Since the first day William Shakespeare published his “Hamlet”, the play has become an object of continuous literary analysis. Hamlet’s reluctance to take revenge on his father’s murderer remains one of the most controversial and enigmatic elements of Shakespeare’s play. It is only know that literary critics gradually come to realize the deep and far-reaching psychoanalytical implications of Hamlet’s relationships with the world. Psychoanalytic theories and concepts have the potential to enhance readers’ understanding of Hamlet, his character and meaning. Many things Sigmund Freud wrote in his works find their application and reflection in Hamlet’s character. From the psychoanalytical viewpoint, it would be fair to say that the character of Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is a literary reflection of the oedipal complex, and it is because of his inability to overcome the oedipal complex that Hamlet eventually fails to fulfill his mission and faces the tragic downfall.
According to Rubin, the twentieth century became the era of multiple psychoanalytic explanations to the character of Hamlet and the events taking place in Shakespeare’s play (660). The oedipal complex, which holds that a person “is inhibited by unconscious guilt over his patricidal and incestuous wishes, which in part also explains his melancholia”, is a perfect prism of literary analysis for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (Simon 709). Throughout his play, Shakespeare confirms that Hamlet is torn by the inner pro-oedipal ambivalences about his fickle mother (Leverenz 292). Hamlet’s separation from his self becomes evident from the very beginning of the play. “Who’s there?” is a question that signifies the long and troublesome journey of Hamlet, the protagonist, towards recognizing and understanding his psychological problems. At the same time, Hamlet’s reluctance to take revenge on his father’s murderer becomes an object of severe moral criticism: he knows he must do it, but constantly delays his answer. This lack of decisiveness and activity in the face of unfairness and crime reveal the deep inner conflict through which Hamlet goes and which he fails to overcome. His hesitance is overwhelming: “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” (Shakespeare IV.3). Hamlet seems to have everything he needs to fulfill his mission, but his oedipal complex does not leave him any single chance for success.
Hamlet is the victim of the oedipal complex: the fact that Queen Gertrude marries another man soon after his father is murdered reactivates the feelings of jealousy and despise toward his mother. Hamlet is no longer able to conceal the sexual desire for his mother and a deep sense of hatred toward both his father and his uncle:
“O, God! A beast, that wants discourse of reason, would have mourn’d longer – married with my uncle, My father’s brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules: within a month: Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married.” (Shakespeare I.3)
Hamlet is furious, because his uncle took the place of his father within weeks after his death. Hamlet’s idealization of his biological father and his disgust with Claudius are difficult to conceal (Levernz 299). The hidden desire for his mother blinds Hamlet. This desire weakens him to the point, where he can no longer compete with Claudius. This desire confuses him to the point, where he starts to behave like a mad person.
It is because of the oedipal complex that Hamlet constantly delays his decision to act, diving reasons and considerations that are, at least, trifle and, at worst, false. He questions the existence of his father’s ghost, he confesses he is a coward and thus cannot perform the deed, he claims that the time is unsuited for the deed, and it is better to wait until Claudius commits something unbearably bad, to justify the murder (Jones 54).
“Why, what an ass I am! […] that I the son of a dear father murder’d, promoted to my revenge by heaven and hell […] I’ll observe his look; I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I know my course.” (Shakespeare, II.2)
It is not his father’s murder that evokes intense feelings in Hamlet, but the fact of an incest with his mother, Queen Gertrude, that make Hamlet shiver of sorrow and indignation. The act of marriage with Claudius reveals the true nature of Hamlet’s mother and generates hatred to all women, including Ophelia. In the eyes of Hamlet, Ophelia is the primary bearer of every female sin (Lacan, Miller & Hulbert 22). Hamlet constantly puts off his act of revenge, which, eventually, leads him to a downfall.
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Certainly, it is possible to assume that there is no oedipal complex in Hamlet, and the difficulties he is facing are entirely a matter of personal indecisiveness and the lack of courage. The fact that, throughout the play, Hamlet makes no indication of his inner problem and does not recognize the true reason of his doubts suggests that he himself cannot adequately explain what is happening to him (Jones 48). However, the oedipal complex is rooted in Hamlet’s unconsciousness; and that he is consciously unaware of this problem does not mean that the problem does not exist. Hamlet’s behaviors, emotional reactions, and decisions speak more violently than his thoughts. The presence of the oedipal problems in Hamlet is obvious, as it is through his identification with his father that the young man fails to come to terms with the reality and never fulfills his tragic mission.
Freud’s concept of the oedipal complex is a perfect prism of literary analysis in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The character of Hamlet is a literary reflection of the oedipal complex, and it is because of his inability to overcome the oedipal complex that Hamlet eventually fails to fulfill his mission and faces the tragic downfall. It is not because of personal indecisiveness or weakness that Hamlet fails to take revenge on his father’s murderer. It is his repressed sexual desire for his mother and subsequent self-identification with his father that prevent Hamlet from recognizing his psychological problems and fulfilling his tragic mission.