You know the story of Hamlet—the King is killed by his brother Claudius, who usurps the throne and marries the Queen. Prince Hamlet discovers his uncle’s guilt through a visit from his father’s ghost, but he hesitates in exacting his revenge. Why? Does he question the ghoul’s sincerity? Besides needing meat between the pages, Shakespeare wanted to build a story of deception, torment, and, apparently, psychoanalysis.
The bigwig psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, wrote about Hamlet in his famous Interpretation of Dreams, claiming that all of the poor prince’s problems stemmed from one source—his mother, Gertrude. He writes that every male possesses an underlying sexual attraction to his mother, and, because of that, a jealousy of his father. Is this why Hamlet doesn’t slice Claudius up right away? Because he wants his mom? Perhaps. But probably not.
Freud also talked about the id, ego, and superego, three things we’ve heard from our ex-psychology-major friends. The ghost acts as Hamlet’s superego, the external force that tells him to kill. This influence leaks into his ego, or consciousness or conscience, but his unconscious mother-loving id tells him to ruminate. Perhaps this route of Freud’s is better than the first.
Another psychoanalyst to analyze Hamlet is Jacques Lacan, who applies the psychoanalytic phallus and mirror stage to the play. This term signifies the sexual difference between the dominant King and depressed Prince. When Hamlet’s father dies, he not only loses a parent, he loses his sense of manhood. He obsesses over his uncle’s incarnate phallus, develops a jaded view of his mother, and searches for sensuality in Ophelia, who symbolizes a substitute for what he lost. “Frailty, thy name is woman!,” the emotional Prince yelps. He holds metaphorical mirrors up to everyone, trying to see them react to their own ugliness, but he fails to examine himself, the true frail child. When Hamlet watches Gertrude and Claudius during the play within the play, He wants to see their guilt and then bask in it, introjecting his desire into his two victims. Hamlet not only expects to see their guilt, but he wants to see it emerge.
The last but certainly not least strain is that of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst who developed the psychoanalytic idea of archetypes (and much more!). According to Jung, Hamlet has two goals: To gain a strong, efficient ego that can perform revenge; and to eradicate his ego by returning his mother to her embodiment of his childhood imagination. Once Hamlet realizes that his mother isn’t the perfect archetype of a mother that he thought she was, he is taken aback in hornswoggled inaction. His inability to distinguish these archetypes from reality results in his confusion that everyone mistakes as madness.
So what exactly makes Hamlet wait? Perhaps he doesn’t want to sleep with his mother, but instead he finally saw her as a woman rather than just a mother, a new view that scares him out of his wits. Gertrude’s hasty marriage disgusts her son, who shortly sets out on a quest for redemption through Lacanian guilt trips and pretended madness. Thanks to psychoanalysis, the motives and reasons behind Hamlet’s inaction become clear, or did this just confuse you?
[Paul Michael Oliphant is a 2011 graduate of Southern Oregon University who is going on to San Francisco State University to study linguistics. His senior capstone project dealt with Anglo-Saxon and Norse Influence in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.]