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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Shakespeare's Works

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 he first hinted at the discovery in his own analysis of what he later termed the œdipus complex, he referred to A Midsummer Night's Dream, not to Hamlet. In a memorandum to [Wilhelm] Fliess he commented: 'It seems as though in sons this death wish is directed against their father . . . ' (9, p. 207). A few lines later Freud pointed out that 'Titania, who refused to love her rightful husband Oberon, was obliged instead to shower her love upon Bottom, the ass of her imagination' (9, p. 208).

Freud recognized a theme common to his self-analysis, to the Œdipus Rex of Sophocles, and to Hamlet. In another note to Fliess he wrote: 'I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood. . . . Every member of the audience was once a budding œdipus in fantasy . . . the same thing may lie at the root of . . . Hamlet's . . . hesitation to avenge his father . . . he . . . had meditated the same deed against his father because of passion for his mother . . . ' (9, pp. 223-224). Initially Freud believed that the theme of Hamlet was related to the dramatist's life. In The Interpretation of Dreams he wrote: ' . . . it can . . . only be the poet's own mind which confronts us in Hamlet . . . [the drama] was written immediately after the death of Shakespeare's father (in 1601), that is, under the immediate impact of his bereavement and, as we may well assume, while his childhood feelings had been freshly revived' (8, p. 265).

Method of Examining the Plays

Freud considered 'the analysis of works of the imagination and of their creators . . . among the most fascinating in the whole application of psychoanalysis' (7, p. 321). In the same note to Fliess referred to earlier, Freud said: 'The mechanism of creative writing is the same as that of hysterical fantasies. . . . By means of this fantasy [the writer] protected himself against the consequences of his experience. So Shakespeare was right in his juxtaposition of poetry and madness (the fine frenzy)' (9, p. 208). In Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, he described two methods that 'may enable us . . . to gain some small insight into the nature of creative writing. . . . One . . . to enter deeply . . . into the dream-creations of one author in one of his works. The other . . . to bring together and contrast all the examples . . . of the use of dreams in the works of different authors' (6, p. 9).

In this study the eleven earliest plays, taken in chronological order, were treated as if they were the productions of a patient in analysis. The audience was viewed as participant-observer and transference object for the writer, its role resembling that of a therapist. Each play was read (and listened to, if recorded), with eye and ear attuned to its latent as well as its manifest content.1 The plays were then compared with the known sources (1) to ascertain what the playwright selected, what he eliminated, and what apparently originated in his own mind. Whatever Shakespeare had to say about psychology and mental illness was also carefully noted.

For purposes of a psychoanalytic inquiry, I have assumed that the plays are closely connected with Shakespeare's life experiences. I also proceeded on the assumption that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him by his contemporaries. Thus far I have found nothing in the plays to cause doubt that he did write them and many details to indicate that he did. I have also found that this approach to the subject tends to clear up some of the mysterious lacunae of knowledge that have fostered doubts as to the authorship.

Shakespeare's Life

The general biographical outline of Shakespeare's life is well known and well documented (2, 3, 17). The dramatist's father, John Shakespeare, the son of a farmer, became a shopkeeper in Stratford. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a well-to-do family of landed gentry and inherited money and property from her father. John prospered in business and took an active part in the town administration, becoming town councillor, treasurer, and alderman. In 1568 he was elected 'Presiding Officer of the Corporation'. Stratford was the marketplace of a rich farming countryside and an independent political unit with its own self-contained government, and John Shakespeare's position was one of considerable prestige, authority, and power. By virtue of his high office he was 'automatically eligible for a gentlemen's coat of arms if he could afford to pay the fees' of an application. He submitted his application in 1576, when William was twelve.

This was the pinnacle of John's career. In September of that year something went wrong. He stopped attending town council meetings, although the other members apparently expected his return since they waited nine years before electing another alderman to replace him. After 1578 the family was also in some financial difficulty. Part of Mary's inheritance was sold and another portion mortgaged. The Shakespeares were not impoverished, however, and retained possession of their three houses in Stratford. Two explanations are usually offered for John Shakespeare's political eclipse and the financial difficulties of the family. It has been suggested that John either sustained a serious business loss or that he was being harassed by the authorities because of his religious beliefs. Evidence for either view is inconclusive and leading authorities remain uncommitted. One other possibility, based upon evidence in the plays, rather curiously does not seem to have been considered. John's withdrawal from community affairs and his financial troubles may have been caused by a prolonged, serious illness in the family, perhaps his own or perhaps William's.

