William Shakespeare Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Shakespeare's Works

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 )....

(The entire section is 89,178 words.)