William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Play ‘Hamlet’: Analyses from a Historical, Psychological, and Theoretical Approach

   Sara Bernhardt as hamlet_french

           The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, written between 1599 and 1602 by William Shakespeare during the Elizabethan period, on the virtual cusp of the Jacobean period, tells the partly fictional story of the royal house of Denmark found in a state of decline and turmoil and highlights the drama following the death of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father. Here, with an aim and goal of asserting our unique position of both affirming the 115 year old debate surrounding Freud’s oedipal complex theory determination, while simultaneously denying his reasoning for it, we shall seek to lay at least some of the issue to rest. However ours, unlike Freud’s position, is not concluded to solely by means of deductive psychoanalytical reason, but rather through the strong absence of evidence supporting the contrary combined with a deconstruction of Freud’s view and an historical and theoretical examination of Hamlet in light of related works by Shakespeare and others.

We must first preface our analysis by stating definitively there remains a substantive lack of in text evidence to support a direct claim for, and for our purposes, or against determinative variants of either an oedipal or Electra complex within the character of Hamlet. Most of the Freudian deductive reasoning revolves around the bedroom scene with his mother, namely where Hamlet asserts an obsessive position against his mother confronting her on the issue of incestuous sexual involvement with his uncle. However, the assertion of Hamlet’s psychological condition lies within the element of jealousy and guilt, which is provable through means of in-text reference, and directly correlates with central core jealousy concepts in at least four additional plays following Hamlet into the Jacobean period – Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline. (Wilson 306)

In as much, we will re-examine this well discussed work through the combined lenses of historicism, psychoanalytical and various literary theories of analyses, leaning more heavily on the historical, since most of Shakespeare’s work largely involved ancient and more recent historical references, addressing directly correlations to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as it relates to the assertion in the beginning of this analysis. Without question, William Shakespeare transformed theater in England from a travelling street art into a well-respected profession on the backs of his masterpieces such as Hamlet that still resonate with audiences today by reaching into ancient Greek and Roman forms and themes and blending them with current, popular and relative political events, artistic techniques and social trends of his day.

“All of his plays have touches, and many have complete scenes and characters, which could only be contemporary English. But from this broad classification of his themes it is evident that three great interests stimulated his imagination. The first was the Renaissance culture of western Europe. The second was England, and particularly her monarchy and nobility. The third, equal in importance to the second, was the histories and legends of ancient Greece and Rome.” (Highet Ch. 11)

        First and foremost, Shakespeare’s plays were written by an Elizabethan for Elizabethans during the period Hamlet was authored. Over forty of Shakespeare’s works had direct connection to history. According to Linda Alchin of http://www.Elizabethan-Era.org, “Elizabethan Education was generally for boys of the Upper and Middle Classes.” (Alchin 2012) By records kept, the majority of attendees of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre were admitted to the floor or yard, lower and middle balconies levels and paid respectively only a penny for each advancement of level admission, up to an amazing capacity of 3000 at a time, far outnumbering flanking upper tier patronage occupied by higher paying middle and upper class theatre goers. (London Theatre 2016) It is safe to say he educated his largely uneducated audiences seated in the lower ¾ of the theater with thought-provoking histories, vocabularies, colorful and at times dark metaphor, and also employed styles consistent with popular trends in vogue for his better educated patrons such as uses of Italianate Commedia dell’Arte characters.

Derived from the 13th century work by Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum or History of the Danes, the parallel to Hamlet is found within the actual person of Amleth, son of Horvendill who was one of the sons of the Governor of Jutland. (Mabillard 2000) After killing Koll, King of Norway, and upon returning home, Horvendill marries Gerutha the daughter of Rorik King of Denmark. Horvendill’s brother Feng becomes jealous and kills him, marrying Gerutha. This is the simple explanation of the historical prototype for Hamlet (Amleth). The parallels continue to track similarly, including the key element of feigning madness that spawned the famous quote, “To be or not to be.” Grammaticus’ historical account involves an interaction with Britain in which they differ substantially, then Amleth’s return to Denmark where he encounters the Norwegian regent successor, continues where the similarities resume. It is strikingly evident Shakespeare had intentionally captured and preserved this part of history for the Elizabethans, and the rest of the world to come.

