Ill   Will

J.C. Macek III
English 480
Dr. Sura Rath

Ill Will
A Psychoanalytical Approach to Hamlet

     William Shakespeare’s famed play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a play
that is best critiqued using a psychoanalytical approach, due mainly to the title
character’s state of mind, and interpersonal relationships with the other
characters.  Despite the fact that Shakespeare predates Freud, Jung, and their
like by hundreds of years, Hamlet is filled with such psychological techniques
as free association, archetypal recognition, oedipal references, and fantasy
analysis.  In this way, Shakespeare not only places the audience in the mind of
the title character, but places the title character in the mind of the audience.  It
is a common reaction for the audience to leave this work more in tune with
themselves than before because of this subjective sort of effect the play has. 
While not every member of the audience will be effected the same way, all will
be effected.  The question arises then of whether Shakespeare himself
intended this subjectivity when he wrote Hamlet, or if the play achieves this
serendipitously.  This, of course, is where the mind of the author comes into
play.  It has long been suggested that Hamlet is a semi-autobiographical work
on Shakespeare’s part that was as much written to exorcise Shakespeare’s
own demons, as it was to become a successful box-office draw.  Elements of
Shakespeare’s own sometimes tumultuous life can be seen in the text of
Hamlet, that do not seem to coincide with the life of Amleth, the historical
Prince of Denmark, seen in Saxo Grammaticus’ work Gesta Danorum
(Grammaticus, 1).  While Hamlet is in and of itself a psychoanalytical
commentary on the events of a confused young man’s life, it can be argued
that this work is also a commentary on Shakespeare’s own masked strife, for
“Is it not just such a combination of frustration and self-delusion that makes one
ever write anything at all?”  (Halle, 13).  The following is a discussion of the
various psychoanalytical arguments over Hamlet, those that ring both true and
false, and a commentary on the psyche of the character of Hamlet, as well as
that of William Shakespeare himself.  The play  Hamlet Prince of Denmark 
features a title character who is not a victim of an Oedipus complex or is in any
real way insane, rather Hamlet is a sane man dealing with his own insane
circumstances who must deal directly with his love for his fallen father and his
malice toward his incestuous mother.
     In The Compensatory Psyche:  A Jungian Approach to Shakespeare,
Herbert R. Coursen states “All Hamlet criticism must be ‘psychological
criticism,’ even when it claims to be anything but.”  (63).  While this concept
rings true, it is surprising how varied this criticism has been, from the time of
Doctor Samuel Johnson, to the present.  Scholarship, even twentieth century
scholarship, on the play is a jumble of many ideas that, for the most part never
seem in concert with each other.  Some concepts seem the well thought out
ideas of those who are well versed in both Shakespearean literature, as well as
psychological theory, while others are the works of those who seem not to
have even paid attention to the text itself.  One prevailing fact is that Hamlet
utilizes a stream of conscious technique in his words form the well recognized
“To be, or not to be” soliloquy, to his more obscure recognition of cloud
formations in act three, scene two.  Another is the comments on Hamlet’s
probable Oedipus complex, and how it effects his actions, and the
interpersonal relations he has not just with Gertrude, but with Ophelia,
Claudius, and others.  The one uniting link between all of these varied
criticisms of Hamlet is that all critics in some way attempt to place the play “in
some sort of psychological framework, some model of the secret mind, be it
healthy or pathological.”  (Erlich, 3).  This would seem to prove Coursen’s
theory, while opening the door to still more conflict.  Truly the psychoanalysts
are correct in their assertion that Hamlet and Shakespeare use free
association techniques, and other psychoanalytical methods, but the problems
of Hamlet’s sanity, his delay, and his supposed Oedipus complex have been
addressed in a distinctively limited manner.  Clearly, based on textual
evidence, Hamlet’s melancholia is a therapeutic exercise for him, and this
pensive introspection causes a very rational uncertainty that leads to Hamlet’s
delay.  Also Hamlet clearly has feelings for his father that cause him to
sacrifice everything to avenge him at the ghost’s request, and has a hostility
