(This essay applies Sigmund Freud’s techniques of psychoanalysis to Hamlet’s character, asserting that the prince is afflicted with an Oedipus Complex. This psychological disorder involves the unconscious desire of a son to kill his father and take his place as the object of the mother’s love. According to the critic, Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius because he identifies with his uncle and shares his guilt. Thus Hamlet’s inaction stems from a ‘‘tortured conscience,’’ and his affliction is caused by ‘‘repressed’’ feelings. Furthermore, this theory accounts for Hamlet’s speaking to Gertrude like a jealous lover, dwelling on his mother’s sexual relations with Claudius, and treating his uncle like a rival. Significantly, the critic also claims that while his father’s murder evokes ‘‘indignation’’ in Hamlet, Gertrude’s perceived ‘‘incest’’ awakes his ‘‘intensest horror.’’ In addition, Jones maintains that the prince suffers from ‘‘psychoneurosis,’’ or ‘‘a state of mind where the person is unduly, often painfully, driven or thwarted by the ‘unconscious’ part of his mind.’’ This internal mental conflict reflects Hamlet’s condition throughout much of the play.)
[The] whole picture presented by Hamlet, his deep depression, the hopeless note in his attitude towards the world and towards the value of life, his dread of death, his repeated reference to bad dreams, his self-accusations, his desperate efforts to get away from the thoughts of his duty, and his vain attempts to find an excuse for his procrastination; all this unequivocally points to a tortured conscience, to some hidden ground for shirking his task, a ground which he dare not or cannot avow to himself. We have, therefore, … to seek for some evidence that may serve to bring to light the hidden counter-motive.
The extensive experience of the psychoanalytic researches carried out by Freud and his school during the past half-century has amply demonstrated that certain kinds of mental process show a greater tendency to be inaccessible to consciousness (put technically, to be ‘‘repressed’’) than others. In other words, it is harder for a person to realize the existence in his mind of some mental trends than it is of others.
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us return to Hamlet … We … realize—as his words so often indicate—that the positive striving for vengeance, the pious task laid on him by his father, was to him the moral and social one, the one approved of by his consciousness, and that the ‘‘repressed’’ inhibiting striving against the act of vengeance arose in some hidden source connected with his more personal, natural instincts. The former striving … indeedismanifestin every speech-in which Hamlet debates the matter: the second is, from its nature, more obscure and has next to be investigated.
This is perhaps most easily done by inquiring more intently into Hamlet’s precise attitude towards the object of his vengeance, Claudius, and towards the crimes that have to be avenged. These are two: Claudius’ incest with the Queen, and his murder of his brother. Now it is of great importance to note the profound difference in Hamlet’s attitude towards these two crimes. Intellectually of course he abhors both, but there can be no question as to which arouses in him the deeper loathing. Whereas the murder of his father evokes in him indignation and a plain recognition of his obvious duty to avenge it, his mother’s guilty conduct awakes in him the intensest horror.
Now, in trying to define Hamlet’s attitude towards his uncle we have to guard against assuming off-hand that this is a simple one of mere execration, for there is a possibility of complexity arising in the following way: The uncle has not merely committed each crime, he has committed both crimes, a distinction of considerable importance, since the combination of crimes allows the admittance of a new factor, produced by the possible inter-relation of the two, which may prevent the result from being simply one of summation. In addition, it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible inter-relationship of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family, give scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet’s mind which may be the cause of the very obscurity we are seeking to clarify.
Let us first pursue further the effect on Hamlet of his mother’s misconduct.
Before he even knows with any certitude, however much he may suspect it, that his father has been murdered he is in the deepest depression, and evidently on account of this misconduct. According to [A. C.] Bradley, [in his Shakespearean Tragedy], Hamlet’s melancholic disgust at life was the cause of his aversion from ‘‘any kind of decided action.’’ His explanation of the whole problem of Hamlet is ‘‘the moral shock of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother’s true nature,’’ and he regards the effect of this shock, as depicted in the play, as fully comprehensible. He says:
“Is it possible to conceive an experience more desolating to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be; and is its result anything but perfectly natural? It brings bewildered horror, then loathing, then despair of human nature. His whole mind is poisoned … A nature morally blunter would have felt even so dreadful a revelation less keenly. A slower and more limited and positive mind might not have extended so widely through the world the disgust and disbelief that have entered it.”
But we can rest satisfied with this seemingly adequate explanation of Hamlet’s weariness of life only if we accept unquestioningly the conventional standards of the causes of deep emotion. Many years ago [John] Connolly, a wellknown psychiatrist, pointed out [in his A Study of Hamlet] the disproportion here existing between cause and effect, and gave as his opinion that Hamlet’s reaction to his mother’s marriage indicated in itself a mental instability, ‘‘a predisposition to actual unsoundness’’; he writes: ‘‘The circumstances are not such as would at once turn a healthy mind to the contemplation of suicide, the last resource of those whose reason has been overwhelmed by calamity and despair.’’ In T. S. Eliot’s opinion, also, Hamlet’s emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear, and he specially contrasts it with Gertrude’s negative and insignificant personality [in his The Sacred Wood] … We have unveiled only the exciting cause, not the predisposing cause. The very fact that Hamlet is apparently content with the explanation arouses our misgiving, for, as will presently be expounded, from the very nature of the emotion he cannot be aware of the true cause of it. If we ask, not what ought to produce such soul-paralysing grief and distaste for life, but what in actual fact does produce it, we are compelled to go beyond this explanation and seek for some deeper cause. In real life speedy second marriages occur commonly enough without leading to any such result as is here depicted, and when we see them followed by this result we invariably find, if the opportunity for an analysis of the subject’s mind presents itself, that there is some other and more hidden reason why the event is followed by this inordinately great effect. The reason always is that the event has awakened to increased activity mental processes that have been ‘‘repressed’’ from the subject’s consciousness. His mind has been specially prepared for the catastrophe by previous mental processes with which those directly resulting from the event have entered into association … In short, the special nature of the reaction presupposes some special feature in the mental predisposition. Bradley himself has to qualify his hypothesis by inserting the words ‘‘to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be.’’
