October 19, 2005

Freud, Hamlet, and Oedipus Rex

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. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish. Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet's mind....
The distaste for sexuality expressed by Hamlet in his conversation with Ophelia fits in very well with this. - Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.299.

Although I did extensive work with psychoanalysis and Freudian theory last semester, it didn't occur to me to apply my knowledge to "Hamlet" until I did some research. In a nutshell, Freud believed that most males desired their mother and were jealous of their father. Hence the name "Oedipus complex." *This is very general and simplified explanation.

Hamlet seems to fit into this Freudian theory. In a distorted parallel, Oedipus and Hamlet share a similar life and destiny. Oedipus (unknowingly) kills his father and marries his mother. Hamlet's father is already dead and his mother has married his uncle. Okay, it's not exactly the same life, but if you use your imagination, it can work. For instance, in I.ii.77, Hamlet refers to his mother as "good-mother." In the Norton Shakespeare text, a footnote defines this term as stepmother. In a psychoanalysis, a critic may read this line as Hamlet's subconscious sexual desire to be with his mother. If she is his biological mother, their relationship is impossible (or at the least, wrong), but if she is seen as his stepmother, the affair is a possibility.

Posted by KatherineLambert at October 19, 2005 07:56 PM

You should give credit to Ernst Jones, the student and biographer of Freud, who wrote a slim volume called Hamlet and Oedipus.

Posted by: ellen freilich at May 2, 2006 08:48 PM
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