Psychological Approaches To Hamlet


Although Freud himself made some applications of his theories to art and literature, it remained for an English disciple, Dr. Ernest Jones, to provide us with the first full-scale psycho analytic treatment of a major literary work. Dr. Jones’s Hamlet and Oedipus, originally published as an essay in The American Journal of Psychology in 1910 and later revised and enlarged, is now conveniently available in a paperback edition (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1949); it remains a model of professional competence and scholarly thoroughness for the Freudian critic.

Dr. Jones bases his argument on the thesis that Hamlet’s much-debated delay in killing his uncle, Claudius, is to be explained in terms of internal rather than external circumstances and that “the play is mainly concerned with a hero’s unavailing fight against what can only be called a disordered mind.” In his carefully documented essay Dr. Jones builds a highly persuasive case history of Hamlet as a psychoneurotic suffering from manic- depressive hysteria combined with an abulia (an inability to exercise will power and come to decisions) —all of which may be traced to the hero’s severely repressed Oedipal feelings. Jones points out that no really satisfying argument has ever been substantiated for the idea that Hamlet avenges his father’s murder as quickly as practicable. Shakespeare makes Claudius’ guilt as well as Hamlet’s duty perfectly clear from the outset—if we are to trust the words of the Ghost and the gloomy insights of the hero himself. The fact is, however, that Hamlet does not fulfil this duty until absolutely forced to do so by physical circum stances—and, even then, only after Gertrude, his mother, is dead. Jones also elucidates the strong misogyny that Hamlet displays throughout the play, especially as it is directed against Ophelia, and his almost physical revulsion from sex. All of this adds up to a classic example of the neurotically repressed Oedipus complex.

The ambivalence that typifies the child’s attitude toward his father is dramatized in the characters of the Ghost (the good, lovable father with whom the boy identifies) and Claudius (the hated father as tyrant and rival), both of whom are dramatic projections of the hero’s own conscious-unconscious ambivalence toward the father-figure. The Ghost represents the conscious ideal of fatherhood, the image that is socially acceptable:

See, what a grace was seated on this brow:

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,

An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,

A station like the herald Mercury

New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,

A combination and a form indeed,

Where every god did seem to set his seal,

To give the world assurance of a man:

This was your husband. (III, iv)

His view of Claudius, on the other hand, represents Hamlet’s repressed hostility toward his father as a rival for his mother’s affection. This new King-Father is the symbolic perpetrator of the very deeds toward which the son is impelled by his own unconscious motives: murder of his father and incest with his mother. Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill Claudius because, to do so, he must, in a psychological sense, kill himself. His delay and self-frustration in trying to fulfil the Ghost’s demand for vengeance may therefore be explained by the fact that, as Dr. Jones puts it, “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” (pp. 78—79).

A corollary to the Oedipal problem in Hamlet is the pronounced misogyny and latent homosexuality in Hamlet’s character. Because of his mother’s abnormally sensual affection for her son, an affection that would have deeply marked Hamlet as a child with an Oedipal neurosis, he has in the course of his psychic development repressed his incestuous impulses so severely that this repression colours his attitude toward all women: “The total reaction culminates in the bitter misogyny of his outburst against Ophelia, who is devastated at having to bear a reaction so wholly out of proportion to her own offense and has no idea that in reviling her Hamlet is really expressing his bitter resentment against his mother” (p. 96). The famous “Get thee to a nunnery” speech has even more sinister overtones than are generally recognized, explains Jones, when we understand the pathological degree of Hamlet’s condition and read “nunnery” as Elizabethan slang for “brothel.”

The underlying theme relates ultimately to the splitting of the mother image which the infantile unconscious effects into two opposite pictures: one of a virginal Madonna, an inaccessible saint towards whom all sensual approaches are unthinkable, and the other of a sensual creature accessible to everyone. . . . When sexual repression is highly pronounced, as with Hamlet, then both types of women are felt to be hostile: the pure one out of resentment at her repulses, the sensual one out of the temptation she offers to plunge into guiltiness. Misogyny as in the play, is the in evitable result. (pp. 97—98)
(Excerpted from A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Harper and Row, 1966.