The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0376  Thursday, 15 February 2001

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 2001 14:22:56 -0500
Subject: 12.0346 Hamlet and Oedipus?!?
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0346 Hamlet and Oedipus?!?

Andrew Walker White writes:

>Clifford Stetner refers to "unresolved Oedipal" issues Hamlet may have
>with Gertrude. . . frankly, I wonder that we still haven't gone beyond
>Dr. Ernest Jones' type of critique, which I find so willfully
>superficial and unscientific that it should have been ditched long ago.

I don't think that supposing that there are Oedipal issues treated in
the play has to involve some form of doctrinaire Jonesism or
Freudianism.  No more so than to suppose that Sophocles was exploring
related themes of male unconscious trauma in Oedipus Tyrannus

>Is Stetner saying that there can be no other reasons, dramatic or
>otherwise, for Hamlet's intemperate response to his mother's
>re-marriage?  Is he implying that the _only_ reason Hamlet lingers on
>the time it took for remarriage was because he lusts for his mom?  I
>should certainly hope not.

No.  Like the objects of scientific analysis, literature is not
constrained to single significations.  A chemist's analysis of a human
brain differs from a biologist's, but a poet is free to be chemist,
biologist and psychoanalyst.

>If we are going to apply a scientific model, and we need to consider
>Freud as a scientist (I know, that's a big if, but what can we do), then
>the only way to prove the Oedipal theory is to take into account the
>facts of the case, and come up with compelling reasons why other, more
>down-to-earth theories don't apply.  Here's my theory:

I also don't have much faith in the application of scientific models to
literature.  I don't see how you can get past textual scholarship and
bibliography in a purely scientific, quantifiable, verifiable analysis
of texts.  Poetry traffics in ambiguities of meaning, in connotative as
well as denotative meaning, and such things are not necessarily

>It doesn't take Freud or Jones to realize that step-parents are rarely
>welcome.  And if the new dad happens to be a drunken bastard of an
>uncle, making the marriage not only ill-advised but _incestuous_ in the
>eyes of any Church in Hamlet's day, I fail to see any reason for Oedipus
>to intrude on the discussion

What intrudes is the question of Hamlet's "sanity."  This question is
not original to Shakespeare's treatment of the Hamlet myth.  Analogues
and sources from David in the Old Testament to Brutus to Saxo's Hamlet
have feigned madness to escape persecution.  Here's my theory:
Shakespeare paid an attendant at Bedlam asylum to be allowed to observe
the inmates on more than one occassion (perhaps the Earl of Essex's
eccentric behavior resulted from syphilitic psychosis and this initiated
or supplemented his interest).  His studies of various forms of human
"madness" are too accurate not to have been drawn from observation.  He
offers theories regarding the sources of the various psychoses and
neuroses (without, of course the benefit of these post enlightenment
terms) that he observed in characters like Hamlet, Ophelia, Macbeth and
his Lady, Lear, Kent and Tom of Bedlam and others.  He realized that the
mythological Hamlet's persistent tendency to speak in crypitc riddles
reflected the behavior of psychotics he observed and that the myth
probably arose from primitive attempts to explain this kind of psychotic
behavior.  So he departed from his sources in removing the unambiguous
feigning element from his treatment of the character in order to
emphasize the psychoanalytic implications.

>Hamlet's humiliation at his mother's
>conduct can be easily understood by anyone who looks the situation
>squarely in the eye.  The original legend makes clear that Hamlet is
>disgusted with the Queen's quick remarriage -- Shakespeare adds that
>touch of pathos that he is also embarrassed for her, and the
>embarrassment comes precisely because he remembers what a great
>wife/queen/mother she used to be.

>How simple humiliation and disgust can be twisted into carnal lust is
>beyond me, and has yet to be proven.

If you accept that something like a Freudian Oedipal complex indeed
accounts for the formation of the (male) subject, then it doesn't seem
strange that particularly perceptive and enthusiastic students of human
nature should discover the phenomenon.  Hamlet's melancholy at the
beginning of the play is presented to us as excessive, and his eccentric
behavior throughout the play is sufficient to raise the question of
insanity in those around him.  He claims that it's all a strategy (but
his melancholy is excluded: "I know not seems"), so the question is
forced as to where feigning ends and madness begins.

My theory is then that the question of madness and its sources is part
of the entire Hamlet tradition.  Shakespeare's adaptation of this
tradition brings this aspect of the story into prominence.  I don't hope
to make a scientific theory out of this reading.  Its validity must rest
on whether it succeeds in opening up insights into the author's methods
that illuminate other of his works.  It does so for me.

Clifford Stetner

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