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About the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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The upbringing of a son by his mother establishes one of the most prominent relationships in a household. However, a household that once may have been maintained through this relationship could be torn apart if the son still holds strong affections for his mother as he matures. This introduces the Oedipus complex theory developed by Sigmund Freud, where a parent’s child desires a sexual relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. A sense of rivalry and jealousy with the same-sex parent can arise, creating competition between the two individuals (Britton, 85).

In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Hamlet reflects this concept with his mother, Gertrude, as he focuses on her sexual relationship with Claudius. Hamlet’s conflict with Claudius adheres to the second part of the Oedipus complex theory. Throughout the play, it is evident that Hamlet has an Oedipal relationship with Gertrude, which is exemplified through his reserved, sexual feelings towards his mother, the distant relationship Hamlet keeps with Ophelia, and Hamlet’s protracted action of avenging his father’s death due to his desire to be in Claudius’ position.

Hamlet’s subconscious sexual desire to be with Gertrude demonstrates his aversion towards her marriage with Claudius. Early in the play, Shakespeare introduces Hamlet as a son who cannot handle the affection his mother displays towards her husband. When Hamlet is left by himself, he expresses his feelings towards the sexual relationship between Gertrude and Claudius: “Hyperion to a satyr. So loving to my mother, / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly. —Heaven and earth, / Must I remember?

Why, she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on, and yet, within a month- / Let me not think on ’t. Frailty, thy name is woman” (1. 2. 140-146). In this soliloquy, Hamlet fixates his train of thought on his mother’s remarriage and not his father’s death. He does not express much concern over his death until he encounters the ghost of his father. Hamlet reveals his condemnation of Gertrude’s actions, fuelling him with anger and disgust. However, this anger is a reflection of love, because his deep disappointment in what his mother has done also displays his interest and care.

Seeing that his mother’s marriage affects him so greatly exemplifies that he loved his mother before and after she married. He also illustrates this characteristic when he ridicules Gertrude, as he calls her weak for “hang[ing] on to him”. Hence, his subconscious motive for thinking this way is due to the yearning for his mother’s love. He further exhibits this motive and jealousy in Act 3 Scene 4, where Hamlet makes various sexual references when he talks to Gertrude: “Oh, throw away the worser part of it, / And live the purer with the other half. / Good night—but go not to mine uncle’s bed. / Assume a virtue if you have it not. […]

Refrain tonight, / And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence, the next more easy” (3. 4. 158-168). Hamlet completely overlooks the topic of his father’s death and continues to question Gertrude about her sexual life. He instructs her to not sleep with Claudius and say no to sex, establishing his abhorrence for Claudius’ possession of Gertrude. Hamlet reveals his obsession for his mother, because he cannot stop thinking about her sexuality. The “closet scene” used by Shakespeare provides the setting with a psychological significance, since a closet is a personal and private room, which creates a new dimension.

If they were to have this conversation elsewhere, a different mood would be created, due to the lack of privacy. Therefore, one can conclude that Gertrude and Hamlet talk to each other in a more intimate way, rather than as mother and son, highlighting their Oedipal relationship. In such circumstances, other relationships that Hamlet has can be affected as well. Hamlet ensures to keep an arm’s length relationship with Ophelia, showing that he cannot truly love anyone other than his mother. Hamlet’s subconscious is so caught up with Gertrude’s marriage that he fails to pay attention to the relationships around him.

The first interaction Hamlet has with Ophelia depicts how Hamlet is willing to play with Ophelia’s affection: “He took me by the wrist and held me hard. / Then goes he to the length of all his arm, / And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow, / He falls to such perusal of my face / As he would draw it. Long stayed he so” (2. 1. 87-91). At this point in the play, Ophelia has not said anything to hurt Hamlet’s feelings, yet Hamlet still plays with her emotions. He does this in the reflection of how Gertrude hurt his feelings. Hamlet stares at Ophelia’s face to imply she is not the one he loves.

He deceives and manipulates her for his own benefit, as he acts with “antic disposition” (1. 5. 172) so the word can be spread that he has gone mad. Hamlet does not seem to care that this negativity affects Ophelia. Although a relationship with Ophelia is the most realistic, one could assume that Hamlet still desires a sexual relationship with his mother. He most likely understands that he can genuinely obtain a public relationship with Ophelia, which would be more suited for him. However, his subconscious takes over his judgement and Hamlet cannot give up Gertrude for Ophelia.