Stratford records reveal that William was christened on April 26, 1564. He was the third child, the first two being girls who died before William was born. Five more children completed the family. As the eldest son of à leading citizen and town official, William was entitled to attend the fine grammar school in Stratford. The schoolmasters were university graduates and well paid, and the education he received from them was of a high order for that time. His schooling appears to have ended at about the same time that his father's difficulties began. Although he was eligible because of his father's position to go to Oxford or Cambridge, he did not continue his formal studies.

At the age of eighteen and a half years, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior and already three months pregnant. They apparently married in haste since records seem to indicate that, on the day before, William was planning to marry another woman and had obtained a license to do so. His marriage to Anne appears to have been one of the determining elements in his selection of dramatic material and his handling of important characters. Suspected infidelity of the wife is a constantly recurring theme in the plays.

The first child born to William and Anne was Susannah who became an important influence in Shakespeare's life and writings when she reached puberty, as suggested by the development of the father-daughter theme in his plays. One fact worth noting is that Susannah was only three years younger than her uncle Edmund. There are a number of slips and hints in the plays that indicate Shakespeare's suspicions and resentment concerning the relation between his daughter and his youngest brother.

A year and half after the birth of their first child, Anne and William had twins named Hamnet and Judith. About this time William separated from his family, leaving them in Stratford. Nicholas Rowe, who wrote the first biographical sketch more than a century later, gave this explanation: 'He had fallen into ill company . . . that made a practice of deer stealing, [and] more than once [robbed] a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman . . . and in revenge . . . he [wrote] a ballad . . . so very bitter that it redoubled the prosecution against him [and] . . . he was obliged to leave his business and family.' Although this story has not been substantiated it appears to reflect a continuing reputation for antisocial behavior that Rowe encountered many years later when he visited Shakespeare's home town. All the evidence about Shakespeare's adolescence suggests that it was a period of considerably more than ordinary turbulence.

The sudden deterioration in family finances and prestige, the discontinuance of his schooling, the hasty forced marriage to an older woman already pregnant (when another marriage had been licensed), the deer poaching compounded by a defiant public attack upon an important personage, and his leaving his family fit a pattern of delinquent adolescent behavior as unacceptable in Elizabethan times as now.

Nothing is known of Shakespeare's life from the time he abandoned his family until the age of twenty-eight when he was already recognized as a new but significant playwright for the London stage. Throughout the twenty years of his career as a writer he was also an actor. He became a principal member and shareholder of the acting company known as the Lord Chamberlain's Company which was formed in 1594. The shareholders owned the theater and shared the returns from performances. Shakespeare also profited from the sale of his plays to his company as well as through the sale by the company of the publication rights to the plays. In the world of the theater such a situation is unusual. It allowed Shakespeare a degree of freedom of choice and expression that has rarely, if ever, been duplicated. It means—a consideration important for our study—that Shakespeare was exceptionally free to choose themes for his plays without external dictation.

Shakespeare led a lonely life in the capital, lodging in various private homes. Most of the other members of his company had their large families with them. He did not, however, sever his Stratford ties entirely and may have returned there at times. Once he began to enjoy financial success he invested in real estate within Stratford and its immediate surroundings and eventually became the largest property holder there. He also successfully reinstituted his father's application for a family coat of arms twenty years after the initial request had been filed.

The Early Plays Examined

Sufficient evidence exists in the dramas and in various contemporary records to permit Shakespearean scholars to reach general, though not precise, agreement on the chronological order of the plays. The first eleven, the subject of this study, were probably written between 1590 and 1596.

Certain major trends can be recognized. The three parts of Henry VI as well as Richard HI and Titus Andronicus reveal preoccupation with the destructive power of the phallic woman and the passive dependent man's fear that he will be killed or driven mad. Three comedies follow, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love's Labour's Lost, which reveal persistent concern with therapeutic means of achieving restitution and repair. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet, both romances, deal with symptoms of depression, withdrawal, isolation of affect, and confusion about sexual identity. The fear of women diminishes as the relation between a jealous father and a defiant, independent daughter develops. All these trends are recapitulated in the major dream creation, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare's attempts to understand psychopathology and psychodynamics are evident throughout his earliest plays. He made dramatic use of the theories of demoniacal possession, witchcraft, and bewitchment that were the accepted popular explanations of mental illness. However, he consistently rejected these concepts and expressed support for the more humane, naturalistic view of psychopathology first propounded in 1563 by the physician, Johann Weyer (21).

Shakespeare began his career as playwright when the witch mania had taken a strong hold in England, about a hundred years after it had started on the Continent (18). In his early historical plays, he used material concerning three politically motivated witch trials described in the chronicles that served as his sources.

