What evidence in Shakespeare's Hamlet might support a psychoanalytical interpretation of the play?

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One passage in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that lends itself particularly well to a psychoanalytic interpretation is the episode (3.4) in which Hamlet confronts his mother and, in the process, kills Polonius. This episode is charged with sexual overtones and innuendoes and thus seems especially open to a Freudian reading. Moments that might strogly support such a reading include the following:

  • In 3.4.18-21, Hamlet apparently treats his mother so harshly – physically as well as verbally – that she even fears that he plans to murder her. A Freudian critic might see this moment as evidence of Hamlet’s inability to control his id, to keep his emotions under control. His killing of Polonius also supports this interpretation.
  • In 3.4.32, Hamlet explicitly says that he thought that Claudius, not Polonius, was hiding behind the arras; he believed he was stabbing Claudius, not the old counselor. A Freudian critic might interpret Hamlet’s desire to kill Claudius as a skewed version of the “Oedipus complex” – the supposed desire of sons to kill their fathers, whom they see as rivals for the affection of their mothers. Claudius, of course, is not Hamlet’s father, but he has taken the place of Hamlet’s father, and he tries to present himself to Hamlet as a kind of substitute father.
  • In lines 3.4.91-94, Hamlet speaks to his mother in words that are heavy with sexual connotations. It is not only his mother’s marriage to Claudius that sickens Hamlet; it is especially the thought that she is having sex with Claudius that disgusts him. Thus he accuses her of living

In the rank sweat of an enseamed [that is, greasy] bed,

Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love

Over the nasty sty!

Here the language and imagery are repulsive. Freud’s assumption that sexual thoughts and sexual behavior are especially important in shaping human psychology seems borne out by lines such as these. Hamlet is not simply angry at his mother; he is repulsed and sickened by the thought of her conduct in bed with Claudius. Some Freudians might argue that Hamlet himself has strong sexual feelings toward his mother, and this scene is often played as if that were the case.

  • In lines 3.4.181-87, Hamlet urges his mother once more not to

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed; 
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse; 
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, 
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers, 
Make you to ravel all this matter out, 
That I essentially am not in madness, 
But mad in craft.

Here again the language is vividly sexual. Hamlet obsesses about any sexual contact between fat Claudius – the “bloat king” – and his mother. He doesn’t merely give her a general warning, but instead goes into explicit physical detail. He had already told her earlier that if she could refrain once from spending time in bed with Claudius, she would find it easier to refrain a second time (3.4.165-67), and earlier than that he had urged her, “go not to my uncle’s bed” (3.4.159). Hamlet’s preoccupation in this whole scene, then, seems almost less with the idea that Claudius has murdered the former king than with the idea that Claudius is enjoying the sexual pleasures of Gertrude’s body.


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