Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Shakespeare's Works
Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Shakespeare's Works
Accompanying the rise of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century, many modern critics have applied the methods of this field to literature, and quite fruitfully to the dramatic works of Shakespeare. Tracing its origins to Sigmund Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, psychoanalytic criticism has demonstrated a natural affinity to the Shakespearean oeuvre, as contemporary critics—notable among them, Harold Bloom—have located in the rich examples of Shakespeare's major tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear significant sources for Freud's theories. Additionally, the contemporary era has witnessed a proliferation of psychoanalytic thought, and has produced a range of theoretical approaches, many of which have been rewardingly applied to Shakespeare's comedies, problem plays, histories, and romances, as well as the tragedies. Likewise, in the last decades of the twentieth century, psychoanalytic criticism has in many cases been successfully combined with other critical approaches, particularly with feminist or gender theory, to produce several of the dominant strains of contemporary critical thought relating to Shakespeare.
The myriad subjects of psychoanalytic criticism coupled with the breadth of Shakespeare's drama make this one of the largest categories of Shakespearean criticism. Unconscious motivation, neurosis, jealousy, matters of autonomy and emotional isolation, sexual desire, and Oedipal or pre-Oedipal conflicts figure prominently among the multitude of psychological topics related to the dramas. Libidinal impulses and Oedipal patterns are frequently explored by critics in relation to such works as Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, and Coriolanus to name a few. Of these, Coriolanus appears as a common subject for psychoanalytic critics, such as Janet Adelman (1976), who has examined his aggressive, masculine drive toward self-sufficiency as he struggles with an obsessive dependence upon his mother. The subject of uncontrolled, jealous passion has been taken up by several commentators, who have focused on the consuming desires of Othello and The Winters Tale's Leontes. As for Shakespeare's histories, Valerie Traub (1989) has blended psychoanalytic and feminist criticism in studying the psychological effects of a patriarchal social order on the subjugated female Other in the Henriad, while Harry Berger, Jr. (1985) has observed the disordering properties of psychological conflict between fathers and sons in this sequence of histories.
Other critics have emphasized the broad sweep of psychoanalytic criticism as it is applied to the Shakespearean text. Norman N. Holland (1964) has outlined the psychology of contrasting worlds in The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet, and studied phallic aggression in the histories and late romances. The conflict of trust versus isolation appears in the criticism of Richard P. Wheeler (1980), who has classified Shakespeare's later dramas using these representative psychological polarities. Elsewhere, M. D. Faber (1970) has observed the importance of psychoanalysis as a means of assessing Shakespeare's often brilliantly realized characters, but warns against the extremism that such a narrow focus can create. Additionally, a minority of critics have turned their pursuit of psychoanalytic criticism toward the figure of Shakespeare himself, though typically with only limited success.
Robert A. Ravich (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "A Psychoanalytic Study of Shakespeare's Early Plays," in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, 1964, pp. 388-410.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1963, Ravich presents a psychoanalytic overview of Shakespeare's eleven earliest plays and highlights the dramatist's conception of mental disorder.]
Freud's repeated and cogent comments about Shakespeare's plays and characters indicate that he found in them abundant material for psychoanalytic investigation (11, 12, 13). Throughout his works he often quoted Shakespeare. He also became interested in the dramatist's life, espousing (with some vacillation) the theory, rejected by modern scholars, that the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford (76).
Shakespeare's writings have had an influence upon psychoanalysis. Can psychoanalysis help us to understand the personality of the Bard himself? Three sources of information exist: known biographical facts; the psychological theories expressed in the plays; and the content of the plays treated as evidence similar to the free associations offered by a patient to his analyst.
Freud on Shakespeare
From the earliest days of psychoanalysis, Freud found in Shakespeare's works evidence for the soundness of at least one of his basic postulates. When...
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Patriarchy, Gender, And Family
Meredith Skura (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysis, and Literary Critics," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 203-16.
[In the following essay, Skura emphasizes the psychological importance of family in Shakespeare's Cymbeline.]
