Hamlet and Oedipus

Posted July 5, 2017 1:38 am by Steve Roney

Hamlet and Oedipus

Aside from Oedipus Rex, Freud cites Hamlet as a literary example of his Oedipus complex. “Another of the great poetic tragedies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex,” he writes (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 86).

So here Freud offers a second literary example to support his contention that the Oedipus complex is the essential conflict in the human psyche. We have found, however, that the story of Oedipus itself does not support Freud’s contention. It instead seems to show an opposite conflict, that outlined in the legend of St. Dymphna, of a traumatic threat to the child from the parent.

Does the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, fit his thesis?

In the first place, one might rightly object that Hamlet is not clearly an analysis of mental illness. One of the great questions of the play is whether Hamlet is in fact suffering delusions, or is feigning madness to protect himself from—er–a traumatic threat from his parents, his mother and step-father. There seems to be, as Polonius says, a “method in his madness.” He seems quite capable, as with his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of reasoning things out rather clear-headedly.

But if he is not experiencing psychosis, Hamlet is, at least, suffering depression. Before he hears of his father’s murder, before he has clear cause to fear for his own safety, he is already in low spirits:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

That, surely, is a description of a depressed state. And so is this passage:

I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Ophelia seems to be a clearer example of flat-out psychotic madness. But even this is disputed within the play. As described by Gertrude, her death appears to be an accident, caused by her loss of contact with the surrounding physical reality: she does not seem to understand her situation when she falls off a branch into the water. Yet the gravedigger ponders whether she, as a suicide, ought to be buried in consecrated ground, and the priest later confirms that she is considered a suicide. This must mean they do not believe she was really mad.

It all makes Hamlet, at first glance, a dubious reference as a study of madness. This is perhaps why Freud only cites it in passing, without explaining how it supports his point.

But let us say that it is. I suspect that, in the end, Shakespeare is not saying Hamlet is not mad, but that there is method in all madness. Hamlet does, after all, see a full-blown apparition of his father, in Gertrude’s presence. She sees nothing: this suggests hallucination. Yet this “hallucination” gives Hamlet real and valid information about his father’s death.

This is just what Polonius says within the play:

How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of.

In other words, what we normies class as madness is actually contact with an actual spirit world.

So the play is about what we call “mental illness,” then. Does it fit Freud’s analysis?

No more than does the tale of Dymphna, or of Oedipus. Strike three for Freud’s Oedipus complex.

Hamlet is driven to melancholy, or perhaps schizophrenia, it seems, through extreme grief over the death of a father; he is driven to kill for revenge over this. Ophelia goes mad over the death of hers—even though he is, as the audience can see, not a very impressive or honest man. Fortinbras resorts to treasonous war for revenge of his, even though Fortinbras senior brought his fate upon himself. Laërtes resorts to treasonous rebellion and murder for revenge of his:

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father

Kind of drives the point home.

Yet Freud would have it all about each of them wanting to kill their father?

This is surely a perfect inversion of the evidence. The evidence is not only all on the other side, but emphatically on the other side.

There is indeed also incest in the play, as Freud would expect there to be: both Hamlet and the ghost make a point of calling the marriage of Gertrude, his mother, and Claudius, his uncle, incestuous.

But this incest is against the will of Hamlet, who clearly deplores it. And it does not even involve him directly as a sex partner. It can hardly be, as Freud says, a wish fulfillment.

Hamlet’s story does, however, correspond with the “Dymphna complex” we have posited, the set of features we found to be common to the Dymphna and the Oedipus legends. It seems to presume, again, that the cause of “mental illness” is a selfish, possessive parent.

Let us review the elements of the Dymphna complex, as we have seen them so far, and see how they apply:

The father is king, the child a prince or princess; or this is the story of a prominent family

Hamlet and Fortinbras are royal princes, like Dymphna (princess) and Oedipus. Laërtes and Ophelia come at least from a prominent noble family. Again, this might have no significance: it is a requirement of the genre that the subject of a tragedy be high-born. (But why is that?)

The victim is unusually beautiful, handsome, athletic, intelligent; he or she is exceptional.

Ophelia testifies to this for Hamlet:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

This is substantiated by Hamlet’s ability to better than hold his own against the celebrated swordsmanship of Laërtes in the final scene.