Drawing structure and form for his works from classical Hellenic and Roman sources seemed rudimentary to the scholarship of Shakespeare, he also included characters from the in-vogue 16th century Italianate. As an influence of Shakespeare, Sophocles’ most famous work Oedipus Rex poses an interesting study from a Freudian point of view. It was a 1900 viewing of Hamlet that inspired Freud to theorize his oedipal complex, drawing the correlation through a psychoanalysis of the character. Most certainly, Shakespeare wasn’t the first to recognize the recurring themes of incest, murder, madness, purification, and patricide. Freud states in his 1900 Interpretation of Dreams:

Another of the great poetic tragedies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is rooted in the same soil as 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- as we discover the relevant facts in a neurosis- only through the inhibitory effects which proceed from it.” (Freud 86)

On two separate occasions we see him assert himself: once in a sudden outburst of rage, when he stabs the eavesdropper behind the arras, and on the other occasion when he deliberately, and even craftily, with the complete unscrupulousness of a prince of the Renaissance, sends the two courtiers to the death which was intended for himself. What is it, then, that inhibits him in accomplishing the task which his father’s ghost has laid upon him? Here the explanation offers itself that it . . . Hamlet is able to do anything but take vengeance upon the man who did away with his father and has taken his father’s place with his mother- the man who shows him in realization the repressed desires of his own childhood.” (Freud 86)

        While the story of Hamlet is less akin to Oedipus and more akin to Sophocles’ Electra, even greater similarities exist to Homer:

. . . powerful Agamemnon, with eyes and head like Zeus who delights in thunder, like Ares for girth, and with the chest of Poseidon; like some ox of the herd pre-eminent among the others, a bull, who stands conspicuous in the huddling cattle; such was the son of Atreus as Zeus made him that day, conspicuous among men, and foremost among the fighters.” (Iliad 2.441-83)

See what grace was seated on his brow – Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, an eye like Mars, to threaten or command, a station like the herald Mercury new-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; a combination and a form in deed where every God seemed to set his seal to give the world assurance of a man.” (Hamlet 3.4.55-61) (Showerman 98)

         Again Shakespeare drawing on the eloquence and reason of Plato describing Socrates’ death throes, at times directly quoting:

. . . but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain . . . . if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is only a single night. . . To die, to sleep, No more, and by a sleep to say we end. The heartache and the thousand natural shocks.” (Plato, Apologia 27-9)

“That flesh is heir to––’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come. When we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” (Ham. 3.1.62-70) (Showerman 100-1)

         As we can see there is no shortage of correlation, in fact most of what Shakespeare assembles is some derivative of Greek poetry and drama combined with fact and history from more recent times.

Joshua Rothman examines the idea of Hamlet as a love story in his article for The New Yorker. He references a then new book about Hamlet entitled “Stay, Illusion!” by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster in which he observes,

 “Hamlet’s problem, they argue, isn’t really that he’s hesitant about violence. Rather, it’s that the possibility of being violent fills him with shame. In “Hamlet,” they write, shame is pervasive; it has settled on Elsinore like a fog. For Freud, Hamlet’s shame has to do with his oedipal desires. But for Webster and Critchley it’s more abstract. It has to do with the shame of needing to love, the shame about the emptiness that, they hold, is at the center of the experience of love.” (Rothman 2013)

        Rothman concludes that through his example of Webster and Critchley’s description of love being the driving force in Hamlet and not the madness and violence that permeates the action, that what becomes prominent is the value of the illusion that conceals love, not only in the eroticism Freud describes, but in the relation to Hamlet’s motivators, his filial duty to avenge his father, his inability to act against his mother and the consequences of the hesitations that occur. Shakespeare observed these relational dynamics within the Greek masters and the Latin classics, Pliny, Ovid, Seneca and Lucretius, more examples than space for here. His formal education ended at fourteen, however for those seven years he was only allowed to converse in Latin at King Edward IV’s The Guild School, affording young William an immersion into all things Latin and corresponding Greek recordings, but he was required to converse in Latin under the threat of corporal punishment if caught speaking in English.

Relatively early in the play Hamlet realizes his uncle’s guilt:

Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.” (Hamlet 1.5)

        Ernest Jones describes his conclusion on the significance of Freud’s oedipal correlation with a difference to Rothman. Instead of love, Jones says Hamlet’s hesitation is out of intellectual cowardice, which either would be consistent with the Greek form Shakespeare adhered to:

Action is paralyzed at its very inception, and there is thus produced the picture of causeless inhibition which is so inexplicable both to Hamlet and to readers of the play. This paralysis arises, however, not from physical or moral cowardice, but from that intellectual cowardice, that reluctance to dare the exploration of his inner mind, which Hamlet shares with the rest of the human race.” (Jones 59)

