Resituating Freud's Hamlet

Article excerpt

Hamlet's inner conflict, though rich in oedipal imagery, is dramatized as the product of his immediate situation rather than of childhood trauma. It revolves around the old chivalric code of blood revenge and honor-at-all costs, and is implicit in the text, hence not "repressed" by the protagonist. Hamlet's prolonged wrestling with this conflict climaxes in a soliloquy that scathingly attacks the code's exemplification in Fortinbras, leaving the issue of revenge at an impasse. To prepare his hero for the act of killing Claudius, Shakespeare deleted and altered some crucial passes (as we see by assessing the differences between the Second Quarto and Folio texts). The effect of these changes is to diminish Hamlet's turmoil by introducing evidence of his psychological growth, evidence that Freud and Ernest Jones ignored and might well have considered.

keywords: Hamlet, honor, Freud, Jones


Early and late in his psychoanalytic career Freud took pride in his interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which supported his belief in the central importance of the Oedipus Complex.1 The interpretation has not worn well. Thoughts of a murdered father and sexualized mother married to the murderer undoubtedly oppress the play's protagonist, but many critics, for different reasons, have demurred from Freud's hypothesis that it is Hamlet's unconscious identification with the guilty uncle that best explains his delay in fulfilling the Ghost's command to revenge. Unable to speak freely in Claudius's corrupt court, Hamlet must express his anguish privately or indirectly, yet the inner conflict entailed in his disgust is not, in my view, quite repressed. His feeling that he ought to avenge his father's murder for honor's sake is opposed by a contrary feeling that also has moral force, a contrary force that is implied throughout the play. It is shown by Hamlet's aversion to the very code of blood revenge that the Ghost invokes, a legacy of the medieval chivalric tradition that was fast losing its authority and glamour in late sixteenth century England.2 The characters in the play who best exemplify this code, with its enviable but obsolescent moral clarity, are Laertes, who, to avenge his father's death, would "cut [Hamlet's] throat in a church" and Fortinbras, who is judged by Hamlet in a more negative light than is generally recognized. The Ghost too, who appears in the first scene dressed in the armor of a warrior decades out of date and commands blood revenge, exemplifies this code but ambiguously because, a) Hamlet has idealized his father and, b) Shakespeare allows us to see the Ghost in both a Catholic and Protestant light, both honest and deceptive.

This line of argument requires us to be dissatisfied also with the word "delay," however pervasive it is in Hamlet criticism, because it implies too unequivocally that Hamlet ought to kill Claudius, i.e. that Shakespeare endorses this ought. Although Hamlet, emotionally attracted as he still is by the heroic past, insistently berates himself for not heeding the Ghost's command, his very insistence suggests that the what he really searching for, and with increasing desperation during four acts of the play, is the discovery of a new rationale, an honorable moral basis, for doing so. His frustration comes to a climax in the last soliloquy, "How all occasions do inform against me," after which both Hamlet and his creator find themselves at an impasse. Shakespeare has borrowed the basic plot of a revenge play, but his emphasis on inner conflict makes it difficult to show the hero accomplishing an obligatory revenge in the final act. The playwright solves this artistic problem, more or less satisfactorily, by making crucial revisions in his text that alter the character of his Hamlet and of his foils. The avenger of Act V is a man partly liberated from inner conflict, one who has experienced psychological growth. …