Psychoanalysis Analysis - Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamletis practically tailor-made for Freudians.
The sheer number of Freudian concepts that are applicable to Shakespeare's magnum opus is crazy. There is a father who must be avenged, but also a sense of guilt so overpowering that it paralyzes the hero, leaving him famously unable to act.
How's that for procrastination? Psychoanalysts trace Hamlet's sense of guilt to the relief or even satisfaction this Prince of Denmark felt after his father's murder.
What an awful thing to feel, Hamlet must have thought. And this thought must have led to all his hesitation and hand-wringing, as well as his repeated failure to fulfill his father's commands.
And even when the prince eventually fulfills his father's commands, things don't just magically get better. The cycles of violence and father-son kerfuffles are endlessly perpetuated in Hamlet.
The whole play is like Freud for Dummies, only much more fun to watch.
[Hamlet to the Ghost]
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
This is Hamlet's promise to the ghost of his father. The prince solemnly swears here to obey the "commandment" laid down by his father. (Note the association between paternity and law, which is classically psychoanalytic.)
And the images Hamlet uses in this speech sure that would give an analyst a lot to interpret. There's the "book and volume of [his] brain," which is a surface onto which "records" are inscribed, and a "table" onto which "pressures" are applied. We think these images sound a bit like Freud's "mystic writing pad", or the passages about "preservation in the sphere of the mind" in Civilization and its Discontents.
But of course, for Hamlet, fulfilling his promise to Dear Old Dad is much easier said than done. "Pressures past" and present continue to bear on Shakespeare's antihero. As we're pretty sure you already know, his road to the end of the play is bumpy at best.
Poor Hamlet. Or something.
Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, used Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet, in a letter written to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897, as a means to theoretically explain and engage in what he regarded as one of the deepest conflicts experienced by men. In Freud’s, Mourning and Melancholia and The Interpretation of Dreams, he draws on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet and its melancholy “hero”, Hamlet, in order to substantiate and provide a frame of reference for his theories of mourning, Oedipal desire, and the unconscious.
Freud used psychoanalytical criticism as a way to interpret authors, and other artists’ work, making connections between the authors themselves and what they actually create. Freud made use of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in creating and substantiating his own theory of the Oedipus complex. Freud incorporated Sophocles’ tragedy into his psychoanalytical theory of Oedipus complex, where a child has the unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex, as is exemplified in the Greek myth. The desire includes jealousy towards the parent of the same sex and the unconscious wish for that parent’s death.
Freud described this stage as usually occurring between the ages of three to five years and as a normal developmental process of human psychological growth. However, Freud believed that Oedipus complex could stay in the unconscious mind and affect the person in adult life. Freud’s use of Hamlet as a means of explaining his theory of Oedipal desire eventually replaced his theory of mourning, and resulted in a historic, “permanent linkage of Hamlet with Freud’s theory of repression and the family romance”(Starks 161).
Freud remade Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, partly in his own image and has influenced us with “Freud’s Oedipus” and “Freud’s Hamlet”. (Shengold 16). Thus, in essence, Freud appropriated Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as a means to strengthen psychoanalysis’ theoretical ends, without realizing the significant impact this appropriation held in store for the viewers of filmic representations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
We discover that directors such as Laurence Olivier, Celestino Coronado and Franco Zeffirelli inextricably link “Freud’s Hamlet” to their own filmic representations and appropriations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For the purposes of this exploration, a comparative analysis of these filmic representations is thus used in order to determine the degree of Freudian presence and influence by the way in which Shakespeare’s tragedy has been appropriated and portrayed individually by the above-mentioned directors.
By contrasting the portrayal of Hamlet and other characters, in terms of gestures, speech, spacing and framing, and visually representing the analogy that “the eyes are the window to the soul”, as well as various other significant signifiers, the viewer is able to ascertain the way in which these individual directors have positioned themselves within the psychoanalytic tradition.
This exploration in turn, leads the viewer upon a path of discovering the development or decline of the psychoanalytic tradition historically, by critically assessing the timeline along which these filmic representations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet were made sequentially. Before commencing a discussion of the three filmic representations of Hamlet identified, it is also important to recognise the highly influential work of both Ernest Jones and Jacques Lacan’s own interpretation of Hamlet.
