Frailty thy name is Hamlet (A silly and unconventional reading)

Lacan tells us, in ‘Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet’[i], that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set apart from previous versions of the story by the central role given to Ophelia. In fact, female sexuality in general plays a vital role in understanding what is generally seen as Shakespeare’s most deeply psychological play and I will argue that in following the psychoanalytical readings expounded by Freud, Ernest Jones and Lacan, and taking into account some of the play’s inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a new political reading, of Hamlet as conspirator to the throne, can be made. Hamlet’s hamartia, or tragic flaw, is usually seen as his incapability of decisive action and vengeance for his father. Goethe attributed this to a sensitivity, which is unequal to the task[ii] (‘conscience does make cowards’). Coleridge similarly claimed that Hamlet has ‘an overbalance in the contemplative faculty’[iii], which leads him to deliberate over everything and makes him incapable of decisive action. It has been argued against this view that Hamlet’s indecision is inconsistent. His murder of Polonius occurs in an instantaneous moment of passion, which it may be argued overrides his cowardice, however, the manner in which he sends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths is carefully pre-meditated. When the role of female sexuality is taken into account, however, an entirely different explanation for this paralysis can be expounded. Hamlet’s state of depression and madness (feigned or otherwise) is caused by two factors: Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father and his incestuous marriage with Gertrude. Criticism prior to Freud generally saw these as distinct reasons contributing to Hamlet’s psychological state, however, using the tools of psychoanalysis and particularly the theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud argued that the combination of the two factors outweighed the sum of their parts[iv]. Ernest Jones points out Hamlet’s differing reactions to Claudius’ two crimes – moral indignation and the wish for vengeance for the murder of his father, and a disgusted horror at the marriage – and then explains the issue thus, ‘it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible interrelation of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family on which they were perpetrated, gives scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet’s mind that may be the cause of the very obscurity that we are seeking to clarify.’[v] Freud’s argument, later developed by Jones, is that Hamlet’s closeness to Gertrude, which comes through in lines such as ‘let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, I pray thee stay with us’, is indicative of an Oedipus complex, whereby he had repressed wishes to kill his father and gain his mother’s full attention. According to Freud the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius brought those repressed feelings to the surface, causing Hamlet’s neurosis. It is significant that he contemplates suicide before the ghost tells him that his father had been murdered (‘O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt’). This reading places a far greater emphasis on Gertrude’s sexuality as a factor behind the events of the tragedy, as it shows that Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius is due to his guilt at wishing to commit the same crime. Both Freud and Jones later go on to argue that Hamlet’s neurosis is a reflection of Shakespeare’s own, however this sort of authorial reading is one that has lost it’s credence over the last century, particularly with Barthes’ declaration of the ‘death of the author’.

Hamlet’s Oedipus complex manifests itself in a madness, which we cannot be sure to be feigned, as Hamlet claims, or real. This madness is most famously expressed through Hamlet’s soliloquies on the subject of suicide. In the ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy Hamlet is questioning whether suicide or endurance is ‘nobler in mind.’ The idea of nobility ‘in mind’ can be seen as an attempt to compensate for what he feels are ignoble and vile thoughts.  He conflates the ideas of death and sleep (‘to die: to sleep’) and therefore runs into the fear that checks his drive towards suicide, ‘to sleep, perchance to dream’. In Freud’s theory of the unconscious the subject’s superego represses socially unacceptable thoughts, but these often come through in dreams through the processes of condensation and displacement, or in Lacan’s terminology, metonymy and metaphor. Hamlet’s fear of dreams, and his statement elsewhere that ‘I have bad dreams’, show that the repressed feelings that so horrify him resurface in his dreams, and his fear of the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ is a fear that those dreams may continue in the eternal sleep of death.

