Shakespeare and psychoanalysis

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Throughout the century, psychoanalysts have studied Shakespeare's works to deepen their understanding of psychic conflict and to hone their interpretive skills. Literary scholars have turned to psychoanalysis to solve perennial problems in interpreting Shakespeare's text.

In a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess (15 October, 1897), Sigmund Freud sketched out his first formulation of what he would come to call the Oedipus complex, then promptly went on to show how this notion could be used to interpret some notorious cruxes in Hamlet. Freud linked, through the triangular structure of the Oedipus complex, Hamlet's hesitation to avenge his father, his pangs of conscience, his hostility to Ophelia, the sexual disgust expressed to Gertrude, and his final destruction (1900a, 4: 264-266). "There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1910c, 11: 137n.): Freud's favorite quotation from any source, according to Jones, was this tribute to the complexity of existence, from Hamlet.

The nature of Freud's attachment to Shakespeare's work is also conveyed in his association of a "special cadence" in his own dream speech, with a cadence in Brutus's speech of self-justification in Julius Caesar. "As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him." (1900a, 5: 424) Freud shed light on the unconscious conflict over gender and ambition that fractured Lady Macbeth's psyche, and on Shakespeare's technique of splitting a character in two "she becomes all remorse and he all defiance" (1916d, 14: 324).

In Shakespeare criticism, after classic papers by Ludwig Jekels, Ernest Jones, Theodor Reik, Hanns Sachs, Wangh (Faber, M., 1970) and others, there has been a proliferation of essays, applying various aspects of psychoanalytic theory to Shakespeare's texts: dream theory, the structural model, incest fantasies, primal scene fantasies, and the symbolizing and creative functions of the psyche itself. There are several English bibliographies that catalogue these works, including those by Norman Holland (1964), D. Wilbern (1978), and Murray Schwartz and Copelia Kahn (1980). "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d, 11: 179-190) has featured in the discussion of obstacles to love regularly encountered in comedy. "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-1917g, 14: 239-258), has been used in thinking about ambivalence toward the lost object and severe depression in tragedy or in a comedy like Twelfth Night. Freud's"On Narcissism" (1914c, 14: 69-91), and the thinking that grew out of it on the structure of the psyche and its roots in infantile development, have influenced many recent interpretations of Shakespeare's plays. "Negation" (1925h, 19: 235-239) has been useful to Shakespeareans as it explores one way in which the psyche negotiates its own internal contradictions.

Beyond Freud, Jacques Lacan's "mirror stage," Donald Winnicott's "transitional object," Margaret Mahler's "separation/individuation," and Erik Erikson's "basic trust" have generated new psychoanalytic readings of Shakespeare's plays. Of the classic psychoanalytic essays on Shakespeare, Ernst Kris's essay, "Prince Hal's Conflict" (Faber, 1970) has remained a model of sophistication. Integrating elements of the play's language, characterization, and plot with corresponding elements of psychic structure, Kris, examining the play's sources and speeches, recognizes Shakespeare's exceptional genius for historical and psychological observation. More recently, psychoanalysis has influenced the critics who see Shakespeare as a dramatist whose "plays and poems do not merely illustrate his identity but are in each instance a dynamic expression of the struggle to re-create and explore its origins" (Schwartz, 1980, xv-xvi). In this spirit, Janet Adelman (1992) has analyzed masculine identity and "fantasies of maternal power" and of "the maternal body" in Shakespeare.

Psychoanalytic criticism of Shakespeare has dominated the application of psychoanalytic theory to the arts and has articulated debates over the nature of applied psychoanalysis. One side insists that Shakespeare's text be treated with respect for its genre, for its formal and aesthetic properties, for its artifice, so that we must not invent an unconscious or an infantile neurosis for a character, or do wild analysis on the author; we must not go beyond the language of the text. Another position responds that a text is the product of the human psyche, which always uses the unconscious and its desires in creativity. Perhaps the most fruitful psychoanalytic interpretations of Shakespeare occupy a middle ground wherein the text is evidence and arbiter, but where the characteristically Shakespearean illusion that a stage person has interior being, with motives that he himself does not fully understand, is recognized and explored.


See also: <a href="">Failure neurosis</a>; <a href="">Hamlet and Oedipus</a>; <a href="">Literature and psychoanalysis</a>; <a href="">Mythology and psychoanalysis</a>; <a href="">Negative capability</a>; <a href="">Parricide</a>; <a href="">Primal fantasy</a>; <a href="">"Theme of the Three Caskets, the."</a>


  • Adelman, Janet. (1992). Suffocating mothers: Fantasies of maternal origin in Shakespeare's plays. "Hamlet" to "The Tempest." New York: Routledge.
  • Faber, M.D. (Ed.). (1970). The design within: Psychoanalytic approaches to Shakespeare. New York: Science House.
  • Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I. SE, 4: 1-338; The interpretation of dreams. Part II. SE, 5: 339-625.
  • ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
  • ——. (1912d). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. SE, 11: 177-190.
  • ——. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
  • ——. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work. SE, 14: 309-333.
  • ——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.
  • ——. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
  • Holland, Norman N. (1966). Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New York and London: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
  • Kris, Ernst. (1952). Psychoanalytic explorations in art. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Schwartz, Murray and Kahn, Copelia. (1980). Representing Shakespeare. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.