The First Part of King Henry VI (20 a) dramatizes the unsuccessful efforts of the English to retain possession of the conquered areas of France. This attempt is frustrated by Joan of Arc. She triumphs in hand-to-hand combat with a man and routs the English forces. She is captured and convicted of witchcraft, but Shakespeare carefully dissociated himself from those who attributed her power to supernatural causes and demoniacal possession. Shakespeare's Joan says:

I never had to do with wicked spirits.
But you, that are . . . tainted with a thousand vices . . .
You judge it straight a thing impossible
To compass wonders, but by help of devils

(V, iv:42-48).

Eleanore Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester, in The Second Part of King Henry VI (20 b) is exiled for consorting with witches and conjurers. Her husband's opponents take political advantage of her mental instability to bring about his defeat and death. But Shakespeare depicts her as a 'bedlam brain-sick duchess', not as a witch (III, i:51).

In The Tragedy of King Richard III (20 c), the dramatist accepted the view of the Tudor-inspired chronicles that the last of the Plantagenet kings was a villain. To get rid of Lord Hastings, an unwanted political ally, Richard, now himself Duke of Gloucester, accuses Hastings of protecting Jane Shore, claiming that she has withered his arm through witchcraft (III, iv:68-72). But Shakespeare, seeking a psychodynamic explanation of Richard's distorted self-image and psychopathic behavior, attributed both to rejection by his mother which began before he was born. Richard's mother tells him:

. . . I have stay'd for thee, . . . in torment and agony. . . .
Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burthen was thy birth to me,
Tetchy and wayward thy infancy,
Thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild, and furious, . . .

(IV, iv:162-169).

Although he rejected the idea of woman-as-witch, Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the possibility that a woman could drive a man insane. In The Third Part of King Henry VI (20 d), Queen Margaret takes over from the passive, dependent King, creating disorder and chaos in England. Margaret clearly expresses the desire to drive a man mad. At one point she waves a handkerchief soaked with the blood of his murdered son in the face of the captive Duke of York.

I prithee grieve, to make me merry, York. . . .
Why art thou patient, man? Thou shouldst be mad;
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus

(I, iv:86-90).

It was this powerful depiction of female vengeance that first called public attention to Shakespeare. The badgered York describes Margaret as having a 'tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide' (I, iv:137). This line was paraphrased by another playwright, Robert Greene, who resented Shakespeare's rising reputation and described him as having a 'tyger's heart wrapt in an actor's hide', expecting that the public would immediately recognize the target of his attack.

Titus Andronicus (20 e) tells the story of another man physically injured and finally driven mad by the vindictiveness of a woman, Queen Tamora. In this startlingly brutal tragedy, Lavinia, only daughter of Titus, is raped, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out to prevent her revealing her attackers. Using one of her nephew's schoolbooks, Ovid's Metamorphoses, she points with the stumps of her arms to the story of the rape of Philomel, thus telling her father what has befallen her (IV, i:42-51).

Titus Andronicus is also of interest because of the violence of the intrafamilial relations portrayed. There are subtle suggestions of incestuous relations between father and daughter and mother and sons. The play compares the attitudes of two fathers toward their sons. The hero, Titus, willingly has sacrificed twenty-two sons in battle and kills another with his own hands. The villainous Aaron, an early prototype of Iago, is willing to sacrifice himself to save his bastard son's life.

Shakespeare used the Metamorphoses as a source of several early plays and of the long poem Venus and Adonis (20 l). In this poem, Shakespeare deals with the seduction of a young, sexually inexperienced, and uninterested boy by an older woman who is a nymphomaniac. The content of Venus and Adonis may have afforded Shakespeare an opportunity to express in poetic form his own feelings about being married at eighteen to a woman eight years older.

In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare began to demonstrate his concern with questions of the care, treatment, and prognosis of the psychiatrically ill. This interest in emotional disorders and their treatment was an important theme in the next three plays, all comedies. The Comedy of Errors (20 f) deals with amusing situations resulting from the confusion of identities of two sets of twins. But Shakespeare was concerned also with two opposing concepts of the psychodynamics and therapy of mental illness. This interest was entirely his own and in no way derived from his sources. All the characters in the play become convinced that one of the twins is insane. He, in turn, believes that he is surrounded by witches who want to drive him mad. Shakespeare, within a comic situation, contrasts two conflicting views of the etiology of mental illness: is it the result of supernatural causes, demoniacal possession and bewitchment, or are there natural causes? He takes an unmistakable position in favor of natural causes.

