Literary Criticism 101: Freud’s Psychoanalytical Approach and Shakespeares’ Hamlet.

Shakespeare once said: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Having in mind that people never truly show their true colors, this is quite true when one comes to think of it. They are players that act on a vast stage daily. What face one can show to one another isn’t necessarily one’s true face. People can be seen from various and numerous perspectives, depending on the situation.

Freud’s psychoanalytical approach is a form of literary criticism used to interpret literary works through psychoanalytical lenses. It deals with characters and their psyches, complexes, and mental illnesses. When it comes to Freudian psychoanalysis, it is essential to note that all of Freud’s work depends on the notion of the unconscious. This is the part of the mind that lies beyond consciousness and has a strong influence on our actions. Freud considers that the unconscious determines our behavior rather than the conscious part of our mind. He divided the human mind into what we are aware of and what we are not aware of. Freud introduced numerous notions of psychoanalysis and literary criticism, such as the notion of repression, sublimation, and oedipal complexes.

The notion of repression is related to anything we “forget” or ignore in terms of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or traumatic past events. Therefore, we tend to push these events back to the unconscious part of our mind and we do not want to deal with them. This act of pushing them aside into the darkness is called repression. Freud divides the human mind into two main parts, the conscious and the unconscious. Repression occurs in the unconscious and comes to manifest itself through three methods: dreams, slips of the tongue, and humor. Therefore, the main difference between suppression and repression is that while dealing with suppression, we tend to suppress our feelings and thoughts voluntarily, leaving them in the subconscious part. It is there but we do not always bring it to the fore; we are not always aware of it. We’ll have to unlock it for it to be present. Whereas repression is not voluntary, and we do not have access to it. This kind of psyche is also divided into three different parts, each carrying a certain function: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The ego (Conscious) is one’s sense of identity. The Id (Unconscious) represents our instinctive repressed desires that are mainly present in the unconscious. The Superego (Conscience) is seen as equivalent to our conscience, representing our moral center that enables us to differentiate between right and wrong, what is allowed and not allowed.


Sigmund Freud’s Famous Psychoanalytic Couch - Picture taken at the Freud Museum in Vienna

Oedipus complex is when a male infant develops the desire to eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of his mother. To attain the mother, they must get rid of the father. According to Freud, the infant boy is born and goes through three main stages: the oral, the anal, and the phallic. In the oral phase, the child is completely dependent on his mother, whether in the womb or outside. When the child starts breastfeeding, the boy derives sustenance, pleasure, and he connects with his mother. There is no clear separation between the body of the mother and the body of the child. When the child starts eating solid food, he grows into the anal phase. This causes him a certain difficulty because he must exert some physical effort to defecate. In this phase, the child starts separating from the mother. Following the anal phase is the phallic phase when the child becomes aware of sexual urges manifested in phallic erections. This is when the child develops the awareness of their sexual desires and instincts. According to Freud, when the child moves from one stage to another to eventually reach the phallic stage, the father comes in and realizes that the child is attached to the mother and tries to break this attachment. He intimidates his child with the “fear of castration.” The child learns through the father’s order implementation that he cannot attain his mother. Now, he tries to identify with the father and copy his behavior and looks for a replacement for the mother. If the boy does not overcome this attachment to his mother, Freud claims that this leads to homosexuality, since the boy cannot find a mother replacement and cannot get attracted to another woman.


“Castration complex” is something that boys and men are afraid of. They are afraid of losing the penis not only because it’s a male organ, but because it has something to do with patriarchal power. If the man were to lose his phallus, he loses the privileges that come along with it. Therefore, this complex is a huge "motif" for the boy, for not carrying on with the obsession with his mother. As such, works of literature can be analysed according to these Freudian notions. Hamlet being one of the most known plays by William Shakespeare makes it prone to many analyses. It is one of the most famous Revenge Tragedies and one of the greatest plays ever written in the history of Drama. Although it was first performed during the early 17h century, the play is still highly influential in our modern-day society. When looking at the play from a Freudian psychoanalytical lens, hidden complexes and internalized misogyny start to slowly uncover themselves.