Hamlet is also, like Oedipus, unusually intelligent; that he is a master of riddles is a fulcrum of the play. He feigns, or at least is felt capable of feigning, madness. He shows a quick wit in all his conversation. He cleverly frees himself from the trap set for him by Claudius, Rosencranz, and Guildenstern. When they first appear, he is able to guess, without being told, why they are here.

He is an authority on drama. He is a scholar at Wittenberg. He is also referred to by Claudius as hugely popular with the people:

The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces.

It is the exceptional child who especially draws the malevolent attention of the selfish parent. This gives step-father Claudius obvious cause for both fear and resentment; and so for wishing Hamlet destroyed.

Her brother Laërtes vouches for Ophelia being exceptional:

Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections

Her ability to attract the attentions of a man her social superior, as so often pointed out by Polonius, also attests to this.

Laërtes’s great athleticism is vouched for by Lamond:

He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, ‘twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them.

The victim is unusually selfless and driven by ethical considerations.

This is not immediately apparent, perhaps, of Hamlet, to a modern audience. After all, he kills Polonius, and arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

He is, that is to say, no pacifist. Some today are inclined to equate violence with evil. Yet this is wrong; neither Shakespeare, Hamlet nor Hamlet’s first udience would have made this mistake. True Christian morality requires a robust defense of the right. “All that is needed for evil to triumph,” as Burke observed, “is for good men to do nothing.”

Hamlet kills Polonius in hot blood, not knowing who he is. If a royal discovers someone hiding behind a curtain in the queen’s bed chamber, he has good reason to strike first and ask questions later; the stakes are too high. The kingdom’s inner sanctum has been violated, by a thief, an assassin, or a spy. His life as well as the nation is in peril, and swift action may be his only chance. Polonius was a fool, to be in this position. It shows the intensity of his determination to control others, and the absence of any sense of others’ interests or concerns.

Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his friends, killed. But they were accessories to his own intended murder; and self-preservation left him no other choice. If he had simply confiscated the diplomatic letters calling for his execution, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have conveyed the same message orally. He needed to pre-emptively undermine their credibility with the English king.

These strikingly decisive actions show, on the other hand, that, contrary to some interpretations of the play, Hamlet is not indecisive. He is no coward, and he is no pacifist.

Which throws into stark relief his hesitation in killing Claudius, running through the play. Making it doubly important to understand his reason for this.

By eliminating alternative explanations, it demonstrates that his concern is ethical. Unfortunately for Hamlet, revenge is prohibited in Christian morality: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”; “Let not the sun go down on your anger.” Yet his father’s ghost has demanded just that, vengeance. He must reconcile these two opposed moral requirements. He must somehow kill Claudius, but not in cold blood, not for revenge.

If this seems too fine a point for the gentle reader’s conscience, it is not for Hamlet’s. He demonstrates his concern for conscience and for cosmic righteousness when he first appears in the play, in rejecting the thought of suicide:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

It is the issue in his famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, …

Which is the nobler course? To fight against this evil, or to turn the other cheek?

To be sure, he does accuse himself of cowardice:

Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?

‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal

But he himself has answered that charge already:

who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

He cannot, therefore, bring himself to kill Claudius at prayer. He can kill Claudius only if immediate circumstances require it.

Returning from his aborted trip to England, he sends his uncle a letter:

“’Tis Hamlets character. ‘Naked!’ And in a postscript here, he says ‘alone.’”

This sounds like an open invitation to come after him. He is hoping to provoke an attack, requiring him to defend himself.

Then he accepts the fencing challenge from Laërtes even though he has shown himself adept at smelling and escaping traps, and although he has every reason to know Laërtes holds a grudge against him, and his uncle is trying to kill him.

Indeed, he does suspect the trap:

But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here
about my heart: but it is no matter.

Hamlet’s moral scruples are shown here in another way. Laërtes and Claudius are rightly confident they can slip a fatal blade into the duel, because Hamlet would risk his own death rather than accuse another of cheating.

he, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils

In the end, Hamlet kills Claudius only once Claudius has, in effect, already killed him—after he has been cut with the poisoned sword. Justice is served, at the cost of his own life.

As with Oedipus and Dymphna, then, Hamlet is exceptionally selfless and righteous, and this is a cause of his tragedy. Had he been thinking of his own self-interest, he might have simply run Claudius through while he was praying, inherited the kingdom, married Ophelia, and lived happily ever after. Far from seeking his own father’s death, as Freud suggests, he risks and sacrifices his own life to avenge his father.

Put another way, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Dymphna are all martyrs. And so is Laërtes: he too dies to avenge his father’s death.