He compares the methods of Doctor Pinch, a charlatan, who attributes aberrant behavior to demoniacal possession and treats the patient by exorcism, restraints, and imprisonment, with the naturalistic approach of an Abbess, who seeks to understand the onset and course of the man's derangement through careful questioning of his wife. The wife pleads with Doctor Pinch:

Good Doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer.
Establish him in his true sense again,
And I will please you what you will demand

(IV, iv:50-52).

Doctor Pinch attempts to exorcize the Devil.

I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight.
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven!


The patient describes the quack as:

. . . a hungry lean-faced villain, . . . a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A living-dead man. This pernicious . . . conjurer
. . . gazing in my eyes, feeling my pulse, . . .
Cries out, I was possess'd. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence,
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me . . . bound . . .

(V, i:238-249).

The husband escapes and seeks refuge in the abbey. There the Abbess attributes the man's emotional symptoms to conflict with his wife. Her therapeutic approach is to separate him from his family by keeping him in the abbey, where she will administer sedatives and then pray for him. Her psychological approach is apparent as she interviews the wife Adriana to elicit the precipitating cause of the man's mental illness.

Adriana: . . . hurt him not, for God's sake—he is mad. . . .
Abbess: How long hath this possession held the man?
Adriana: This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad,
And much different from the man he was.
But till this afternoon his passion
Ne'er brake into extremity of rage.
Abbess: Hath he not lost much wealth by wreck of sea?
Buried some dear friend? Hath not elsehis eye
Stray'd his affection in unlawful love,
A sin prevailing much in youthful men,
Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing?
Which of these sorrows is he subject to?
Adriana: To none of these, except it be the last,
Namely, some love that drew him oft from home.
Abbess: You should for that have reprehended him.
Adriana: Why, so I did.
Abbess: Ay, but not rough enough.
Adriana: As roughly as my modesty would let me.
Abbess: Haply in private.
Adriana: And in assemblies too.
Abbess: Ay, but not enough.
Adriana: It was the copy of our conference:
In bed he slept not for my urging it;
At board he fed not for my urging it;
Alone, it was the subject of my theme;
In company I often glanced it; . . .
Abbess: And thereof came it, that the man was mad.

The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth. . . . In food, in sport and life preserving rest
To be disturbed, would mad or man or beast.
The consequence is then, thy jealous fits
Hath scared thy husband from the use of wits. . . .
Adriana: She did betray me to my own reproof.
Good people, enter, and lay hold on him.
Abbess: No, not a creature enters in my house. . . .
Be patient, for I will not let him stir
Till I have used the approved means I have,
With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers,
To make of him a formal man again. . . .
Therefore depart, and leave him here with me

(V, i:33-108).

When Shakespeare pointed to the wife's jealous fits as the precipitating cause of her husband's apparent madness and denied the reality of demoniacal possession, he took a stand that seems entirely sensible to us but which was in direct conflict with the prevailing attitudes of his own day.

The therapy of mental disorders is also important in The Taming of the Shrew (20 g). In this play within a play, a nobleman discovers a chronic alcoholic, Christopher Sly, in a drunken stupor. At first repulsed by the man, he decides to treat Sly with kindness and consideration. A play is presented to him because:

. . . your doctors . . .
Seeing too much sadness hath congealed your blood,
And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy;
Therefore they thought it good you hear a play,
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms, and lengthens life

(Induction, ii:133-138).

Therapy is the theme of the play presented for therapeutic reasons. A violent, abusive, 'stark mad' young woman is treated by a man who is determined to marry her. He scores a therapeutic triumph by behaving in a more irrational and uncontrolled manner than she, thereby forcing her to control her behavior. The result is that she becomes an obedient and loving wife. Actually, Shakespeare was describing two therapeutic methods that are employed today—Moreno's psychodrama and the paradigmatic method used by Rosen and others in the treatment of psychoses.

The third comedy, Love's Labour's Lost (20 h), appears to have been entirely original with Shakespeare.

It begins and ends with the leading character, a poet named Berowne, facing the prospect of entering an institution. The opening scene has a familiar ring for the psychiatrist. Berowne is hesitant about signing an agreement that commits him for a three-year period during which he is not to see a woman, and must study and fast, and sleep little. When he is told that he has already verbally committed himself, he says that he swore in jest and wants to know the purpose of this study. The purpose of the confinement, he learns, is:

Why, that to know which else we should not know.
Things hid and barr'd . . . from common sense?
Ay, that is study's god-like recompense

(I, i:56-58)

Berowne, who appears quite sane, is repeatedly compared to and mistaken for the poet-playwright Armado.