toward his mother so intense that his murderous impulses toward her must
constantly be checked in order to fulfill his quest.  Obviously this is not an
oedipal trait.  Since “there can be no doubt that [the play] has clouded our
mental horizons with its peculiar sense of obscurity or of anxiety, and has
inspired its interpreters to discern an unending succession of shapes,” (Levin,
3) the criticisms on Hamlet must be picked apart and themselves critiqued a
little at a time. 
     Avi Elrich defines free association as “a technique used in clinical
practice to get at the full nuances of the of the unconscious thoughts that help
determine a patient’s behavior.”  (Erlich, 8).  Shakespeare used this
psychological technique centuries before our psychoanalytical fathers coined
the term.  The fact that Shakespeare uses this technique in Hamlet would
suggest that the author himself used this technique in his own life.  
Hamlet, in act three, uses a Rorschach-ink blot method to identify cloud
formations to identify in his mind a camel, then a weasel, and finally a whale. 
“Since the cloud doubtless resembled none of these in any marked degree,
what Hamlet pretended to see in it was the result of free association on his
part.”  (Goddard, 357).  
     Harry Levin argues that “when Hamlet points out a cloud to Polonius, he
points the way that criticism has taken.”  (Levin, 3).  Levin further suggests that
Shakespeare includes this passage as a means for the play’s interpretation,
not as a means of self introspection (Levin, 3).  If this is the case, then why
should these particular animals be chosen while on the subject of Hamlet’s
mother?  If this is a commentary on the multifaceted nature of the play, would
not any group of diverse images suffice?  
     Goddard sees these choices as a comment on the character of
Hamlet’s multifaceted nature, rather than that of the play.  
“A camel - the beast that bears burdens.  A weasel - an animal noted for
its combined wiliness and ferocity, and for the fact that it can kill snakes
(remember the royal serpent!).  A whale - a mammal that returned to a
lower element and so it still has to surface for air, not a land creature, to
be sure, nor yet quite a sea creature.  What an astonishing essay on
Hamlet in three words!”  (Goddard, 357).  
This may indeed be an essay on the character, intentionally implanted by
Shakespeare, however what do these choices suggest about the author?  “Are
not some of these associations going to be just as unconscious on
Shakespeare’s part as they are on Hamlet’s?”  (Erlich, 5).  Goddard’s thoughts
are quite plausible as far as they go 
“but it gives us a strange vision of a dramatic character using free
association to write a conscious essay for his author, cuts us off from
the conflicts that churned in Shakespeare’s mind before they were
poured into Hamlet along with conscious control, dehumanizes the
creative process in to a mechanical separation of serene artists and
troubled characters.”  (Erlich, 5).  
     In Shakespeare readers and listeners find clouds to be protean
examples of “Unreliable fortune, changeable and fickle love, betrayal,
falseness, [and] stained worth.”  (Erlich, 7) not only in Hamlet, But also in such
plays as Antony and Cleopatra.  Camels for Shakespeare generally represent
a form of deprication displayed by the brutish men of some of his plays (Erlich,
7).  “Shakespeare’s weasels tend to appear likenesses of vicious men and
women who suck the value out of life,”  (Elrich, 7)  much like a weasel sucks
the yolk from an egg.  The use of the whale image is not quite as cut and dry
as the cloud, camel, and weasel images are.  While certainly, as Goddard
suggests, the whale represents Hamlet regressing to the low depths,
Shakespeare seems to see whales as gluttons, and deflowerers of virgins (see
All’s Well That Ends Well 4.3.212-213).  
     In the context of the lines in which these references fall it can be seen
that these references (cloud, weasel, camel, and whale) apply more to
Gertrude than to Hamlet, as the free associations are provoked by Gertrude. 
The clouds represent Gertrude’s unreliability in love, her betrayal, her
falseness, and her stained worth.  Gertrude could be seen by Hamlet to be the
weasel who sucks the life out of her own egg (Hamlet) rather than nourishing it
(Erlich, 7).  Gertrude is also a beast bearing the burden of her lies and guilt, as
well as that of her husband Claudius, hence the camel reference.  The whale,
knowing what this image meant to Shakespeare, is a representation of
Gertrude’s appetite, and her all consuming, gross sexual nature (Erlich, 7).  We
therefore see that Hamlet sees the clouds and the images they provoke, as