Ophelia is shown as the dutiful daughter, obedient despite her own will and desires. She shows her father all of Hamlet’s letters. Told to avoid Hamlet, she says to her father simply, “I shall obey, my lord.”

Laërtes demonstrates that he has the same moral concerns as Hamlet, although he honours them only in the breach:

I dare damnation. To this point I stand
That both the worlds I give to negligence.
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.

The parent is selfish and self-centred. He or she treats others as objects.

This is most clearly true of Claudius. Claudius says this of himself; there can be no misunderstanding: “we love ourself.”

The fact that he murdered his brother to become king is the clearest evidence.

Lesser examples are his readiness to manipulate Rosencranz and Guildenstern to kill Hamlet, despite their friendship with him. This is a betrayal of all three, to serve his own purposes. He shows callous manipulation again in his readiness to exploit Laërtes to the same end. He is pushing people like chess pieces across a board.

The case against Gertrude for selfishness is less obvious, but at least as strong. Hamlet refers to his mother’s attitude after his father’s death when he says to Ophelia:

But, by ‘r Lady, he must build churches then, or else shall he suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is “For, oh, for, oh, the hobby-horse is forgot.”

She is treating another human being, and her own husband, like a plaything. He was of no significance to her.

Is Hamlet being fair?

Surely he is. Consider the visible facts. Would Claudius have taken the risk of assassinating King Hamlet if he did not have a guarantee that he would inherit the throne? Without that, what would have been the point? Could it have merited the risks?

And how could he have had such a guarantee?

Primogeniture was the rule: the throne should normally have gone to Hamlet Junior. Nor was there any reason to keep it from him: he is thirty years old, not under-age and in need of tutelage. He is a scholar, and a capable swordsman. He would have been, Claudius points out, a popular choice.

In the face of this, Claudius would have been mad to kill the king in hopes of replacing him. Unless …

On introducing her to the audience, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “the imperial jointress to this warlike state.” “Jointress” is a legal term. It comes from “jointure”: “an estate settled on a wife for the period during which she survives her husband, in lieu of a dower” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, Gertrude had been legally named by her husband as successor to the crown.

That this was possible in Denmark of the day is supported by the account of Fortinbras Senior: he left his kingdom, the play tells us, to whomever defeated him in combat.

this Fortinbras; who by a seal’d compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return’d
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design’d,
His fell to Hamlet.

Gertrude therefore was the one person with the best motive for wanting King Hamlet dead: she acquired by this the throne.

Nor could Claudius have had any reason to do the deed unless she were involved. He must have been certain she would marry him. She must have guaranteed it.

Why? Perhaps, from her point of view, unlike the strong-willed Hamlet, Claudius could be controlled. He says as much, to Laërtes:

for myself–
My virtue or my plague, be it either which–
She’s so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.

Aside from the incestuous nature of their marriage, the fact that she remarried almost immediately after the death of her husband—Hamlet says it was “within a month”–suggests much. Is this the act of a loving wife?

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

She was, in sum, surely behind the assassination.

Hamlet thinks so:

A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Now, what about Laërtes and Ophelia? They seem to be doublets of the Hamlet story; Ophelia too goes mad. Is Polonius as well such a selfish, callous sort? Do we have warrant to think so?

Hamlet believes so. To begin with, it seems necessary that Polonius too, was involved in the taking of the throne by Claudius. In Danish law, the succession was legally in control of the Thing, the Danish parliament. This is underlined by Hamlet’s own speech in favour of Fortinbras while dying: there is an election in parliament. Polonius was chief counsellor, prime minister. He ran the Thing. He must have handled this tricky business for Gertrude and Claudius, and perhaps was rewarded for it.

With the same shrewdness that guesses immediately why Rosencranz and Guildenstern have suddenly appeared at Elsinore, Hamlet was surely able to smell out Polonius’s control of Ophelia’s actions towards him; her drawing away.

Hamlet addresses Polonius at one point as “Jephthah,” one of the Biblical judges of Israel. The one best-known fact about Jephthah is that he put his own daughter to death (Judges 11: 30-37).

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?
Hamlet: Why,
‘One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’

Hamlet: Am I not i’ the right, old Jephthah?
Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter
that I love passing well.
Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

We must not assume, Hamlet is suggesting here, that parents love their children; and Hamlet believes that Polonius does not. He is sacrificing Ophelia for his own ends.