A man . . .
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One whom the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony. . . .
A man of fire-new words . . .


This certainly could be Shakespeare's image of himself, if only because no other literary figure has had such a 'mint of phrases' or so many 'new words' (15). Armado is a melancholic whose writings and speech are pure 'schizophrenese', full of neologisms, puns, concretisms, and clang associations. They have the effect of creating temporary madness in the other characters, one of whom complains that Armado makes him feel insane, 'frantic, lunatic' (V, i:29). For example, Armado writes a letter:

. . . besieged with sable-coloured melancholy . . . as I am a gentleman, [I] betook myself to walk: the time When. About the sixth hour, when beasts most graze, birds best peck, and men sit down to that nourishment which is called supper; so much for the time when. Now for the ground Which; which I mean I walked upon; it is y-cleped thy park. Then for the place Where; where I mean I did encounter that obscene and most preposterous event, that draweth from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink, which here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest. But to the place Where, it standeth north-north-east and by east from the west comer of thy curious-knotted garden . . .

(I, i:231-248).

Berowne is told by his ladylove, Rosaline, that if he wants to win her, he must for a whole year

. . . from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,

With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile. . . .
A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it: . . .

(V, ii:861-874).

The poet is appalled by the task imposed upon him. Nevertheless, he acquiesces.

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony. . . .
A twelvemonth? Well, befall what will befall,
I'll jest a twelvemonth in an hospital

(V, ii:866-880).

In a brief epilogue, Shakespeare contrasted this penance of Berowne with that of the insane poet Armado who has committed himself to marry the woman he has made pregnant and remain in the country with her for three years. By the end of this play, Shakespeare has made some observations which are probably self-revealing about a poet who must amuse hospital inmates in the face of their suffering if he is really to prove himself and about an insane writer who makes a country woman pregnant and then agrees to marry and remain in the country with her for three years.

Although The Two Gentlemen of Verona (20 i) is about love and friendship, it contains very little expression of feelings. Everything in the play is dull, lifeless, and flat, albeit the sources Shakespeare used are rich in emotional content. The playwright appears to have been aware of an affectual blunting in himself. The one memorable character, the servant Launce, expresses his concern about the lack of emotion displayed by his dog, Crab.

. . . I think Crab my dog be the sourest natured dog that lives: My mother weeping; my father wailing, my sister crying; our maid howling; our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear . . .

(II, iii:5-10).

Launce confuses the dog with the man.

. . . I am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. Oh, the dog is me, and I am myself. . . . Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear, nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears


He also exhibits considerable sexual confusion as he debates which of his shoes should represent his mother and his father.

. . . Γ11 show you the manner of it. This shoe is my father: no, this left shoe is my father. No, no, this left shoe is my mother. Nay that cannot be so neither. Yes, it is so, it is so, it hath the worser sole. This shoe with the hole in it is my mother, and this my father


The play contains evidence of regression to an infantile level. For example, discussions about love almost invariably end by referring to food and eating. And Launce in another monologue, ostensibly on the noble subject of friendship, becomes involved with urination.

. . . O 'tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies! . . . He thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentleman-like dogs, under the Duke's table: he had not been there . . . a pissing while, but all the chamber smelt him. 'Out with the dog!' says one: 'What cur is that?' says another. 'Whip him out!' says the third: 'Hang him up!' says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. 'Friend,' quoth I . . . 'twas I did the thing . . . '. He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? . . . I remember the trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman's farthingale? Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?

(IV, iv: 10-42).

Feelings of estrangement and withdrawal are described in a soliloquy.

This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns:
Here can I sit alone, unseen of any,
And to the nightingale's complaining notes
Tune my distresses and record my woes

(V, iv:2-6).

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona we find also the theme of a father's incestuous desire for his daughter that recurs in many of Shakespeare's plays. The Duke of Milan tells how he has locked his daughter up every night out of jealousy. He describes her as:

. . . peevish, sullen, froward,
Proud, disobedient, stubborn, lacking duty,
Neither regarding that she is my child
Nor fearing me as if I were her father.
And . . . this pride of hers,
. . . hath drawn my love from her,
And, where I thought the remnant of mine age

Should have been cherish'd by her child-like duty,
I now am full resolved to take a wife,
And turn her out to who will take her in: . . .

(III, i:68-77).