He creates additional distance between himself and Ophelia when he says, “Get thee to a nunnery” (3. 1. 119). Hamlet implies that he does not love Ophelia and tells her to remove herself from the world. The word “nunnery” symbolizes sexual abstinence. He encourages Ophelia to get to a nunnery, because he is not able to keep a relationship with her, revealing his lack of love for Ophelia. Therefore, Hamlet’s absent sensuality and abrupt attitude creates distance between himself and Ophelia. Although he is uncommitted, this relationship acts as a substitute for the real Oedipal relationship Hamlet desires with Gertrude.

When Hamlet’s mind is preoccupied with this desire, it hinders his main focus of revenge on his father’s death. Hamlet is unable to move forward with his plan to kill Claudius but is competent to do everything else. When Hamlet realizes the plan put in place by Claudius to kill him the instant he reaches England, he comes up with his own plan in killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “That, on the view and knowing of these contents, / Without debatement further, more or less, / He should the bearers put to sudden death, / Not shriving time allowed” (5. 2. 44-47).

Primarily, Hamlet executes his plan to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and it seems like it was done so within a matter of minutes. He acts without hesitation, as compared to his equivocacy towards the act of murdering Claudius, indicating Hamlet does not need to confirm the loyalty Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have given to Claudius. This exemplifies a contrast with the reluctance he has with murdering Claudius. Hamlet manages to complete several other tasks in hand, except for his ultimate revenge. Furthermore, he explicitly realizes twice that he has taken no action in avenging his father’s death.

On his way to England, Hamlet encounters the captain of the ship, who informs him that Norwegian army intends to fight for a small piece of land. Hamlet reflects upon his hesitation, “Now, whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th’ event— / A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward—I do not know / Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,” / Sith I have cause and will and strength and means / To do ’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me” (4. 4.39-46).

Hamlet does not understand why he has taken no reasonable action towards killing Claudius. He has the proof that Claudius murdered his father and has a reason to murder Claudius, yet he cannot come to the terms of acting upon his thoughts. One noticeable reason for Hamlet’s inaction is due to the Oedipus complex. If Hamlet suffers from an Oedipus complex, then, one can conclude that he subconsciously desires to be in Claudius’ position. He wants to marry Gertrude and acquire a sexual relationship with her, just as Claudius has done.

Therefore, he refrains from killing Claudius, because Claudius has already accomplished Hamlet’s desire. If this is the case, it is apparent that Hamlet wants to be Claudius, which means killing Claudius would essentially be like killing himself. Carrying out his plan of revenge towards Claudius makes it like suicide for Hamlet, explaining why he has corresponding emotions towards suicide and revenge. Additionally, one can notice that Hamlet only murders Claudius after Gertrude dies, which indicates that his feelings for Gertrude prevented him from killing Claudius.

Hamlet’s inability to move forward with his plan and kill Claudius is because he subconsciously identifies with Claudius, due to his relationship with Gertrude. Shakespeare illustrates the Oedipal relationship Hamlet has with Gertrude through many instances in the play; Hamlet’s secluded desire of a sexual relationship with his mother, Hamlet’s isolated relationship with Ophelia, and Hamlet’s subconscious aspiration to be in Claudius’ position, resulting in his inability to avenge his father’s death.

Shakespeare published Hamlet in 1603, whereas Freud established his theory of the Oedipus complex in 1910. Shakespeare expressing Hamlet with an Oedipus complex implies that the concept of the Oedipus complex was perceived long before Sigmund Freud developed his theory. One can connect Hamlet’s interactions towards Gertrude with Freud’s hypothesis that “a child should take his parents as the first objects of his love” (Golan, 24). When Freud’s theory is reflected upon while reading Hamlet, the two are able to connect with each other.

Although Shakespeare did not intend to do this, it is evident that both authors most likely distinguished similar behaviors between the mother-son relationship. Additionally, in one of his novels, Freud reflects upon Hamlet’s Oedipus complex and explains how he adopts the modern approach to the theory; “Shakespeare’s Hamlet is rooted in the same soil and Oedipus Rex [… ] In Oedipus Rex the basic wish-phantasy of the child is brought to light and realized as it is in dreams; in Hamlet it remains repressed, and we learn of its existence” (Freud, 48).

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