When Hamlet calls Polonius a “fish-monger,” or rather, less honest than a fish-monger, is not the implication that he is offering his daughter for sale as a merchant might flog his wares in the streets? That she is no more than that to him—a commodity? This seems to be why Hamlet pulls back from Ophelia: he thinks in playing hard to get she is being offered to him in this way.

Hamlet advises Polonius concerning his daughter, “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive—Friend, look to ’t.”

There is a double entendre here: “Conception” means pregnancy, but also thought. And coming into the sunlight suggests a thought dawning, not pregnancy. Polonius, in other words, is advised not to let his daughter see what is really going on.

When Polonius says to Hamlet, “Upon mine honour,–” Hamlet responds “Then came each actor on his ass,–.” That is, Polonius’s honour is an ass. It is a vehicle Polonius uses to get him where he wants to go; he has no true concern with right or justice. An ass is, traditionally, an image of unbridled desires.

Polonius has no honour and will say whatever profits him. Hamlet neatly demonstrates this in a famous exchange:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet introduces Polonius to his friends with the words: “that great baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling-clouts.” This suggests the same thing: a baby knows nothing but his own desires. He has not developed a moral sense.

Polonius gives his son the celebrated advice:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This is, in as many words, a charter of selfishness.

Advising his daughter, he urges that calculation of self-interest take precedence over feelings of love.

Tender yourself more dearly;
Or―not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus―you’ll tender me a fool.

Seek a higher price for yourself—and my interests come before your feelings. Here we see the fish-monger in action.

When Claudius asks, of Ophelia’s relations with Hamlet,

But how hath she
Received his love?

Polonius’s immediate answer is: “What do you think of me?”

This assumes and asserts that his daughter is under his complete control. Her actions reflect him and his character. She has no independent existence.

In her final madness, Ophelia muses: “It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter.”

Is there is method in her madness as well? What can this mean? Who is her father’s steward?

Better yet, who is her father?

To a Christian, of course, her true father, as with all of us, is God. Our Earthly father does not own us, but is a steward. Polonius, then, in seeking to own her, has stolen her from God.

In Act II, Polonius arranges to spy on his son Laërtes: a controlling, manipulative act, which assumes ownership and disrespect. He even coaches his spy, Reynaldo, in how to manipulate others, feigning friendship in order to gain their confidence.

Marry, sir, here’s my drift;
And I believe, it is a fetch of wit:
You laying these slight sullies on my son,
As ‘twere a thing a little soil’d i’ the working, Mark you,
Your party in converse, him you would sound,
Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes
The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured
He closes with you in this consequence;
‘Good sir,’ or so, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman,’
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country.

He reads all his daughter’s love letters; and decides when he will “loose” his daughter and to whom, as if she were a worm on a hook. He spies on them too, from behind an arras. Spying is second nature to him; he spies on everyone; and this is an extreme form of control.

It must have been hell to grow up with such a father.

We have too little information on Fortinbras to say whether his parents were similar. But being named after his father is a clue: it is a common practice, but a parent who gives his child the same name is flirting symbolically with seeing his child as an extension of himself rather than a separate person.

The same could be said of Hamlet’s true father, Hamlet.

The parent tries to kill the child.

Claudius, as step-father, tries to kill Hamlet three ways before the curtain falls: by sending him to England to be executed, by Laërtes’s poisoned blade, and, just to make certain, by a poisoned cup of wine.

I think intent is proven.

His ruthlessness contrasts with Hamlet’s hesitation in killing him.

Fuseli: Hamlet’s ghost

Of course, Claudius is not Hamlet’s real father. His real father, or his fathers ghost, or some demon claiming to be him, is, however, also reckless of Hamlet’s interests. He wants Hamlet to risk his life to avenge a wrong done to him—a selfish demand. And it is a demand—note the repeated command from the ghost to “swear!”

Hamlet: Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.

It is not just that Hamlet must risk his own life. He must also, as we have seen, risk the fires of purgatory or eternal damnation. The ghost, of course, must be fully aware of this, because he is experiencing such punishments himself.

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

What loving father wishes that on his son?

Gertrude, unlike Claudius and King Hamlet, does not seek to kill her son—her disapproval is keeping Claudius from killing him openly. Yet her actions put him, as the heir apparent, in obvious peril. Claudius’s claim to the throne is insecure; so insecure that Laërtes, who has no claim, is able to mount a credible rebellion at short notice. Hamlet is the obvious alternative. She knows Claudius will murder for the sake of the crown. Is she really doing an exemplary job of looking out for her son’s welfare? Or is she sacrificing it to her own desires?

