Hamlet and Oedipus Essay

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Oedipal Hamlet

Of all the great works of William Shakespeare, arguably his masterpiece is Hamlet. It is also perhaps his most famous work. People who have never seen a production or read it still have a vague understanding about the play's basic plot. This is of course the story of a young prince of Denmark who is mourning for his recently dead father, also named Hamlet who may or may not have seen his father's ghost who claims the king was murdered by Prince Hamlet's Uncle Claudius. The uncle has very quickly taken control of the Danish throne and married Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude. In the five hundred years since it was first written, Hamlet has been analyzed and criticized by some of the top minds in academia, in fields such as English, Psychology, and History. The play is rich enough to lend itself to a wide range of interpretations, each of which focuses on a different component of the story or a different character in order to glean a new understanding out of the classic work. Some psychological academicians study the play through the lens of mental illness. After all, Hamlet decides that the best way to determine whether or not King Claudius is actually guilty of regicide is to pretend that he has developed a mental illness. Some psychologists look at the work and argue whether or not Hamlet has truly gone crazy or if he is pretending all the way through. One more specified theory that has been applied to Hamlet since the beginning of Freudian psychoanalysis is the idea that Hamlet may in fact have what Freud called an Oedipal Complex which is where a man subconsciously wishes to kill his father and marry his mother, just like the actual story of Oedipus Rex. By examining the specific aspects of Freudian psychological theory dealing with the Oedipal Complex and apply them to the text it is evident that there is validity to the hypothesis that Hamlet is in the throes of this mental illness.

The Oedipal Complex is a term for young men who, as stated, have a very complicated relationship with their parents. Freud stated that all children are born with a high level of intimacy with the mother. After all, children are born from the mother's genitalia and gain nourishment through her mammary glands. Some psychologists argue that children in their infancy do not even realize that they are separate people from the mother. Attachment to the father comes later through interaction with the male parent. It is not innate like the mother/child relationship (Childers 214). Issues arise when children are unable to fully separate themselves from the mother. In young men, this inability to separate leads to seriously negative emotions associated towards the father because they see that person as the one responsible for the forced separation from the mother. There is a female version of this called the Electra Complex, where females hate their mothers and love their fathers, but this has been given less credence than the version affecting males. According to Freud, sufferers of the complex have a similar desire to King Oedipus of the Socrates play. In Oedipus Rex, the title character is artificially separated from his mother shortly after birth because his father heard a prophecy that he will be killed by his son. The servant assigned to kill the infant instead leaves the baby on a hillside where it is eventually rescued and then adopted by a different king and queen. In adulthood, Oedipus winds up accidentally murdering his father and marrying his mother Jocasta. He only learns the truth after he and Jocasta have been married a long time and had several children who are both Oedipus's sons and daughters and also his siblings. Freud stated that this is what all young men want, but on a subconscious level. Although men do not necessarily all want to physically murder their fathers and have sexual intercourse with their mothers, they do want to become close to the mother. They also do not want anyone else to be closer to their mother than they can and since the father is morally allowed to have sex with the mother, something most males cannot do, he has a level of intimacy with the mother which is forbidden to the son, leading to jealousy and hatred. If the Complex is strong enough in the patient, he can come to loathe his father, even trying to push him away from the family unit so that the son can take his place as much as possible.

Interestingly, Sigmund Freud himself published works discussing the psychological issues present in the play. In the story of Hamlet, it is easy to see why so many people see the play as being indicative of a person suffering from an Oedipal Complex. The first indication that Hamlet and his mother might have an Oedipal relationship is found in his discussions with his father. Hamlet is the only person in all of Denmark who still seems to be in mourning for the dead king even though it seems that he has only been dead for a relatively short amount of time. In his first soliloquy where Hamlet laments that it is only two months since his father passed and yet everyone has moved on. During this same speech, he makes some explicit references to his parents' sex life. He says, "Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him, / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" (I.ii.143-45). Some people have argued that the reason Hamlet mourns his father so much is because of how much he loved him, and in Hamlet's own words this is the idea that he wants to convey. However, when looking at this relationship through the lens of the Oedipal Complex, it can also be argued that Hamlet is actually in mourning because of a strong feeling of guilt. If Hamlet does in fact want to be physically intimate with his mother, even on the most subconscious level, then he has wanted his father out of the way for a very long time. Now, through no actual fault of his own, this secret desire has come to pass. Therefore he blames himself for secretly wanting his father to die and blames himself for what he initially believes was a harmless accident. If there was no other perpetrator of the crime, then he himself is to blame for silently asking it of the almighty and this is something that Hamlet cannot allow.

The second, and for Freud the most important, relationship that hints that there might be something untoward going on between Gertrude and Hamlet is with regard to Uncle Claudius. Hamlet is tasked by the ghost of his father, at least in his own mind, to murder Claudius in revenge for killing King Hamlet. If there is no ghost and it is a manifestation of Hamlet's mental illness, then there are two potential reasons why this particular apparition is asking that Claudius be killed. Firstly, Claudius has now taken up the empty space in Gertrude's bed that has been vacated by the king. If Hamlet does have an Oedipal Complex, then he has now transferred his hatred for his father onto Claudius. Here again a man has taken up the place of sexual intimacy with Gertrude when Hamlet wants that place for himself. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Claudius is the person who is responsible for King Hamlet's murder, then it is no longer the prince's fault. He can transfer his guilt over the death of his father onto another person and thereby alleviate a lot of his own suffering. The ghost of Hamlet's father tells his son, "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against they mother aught" (I.v.85-86). He tells his son that he is to kill Claudius but to put no blame for the incestuous actions against the mother. It is as if the ghost is saying that Claudius is evil and must be destroyed but also exonerates Hamlet's feelings for her. These two factors working together might help explain why Hamlet has so much trouble deciding whether or not to actually go through with getting revenge on his uncle. The two men are the two sides of Hamlet's psyche arguing over what to do about his complex. At first he says that he wants to make sure that Claudius is actually guilty of the murder before Hamlet kills him. When he is satisfied that this is the case, he is still indecisive about acting. At one point, Claudius is completely alone and still Hamlet does not kill him because Claudius is praying and Hamlet does not want him to die with a clean soul and potentially go to Heaven. Every time he has a chance to kill Claudius, he hesitates, something which Freud referred to as "the Problem." No explicit answer is given for why Hamlet chooses…[continue]

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