Ernest Jones’ essay, The Death of Hamlet’s Father, as well as his book, Hamlet and Oedipus (1954; first published in 1949) were two works which held a significant influence on directors of filmic representations, which incorporated “Freudian footprints” within Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Starks 164). Jones’ cue from Freud’s observation was that Hamlet’s indecision was rooted in his Oedipal entanglements with his father and mother (Old King Hamlet and Gertrude), and ascribes every failure of Hamlet, with an irresistible psychological logic, that Hamlet acted on his suppressed feelings of hate and love and his consequent paralysing guilt.
Cinematic appropriation and adaptation of Hamlet in the twentieth century emerges from a history rich in appropriation and inclusion of psychoanalytical and Freudian tendency through means of the refiguring and recreating of Shakespeare’s play by various directors. Thus, “the tradition of Hamlet on screen necessarily emerges from this history, refiguring and recreating our current conceptions of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (Starks 160).
However, it is important for any viewer of these films to bear in mind, as is stressed by Starks, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet made its debut initially through literature and dramatic stage performance, and that it was Shakespeare’s play that was appropriated by psychoanalytic theory as it developed, not the other way around. (161).
By directors openly placing themselves within the psychoanalytic tradition, such as Laurence Olivier’s self pronounced, “Oedipal” Hamlet, based ostensibly on Ernest Jones’ Hamlet and Oedipus, Celestino Coronado’s overt portrayal of an adaptation of the play, which was quickly christened “The Naked Hamlet”, Franco Zeffirelli’s film, bearing a close resemblance to Lacan’s reading of Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet emerging at the end of the twentieth century as the most fully Oedipalized version, “in which the father-son conflict and the onset of the paternal law completely overtake the melancholic and the maternal that are evident in both Olivier’s and Zeffirelli’s versions (Starks 164), it becomes evident that although “Freud’s footprints” have undergone some changes in their portrayal within these films, it is in the filmic representation of Hamlet by directors, that our perceptions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have been altered, influenced, appropriated and thus recreated.
Laurence Olivier’s filmic representation of “Oedipal” Hamlet in 1948, marks the roots of what would grow to be known by viewers as a “standard portrayal” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, referencing “Freudian footprints” and the shifting connection between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the psychoanalytic tradition, or creation of Freud’s Hamlet. Oedipus complex is overt and intentional in Olivier’s Hamlet.
Throughout the film, Hamlet is portrayed as melancholic by means of portraying visually that which he has repressed. Olivier depicts unconscious desire consciously to the viewer by means of various camera techniques and visually portraying what he feels to be the underlying messages of Shakespeare’s text. The depiction of actors’ eyes plays an important role in Olivier’s film and may be correlated to a quote from a recent film, The Crow, directed by Alex Proyas, in which the protagonist states that, “all the power in the world, rests in the eyes”.
In connection with this idea, Olivier creates power differentials within his film by the careful selection of actors’ glances, stares and other eye movements and framing in spatial relationships, as well as when actors are in solitude, in order to depict the workings of the mind, via the visual analogy that “the eyes are the window to the soul”. Olivier visually represents Hamlet’s unconscious and mind in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (3. 1. 56-89), by the camera zooming in from behind and creating the illusion for the viewer that they are able to shoot through Olivier’s head (Hamlet), “through a superimposed image of the human brain. (Starks 166).
Olivier makes use of a recurrent theme of failed mourning and melancholia through the use of dramatically ironic visual representations of Hamlet’s inherent unconscious desires and anxieties. These unconscious desires and anxieties are represented by Olivier through the use of visual symbols such as the bed, Ophelia’s chamber, the empty rooms, Hamlet’s chair, winding, narrow staircases, the use of light and darkness, as well as Olivier’s posture and spatial relations to other actors. (Starks 166). Hamlet’s posture needs little explanation in terms of its visually portraying his mood and the melancholy atmosphere he creates around himself.
The winding and narrow staircases are however a visual worthy of consideration and deliberation. The first scene of Olivier’s Hamlet, ends with Bernardo speaking a famous line transposed from a later scene, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1. 4. 90). In Shakespeare’s text this statement is made by Marcellus and is answered by Horatio’s, “Heaven will direct it” (1. 4. 91). Olivier seems to use this line as a recurrent question which the film will seek to solve by following the narrow and winding staircases in search of the source of Denmark’s rottenness, initially finding an answer in focussing on the Queen’s bed and ironically later focussing several times on objects or spaces associated with Claudius.