She might not actually want him dead; but she plainly would not be that upset about it either.

What of Polonius?

We cannot expect such a dramatic act as attempted homicide from Polonius. In the first place, as a courtier, not a king, he does not have the power to easily pull it off. In the second, Polonius is a man of words, not actions. If he kills he will kill with words, and figuratively.

Polonius’s attempts to control Ophelia in her interactions with Hamlet, although they are plausibly presented as being in her own interest, do seem to count as reckless endangerment: the loss of Hamlet’s love seems one of two factors, along with his own death, that drive her mad.

And he had every reason to foresee this danger. He says, of young love, referring to Hamlets apparent madness,

truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this.

And so he knows he is playing with fire. Did he assume his daughter had no feelings?

Again, while he does not try to kill his son Laërtes in the physical sense, he is happy to wreck his reputation with words. He instructs his spy Reynaldo to spread lies in France about his son being immoral:

But, if’t be he I mean, he’s very wild;
Addicted so and so: and there put on him
What forgeries you please

He suggests this is in order to maintain his control. And that is shocking enough. But it might be of value to him in its own right. Laërtes is obviously a more impressive character than his father.

One might also mention, in this regard, Fortinbras Senior’s heedlessness of his son’s interests in staking his kingdom on a duel. Which, of course, Hamlet Senior did as well. Not to mention leaving the kingdom to his wife instead of his son.

Parent seeks incest with child; theme of parent-child incest

This does and does not happen here. We have incest, but not incest between parent and child. There is an incestuous marriage between Gertrude and Claudius, brother and sister-in-law. There is no apparent incest in the family of Polonius.

Unfortunate for Freud. Freud claimed the child wants incest with the parent. There is no trace of that here. But then too, if parent-child incest is an image of a parent wanting to totally possess the child, this incest does not serve that purpose either. So why should incest appear here at all?

Perhaps it has independent value as evidence that the parent puts their own physical desires above family obligations or proper family feelings: in this, it would be like Laius’s homosexual rape of Chrysippus in the Oedipus cycle. The Greeks were not troubled by homosexuality; but rape is rape. And incest is incest.

There may also be something in incest that evokes, specifically, treating another human being as an object, as a Danish vibrator, instead of as a fellow soul.

Today, we feel that incest is a problem because of the risk of genetic defects. We would not, therefore, consider a marriage between a woman and her brother-in-law incestuous.

But how much did the Elizabethans even know about such genetic issues?

The problem for them must have been either 1) that such unions confuse family ties and so violate proper family obligations—an uncle is also a father, and so forth; it may therefore suggest a person who shirks their responsibilities to relatives generally to satisfy their own desires; or 2) that a brother is likely to closely resemble a brother. So the transfer of affections from one to the other is too likely to be based on similarities, and not on the factors that make humans human, individual, and unique. You are not loving them for themselves, but forcing them into the place of some other person. So, like Damon’s intended incest in the Dymphna legend, it marks someone who does not see others as individuals.

By this interpretation, the incestuous marriage marks Gertrude specifically—not Claudius—as selfish and heedless of others.

Presumably, such a person will presumably see their children the same way. Children are there for the parent’s pleasure and advancement.

Ophelia and Laertes before the king and queen

There is a second possible reference to incest in the play. When Ophelia goes mad, she seems to confuse Hamlet with her father, Polonius. That is, she sings songs about her lover having died.

Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did go
With true-love showers.

She also, against character, sings songs with rather bawdy suggestions that she has been deflowered by someone who now rejects her.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

If there is method in madness, what can it mean?

It is not entirely clear that Hamlet has left her forever. Might he not come back mentally well, and resume their relationship? Yet she speaks of her relationship with her lover as, one way or another, dead or lost to her.

Might this in fact imply incest? Neither Polonius nor Hamlet is named: we only assume Hamlet is meant. When she refers to her lover dying, or gone forever, the simplest explanation would be that, in fact, her “lover” was her father.

There is no need to understand this as a literal incest—the unconscious mind does not work literally. Spirit may well be more concerned with a spiritual incest. She could be expressing instead the general sense that her father overstepped his paternal bounds by seeking to possess her too completely, as if he were also husband and lover. And that this possessiveness was an invasion of her person comparable to ravishing her. Whether Hamlet returned or not, she might have understood with her father’s death that this ruined her emotionally for marriage.