Shakespeare's Cymbeline is an extraordinarily complicated play, even for a romance. Set in prehistoric Britain, it combines elements of history play and Roman play, but it still ranges over an Elizabethan Italy and a timeless pastoral world in Wales. By allusion, it also ranges widely over Shakespeare's own earlier plays. Its wicked Queen evokes Lady Macbeth; Iachimo evokes Iago; and the hero Posthumus recalls Othello, although Shakespeare seems to be making mere cartoon version of those earlier complex characters.
If the external allusions are complicated, the on-stage action is even more so. There are more than twenty separate strands of action, and although sorting them out into three major plot lines helps some, the action is still confusing, even in the way that it is primarily about Posthumus' marriage to Imogen, rather than about Imogen's father Cymbeline, who gives the play its name. And finally, the play is written in a very mannered,...
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Jealousy: Othello And The Winter's Tale
Rob Wilson (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Othello: Jealousy as Mimetic Contagion," in American Imago, Vol. 44, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 213-33.
[In the following essay, Wilson locates Iago as the source of a "contagion of mimetic desire" in Othello.]
As a tragedy on the destructive and self-destructive power of male jealousy, Othello could more aptly be entitled Iago, because it is the latter who serves as centering agent (mediator) of the sexual/social envy which he engenders in his outwitted rivals: Roderigo, Cassio, Brabantio, and above all the noble Moor, Othello. For it is devilishly brilliant Iago, not the more physical Othello, who authors the recursive labyrinth of triangles-within-triangles which parodically informs the world of this play. The structural analysis of mimetic desire proposed by René Girard as the motive at the psychic origin of that male violence which informs western literature, allows us to can see that Shakespeare offers through Othello's Iago and his tragic victims a critical diagnosis of what is a necessarily triangulated desire.1 Indeed as a critique of the causes and conse-quences of male jealousy, Othello is still one of the best available to western consciousness.
Through the consummate mimetic artistry of a wholly amoral will, Iago authors no less than five triangles of male...
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Internal Conflict: Coriolanus And Measure For Measure
Janet Adelman (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "'Anger's My Meat': Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus," in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, edited by David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, University of Delaware Press, 1978, pp. 108-24.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1976, Adelman examines the psychology of Coriolanus in Shakespeare's play of the same name, illuminating his desire for masculine self-sufficiency and dependency on his mother.]
Coriolanus was written during a period of rising corn prices and the accompanying fear of famine: rising prices reached a climax in 1608. In May 1607, "a great number of common persons"—up to five thousand, Stow tells us in his Annals—assembled in various Midlands counties, including Shakespeare's own county of Warwickshire, to protest against the acceleration of enclosures and the resulting food shortages.1 It must have been disturbing to property owners to hear that the rioters were well received by local inhabitants, who brought them food and shovels;2 doubly disturbing if they were aware that this was one of England's first purely popular riots, unlike the riots of the preceding century in that the anger of the common people was not being manipulated by rebellious aristocrats or religious factions.3 The poor rioters were quickly dispersed,...
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Berger, Harry, Jr. "Psychoanalyzing the Shakespeare Text: The First Three Scenes of the Henriad" In Shakespeare and the Question of the Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 210-29. New York: Methuen, 1985.
Offers a psychoanalytic study of father/son conflicts and the disordering process of "genealogical mimesis" in Shakespeare's Henriad.
——. "Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona's Handkerchief." Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 235-50.
Suggests Desdemona's psychological complicity with Othello's actions and in the tragic conclusion of Othello.
Blechner, Mark J. "King Lear, King Leir, and Incest Wishes." American Imago 45, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 309-25.
Sees the psychological motivation of King Lear in its title character's "lifelong, unconscious, incestuous passion."
Bloom, Harold. "Freud: A Shakespearean Reading." The Yale Review 82, No. 3 (July 1994): 1-23.
Discusses the influence of Shakespeare's tragedies on Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis.
Brown, Carolyn E. "Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio's 'Crabbed' Desires." Literature and Psychology XXXV, Nos. 1...
(The entire section is 785 words.)