Hamlet Hamlet (Vol. 44)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 135,907 words.)