        Scenes surrounding Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s incest and sexual behavior Freud and subsequently Jones referred to derive most of their evidence from implication and only allude to the possibility of fact, not to fact itself found within the dialog of the play. What is evident in Hamlet is his hesitance, his unwillingness to accept the responsibilities that would befall him were he to carry out the express wishes of his father’s specter, whether real or imagined, as an extension of his own conscious. Ophelia observes this reluctance in Hamlet, “And I . . . Now see that noble and most sovereign reason . . .that unmatched form and feature of blown youth. Blasted with ecstasy.” (3.1.156, 58-61) These hesitancies or pauses manifested into his self-proclaimed feigned madness, which likely was a defense to his own actual madness. Early, Hamlet’s first soliloquy denotes his despair in place of a resolve to assume a natural order of title and role, usurping Claudius, instead lamenting depressed:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.129-34)

        Late in the play, Hamlet relinquishes to himself and Horatio as he suggests that his father’s directions in killing his uncle he may not hold a right to,

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—He that hath killed my king and whored my mother, popped in between th’ election and my hopes, thrown out his angle for my proper life (And with such cozenage!)—is ’t not perfect conscience. . .”  (5.2.63-7)

         Here is where the actual textual inference can be made, in scene five, again late in the play, outside the psychological aspect of Hamlet’s character Freud and Jones conclude by, with an assumption by Hamlet that he somehow allowed his mother to become whored. This where I draw a conclusive line and extrapolate for lack of any more direct in-text reference than these to default to the less nobler side of Hamlet, in a pre-existing state of jealousy, coupled with despair and hesitance, leads him to a fatalistic drive to kill Claudius, not out of duty and vengeance as a nobler son would, but rather out of the warped twist lacking any real ethic the prior would require, fueled by jealousy, shame and self-guilt.

Parts of Shakespeare’s own psyche and persona made its way into the text and character of Hamlet. Shakespeare demonstrably sought to teach his relatively large and mostly uneducated audiences, not only history but political position and prowess of Elizabethan policies and practices as well as those from the Danes through correlations to older histories. He worked diligently to also enjoin upon these same audiences an enlightenment into the ancient, the pure forms of drama in an academic way, as much he could, given the state of theatre in the 17th Century. Many of the sets and props would remain on stage throughout the performance, being too heavy to move, seemingly crude by our standards, but par for the times. Difficulty surmounts us as we begin to project ourselves into the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in terms of understanding what it was to attend and be on the ground there, much less to exist in the mindset and limited knowledge base of the era. We can only see through a glass dimly as we glance back through time, only really knowing the brilliance of Shakespeare being evident in the survival and strength of his work from then until today, and the relevance of all his works on modern theatre and most of the performance arts, especially the greatest of these, Hamlet.

In conclusion, the depths of Shakespeare’s twists and fictionalized identification of the characteristics of the actual person of Hamlet, Amleth as he would have known it, captured in the play testify to the scholar-like skill and keen observation by Shakespeare of the ancients, links to those histories and meaningful depiction to modern audiences of his time. The historical true story of Amleth which Shakespeare adhered nearly exactly to holds the key to unravelling various disagreements and introspections into the psychologically based motives Freud and Jones put forth, which Rothman, Critchley and Webster roundly reject, defining the desires and inner psyche we see in the depicted Hamlet, as the character known to be through Shakespeare. The true story from the Danes is absolutely one founded in jealousy, shame and guilt, as I have described here, and being intertwined with inordinate obsession by a prince of the Renaissance of his mother’s sexual practice and hesitance to avenge his noble father’s death, leaves an instance of impropriety one cannot dismiss. Our determination concurs with Freud to a similar end, one that cannot dismiss an obvious latent oedipal complex. However, our position remains unique in the justification for it, dismissing Freud’s externally derived foregone conclusion, ours being founded within albeit indirect, yet in-text play sourced absolutes relating directly to the history the play was derived from.

Works Cited

Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. Print.

Showerman, Earl. “ORESTES AND HAMLET: From Myth to Masterpiece: Part I.” The Oxfordian 7.2004 (2004): 89-114. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. “October” PDF <http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/the-oxfordian/ >.

Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare’s Sources for Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/hamletsources.html >

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams, Third Edition. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913

Rothman, Joshua. “Hamlet: A Love Story – The New Yorker.” 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hamlet-a-love-story >.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Doubleday, 1954. Print.

Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: U Pr., 1970. Print.

Alchin, Linda K. “Elizabethan Education.” Elizabethan Education. L.K. Alchin, 16 May 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. < http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-education.htm >.

“London Seating Plans.” Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Seating Plan. London Theatre, 1995-2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. <http://www.londontheatre.co.uk/londontheatre/seatingplans/globe.htm >.

“Shakespeare Facts | Shakespeare’s Globe | Globe Education/Shakespeare’s Globe.” Shakespeare Facts | Shakespeare’s Globe | Globe Education /Shakespeare’s Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust, 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. “Audiences” PDF <http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discovery-space/fact-sheets>.


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