Shakespeare and the Hero
One day in 1862 in the city of Vienna, a young mother was attempting to convince her six year old son that humans are made of dust and therefore must return to dust. To prove her point, she rubbed her palms together until black scales of epidermis—the dust—appeared. Her son was astonished and confused, but he acquiesced. A couple of years later, the boy, who was quite precocious, began reading Shakespeare’s plays. In Henry IV, part one, he came across Hal’s lines to Falstaff, who had just faked his death to survive the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death” (5.1.126). The boy misread the lines (or misremembered them in his recounting of this episode) as, “Thou owest Nature a death”. Suddenly, by his account, his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson made sense to him.
Eight years later, the boy complained, in a letter to a friend, of his first amorous crush. He had fallen in love with a girl named Gisela, but couldn’t muster the courage to speak to her due to his “unsinniges Hamlettum” (ridiculous Hamletdom). When he grew to be a man and finally found his romantic courage, he wooed his fiancé with Shakespearean quotes. He wrote to his beloved Martha that her voice “was ever so soft, gentle and low – an excellent thing in a woman. Mein Cordelia-Marthchen.” Complaining that he couldn’t see his fiancé during a Jewish holy day he wrote:
Just because years ago at this season (owing to a miscalculation) Jerusalem had been destroyed I was to be prevented from speaking to my girl on the last day of my stay. “But what’s Hecuba to me?” Jerusalem is destroyed and Marty and I are alive and happy.
This astonished boy, this infatuated adolescent, this loving man was Sigmund Freud.
Freud’s relationship with Shakespeare’s plays began early in his life and continued until his death in 1939. He read the plays in German, French and English. He occasionally saw them in theatre, although, like Goethe, he preferred to read them so that he could experience them with an inner sense instead of an external vision. He quoted from or alluded to the plays in ninety-nine different places in his writings. Sometimes he simply alluded to a character or a line in order to make a point. Sometimes, he used a Shakespearean character or situation as a sustained conceit that stood for one of his theories. This he did with Lady Macbeth as an example of one who is ruined by success, and Bassanio as an example of one whose conscious choices are a reaction formation against his unconscious wishes. Freud’s two central theoretical constructions, the death instinct and the Oedipus Complex are partially built upon Shakespearean situations. Freud uses Bassanio’s casket choice to develop his theory of the death instinct seven years before he gave that theory a name. Shakespeare’s plays, in these cases, can be seen as having a formative influence on Freud. His use of Hamlet has a place in history as being one of the most significant uses of literature by a developing theory.
Freud’s monumental book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, includes, among many theories, the first presentation of the Oedipus Complex. While Freud borrows the name for the theory from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he pairs the Classical play with Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the explanation. The Interpretation of Dreams is the result not only of Freud’s theoretical development but also of the first analysis that he ever performed—the analysis of himself. He wrote details of this analysis in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, which were not revealed to the public until after he died. In the letters, Freud can be seen using Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice to make sense of his discoveries about his childhood. (I will blog more specifically about these influences in weeks to come.)
Freud quotes or alludes to Hamlet forty-six times in his writings, making up forty-five percent of his total instances of Shakespearean quotations. Freud’s first allusions to the play were offered as support for his newly developing Oedipus theory. Freud rejected the Romantic reading that Hamlet was too sensitive for the job of revenge. He held, instead, that the prince’s hesitation arose from his guilt about the fact that Claudius did what Hamlet wanted to do—kill his father and sleep with his mother.
Conceits from Hamlet pervade Freud’s writings. He wrote in 1914:
After exercising so much self-restraint in not coming to blows with opponents outside analysis, I now see myself compelled to take up arms against its former followers or people who still like to call themselves its followers. I have no choice in the matter, however; only indolence or cowardice could lead one to keep silence, and silence would cause more harm than a frank revelation of the harms that already exist.
When the Oedipus theory found its place at the centre of the new science, psychoanalysis, Freud used Hamlet as proof of its validity. He held that if Shakespeare wrote it in Hamlet, then it must be true. He also used Hamlet to support his discovery of the unconscious in a 1922 essay as “one of the things between heaven and earth which philosophy refuses to dream of”, and he exclaimed in many essays that there was “method in the madness” of psychoanalysis. As the attacks on psychoanalysis grew, Freud turned to Shakespeare more and more. Shakespeare went from being an influence on Freud’s writings to being an assurance that they were correct. Freud saw himself as a hero, fighting the enemies of psychoanalysis, and, like all Classical heroes, Freud needed a god to help on his quest. Odysseus had Athena, Heracles had Helios, and Freud had Shakespeare.
But…the story does not end there, for Freud soon defected from William Shakespeare of Stratford, and that’s grist for another blog.