An Analysis of the Freudian Theory in Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, Two Plays by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Freudian Theory Hamlet and Titus Andronicus

This essay attempts to discover how Freud’s psychoanalytical accounts of human nature can bring us to a deeper understanding of the family relationships at work in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare and Freudian theory in Hamlet and Titus Andronicus

In 1900 the eminent Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud produced a seminal work entitled The Interpretation of Dreams which contains the idea that dreams allow psychic exploration of the soul, and that dreams contain psychological meanings which can be arrived at by interpretation.

Freud states that “every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.” According to Freud’s original formulations dreams have two contents, manifest content which is the dream that one experiences, and latent content which is the meaning of the dream as discovered by interpretation.

Literature can be thought of in the same manner, as a figment of the imagination whose underlying truth can be discovered through interpretation.

A piece of literature may have a truth to tell but it can remain hidden from us until we interpret its signs. According to Freud, there are three routes into the unconscious; dreams, parapraxes (or slips of the tongue), and jokes, and it is evident that psychoanalysis asks us to pay a lot of attention to language, in puns, slips of the tongue, etc. This suggests how psychoanalysis is directly related to literary criticism since both kinds of analysis focus on close readings of language.

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Therefore, by understanding Freudian theory, we can gain a deeper understanding of literature.

This Essay attempts to discover how Freud’s psychoanalytical accounts of human nature can bring us to a deeper understanding of the family relationships at work in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.

According to Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams we all have repressed wishes and desires. One of the most common of these repressed desires is the wish to sexually possess the parent of the opposite sex and eliminate the same-sex parent. Freud named this theory the Oedipus Complex (which he discusses in detail in an essay entitled Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes). This was named after the mythical Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother without knowing that they were his parents. In Oedipus Rex the basic wish fantasy 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 only through the effects which proceed from it.

In Hamlet and Oedipus, Ernest Jones (Freud’s student and biographer) states that with his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage-[Hamlet] associates the idea of sexuality with his mother and so this facet of his subconscious enters into the family relationship.

Gertrude’s sexuality invades the play and Hamlet’s long-repressed desire to take his father’s place is unconsciously stimulated by the sight of someone else taking this long coveted position. Hamlet is even more disgusted because Claudius is his father’s brother and to Hamlet, this seems to be incestuous, indeed the ghost of Hamlet’s father calls Claudius “that incestuous, that adulterate beast.” This remark seems to add a spark of jealousy to Hamlet’s anger which is manifested in the sniping remarks that he makes to Claudius

KING CLAUDIUS: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,–

HAMLET : [Aside) A little more than kin, and less than kind.

In the opening scenes of Hamlet, the family unit has been altered to include Claudius as the father which places Hamlet in the rather difficult position of having to choose between two father figures. To assume a masculine identity Hamlet must take on the characteristics of his father and because he is confronted by two father figures, Hamlet must kill the false father (a situation that Shakespeare had previously used to effect in Henry IV). Hamlet has idolized his father for years (comparing him to Hyperion, the Sun-King) a fact borne out by the impassioned speech which he delivers to his mother when he compares his father to Claudius.

HAMLET: Look here, upon this picture, and on this,

The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;

Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;

An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;

A station like a herald Mercury

New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;

A combination and a form indeed,

Where every god did seem to set his seal,

To give the world assurance of a man:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:

Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,

Blasting his wholesome brother.

Therefore when Hamlet’s father is murdered and Gertrude remarries rather too swiftly for Hamlet’s liking, he feels that he must avenge his father’s death in his role as a dutiful son. In doing so Hamlet can gain the respect of his father and act out the role of the main authority figure which his father had done. That is to say that Hamlet could take on the characteristics of the father he had idolized thereby mentally fulfilling the wishes of the Oedipus complex. Wish fulfillment is the desire, unconsciously motivated, to attain those things that provide us with pleasure. This pleasure may or may not be the best thing for our psyche but this does not stop the id (the natural matrix of basic and potentially conflicting instincts or drives) from desiring it and the ego from trying to keep the id happy.

In her work Suffocating Mothers, Janet Adelman states that Hamlet is a play that centers on the crisis of the masculine subject and its “radical confrontation with the sexualized maternal body”, foreground male anxiety about mothers, female sexuality, and hence, sexuality itself. Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is the most important aspect of this play but while this is the case, we know very little about Gertrude herself. She is not a powerful character and the play shows very little of her true persona. She is not a wicked woman and she is not a bad mother to Hamlet, vowing to help him and using her last breath to address her son rather than her husband. Gertrude is a woman who knows exactly what is going on and never says anything. She knows how her husband was killed and by who but realizes that it is a good idea to remain silent on this matter.

It is Gertrude’s passivity in this situation that strikes Hamlet and leads him into thinking of her as a wicked mother. To readers, Gertrude does not promote ideas of maternal wickedness but she does to Hamlet and this idea serves only to reiterate his childhood desires. What binds Gertrude and Claudius together, to Hamlet’s horror, is intense sexual attraction. “You cannot call it to love”, he declares, sickened by the very thought of his mother’s sexuality. Gertrude’s blatant sexuality is wicked in Hamlet’s eyes as she is allowing herself to be easily possessed. Hamlet’s frustrated Oedipus complex cannot let him support Gertrude’s sexual maternal body and he begins to feel corrupted by her actions

HAMLET: O that this too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! 130

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie don’t, ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden 135

That grows to seed; things rank and gross

Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two

Hamlet feels that his own body has been sullied by his mother’s actions and he wishes that death could save him from the contamination. The world has become “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” like a garden that foregrounding has that, gone to seed due to that which he cannot bring himself to utter: Gertrude’s sexuality. Gertrude’s body has become a garden of vile plants and weeds, a thing “rank and gross in nature”, that is to say that Hamlet believes her middle-aged sexuality to be unnatural and thinks that she has contaminated her son with her deeds.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is another play that can be read in terms of Freudian analysis and which features the age-old themes of sexuality, power, and death although honor, power, and revenge are the major themes of this play. Titus Andronicus invites us to contemplate multiple murders, human sacrifice, severed heads and hands, the rape, murder, and dismemberment of Lavinia, and a cannibal feast featuring Titus’ crazed cookery of Tamora’s sons.

