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Oedipal Hamlet J.C. MaÁek III

English 490

Dr. James H. Lake


Itís 1602, Do You Know Who Your Parents Are?

It has commonly been suggested by such disciples of Sigmund Freud as Ernest Jones that Shakespeareís character of Hamlet is the victim of an Oedipus complex. While any reading of the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark that focuses on the text and not the psychoanalytical fads of the current age disproves any notion of Hamletís oedipal nature, many film artists have followed popular psychology and have adopted this theory for the screen. Whether out of precedent, pressure, or some need to discover some complex in Hamlet, this has become a very popular trend for filmmakers. Seeing as how it is impossible to do a production of Hamlet without addressing Hamletís relationship with Gertrude, Hamlet, Sr., and Claudius, the following will be a discussion of several filmic Hamlets, and the presence, or absence of these Freudian notions.

While certainly not the first production of Hamlet for the big screen, Laurence Olivierís 1948 adaptation is the first full length commercial version, and is still highly regarded today. In this film Gertrude looks at Hamlet more like a lover than a mother, gazing at him lustfully whenever he is present. Gertrudeís affection is not limited to these gazes, however, as upon Hamletís agreement to remain at Elsinore she kisses him deep and long on the lips, like a lover.

Olivierís Hamlet is initially aggressive toward Gertrude during the closet scene, but after the visit from the ghost he becomes as affectionate as Gertrude is in the beginning. Hamlet speaks to Gertrude tenderly, and she responds accordingly. He then gives her a deep long kiss to seal their pact against Claudius. Taken out of context the scene would appear to be a conversation and love-pact between two young lovers. This gives the viewer the impression that Hamlet has convinced Gertrude to chose him over his rival Claudius, in keeping with the theories of Ernest Jones.

Clearly the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude, at least emotionally, goes somewhat deeper than family. In order to accomplish this Olivier makes several textual edits and free adaptations. For example, Gertrudeís death is a suicide intended to expose the king and save her son in a final fruition of the love-pact. Gertrude knowingly drinks the poisoned wine, sacrificing herself, and repenting in order to try to rescue her love, Hamlet. This Gertrude is not defined by her appetites, but by her quasi-sexual lust, reminiscent of that of Venus for Adonis, which is so strong that she willingly gives her life because of it.

"Olivierís psychological interpretation of an Oedipus complexÖ was very much in keeping with the themes of 1940s films, Freud and psychoanalysis were in vogue, a fashion that found cinematic expression in films such as Ö Spellbound (1945)." (Leong). Because of precedent, Olivier gives us a Gertrude who is more attached to her son than his father, or even Claudius, and a Hamlet who is trapped in a circle of confusion, unable to make up his mind due to a sexual incontinence.

Olivierís own precedent (as it is safe to say that there is nothing oedipal in Gadeís 1921 film) along with the incessant ravings of psychoanalytical critics seem to have spawned similar ideas in such filmmakers as Franco Zeffirelli. Mel Gibsonís Hamlet is, as the video cover claims "more macho than melancholy," and director Zeffirelli has Gibsonís machismo erupt in various directions. Not excluded from this testosterone attack is the bubbly Gertrude, played by Glenn Close. But it is not only Hamlet, as this Gertrude seems promiscuous in her affections, not focusing only on Hamlet, as in Olivierís version. Gertrude loves Claudius, is playful with Polonius, and is simply crazy about her son.

Like Olivier, Zeffirelli cuts many key lines describing Hamletís relationship with his mother. Such lines as "let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom. / Let me be cruel, not unnatural" (Hamlet, III.ii.393-395) are likewise cut. Zeffirelli lets the audience know that Hamlet is aggressive, but not at whom his aggression is intended. Hamletís drinking of hot blood seems more aimed toward Claudius than Gertrude, and has no disclaimers surrounding it.

During the actual closet scene Hamlet climbs into his motherís bed and proceeds to simulate sex with her while speaking daggers to her. Gertrude responds with kisses so deep and passionate that Olivier himself would blush. Hamlet does not fight this kiss, and in fact only disengages because the ghost of his father enters, and then guiltily he pulls away as if to hide his act. Hamletís almost blunted purpose is lain naked before the ghost, as it would have been to Freud. In contrast to Olivierís version, this Hamlet seems to feel that he has been caught in the incestuous act with Gertrude, and guilt overpowers his expressions. Whereas Olivierís tenderness is amplified by the ghostís appearance, who provokes a gentler love for Gertrude, Gibsonís guilt reminds him that he must distance himself from this action, regardless of his physical or emotional feelings in order to complete his quest.