Hamlet’s treatment of Gertrude throughout the play is scornful and disgusted. He tries to overcompensate for his knowledge of his hypocritical position by emphasising his mourning in a performative manner and contrasting it with what he sees as her indifference. In Hamlet’s first scene he aggressively takes issue with her use of the word ‘seems’ when describing his mourning. He sets up a binary opposition between ‘seems’ and ‘is’, which he then undermines by saying, ‘tis not alone my inky cloak’, implying that the black cloak and suit are indeed part of his act of mourning – seeming and being are conflated rather than opposed. ‘Customary suits’ and ‘forced breath’ are what Hamlet calls ‘but the trappings and the suits of woe’, and contain implication of insincerity the words ‘customary’ and ‘forced’. Hamlet, however, says ‘I have that within which passes show’, again contradicting himself by asserting that ‘passes’ do actually ‘show’ rather than ‘seem’. His inconsistencies show that his mourning ‘seems’ far more than he would like to admit. In the closet scene, after the murder of Polonius, Hamlet’s treatment of his mother is still more scornful and accusatory in spite of her pleas of remorse (‘thou turnst my eyes into my soul and there I see such black and grieved spots as will leave there their tinct’), and it becomes clear that his disgust at the surfacing of his desires towards her has led him to violently reject and abhor sexuality. This can be seen from the dirty and sickening language he uses in 3.4.90-92. ‘The rank sweat of an enseamed bed stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty’ is an incredibly sordid and potent picture of the way in which he views her marriage, which so closely reflects his own repressed desires.

Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia likewise reflects his Oedipus complex. Jones argued that before the death of his father Hamlet’s superego was successful in repressing his Oedipal tendencies, and that he had transferred his feelings of attraction from Gertrude to Ophelia (‘I loved you once’), who in her modesty, chastity, devotion and simplicity can be seen as the polar opposite of Gertrude. Lacan developed this idea further by arguing that after the murder of Hamlet’s father Ophelia loses her status as the love object, and in a separation from Hamlet’s subject becomes excluded and rejected. Hamlet’s disgust towards Gertrude becomes a more general misogyny, and he sees Ophelia merely as a ‘breeder of sinners’ and propagator of life (and therefore misery). He sees all women as sexually insatiable and corrupting, as seen in lines such as ‘wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them’. He likewise appropriates to Ophelia unpleasant general stereotypes of women – ‘you jig and amble and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance’. His imperative, ‘get thee to a nunnery’ has a double meaning, as in Shakespeare’s day nunnery meant both what it does today and was also used euphemistically to mean a brothel.

There is one more implication of the Oedipus complex in relation to royals such as Hamlet, which was relevant to Oedipus himself, but doesn’t factor in Freud’s formulation, and this is of succession to the throne. Hamlet throughout appears to be disinterested in politics and the state of affairs in Denmark, however some inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father bring this into question. In the first scene when the ghost visits Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio they discuss the old king with a reverent air – ‘that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march’. At no point in the play do they speak of Claudius in the same way, and it seems significant that they go to Hamlet with their news rather than him. Another question raised by consideration of the ghost is why does it appear to them, but not to the queen? If it merely appeared to Hamlet, but not Horatio and the guards then it could be explained away as madness, however this is not possible under the circumstances. At no point throughout the play is Hamlet able to confirm absolutely that Claudius killed his father, even while Claudius is praying, as Hamlet arrives too late to hear his confession. Hamlet’s play is presented as an attempt to prove Claudius’ guilt by presenting him with the act that he supposedly committed, and Claudius does indeed leave in horror. However, this is not conclusive evidence. What Claudius has just witnessed, whether it is indeed a representation of his own crime or not, is a play, put on by his nephew, in which a nephew kills a king and marries the queen, his mother. Could it be that, rather than being wracked with guilt by the scene, Claudius has instead seen within it an elaborate threat engineered by Hamlet (who is, of course, the next in line to the throne). My argument is that Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio are conspirators who wish to depose Claudius and instate Hamlet to the throne. They win over Hamlet to this plot and he feigns madness in order to portray Claudius as an incestuous tyrant and to generate the implication that Claudius killed his father. This appears to leave the ghost scenes unreconciled, but this is not the case when we consider that Horatio is the only character left at the end to tell the tale.

[i] Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet

Author(s): Jacques Lacan, Jacques-Alain Miller and James Hulbert

Source: Yale French Studies, No. 55/56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise (1977), pp. 11-52

Published by: Yale University Press

[ii] J.W. von Goethe, in The Romantics on Shakespeare. p. 306


[iii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, Capricorn, New York, 1959. pp. 164-5


[iv] Freud, S, The Interpretation of Dreams (excerpt) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 4, Ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74), pp. 258-266.


[v] Jones, E, ‘The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive’, The American Journal of Psychology, 21.1 (Jan., 1910), pp. 72-113.



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