The child resists this fate (of incest, or, for Oedipus, of killing the parent).

Unlike Oedipus and Dymphna, Hamlet is not called upon to resist incest. He is, however, obviously deeply opposed to the incestuous marriage, and, of course, to the murder of his father. One might say that, to avoid such an incestuous relationship, he seems prepared to renounce all sex of any sort.

Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath
made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages:
those that are married already, all but one, shall
live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a
nunnery, go.

In general, the main action of the play is revenge by a son for the death of a father: Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laërtes are all driven by this motive. This surely counts as resistance to his murder.

Besides the opportunity to kill Claudius at prayer, Hamlet has an opportunity to kill his mother, Gertrude, in her bedchamber. His mother actually expects this, and cries for help. Yet he has already determined that he must not. Matricide is unthinkable. Instead, he kills the figure behind the curtain, who appears to be a threat to her.

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

There is a paradox here. The play establishes that Hamlet, Fortinbras, Laërtes and Ophelia all have abusive, possessive parents. And yet the action of the play is about how devastated they all are when this parent dies: they go mad, they kill for revenge. They have every reason to instead attack their parents, their parents expect it—and yet their reaction is the opposite. Isn’t this strange?

Hamlet has nothing but praise for his father:

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.

One finds the same dissonance in Oedipus Rex. All of Oedipus’s troubles, as Tiresias points out, are a curse set upon him by his parents. Yet rather than condemn his parents, Oedipus takes all the guilt upon himself.

I know not with what eyes
I could have met my father in the shades,
Or my poor mother, since against the twain
I sinned, a sin no gallows could atone.

How fair a nursling then I seemed, how foul
The canker that lay festering in the bud!
Now is the blight revealed of root and fruit.

Yet the only thing that made the little nursling “foul” was its parents rejection of it. It was only foul in their eyes.

This must all strike the audience as wrongheaded.

Ophelia, similarly, seems to blame herself for the harm her father has brought on her by driving her away from Hamlet. In her madness, she remarks, “Well, God ‘ild you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.” This is a reference to an old folk tale in which Jesus appears in disguise and begs a baker for a loaf of bread. The daughter, however, objects to his generosity, and as a result is transformed into a night owl.

This seems to blame Ophelia for rejecting Hamlet, and exonerate her father.

Is all this perhaps making an important point about “mental illness”?

Consider the probable effects of being raised by a highly self-centred parent. It is a bitter joke among the Adult Children of Alcoholics group: “when the child of an alcoholic dies, someone else’s entire life flashes before their eyes.”

Children of self-centred parents have been imprinted from the nursery with the fundamental premise that Dad or Mom is the most important thing in the universe, and they are nothing in comparison. Kids learn things. Hence, perhaps, much or all of the mental or moral conflict that produces mental illness.

Worse still if the abusive parent decides a child is somehow a threat. He will then imbue the child, like Oedipus, with the certainty that there is something foul about their nature, no matter what they do. Even when this is not the case, the self-centred parent is invariably going to be resistant to accepting the blame for anything he or she does wrong, and is likely to form a settled habit to put it on the child as the most convenient scapegoat. To admit error or wrong would be a challenge to their own intrinsic wonderfullness.

It follows that the last thing on earth they could bear to do, even despite the worst possible provocation, is raise a hand against their abusive parent.

Yet, ironically, much of the harm they suffer can come from a paranoid conviction in the parent that the child is out to get him or her–a conviction Freud, for one, tragically endorses. Laius is not the only character in Greek legend who receives an oracle claiming his son will eventually kill him. The first such oracle was given to Kronos, the father of all the Olympian gods. The suspicion is that primeval.

So, while Gertrude, out of her guilt, assumes Hamlet intends to kill her, he has no such intent.

Indeed, as if to anticipate her thought, Hamlet himself explains why the fantasy that a child wants to kill (or even supercede) their parent is absurd. And this reveals another reason why Hamlet resists striking even at his step-father.

Rosencranz tells him of a troupe of actors who have come from the city, because, he says, their performances are being overshadowed by those of local children.

there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they
call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.

Hamlet responds:

What, are they children? who maintains ‘em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players–as it is most like, if their means are no
better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?