much, if not more, a replacement of his archetypal image of mother, as they
are an essay on himself.  Using modern psychology we see that this is as
much a thought process of Shakespeare’s as it is of Hamlet’s.  
     Erlich says “We need to know exactly how Shakespeare is involved in
Hamlet’s free association, for, according to the modern psychology, involved
he must be.”  (Elrich, 8).  It can be deduced that Shakespeare stops at “whale”
because the word was at the time a pun on the word “will.”  As seen in Sonnets
134 - 136, Shakespeare enjoyed punning on the many meanings of “will,”
including the fact that this was his own name.  Further support of this exists in
the next four lines where “will” is used three times.  “If we could establish that
‘whale’ is the culminating association because it simultaneously represents the
sexual gluttony of the whale, that needs to be controlled, and the poet Will who
is trying to do the controlling, and the poetic process of playing with sounds (w
and l) that provides the technique of control, then we would be able to account
for one small detail of Shakespeare’s poetry.”  (Erlich, 9).  
     While, due to the fact that Shakespeare died hundreds of years before
the free association process was clinically utilized, we must fill in many gaps
and rely on guess work here, it is clear from the textual evidence that Will
Shakespeare was indeed involved with Hamlet’s own mental musings.  Erlich
claims that “it is entirely misleading to attempt to describe Hamlet’s state of
mind in terms of modern psychology at all, not merely because Shakespeare
did not think in these terms, but because… Hamlet is a character in a play, not
in history.”  (Erlich, 11).  While Erlich’s contention is true to a certain extent, the
real truth is that psychological theories are about the mind, not simply the
modern mind, and as Shakespeare’s mind influenced his text it is clear that
Hamlet can be seen as an extension of Shakespeare, not just an arbitrary
character on paper.
     A common problem that arises in the analysis of Hamlet is the question
of the title character’s delay.  Once again this is a source of great debate. 
Following the cues of Freudian psychological critic Ernest Jones’ notion that
Hamlet’s delay is spawned from purely internal conflicts, A Handbook of
Critical Approaches to Literature states that “Shakespeare makes Claudius’s
guilt as well as Hamlet’s duty perfectly clear from the outset… Hamlet does not
fulfill this duty until absolutely forced to by physical circumstances”  (Guerin,
126).  While an intriguing thought, this is strictly not the case.  While still
internal, the essential conflict causing Hamlet’s delay is in fact the question of
the ghost’s authenticity.  
     Certainly the ghost accuses Claudius of the murder, and gives to Hamlet
his quest in act one, scene five. Hamlet however, is still wrestling with his belief
in the ghost’s accusation, despite his opposition to Claudius.  Hamlet himself
states his misgivings about the ghost at the end of act two with the lines “The
spirit that I have seen/  May have been a [dev’l], and the [dev’l] hath power/ 
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,/  Out of my weakness and my
melancholy,/  As he is very potent with such spirits,/  Abuses me to damn me.” 
(Shakespeare, 1159).  In fact, as soon as the staging of “The Mousetrap” has
satisfied Hamlet’s curiosity about Claudius’ guilt to a reasonable extent, the
first thing Hamlet does is try to kill Claudius.  It is not until this point that Hamlet
attempts to fulfill his quest simply because it is not until this point that Claudius
is confirmed as the killer to young Hamlet’s satisfaction.  
     At the time of this failed attempt at murder (act three, scene three) it is
not that “Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill Claudius because to do so he must
in a psychological sense, kill himself”  (Guerin, 127), for Hamlet passes this
particular opportunity by due to “Hamlet’s avowed intention to kill Claudius not
while he is at prayer, but in circumstances which will ensure the King’s
damnation.”  (Watts, 52).  If Hamlet Identifies within his mind so much with
Claudius that to kill him would be a vicariously suicidal act, then why would it be
that Hamlet fully intends to commit this act at a time when Claudius (and thus,
Hamlet)  would be not only killed, but damned?  To do so would be insane, and
due to this very delay more than anything else, it is clear that Hamlet, though
disturbed, is not insane.  
     Hamlet’s reasons for the delay are pragmatic, and clearly sane.  First,