We come at this point to the vexed question of Hamlet’s sanity, about which so many controversies have raged. Dover Wilson authoritatively writes [in his What Happens in Hamlet]: ‘‘I agree with Loening, Bradley and others that Shakespeare meant us to imagine Hamlet as suffering from some kind of mental disorder throughout the play.’’ The question is what kind of mental disorder and what is its significance dramatically and psychologically. The matter is complicated by Hamlet’s frequently displaying simulation (the Antic Disposition), and it has been asked whether this is to conceal his real mental disturbance or cunningly to conceal his purposes in coping with the practical problems of this task?
What we are essentially concerned with is the psychological understanding of the dramatic effect produced by Hamlet’s personality and behaviour. That effect would be quite other were the central figure in the play to represent merely a ‘‘case of insanity.’’ When that happens, as with Ophelia, such a person passes beyond our ken, is in a sense no more human, whereas Hamlet successfully claims our interest and sympathy to the very end. Shakespeare certainly never intended us to regard Hamlet as insane, so that the ‘‘mind o’erthrown’’ must have some other meaning than its literal one. Robert Bridges has described the matter with exquisite delicacy [in his The Testament of Beauty, I]:
Hamlet himself would never have been aught to us, or we
To Hamlet, wer’t not for the artful balance whereby
Shakespeare so gingerly put his sanity in doubt
Without the while confounding his Reason.
I would suggest that in this Shakespeare’s extraordinary powers of observation and penetration granted him a degree of insight that it has taken the world three subsequent centuries to reach. Until our generation (and even now in the juristic sphere) a dividing line separated the sane and responsible from the irresponsible insane. It is now becoming more and more widely recognized that much of mankind lives in an intermediate and unhappy state charged with what Dover Wilson well calls ‘‘that sense of frustration, futility and human inadequacy which is the burden of the whole symphony’’ and of which Hamlet is the supreme example in literature. This intermediate plight, in the toils of which perhaps the greater part of mankind struggles and suffers, is given the name of psychoneurosis, and long ago the genius of Shakespeare depicted it for us with faultless insight.
Extensive studies of the past half century, inspired by Freud, have taught us that a psychoneurosis means a state of mind where the person is unduly, and often painfully, driven or thwarted by the ‘‘unconscious’’ part of his mind, that buried part that was once the infant’s mind and still lives on side by side with the adult mentality that has developed out of it and should have taken its place. It signifies internal mental conflict. We have here the reason why it is impossible to discuss intelligently the state of mind of anyone suffering from a psychoneurosis, whether the description is of a living person or an imagined one, without correlating the manifestations with what must have operated in his infancy and is still operating. That is what I propose to attempt here.
For some deep-seated reason, which is to him unacceptable, Hamlet is plunged into anguish at the thought of his father being replaced in his mother’s affections by someone else. It is as if his devotion to his mother had made him so jealous for her affection that he had found it hard enough to share this even with his father and could not endure to share it with still another man. Against this thought, however, suggestive as it is, may be urged three objections. First, if it were in itself a full statement of the matter, Hamlet would have been aware of the jealousy, whereas we have concluded that the mental process we are seeking is hidden from him. Secondly, we see in it no evidence of the arousing of an old and forgotten memory. And, thirdly, Hamlet is being deprived by Claudius of no greater share in the Queen’s affection than he had been by his own father, for the two brothers made exactly similar claims in this respect— namely, those of a loved husband. The last-named objection, however, leads us to the heart of the situation. How if, in fact, Hamlet had in years gone by, as a child, bitterly resented having had to share his mother’s affection even with his own father, had regarded him as a rival, and had secretly wished him out of the way so that he might enjoy undisputed and undisturbed the monopoly of that affection? If such thoughts had been present in his mind in childhood days they evidently would have been ‘‘repressed,’’ and all traces of them obliterated, by filial piety and other educative influences. The actual realization of his early wish in the death of his father at the hands of a jealous rival would then have stimulated into activity these ‘‘repressed’’ memories, which would have produced, in the form of depression and other suffering, an obscure aftermath of his childhood’s conflict. This is at all events the mechanism that is actually found in the real Hamlets who are investigated psychologically.
The explanation, therefore, of the delay and self-frustration exhibited in the endeavour to fulfil his father’s demand for vengeance is that to Hamlet the thought of incest and parricide combined is too intolerable to be borne. One part of him tries to carry out the task, the other flinches inexorably from the thought of it. How fain would he blot it out in that ‘‘bestial oblivion’’ which unfortunately for him his conscience contemns. He is torn and tortured in an insoluble inner conflict.
Ernest Jones, ‘‘The Psycho-Analytical Solution,’’ in Hamlet and Oedipus Doubleday & Company, 1954, pp. 51–79.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007