Hamlet and the Oedipus Complex

The critical applications of the famous theory of the Oedipus complex to the tragedy of Hamlet are innumerable. It was Freud himself who, in an essay published in 1905, was the first to try and resolve in psychoanalytical terms the enigma offered by Hamlet’s behavior. According to Freud, the personal crisis undergone by Hamlet awakens his repressed incestuous and parricidal desires. The disgust which the remarriage of his mother arouses in him, as well as the violent behaviour during their confrontation in the queen’s bedroom, are signs of the jealousy which he constantly experiences, even if unconsciously. Hamlet is absolutely horrified by the thought that his mother could feel desire for Claudius, whom he describes as a ‘murderer and villain,/ A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe/ Of your precedent lord’.

Such an act

That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,

Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose

From the fair forehead of an innocent love

And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows

As false as dicers’ oaths-O, such a deed

As from the body of contraction plucks

The very soul, and sweet religion makes

A rhapsody of words. Heaven’s face does glow

O’er this solidity and compound mass

With tristful visage, as against the doom

Is thought-sick at the act. (Act Three, Scene Four)

A little after, the ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly appears in order to assuage the anger of his son and implore him to take pity on his mother’s great distress: ‘This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose./ But look, amazement on thy mother sits./ O step between her and her fighting soul./ Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works./ Speak to her, Hamlet’.

The bedroom scene is one example amongst many of Hamlet’s aversion to sexuality, which he more often than not associates with vulgarity and sickness. Despite his violent reactions, he is nonetheless fundamentally incapable of acting, Freud tells us, because he cannot bring himself to avenge himself on the man who has killed his father and taken his place at the side of his mother. Given that Claudius does no more than reproduce the repressed fantasies of childhood, the hatred Hamlet feels for him is progressively replaced by a feeling of guilt which constantly reminds him that he is no better than the man he is supposed to punish.

Contrary to Freud the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thinks that the real psychological dimension of the play lies not in Hamlet’s behaviour but in his language. In his famous essay, entitled ‘Desire and the interpretation of desire in Hamlet’, he holds that the most striking characteristic of Hamlet’s language is its ambiguity. Everything he says is transmitted, in various degrees, through metaphor, simile and, above all, wordplay. His utterances, in other words, have a hidden and latent meaning which often surpasses the apparent meaning. They have, therefore, enormous affinities with the language of the unconscious which proceeds equally by various forms of distortion and alterations in meaning, notably through slips of the tongue, dreams, double entendres, and wordplay. Hamlet is himself aware of the ambiguous nature of his own speeches as well as of the feelings which drive them.