Hamlet chooses to test the theory posed by the ghost before acting, so as not
to damn himself.  Second, Hamlet chooses to wait until Claudius’ damnation
can be assured, so as not to reward Claudius for his vile acts by sending him
to heaven.  Third, Hamlet is soon sent to England, and he cannot very well
murder Claudius from across a sea.  
     Shakespeare’s reasoning behind this delay is equally pragmatic. 
Shakespeare uses this delay for the purpose of character development and for
the building of suspense (Watts, 53).  Further, Shakespeare writes his play this
way because the delay appeared in both Grammaticus’ work, as well as
Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, both sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet
(Watts, 8 - 9).  Being that Shakespeare’s audience would have been
somewhat familiar with the story before seeing Shakespeare’s version, it would
have been ridiculous to have Hamlet kill Claudius in act two.  Because of
Hamlet’s delay we see more than ever the minds of Hamlet and Shakespeare
working in concert, proving that analysis of Hamlet points to analysis of the
     Hamlet’s oedipal nature is also a frequently recurring subject.  It has
been suggested by Freudian critics that Hamlet was in the very midst of his
Oedipus complex when his father was killed, and since Claudius has done the
deed , and has married Hamlet’s mother (presumably what Hamlet intended all
along)  Hamlet wishes to kill Claudius out of revenge.  Again according to this
standpoint, Claudius’ replacement of Hamlet in this Freudian fantasy prevents
Hamlet from murdering Claudius, and causes his delay, because of his
identification with Claudius (Coursen, 70).  
     This standpoint further illustrates that the dumbshow scene of act three,
scene two concerning “Gonzago” is “conflated in Hamlet’s psyche with his wish
to kill Claudius”  (Coursen, 70), rather than being as expose on Claudius’
supposed actions.  Lucianus, who follows Claudius’ actions in “Gonzago” is an
actual representation of Hamlet desiring to replace Claudius in his mother’s
bed, according to the Freudians (Coursen, 70).  “The son’s oedipal fantasy is
fulfilled in the murder of Hamlet Sr.-Claudius, and Hamlet blocks his new rival,
Lucianus-Claudius by stopping the further fantasy of play within… Hamlet,
however, under the compulsion of the oedipal drive interrupts the play that
never begins again”  (Coursen, 70).  This is taken as a metaphor for the rest of
the play, as Hamlet, when given the power to stop the action, does so, as he
would have stopped Claudius, and possibly replaced him.  
     “The case is compelling, and cannot be dismissed,” (Coursen, 71) or at
least cannot be completely dismissed.  Clearly Hamlet has an affection for
Gertrude, but it is never spelled out how far this affection goes.  The Freudians,
however are forgetting the textual evidence against their claim.  First of all
Hamlet is distressed over the death of his father long before it is clear that
Claudius is the culprit.  Hamlet describes his father as “So excellent a king that
was to this/ Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother/ That he might not
beteem the winds of heaven/ Visit her face too roughly”  (Shakespeare, 1145),
hardly the description of a man he hates and desires to usurp.  
     Hamlet is also disgusted by incest as seen in the lines “O Most wicked
speed:  to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets”  (Shakespeare,
1145).  If Hamlet were Claudius’ mirror then would he find problems with his
father’s affection for his mother, and envy the all too natural incest between
Claudius and Gertrude? 
     This aversion to incest is also seen within the very argument of the
Freudians, as Hamlet quickly stops the action of his play before any incest can
take place.  The Freudians also seem to forget or ignore the fact that the
play-within-the-play was designed to trap Claudius, and to prove his guilt, at
least to Hamlet.  If Hamlet designed this play as a proclamation of his own
desire to replace Claudius in Gertrude’s arms, as the Freudians would have us
believe, then why would he claim in soliloquy that the play is designed to be
“Something like the murther of my father”  (Shakespeare, 1159)?  Would this
not be “something like the murther of my uncle?”  
     The text plainly shows that Hamlet reveres his late father, and is hostile
to Gertrude, more than lustful toward her.  It could be argued that the only
reason Gertrude is not killed by Hamlet is because of an order by the ghost of
Hamlet’s father:  “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy
mother aught.  Leave her to heaven”  (Shakespeare, 1150).  Hamlet also finds