According to Freud, whatever route is taken into the unconscious, what you find there is almost always about sex. The contents of the unconscious consist primarily of sexual desires which have been repressed. Freud states that sexual desires are instinctual and that they appear in the most fundamental acts in the process of nurturing, like in a mother nursing an infant. The instincts for food, warmth, and comfort, which have survival value for an infant, also produce pleasure which Freud defines specifically as sexual pleasure. He says our first experiences of our bodies are organized through how we experience sexual pleasure. He divides the infant’s experience of its body into certain erotogenic zones, the first of which is the mouth, as the baby feels sexual pleasure in its mouth while nursing. Because the act of sucking is pleasurable (i.e. sexually pleasurable), the baby forms a bond with the mother that goes beyond satisfying the baby’s hunger. That bond Freud calls libidinal since it involves the baby’s libido, the drive for sexual pleasure.

In Titus Andronicus, there are several pieces of imagery that relate to the mouth, which can be seen as a symbol for the womb and, therefore, female sexuality. In the forest scene, the pit in the ground is related as an “abhorred” pit, which Quintus falls into and describes thus,

What subtle hole is this,

Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers,

Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood

As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers?

A very fatal place it seems to me.

The pit is figured as a bloody pit, threatening like a womb. Another piece of mouth imagery is the scene in which Tamora eats the pie which Titus has made, the pie which contains the remains of her murdered sons. In an ironic Inversion of the mother-son relationship Tamora accepts her sons with her mouth, it is a cannibalistic version of childbirth.

After the rape of Lavinia by Demetrius and Chiron we encounter another piece of sexual ‘mouth’ imagery. The rapists have mutilated Lavinia, cutting out her tongue and removing her hands so that she may never convey who the perpetrators were. Demetrius and Chiron have not only attacked and deflowered Lavinia literally, but they have also figuratively attacked her womb by cutting out her tongue, rendering her speechless (and therefore powerless, for, without her womb, a woman is powerless a nothing). However Lavinia, in a reversal of the earlier disempowerment, seizes on a remarkable way of revealing the identity of her attackers. Lavinia writes the name of her attackers in the sand with a stick. The deeds of Tamora’s sons are revealed and through the use of the phallic symbol of the stick, Lavinia can regain her power.

Titus is an aging General who has very clear-cut ideas about honor and he would do anything to defend the honor of his family. The Roman conception of honor was strong and Titus’ actions, although they may seem very strange (to say the least) to modern readers, were in keeping with the Roman culture of the era. At the start of Titus, Andronicus Titus suffers a loss of power and this informs the action of the rest of the play. In Act 1 Scene III Titus tells Tamora and Saturninus the tale of a father who killed his daughter, to save her honor, because she had been raped. He then seizes and kills Lavinia. The stage directions inform us that Lavinia has entered the room “veiled”, or virginal as the use of the veil suggests. In a reversal of Freud’s Electra Complex (the girl equivalent to the Oedipus Complex which manifests itself as the desire to possess the father) Titus possesses his daughter, unveiling her, which symbolizes the removal of her hymen and sexually takes her back. This act sees Titus re-establishing himself as the phallic male with power over his own family. Titus had lost sexual control of his daughter after her abuse at the hands of Demetrius and Chiron, but in her death, he repossesses her. Titus frees Lavinia from her shame, unveils her, and loses her all at the same time. This scene is made even more sexually relevant if, in the production of this scene, Titus stabs Lavinia to death, making use of the sexually potent phallic symbol of the sword or dagger, as Shakespeare has left her mode of death to the reader’s imagination.

Every part of the action in Titus Andronicus moves towards death and this is easier to understand if we look at this in conjunction with Freud’s death instincts. In Adam Phillip’s essay ‘Poetry and Psychoanalysis’ he quotes an extract from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principal in which Freud states” If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exceptions that every living thing dies for internal reasons-becomes organic once again- then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death”…” Here Freud is suggesting that death is an “object of desire” as Phillips states. To Titus death was an object of desire; he knew that by murdering and putting Tamora’s sons in the pie, he had signed his death warrant. Titus desired death, he had lost 25 sons in battle (an honorable way to die) and Lavinia and his other sons are reborn in honorable death in the Fields of Elysium. Titus does not need to live for his family or honor’s sake and therefore he desires death.

While Freud and psychoanalysis provide methods of reading the constructions of sexuality and death in Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, they do not implant sexuality into texts that otherwise have no reference to this subject matter. Rather, psychoanalysis helps us to focus on how the play dramatizes the problems of unconscious and repressed desires and how these desires work in connection with family relationships to give us a deeper understanding of the motives at work behind the characters’ words and deeds in these two plays.

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An Analysis of the Freudian Theory in Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, Two Plays by William Shakespeare. (2022, Aug 16). Retrieved from

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