The play shows a degree of confusion about locale not found elsewhere. On three separate occasions (II, V:l; III, i:81; V, iv: 129) Shakespeare made mistakes about the place of action. These errors are corrected in modern editions, but they are present in the original folio. Moreover, stage directions are lacking, notations of entrance and exit are missing, and new scenes are indicated in several places where the action is in fact continuous.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona may have been written following a period of severe emotional disturbance. Perhaps Shakespeare at thirty-one returned temporarily to Stratford where he may have attempted a reconciliation with his wife. This would also have given him an opportunity to become reacquainted with his children, especially with his eldest daughter, Susannah, who was then thirteen.

This question of the relation of father and daughter and their respective ages was of considerable importance to the playwright, as indicated in the next play, Romeo and Juliet (20 j). He reduced Juliet's age from sixteen, as it was in the sources, to thirteen. There is no dramatic justification for this change, but Juliet's age is the same as that of Susannah Shakespeare at the time the play was written. That the heroine was identified in Shakespeare's mind with Susannah is supported further by the Nurse's comment that her own child Susan and Juliet would be the same age, had Susan lived. The Nurse reminisces about episodes of Juliet's life up to the age of three. Her recollections thus appear to coincide with the time before Shakespeare left his family. The significant point is that his return to them reunited him with his daughter at the time of her early adolescence, and this appears to have had a profound and lasting effect on his attitude toward women.

The intensity of feeling that Shakespeare infused into the old poem that was the source of Romeo and Juliet is in striking contrast to his inability to give any affective content to The Two Gentlemen of Verona. This swing from virtually complete affectual blunting to intense feeling is probably clinically significant.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (20 k) is of particular interest to the psychoanalyst. First, it is Shakespeare's major dream creation in which he drew together many of the themes he had already used in other plays. Second, in this play Shakespeare clearly deals with the Œdipal theme and the conflicts within the family triangle. Finally, it is here that the influence of Johann Weyer's ideas regarding mental disorders is most evident.

Two conflicts provide the underlying motivation in A Midsummer Night's Dream. One involves a father who insists on his right to choose a husband for his defiant daughter and also on his right to kill her if she does not obey him. The other conflict is between a married couple, Titania and Oberon, the estranged King and Queen of the Fairies, who are struggling for possession of a changeling mortal boy. As part of his ruse to get the boy away from his wife, Oberon uses a magic potion that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees on waking. Puck changes the appearance of the weaver-actor, Bottom, by giving him an ass's head. When Bottom's fellow actors run off terrified by the sight of him and leave him alone in the woods, he sings a song to show that he is not afraid. His singing awakens Titania, and she immediately falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom.

The physical change that Bottom undergoes may symbolize a mental disturbance. Bottom expresses this when he says that he hopes he has 'wit enough to get out of this wood' (III,i:152). 'Wood' meant madness in Elizabethan parlance, so that Bottom may be speaking metaphorically of recovery from insanity.

In this play a more frankly Œdipal situation is portrayed than in Hamlet. When Bottom grows tired, Titania says:

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies be gone, and be all ways away.
So does the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle, gently entwist;
The female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!

(IV, i:41-46).

They go to sleep on stage, clasped in each other's arms.

Oberon takes the changeling boy and then directs Puck to restore Bottom's head and mind.

. . . Puck, take this transformed scalp
From off the head of this Athenian swain;
That he, awaking . . . think no more of this night's accidents,
But as the fierce vexation of a dream

(IV, i:66-72).

Shakespeare indicates that the significance of Bottom's dream is too shocking to bear interpretation, although it can be employed for dramatic purposes. Bottom says:

I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. . . . Man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say . . . what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream; it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom; . . .

(IV, i:211-222).

Bottom returns to reality, rejoins his fellow actors, and resumes his duties as actor, director, and playwright. Immediately afterward, Theseus makes a speech comparing the imaginations of 'the lunatic, the lover, and the poet'.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling . . .
[From his] imagination [creates]
The form of things unknown . . . and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

(V, i:4-22).

It will be recalled that, in The Taming of the Shrew, Sly's recovery is to be effected through watching a play performed expressly for therapeutic purposes. In Love's Labour's Lost, Berowne must prove himself by attempting to relieve the mental anguish of hospital inmates. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom's 'dream' is to become a ballad. It appears that Shakespeare during this period connected playwriting and acting with the treatment of mental illness.

Shakespeare's Concept of Mental Illness

When Shakespeare wrote that the madman imagines 'more devils than vast hell can hold' and juxtaposed this process with the 'fine frenzy' of the poet, he was expressing a radical attitude about psychopathology and the etiology of mental illness. In Elizabethan days, psychopathology and psychodynamics were regarded chiefly in terms of demoniacal possession, witchcraft, and bewitchment. Psychotherapy consisted of exorcizing the demons that had possessed the sick person so that they would leave his body and free his soul. It was indeed a reversal of accepted thought to say that demons were the products of the deranged mind rather than the cause of it.

