Hamlet has been praised and revered for centuries as one of William Shakespeare’s best known and most popular tragedies. Based on its popularity, critics alike have taken various viewpoints and theories in order to explain Hamlet’s actions throughout the play. The psychoanalytic point of view is one of the most famous positions taken on Hamlet. Psychoanalytic criticism is a type of literary criticism that analyzes and classifies many of the forms of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature.
As the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines psychoanalysis, as a form of therapy that is concluced by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind’ (Barry 96). One of the most popularized psychoanalysts of all time was Sigmund Freud. His theories on repression most directly parallel to Hamlet’s actions in the play. This theory states that “much of what lies in the unconscious mind has been put there by consciousness, which acts as a censor, driving underground unconscious or conscious thoughts or instincts that it deems unacceptable.
Censored materials often involve infantile sexual desires” (Murfin ). These unconscious desires are seen in dreams, in language, in creative activity, and in neurotic behavior (Murfin ). This theory of repression also is directly correlated to Freud’s Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex deals with Infantile sexuality as well, by explaining that sexuality starts at infancy with the relationship of the infant with the mother, not at puberty. The Oedipus complex assesses that the infant has the desire to discard the father and become the sexual companion of the mother (Barry 97).
In analyzing Hamlet, the Oedipus Complex is clearly apparent to the reader. As a child, Hamlet always expressed the warmest fondness and affection for his mother. This adoration contained elements of disguised erotic quality, especially seen in the bed chamber scene with his mother. The Queen’s sensual nature and her passionate fondness of her son are two traits that show her relationship with Hamlet goes beyond the normal mother-sun relationship. Nonetheless though, Hamlet finds a love interest in Ophelia.
His feelings for Ophelia are never discussed fully in the play, but it is evident to the reader that at one time he loved her because of the hurt he feels when she lies to him. At this part in the play, Hamlet insults Ophelia by telling her, “Or if/ thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know/ well enough what monsters you make o f them. To a /nunn’ry, go, and quickly too” (3. 1. 136-139). At this part in the play, it is extremely difficult for Hamlet to differentiate between his mother and Ophelia. Therefore, making his true feelings for his mother become more obscure.
When Hamlet’s father dies and his mother re-marries, the independency of the idea of sexuality with his mother, concealed since infancy, can no longer be hid from his consciousness. Emotions which were favorable and pleasing at infancy are now emotions of abhorrence and disgust because of his repressions (Jones). In the beginning of the play he becomes extremely derisive and contemptuous to his mother. “Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not “seems. ” (1. 2. 76). When Hamlet says this, he is mocking his mother’s question about why he is still mourning his father’s death.
Ironically, out of the love he still has for his mother, he yields her request to remain at the court. The long “repressed” need to take his father’s place, by gaining his mother’s devotion is first stimulated to unconscious activity by the marriage of his mother to Claudius. Claudius has usurped the position of husband to Gertrude, a position that Hamlet had once longed for. The fact that Claudius was not only the victor o fhis mother’s affections, but also his uncle, aggravated the situation.
Their incestuous marriage thus resembles Hamlet’s imaginary idea of having a sexual relationship with his mother. These unconscious desires are struggling to find conscious expression, without Hamlet being the least aware of them (Jones). As the play goes on, Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost. Upon discovering that his father’s death wasn’t natural, he says with much feeling that “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift/ As meditation, or the thoughts of love,/ May sweep to my revenge” (1. 5. 29-31).
The ghost tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. His motives were his love for Gertrude, without her knowledge or consent. Hamlet is furious and seething with rage with the news of his father’s murder. Knowing the truth makes Hamlet’s subconscious realize that killing Claudius would be similar to killing himself. This is so because Hamlet recognizes that Claudius’ actions of murdering his brother and marrying Hamlet’s mother, mimicked Hamlet’s inner unconscious desires. Hamlet’s unconscious fantasies have always been closely related to Claudius’ conduct.
All of Hamlet’s once hidden feelings seem to surface in spite of all of the “repressing forces,” when he cries out, “Oh my prophetic soul! / My uncle! ” (1. 5. 40-41). From here, Hamlet’s consciousness must deal with the frightful truth (Jones). Therefore, when dealing with Claudius, Hamlet’s attitude is extremely complex and intricate. The concepts of death and sexuality are interchangeable in this play (Adelman 271). To the reader, it is evident that Hamlet hates his uncle, but his despise of Claudius comes more from his jealousy than from anything else.
The more Hamlet criticizes Claudius, the more his unconscious feelings start to unravel. Hence, Hamlet is faced with a dilemma by acknowledging the same feelings his uncle has towards his mother, even though he detests Claudius, and yet on the other hand, he feels the need to avenge his father’s death (Jones). It takes Hamlet a month to decide to finally take action against Claudius. Hamlet tells Horatio that “Come, some music! Come, the recorders! / For if the King like not the comedy,/ Why then belike he likes it not, perdy” (3. 2. 276-279).
After this scene in the play, Hamlet is convinced of Claudius’ guilt, but his own guilt prevents him from completely eliminating his uncle. Hamlet is still trying to “repress” his own sexual desires. It could be construed that Claudius manifests all of Hamlet’s passions and emotions. If Claudius is killed, then Hamlet must also be killed(Jones). The course of action that Hamlet pursues can only lead to his ruin. In the end of the play, Hamlet is finally willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: to avenge his father’s death and to kill his uncle, as well as part of himself. Hamlet will live on forever in the literary world.
It has become extremely popular and famous because the reader can analyze the play from a diverse and countless number of ways. Psychoanalytic criticism is one of many ways of looking at Hamlet’s actions. Freud and other theorists were able to take the play and analyze it scene by scene, giving a more in-depth meaning to the actions of the characters. In a sense, Shakespeare wrote two plays in one; one play dealing with a tragedy, leaving the stage with many corpses; the other standing the test of time, in a captivating exploration into an unconscious world of the unknown.