Hamlet and Gertrude played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Anastasia Hille - National Theatre Live 2015

Oedipus complex refers to the psychosexual desires that occur during the phallic stage, which "drives" the boy to initiate possessiveness with the mother. This creates a sense of rivalry and competitiveness against the father. This notion comes from the Greek play by Sophocles Oedipus who unintentionally killed his father and unknowingly married his mother. Freud’s analysis of Hamlet explains that the protagonist’s behavior is due to the repressed sexual desire towards Gertrude, his mother. He is subconsciously controlled by the Oedipal complex. The depiction of Hamlet's relationship with his mother, according to Freud, has also revealed suppressed sexual impulses and connotations that reflect the oedipal complex theory. Furthermore, the idea connects Hamlet's procrastination in avenging his father's death to the concept of rivalry or resistance towards his father. Hamlet suffers from the Oedipus complex because of his reluctance to vengeance and his repressed psychosexual fixation on his mother. The reason that Hamlet doesn’t rush to avenge his father is due to the gratitude he felt towards his uncle. This leads him to think that his mother is now only his. He has deep wishes of replacing his father. On the other hand, Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius due to the fact that he perceives his uncle as a reflection of his repressed oedipal self. Hamlet lives his oedipal fantasy through his uncle, given that he was then able to kill his brother (Hamlet’s father) and sleep with Gertrude, his wife. He only succeeds in killing his uncle after he declares that he is his father’s murderer and after his mother’s death. In his first monologue, he declares, "O, most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!' (Shakespeare 1.2.157-158). He finds his mother’s marriage to his uncle revolting and disgusting. Hamlet gets enraged when Gertrude expresses affection for anyone other than him because of his suppressed feelings for his mother. His mother's remarriage appears to be more important to him than his father's death. When Hamlet scolds his mother in his chambers about her sexual desires with Claudius and expresses his actual thoughts towards their marriage, his jealousy is clearly displayed. Rather than his uncle, Hamlet aspires to be the object of his mother's affection and longing.


Moreover, the nature of Ophelia and Hamlet's relationship stems from unresolved oedipal feelings toward Gertrude. Ophelia and Hamlet's love is caused by Hamlet's unhealthy psychological bond with his mother. Hamlet never thinks of Ophelia as a lover, and he never expresses a significant sexual or emotional desire to her because he saves it for his mother. Hamlet's conflicted sentiments for his mother are mirrored in Ophelia; he despises Ophelia for being submissive to his father Polonius because it subconsciously reminds him of Gertrude's devotion to Claudius, which he resents. Hamlet's oedipal tendencies prevent him from expressing attachment for another woman, hence he solely uses Ophelia as a target for his mother's outbursts and frustrations.


Kenneth Brannagh and Kate Winslet as Hamlet and Ophelia - Hamlet's 1996 film adaptation

Finally, the Madonna/Whore Dichotomy is the belief that women can either be morally virtuous or promiscuous characters, but never both. Pure virgins, “Madonnas,” are honorable women who intend to remain chaste. Whores, on the other hand, are women who act upon their sexual needs. This dichotomy creates a contradiction in the minds of men: their love and pure feelings will only be directed towards Madonna figures, and their sexual needs would only be projected on “whores”. Thus, sex and love are always separated and cannot intertwine. After Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius, Hamlet’s perception of women is altered. He only sees them as “whores”, explaining his objectifying behavior with Ophelia. Hamlet can never be sexually satisfied by Gertrude, a woman he truly loves. He can also never develop true feelings towards Ophelia, a woman he sees as a sexual object.


To sum up, the Freudian psychoanalytical approach exposes some truly disturbing traits in Hamlet’s characters. Using this approach divulges a misogynistic nature wrapped under the sheets of a patriarchal society. It mirrors the reality of society during Shakespeare’s era. One shouldn’t forget that at the time, women weren’t even allowed to be on stage for moral reasons. This explains why male actors were taking over their roles. It created an ultimately misogynistic representation like society actually was during that period.   References Holt, R. R. (1989). Freud reappraised: A fresh look at psychoanalytic theory. Guilford Press. Barry, P. (2020). Psychoanalytic criticism. In Beginning theory (fourth edition) (pp. 97-122). Manchester University Press. Jones, E. (1910). The Oedipus-complex as an explanation of Hamlet's mystery: a study in motive. The American Journal of Psychology, 72-113. Friedman, N., & Jones, R. M. (1963). On the Mutuality of the Oedipus Complex Notes on the Hamlet Case. American Imago, 20(2), 107-131. Kemp, L. (1951). Understanding" Hamlet". College English, 13(1), 9-13. Adams, A. (1994). " Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood" by Estela Welldon (Book Review). Signs, 20(1), 230. Adams, A. (1994). Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays," Hamlet" to" The Tempest". Chiu, C. J. (2012). Freud on Shakespeare: An approach to psychopathetic Characters. Chang Gung Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 5(1), 33-56. Rose, J. (1986). Hamlet–the Mona Lisa of Literature 1. Critical Quarterly, 28(1‐2), 35-49.

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Gaelle Abou Nasr

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