Academic journal article PSYART

"SOMETHING IS ROTTEN..." in Hamlet's Denmark: Claudius as Perverse and Psychopathic Character

Academic journal article PSYART

"SOMETHING IS ROTTEN..." in Hamlet's Denmark: Claudius as Perverse and Psychopathic Character

Article excerpt


This paper presents a late-20th century interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet using Bruce Fink's account of the Lacanian theory of character structures, the work of Robert Hare on white-collar psychopathy, Lucie Cantin on the pervert-hysteric couple, and that of other authors. In this example of applied psychoanalysis, Hamlet's character is described as vacillating between that of the obsessional and the hysteric. However, his delay in seeking revenge for his father's murder is understood as the result of his having to deal with Claudius, his father's brother, murderer, and replacement on the throne of Denmark, whose character is perverse and psychopathic. The play provides a fine illustration of emotional and behavioural effects in a group of people when, as a group and as individuals, they are engaged and manipulated, unawares, by such a person. Such situations are not infrequent in contemporary relationships, institutions, governments and in the histories of psychoanalytic patients.

I gave this paper originally, entitled Hamlet's Desire, using clips from a number of filmic versions of Hamlet, to illustrate and discuss psychoanalytic interpretations through the generations as different social and professional interests led to new interpretations. I was stimulated to do this by reading Lacan's analysis in 6 chapters of his Seminar VI entitled Desire and its Interpretation. (1958-59). Freud's analysis of Hamlet, in the early part of the 20th century, articulated the complications arising because of Hamlet's desire for his mother, his inability to act being the result of his unresolved Oedipus complex. Killing his uncle, his mother's new husband, would represent killing himself, the son who guiltily desired his mother and was rivalrous with his father and his substitutes. This dynamic was excellently illustrated, most prominently in the closet scene, in Laurence Olivier's film production of Hamlet, with himself as Hamlet and Eileen Hurlie as Gertrude, in 1948.

Lacan's analysis was in the mid-century with the influences on him characteristic of that period. With a subtle turning of the psychoanalytic prism, he said that Hamlet was unable to act because of problems in his own desire, and that these were the result of his mother's desire, for him, for his uncle and for herself. These dynamics were illustrated especially well in Zeffirelli's 1990 production of Hamlet, in the scene in which Gertrude, played by Glenn Close, tried to talk Hamlet, played by Mel Gibson, out of his depression in the first Act, and also in the closet scene when she kissed him full on the mouth to try to calm him down.

While working on this, and also because of social and professional influences on me, I came to what I see as a late 20th century interpretation. I started with another set of concepts developed in Lacan's early work - character structures as we encounter them in clinical practice and in institutions, and, more specifically, the nature and effects on the others of the introduction into a group of people a perverse and psychopathic character such as Claudius. These dynamics were well illustrated by a recent, 2000 film production of Hamlet by Michael Almereyda. In this film the court of Elsinore is replaced by the Denmark Corporation in NYC and the Elsinore Hotel; the CEO is killed and replaced by his brother Claudius, played by Kyle McLaughlin. Hamlet is played by Ethan Hawke. In the scene in which Claudius questions Hamlet about the whereabouts of Polonius's body, he actually punches Hamlet in the stomach.

Lacan describes three major groups of structures of the subject:

1. the neurotic/normal, which he subdivides into the hysteric and the obsessional.

2. the perverse

3. the psychotic

The division is based on their differences in respect of:

each according to their relation to the phallus, the object desired by the mother;

each according to their stalemating conflict in one of the three stages of the Oedipus complex; and

each according to their relationship to the Name-of-the-Father (the paternal metaphor) and later, to the big Other. …

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