it difficult to obey this command.  When Hamlet prepares to meet with Gertrude
he must convince himself not to kill her.  Hamlet says “let not ever/  The soul of
Nero enter this firm bosom, /  Let me be cruel, not unnatural”  (Shakespeare,
1166).  This is a classical reference to the Roman Nero who killed not only his
Uncle Claudius, but also his mother.  It seems clear that Hamlet is on the verge
of killing Gertrude as well as Claudius, and that it takes major self imposed
barriers to keep this urge at bay, and to obey his father.  
     As it has been seen that Hamlet’s thoughts are essentially
Shakespeare’s beliefs, we can take the approach of looking for any other
incidences of oedipal nature in Shakespeare’s other works.  For example in
“Venus and Adonis” Shakespeare gives us the example of the maternal figure
chasing the youth in order to coerce him into a sexual relationship.  Adonis
never gives in to this maternal figure, and is, in fact, quite adverse to the notion
of sex with a mother figure.  Eventually, after Adonis’ death Venus becomes
the matronly nurturer, holding the rose of his remains between her breasts
(Shakespeare, 1703 - 1719).  Shakespeare shows a problem with this
mother/child form of lust clearly in Hamlet as well as “Venus and Adonis”,
however in both The Tempest,  and King Lear we see daughters loving their
fathers against all odds, even when the only reward is scorn from these father
figures.  Cordelia braves many torments, and eventually dies for Lear, who’s
dying wish is for her love and life, while Miranda blindly follows Prospero,
regardless of the evil magical acts he commits.  While there is no overt sexual
overtone that would suggest that either of these relationships are unnatural in
any way, a precedent of attachment to the father figure at all costs, and
rejection of, or hostility toward, the mother figure is set by these four works of
     Taking these facts into account along with Hamlet’s affection for his
father, and clear hostility toward his mother, would lead the astute reader to
believe that Hamlet has no Oedipus complex whatsoever, and in fact if
anything Hamlet is the victim of a displaced Electra complex.  While the
Freudian notion of Hamlet’s Oedipus is intriguing, textual evidence abounds to
prove that this is strictly not the case.  
     Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is best critiqued using psychology, but the nature of
the psychology of the title character, as well as that of Hamlet’s author William
Shakespeare is the subject of much debate.  From questions about Hamlet’s
use of imagery, to questions about his delay, to questions about his
relationships with his mother and father, every psychoanalytical critic, whether
attentive to the text or not, has an opinion.  Using modern psychology, and
paying attention to the texts of Shakespeare’s works it is clear that both Hamlet
and Shakespeare are pragmatic, logical men who use archetypal imagery to
convey meaning.  It is also clear that no amount of psychological theory can
ever take the place of the reading of the text itself, for if the text is ignored what
can psychological theory tell us about it?  Clearly psychoanalytical critical
theory is the key to understanding Hamlet, however having the key is useless
without having anything to unlock.  Hamlet is indeed a sane and intelligently
introspective man who delays for logical reasons.  Also Hamlet is not a man
consumed by an Oedipus complex, but is in fact a man faced with the exact
opposite, as he has a malicious hatred for his mother, and a clear reverence
for his late father.  Without doubt Hamlet has been wrongly critiqued by the
Freudians, and is in need of some major reevaluation. 


Works Cited:

Coursen, H.R.. The Compensatory Psyche: A Jungian Approach to Shakespeare. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.

Elrich, Avi. Hamlet’s Absent Father. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Goddard, Harold C.. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Grammaticus, Saxo. Saxo Grammaticus and the Life of Hamlet. ED. William F. Hansen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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.

Halle, L.J.. The Search for an Eternal Norm as Represented by Three Classics. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981.

Levin, Harry. The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

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

Watts, Cedric T. Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Hamlet. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

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