Legalistic consequences of psychopathology involved imprisonment, torture, and execution. At the time Shakespeare was writing these lines, men, women, and children were being convicted as witches in league with the Devil. It has been estimated that more than seven hundred fifty thousand people were burned or hanged for witchcraft during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an average of ten every day for two hundred years (22). It must have been terrifying to a man who could understand that what was happening in his own mind could seriously jeopardize his life.

Today many of these unfortunate persons would be considered mentally ill and would be referred for psychiatric care and hospitalization. The magnitude of what was going on at that time is difficult for us to comprehend; psychiatry is still struggling with the aftereffects of that massive attack upon the mentally ill.

Shakespeare's concept of mental disorder resembles that of the physician Johann Weyer. A pupil of Cornelius Agrippa, Weyer received his medical degree from the University of Orléans. He became court physician to Duke William of Cleves in 1550, and prevailed upon the Duke to halt the persecution of witches. Weyer's clinical observations led him to believe that mental illness, rather than demoniacal possession, was responsible for the aberrant behavior of these people. His book on witchcraft (21) was published in 1563 and went through six editions in twenty years (22).

Whether Shakespeare read Weyer in the Latin is not known. His work on the subject of witchcraft has never been translated into English.2 Certainly the dramatist was acquainted with Weyer's ideas and we can only speculate why he was so impressed. An English popularization of Weyer, written in 1584 by Reginald Scot (19), was one of the sources for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Scot freely acknowledged the influence of Weyer, whom he described as 'the most famous and noble physician'. Later both Scot and Weyer would be vigorously attacked by James the First in his book on witchcraft (14). One of James's first acts on becoming King of England was to order copies of Scot's book to be seized and burned.

Zilboorg (23, 24) considered Weyer's book one of the most important in medical history and described him as the leader of 'the first psychiatric revolution', with Freud the leader of 'the second psychiatric revolution'. Although Freud made no reference to Weyer in his papers, he had a very high regard for the scientific importance of Weyer's treatise. He once wrote that among the ten most significant books he would include 'scientific achievements like those of Copernicus, of the old physician Johann Weyer on the belief in witches, Darwin's Descent of Man, and others' (5, p. 245).

Freud, in an article about Charcot, expressed the same point of view as Weyer and Shakespeare: ' . . . existing records of witchcraft trials and possession . . . show that the manifestations of neurosis were the same then as they are now' (4, p. 20). Later he wrote a fascinating article, entitled "A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis," in which he stated, ' . . . the neuroses of those early times, emerge in demonological trappings. . . . The states of possession correspond to our neuroses. . . . We merely eliminate the projection of these mental entities into the external world which the middle ages carried out; instead, we regard them as having arisen in the patient's internal life . . . ' (10, p. 72).


Shakespeare's theories of mental illness, as expressed in his early plays, were in advance of his time; they seem to have been influenced by those of Johann Weyer, of whose writings Freud also expressed a high opinion.

By treating the content of these early plays as if they were the associations produced by a patient in psychoanalysis, some hypotheses can be constructed concerning Shakespeare himself, and some of these hypotheses are given support by examination of what is known of the dramatist's life.


1 In this study I have received invaluable help from George E. Daniels, M.D., in weekly discussions at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Clinic for Training and Research.

2 Weyer's De Praestigiis is currently being translated by William R. Nethercut of Columbia University, New York, as a result of this study.


Bullough, G.: Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, (Vols. I-IV). New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Chambers, E.: William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. Abridged: A Short Life of Shakespeare with the Sources. By C. Williams. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933.

Chute, Marchette: Shakespeare of London. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949.

Freud: Charcot (1893). Coll. Papers, I.

——: Contribution to a Questionnaire on Reading (1907). Standard Edition, IX.

——: Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's 'Gradiva' (1907 [1906]). Standard Edition, IX.

——: On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914). Coll. Papers, I.

——: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Standard Edition, IV, V.

——: The Origins of Psychoanalysis. Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes: 1887-1902. Edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1954.

——: A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis (1925 [1922]). Standard Edition, XIX.

Holland, N. N.: Freud and the Poet's Eye. Literature and Psychology, XI, 1961, pp. 36-45.

——: Freud on Shakespeare. Publ. of the Modern Language Assn. of America, LXXV, 1960, pp. 163-173.

——: Shakespearean Tragedy and the Three Ways of Psychoanalytic Criticism. The Hudson Review, XV, 1962, pp. 217-229.