The narrow, winding staircases also seem to link with the initial image of the superimposed brain of Hamlet. Since Olivier’s Hamlet is chiefly a journey through Shakespeare’s play from the perspective of Hamlet, it becomes apparent that these winding staircases forge a visual portrayal of the entangled difficulty and confusion of the journey which Hamlet faces and is caught up in, due to a lack of certainty and many repressed Oedipal desires he does not understand or have conscious insight into. Ironically in light of this, at the beginning of the film, the voice-over tells us that this is the story of “a man who would not make up his mind” (Olivier), however, we soon come to realise that the camera tells a very different story.
Oliver’s departure from the initial opening voice-over may in fact be the unconscious influence Jones had on him. Jones asserts that Hamlet is not naturally wavering, but in fact that the killing of Claudius is the only action which he does not carry out swiftly and resolutely, and has been held back from that action by introspection and the invisible force of his unconscious, (Weller 120), which Olivier makes every attempt to portray. Olivier visually portrays and delineates issues housed by the unconscious by the overt actions and qualities of actors, evident already in the age relationship between – Hamlet (Olivier) being Gertrude’s (Eileen Herilee) senior by thirteen years, regardless of the fact that she is cast as his mother.
It is quite obvious to the viewer in fact that the age relationship between mother and son is backward, indicative of the message Olivier wished to dramatically portray and establish as a starting block to ideas revolving around Oedipal desire or perhaps the visual portrayal of yet another unconscious differential overtly visually portrayed. In the banquet scene, the eyes of Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet, play an important role in terms of signifying relationships between the characters, as well as the role of repression in the unconscious thoughts of especially Hamlet. Toward the end of the scene Gertrude kisses Hamlet in a prolonged and sexually suggestive manner, to which Claudius seems to respond in a somewhat uncomfortable manner established by the viewer, by observing the shifting of his eyes and the manner in which he rises from his chair.
Sexual innuendo and repressed Oedipal desires are highlighted throughout Olivier’s Hamlet, but reach an establishing climax in the famous closet scene, after being insinuated several times by the visual of the sexually suggestive large empty bed. Although the bed may in today’s society portray sexual innuendo and the general repressed message of sexuality, or the insinuation that sexually related scenes are yet to come, in Olivier’s context, this image would have caused controversy and a deeper investigation into the need for such an image, by the viewer. The bed is thus clearly a visual symbol of Hamlet’s repressed sexually orientated Oedipal desire, coupled with his conscious obsession and disgust of the sexual relations between Gertrude and Claudius, which he openly expresses throughout Shakespeare’s text and Olivier’s Hamlet.
Olivier skilfully uses Shakespeare’s closet scene as a means to incorporate and establish Oedipal desire, bringing together visual and symbolic elements by the representation of Hamlet, Gertrude’s kisses and the large sexually suggestive bed. It is only a few seconds into the scene when the bed comes into play, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have said, “Come, come and sit you down, you shall not budge” (3. 4. 18) and Olivier shortens it to “sit you down”, visually incorporating the essence of the remainder of Shakespeare’s words, through Hamlet’s forceful throwing of his mother onto the bed, visually emphasising Hamlet’s entangled love, violence, frustration, and most importantly Oedipal desires and unconscious.
Celestino Coronado’s adaptation of Hamlet (1948), provided a departure from the means by which Olivier filmically represented Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, and may be viewed as a celebration of symbolic and artistic portrayal of Shakespeare’s text, through appropriation and presentation of visual elements, supported by the verbal, rather than the other way around. Coronado clearly relies far less on the emphasis and the necessity of the text than Olivier does. Coronado’s Hamlet focuses on visceral appeal, symbolism and the expected interpretation of the viewer, rather than clearly delineating thematic trends for the viewer through the use of the spoken text. Coronado’s film may be viewed as an “interactive”, artistic representation of Hamlet’s divided self and the fluctuations of feelings Hamlet is portrayed as experiencing through identical twins, David and Anthony Meyer, playing Hamlet.
