledge." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XV (1982): 77-97.
Argues that problems and emotions Hamlet experiences, specifically his "anguish and inaction," are not due to some deficiency in Hamlet himself, but rather stem from some "flaw in nature or philosophy."
Charney, Maurice. "Analogy and Infinite Regress." In Hamlet's Fictions, pp. 61-76. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Discusses Hamlet's delay in obtaining revenge as a function of a pattern of infinite regression in which the process of revenge is prolonged in order to heighten excitement, "since the ending is by its nature anticlimactic."
Desai, R. W. "In Search of Horatio's Identity (via Yeats)." In Omnium Gatherum: Essays for Richard Kliman, edited by Susan Dick, Declan Kiberd, Dougald McMillan, and Joseph Ronsley, pp. 191-203. Gerrads Cross, Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1989.
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