James I: Daemonologie. Edinburgh: Robert Waldegraue, 1597.

Jespersen, Otto: Growth and Structure of the English Language. (Ninth Edition.) New York: The Macmillan Co., 1938.

Looney, J. T.: Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. London: Cecil Palmer, 1920.

Parrott, T. M.: William Shakespeare. A Handbook. (Rev. Edition.) New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.

Robbins, R. H.: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1959.

Scot, Reginald: The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Edited by M. Summers. (Limited Edition.) London: John Rodker, 1930.

Shakespeare, William: The Complete Works. Edited by Charles Jaspar Sisson. New York: Harper & Bros., n.d.

a. The First Part of King Henry VI

b. The Second Part of King Henry VI

c. The Tragedy of King Richard III

d. The Third Part of King Henry VI

e. Titus Andronicus

f. The Comedy of Errors

g. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

j. Romeo and Juliet

k. A Midsummer Night's Dream

1. Venus and Adonis

Weyer, Johann: De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus Ac Veneficiis. (Second Edition.) Basle: Johannes Oporinus, 1564.

Withington, E. T.: Dr. John Weyer and the Witch Mania. In: Studies in the History and Method of Science, Vol I. Edited by C. J. Singer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917.

Zilboorg, Gregory: A History of Medical Psychology. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1941.

——: The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935.

Norman N. Holland (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Psychological Continuum," in Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964, pp. 324-37.

[In the following excerpt, Holland surveys the patterns of psychological criticism typically applied to Shakespeare's plays.]

The Psychological Continuum

Freud, in describing human personality, used the latest and richest version of the metaphor that Plato, Augustine, More, Bacon, Campanella, and many others before him had used: the city. Freud suggested that we think of the human mind as like the Rome he enjoyed so much. At the deepest level lies the primitive village of the Latin tribes. Erected on it are the cities of the republic and the empire. On their ruins, in turn, rose the city of medieval Christendom and from it the Rome of modern Italy. And yet the avenues clogged by the traffic jams of today follow the path worn down by the solitary herdsman of antiquity—indeed, his choice of route centuries before has much to do with the congestion and conflicts of today.

In the city, modern builds on ancient. Modern also brings much that is new, but it escapes only with considerable destruction and renewal the paths anciently laid down. So in the mind: the intellectual and moral concerns lately arrived at in the adult build on the primitive paths and communities of the child. We need to think of modern and ancient, adult and child, as coexisting, as if, by a kind of time-machine vision, we could see in the center of the magnificence of St. Peter's the dream shadow of the Circus Neronis dedicated to cruel and uncanny sports.

Adult and child coexist; but the orthodox critic sees only the adult mind, and the psychoanalytic critic, all too often, sees only the child. The truth lies rather in the continuum between them. The religious, aesthetic, social, moral, or intellectual themes the orthodox critic develops have their roots in the infantile fantasies and conflicts the psychoanalytic critic points out. Indeed, it is only because infantile basis and adult superstructure exist in us together that these intellectual concerns can have at all the emotional power they do in art. Both the psychoanalytic critic and his conventional counterpart need to recognize that each tells half the story. Not only are there complex two-way bonds back and forth between author, text, and reader—these bonds themselves have higher and lower sides, each of which informs the other. . . .

In short, the psychoanalytic critic has (by and large) been both too logical and not logical enough. That is, he has confined himself too rigidly (even if not too explicitly) to one or a combination of the three kinds of psychoanalytic criticism. He has thus failed to follow out the assumptions of his own discipline. . . . [The] essence of psychoanalysis is that it deals objectively with the data of subjectivity. To do so, to think in a truly psychoanalytic way, one must move back and forth from one's own inner responses to what the objective, scientific descriptions of psychoanalysis have to say about those inner responses.

The psychoanalytic critic needs to recognize that he is himself part of the literary process he is describing. The character he analyzes does not exist "out there" in some never-never land; the realism of the character comes as one part—although only one part—of the critic's own responses. Conversely, the play itself is not an isolated reality, a text that can be analyzed separate from the analyzer. What criticism needs is a sense of the continuum and interaction between objective work of art and subjective response; or as this book has tried to act out by its own odd form, between the categories of actual psychoanalytic criticism (Part II) and the psychoanalytic concepts that show how these categories are really not categories but blend one into another (Part I). To understand a work of art, one must understand oneself.

That is clear enough for the critic's thinking, but how about his writing? How does he express this sense of continuum between work and self short of a most unseemly...

(The entire section is 22242 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 25181 words.)

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,...

(The entire section is 18658 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 21825 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)