Interestingly, Coronado’s Hamlet does not include the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy within the film, other than a small section of the soliloquy used in the opening sequence of the film, perhaps stressing the director’s point that although this text, verbally spoken through the medium of an actor playing Hamlet, in a dramatic performance, may form the pivotal core of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, it is not necessarily essential within Coronado’s visual, filmic representation and depiction of Hamlet in creating and encouraging the notions, philosophies and themes contained within this soliloquy for the viewer.
Coronado captures and emphasises a unique mind/body distinction by highlighting actors’ physical form through the use of nudity, posture and movement, as well as through various camera techniques and illusions, and creates a link with the psychological through especially the eyes and the visual representation of symbolism, visual references to Shakespeare’s text and an overt orientation within the psychoanalytic tradition.
Coronado emphasises the sexual, the psychological, the portentous presence of Oedipal desire and the unconscious, by consciously portraying imagery for the audience to interact with and interpret according to themes, which are suggested and nurtured by him. The first frame of the film contains a set of eyes, portraying the window to the soul of Hamlet through the viewer’s sense of sight, followed by an auditory scream that is difficult to distinguish with certainty as an either feminine or masculine voice. Light and darkness plays an important role in creating meaning in Coronado’s Hamlet, by symbolising and representing ideas for the viewer to decipher and interpret.
Following the image of the eyes, a strip of light is sandwiched by two broader strips of darkness, symbolising not only Hamlet’s character and divided self, but also his inherent core “good”, smothered by repressive and overpowering darkness. This image of light and darkness is later also realised in the black costume of “bodily, conscious Hamlet” and the white costume of “subconscious, mindly Hamlet”. The camera zooms onto “bodily Hamlet” lying on a bed with his “mind” (played by the other Meyer brother), stooping over him. The image cuts to a visual of “Hamlet’s faces” overlapping (the symbolic image of a divided self and mind), in which the camera focuses on the facial features, specifically the eyes, and the mouth falls slightly out of the frame.
This image clearly symbolises the overpowering nature of Hamlet’s mind over his words and actions (body). The sound of loud, shallow breathing becomes an important signifier of desperation and anxiety. When the “mindly Hamlet” bends down, his lips almost touching those of the “bodily Hamlet”, there is an indication or suggestion of homosexuality within his character. According to Freud, homosexuality has its origin in narcissism, in mirror-love and that suicide can be closely related to murder. This knowledge is thus indicative of the reasoning behind Coronado opening the beginning sequence of the film with the “To be or not to be soliloquy”.
The Oedipus complex raises issues of active and passive homosexuality as is evident not only in issues such as the attack of the younger brother on the older one (Claudius killing Old King Hamlet), replicating the father-son conflict, but the poisoning story, representing also the castration of the father by the son. Thus, the repressed hatred of Hamlet’s father, according to Jones, “made for the simultaneous presence of love and hate. “(Kurzweil & Philips 4). Although words do not play a pivotal auditory role in Coronado’s film, it is important to note that with reference to the poison and various other means of symbolism, that Coronado has visually portrayed Shakespeare’s continual illustration that words can function as poison in the ear as well.
To the unconscious, “poison” signifies any bodily fluid charged with evil intent, while the serpent has played a well-known role ever since the Garden of Eden. The murderous assault of Claudius over his brother therefore contains both aggressive and erotic components, and we note that it was Shakespeare who introduced the latter (serpent). Furthermore, according to McCary the ear being an unconscious equivalent for anus is a matter for which he claims to have adduced ample evidence elsewhere. (135). Claudius’ attack on his brother may thus be seen as both a murderous aggression and a homosexual assault. As the ghost says (1. 5. 36), “A serpent stung me.
So the whole ear of Denmark”, emphasising the fact that words become a tool for influencing the minds of others and controlling their perceptions of the truth. The continuous manipulation of visual imagery of ears and hearing, coupled with Shakespeare’s words, serves an important symbol of the power and ability of words to manipulate the truth, especially when the speaker serves an impure purpose, such as Claudius. It is interesting to note the depiction of Claudius’ eyes as beady and at times “clenched”, symbolically hindering the viewer from viewing the true contents of his soul, in comparison to the troubled, searching eyes of “mindly Hamlet”, as compared to the reasonably static, unemotive eyes of “bodily Hamlet”.