Hamletís father in this film is not a disdainful figure Hamlet would feel threatened by, rather he seems a weak and broken down king who poses no threat even as a spectre. Hamlet is more likely to take up this quest out of pity for his fallen father than an anger toward Claudius, whom the Freudians claim Hamlet is jealous of. This pathos ridden ghost is not someone Hamlet would have wished to usurp, but more of one whom Hamlet would apologize to for usurping Claudius in his motherís bed. Clearly Zeffirelli was aiming for an oedipal tone between Hamlet and Gertrude, even if he had to alter the text, and stretch his concepts to achieve it.

Contrary to these films, Tony Richardsonís 1960s version of Hamlet is loaded with sex of a different kind. The king and queen hold court from their very bed (reminiscent of John Lennon, and Yoko Ono at the same time), Laertes and Ophelia (played by pop singer and soft-core erotic thriller actress Marianne Faithfull) fondle each other incessantly, and nearly everyone seems to be overtly sexual. Everyone but Nicol Williamsonís Hamlet, that is. Williamson offers us a Hamlet whoís energy is expelled with great force in his lines and body-language, not through perverse sexual leering. Everyone else seems relatively calm in comparison, as they apparently have found alternate outlets for their frustration. While it can be said that Williamsonís Hamlet is truly repressed and angry, he certainly has no Oedipus complex, likely because in the swinging sixties incestuous liaisons and mother complexes were no longer fashionable film topics, and were therefore not sought out in texts where none are present.

While Branaghís 1996 version of Hamlet is short on incest it is not short on sex. Branaghís Hamlet, and Kate Winsletís Ophelia engage in sex during several flashbacks, seeming to show that Hamletís interest in real sex, not maternal lust. Shakespeareís entire script is represented in Branaghís screenplay (Branagh uses the First Folio with some additions from the Second Quarto), and thus all lines chronicling Hamletís aversion to incest, his loyalty to his father, and his intense aggression toward his mother are intact. The viewer therefore gets a fuller idea of Hamletís mind without the text having to be edited to accommodate a Freudian reading.

Branagh also adds a fascinating new take on the relationship with his three parents. Branagh shows us scenes of Hamletís childhood, coupled with some of the relationships he had. The one constant in these familial flashbacks is the presence of Gertrude, always accompanied by Claudius. This causes the audience to wonder how long the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude had gone on, as it was never explained in Shakespeare. Branagh further gives us Brian Blessedís ghost who looks almost nothing like Branagh whatsoever. The characters of Hamlet, and Derek Jacobiís Claudius are both presented as robust, canary-haired, blue eyed men, resembling each other much more than either represents Hamlet, Sr. Although it is never fully explored in the film, the suggestion that Claudius is Hamletís actual biological father is present in this adaptation. By offering this interpretation, Branagh sheds all new light on the relationship between Hamlet and his parents. If Claudius is Hamletís actual father, Hamlet does fall into the oedipal cycle of wanting to murder his father. It is however, never even remotely suggested that Branaghís Hamlet intends to replace Claudius in his motherís affection after the murder takes place.

When dealing with Julie Christieís Gertrude, Hamlet is not at all lustful. Passionate kisses, and simulated sex are forgone for a more Nicole Williamson-like rage toward his betraying mother. The ghost appears seemingly to protect Gertrude from Hamletís mad rage, not to prevent a coupling, and Hamlet is moved to a childlike sweetness at the sight of his dear father. While still disdainful of his mother, Hamlet tones down his aggression toward her in order only to obey his fatherís order. This intense and full dislike for Gertrude, and unrelenting reverence for the ghost completely opposes the concept of the Oedipus complex in Hamlet.

Although it has been a popular notion to ascribe an Oedipus complex to Hamlet, regardless of what the text spells out for us, there is clearly not one present. Such undaunted filmmakers as Franco Zeffirelli, and Laurence Olivier, for reasons of popular precedent, or their own reading between the lines, have added this complex into their filmic adaptations, cutting lines and scenes wherever necessary to achieve this. Other filmmakers such as Kenneth Branagh and Tony Richardson have left out the supposed complexes and have given us Hamlets free of supposed incestuous wishes and confused notions. This reverence for the script and lack of supposition give the viewer a more accurate view of Hamlet that is more in keeping with the complex mind Shakespeare offered his audience.



Leong, Virginia. "Hamlet Article from The Australian." 06 December 1997. (07 December 1997)

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Riverside Shakespeare. ED. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Haughton Mifflin Company, 1974.


Branagh, Kenneth. "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare: Sreenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Guerin, Wilfred L., Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reeseman, and John R. Willingham. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.