In other words, children would never do such a thing on their own account as seek to overthrow their elders. As long as they are children, they are entirely dependent on their parents. And, since they will themselves grow to be adults, they would be “exclaiming against their own succession.” Accordingly, any attack on a parent, even once it were physically possible, would be an attack on their own future hopes; for they too will become adults one day.
Honour your father and mother, as the Bible advises, so that that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. It is always in one’s own self-interest.

And any writer who suggests otherwise, Shakespeare suggests, is manipulating either the children or the facts.

Accordingly, Freud’s Oedipus complex cannot be correct.

Child flees the parents: exile.

At the beginning of the tragedy, both Laërtes and Hamlet seek exile. Laërtes wants to go to France, and Hamlet to Wittenberg. In both cases, the parents, being possessive and controlling, resist. Polonius appears to reluctantly consent, but then sets spies upon his son. Gertrude begs Hamlet to stay. He agrees, against his will, demonstrating his filial piety.

Later, Claudius himself suggests Hamlet be sent to England. But only so that he may be killed safely offstage.

Fortinbras also exiles himself from Norway, to fight in either Denmark or Poland.

We do seem to have a pattern here, to add to the exiles of Dymphna and Oedipus. Why this motif of exile?

Or is it escape? In the first instance, it is the obvious way to avoid the clutches of a possessive or a malicious parent. They, of course, can be expected to resist: an absent child is harder to control and manipulate. It is less theirs.

Within the play, Claudius expresses a belief, presumably common at that time, that exile, or travel, is a remedy for mental illness generally:

Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself.

This seems to have been a common belief in many times and places: that travel or exile is a useful treatment for madness. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes of the Medieval “ships of fools,” which he holds to have actually sailed continually up and down the Rhine river, for the sake of their lunatic passengers.

But this would most especially be true if the prime cause of the “settled matter,” of madness generally, were the actions of a parent—were the family situation back home.

Hamlet suggests that madness depends entirely on the circumstances: it is environmental in its causes.

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw

It follows that a change of environment would help.

At another point, greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he simply and plainly states: “Denmark’s a prison.”

In the scenes following Hamlet’s return from the voyage to England, he seems strikingly more calm and straightforward in his speech. Did Shakespeare really forget he was supposed to be mad, or feigning madness? Or has the voyage and the separation from his (foster) parents indeed cleared his mind?

Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard

What of Ophelia? As a daughter, she cannot so leave. This perhaps explains why she becomes fully mad, psychotic, on the death of her father, while Laërtes, Hamlet, and Fortinbras are mostly spurred to revenge.

A mental exile, a drawing away mentally from one’s physical surroundings, may be a natural protective reaction to an intolerable situation from which physical escape is not available. One exiles oneself mentally.

This is, perhaps, the explanation for “psychosis” generally.

And it suggests some obvious treatment options.

The child suffers.

Far from getting to fulfill any wishes, as Freud would suggest, Hamlet and Ophelia have suffered depression and/or madness. They have lost their relationship with each other. Hamlet has lost the kingdom. Fortinbras has suffered the loss of his inheritance. Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laërtes all lie dead as the curtain falls.

It does not look as though they are having a good day.

The child has some special connection with the spirit world. This gives him or her healing power for others.

Oedipus somehow brought blessings wherever he was welcomed. Dymphna intercedes for the living.

What about Hamlet?

The notion that he has special connections with the spiritual world is introduced at the outset of the play, in the appearance of his father’s ghost. The ghost will speak only to Hamlet. Surely this is straightforward enough? Hamlet has a special ability to talk to spirits.

Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

Later, in the graveyard, he communes with the dead.

He claims contact with the spirit world:

Claudius: So is it, if thou knew’st our purposes.
Hamlet: I see a cherub that sees them.

By his death, aside from leaving us this play, he heals the nation: he has lanced what was rotten in Denmark.

Speaking with his mother, Hamlet assumes the role of spiritual director, tutoring her on the good of her soul:

Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.

Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless’d,
I’ll blessing beg of you.

As with Oedipus, the intention of the story is not to heal mental illness. It is for “mental illness” to heal us.

Hamlet himself gives the purpose of the play named after him:

the play’s the thing
With which to prick the conscience of the king.

It is addressed, not to the Hamlets of the audience, but to the Claudiuses of the audience—to the “kings” and “queens” who create devastation and havoc for others with their sin.

The play may, ideally, make them recognize their wrong and reform.

Indeed, both Claudius and Gertrude are driven by the platy within a play to admit their fault—although neither has the moral fibre to amend their ways.

Yet some perhaps in the audience may.

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