All 2 entries tagged Psychoanalysis

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March 13, 2012

Is there a critical theory of dramatic comedy in psychoanalytical literary criticism?

In the Spring of 1912, Sigmund Freud was correcting some proofs for one of his books when he was suddenly struck by the idea that there was a connection between the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice, the three daughters in King Lear, and the three goddesses in The Judgement of Paris. He immediately wrote to Karl Abraham and Salvador Ferenczi, pressed Otto Rank and Hanns Sachs into service researching the mythological material and, in a couple of days, had a complete account of his conclusions. The resulting essay, “Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl”, was published in Imago in 1913. It was then translated into English by C.J.M. Hubback as “The Theme of the Three Caskets”, and published in Freud’s Collected Papers in 1925 and in the Standard Edition in 1958.

In this essay, Freud holds that the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice stand for three women. A casket as a box can represent a woman in psychoanalytic symbology. Freud noticed that wherever he saw a line-up of three women in literature, the third one was the most beautiful or the best choice. King Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, turns out to be the best of the three sisters. Psyche in Apuleius’s Golden Ass is the most beautiful and Cinderella was the prince’s choice. Both of them had two sisters. Aphrodite wins the contest of the fairest against her two divine competitors in the Judgement of Paris. Freud also noticed that the third woman in the line-up is also somehow muted. Cordelia can’t find the words to flatter her father and is exiled. Cinderella is treated unjustly and has come to stand for one whose attributes are unrecognized. Psyche is persecuted by Aphrodite and is not allowed to know who her lover is. Freud’s reason for placing Aphrodite in the category of the woman who is muted is less understandable until one considers the source in which Freud read the story of the Judgement of Paris. It is in Offenbach’s libretto La Belle Hélène, which includes the lines, “La troisième, ah! la troisième…La troisième ne dit rien. Elle eut le prix tout de même.” (The third one said nothing, and yet won the prize). From the symbol of silence Freud makes another interpretive step. The beautiful, good, silent third woman ultimately represents death.

Death is the work of the third fate, the ineluctable Atropos and it is her, not Portia, that Bassanio chooses when he selects the third casket. About the lead casket he says, “thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (3.2.106). Yet Freud’s reading does not make sense with the plot of the play. Bassanio clearly states that he is choosing Portia because she is fair and rich and because winning her will help the prodigal Bassanio to become financially solvent. None of those reasons have anything to do with death. At its core, the play has a typical comedic structure to it. The hero, Bassanio, has a goal, marriage to a beautiful rich lady. He has to overcome obstacles, raising the money and handling the deadly fallout from that act, before he can achieve his goal. He does so with some help from his male admirer, Antonio, and his disguised, cross-dressed heroine, Portia. There is a final complication with the ring trick, but he successfully navigates that and walks off the stage into Portia’s bedroom and her arms. However, according to Freud, this is merely what happens on the surface of the play. Underneath that surface, Bassanio is seeking his fate with Atropos.

Freud reads characters in Shakespeare’s plays the way he reads his analysands. For him, Bassanio’s conscious dialogue is a defense against his unconscious wishes. Since he is scared of his unconscious wish for death, he uses reaction formation, thoughts and actions diametrically opposed to a repressed wish, to cover it up. Instead of acknowledging that he desires the third woman, death, Bassanio claims that he desires the fair Portia. The origin of this psychological tension lies within the author himself. Freud holds that creative writers construct stories that depict their own psychological struggles and that literary popularity results from having penned a story that depicts the psychological struggles of its audience. The play works because it depicts neurotic characters written by a neurotic author for a neurotic audience. Freud’s Shakespeare must have also had an unconscious desire for death when he wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Whether one agrees with Freud’s interpretation of Merchant or not (for the record, I do not) the Kästchenwahl essay is important in an exploration of psychoanalytic literary theory for at least two reasons. First it shows that Freud was actively working out his theory of the death instinct long before it was named in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The roots of his thinking on the issue can be found in his, then unpublished, 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, and the Kästchenwahl essay can serve as a bridge between the 1895 and the 1920 texts. Secondly, it hints at a possible psychoanalytic theory of dramatic comedy in which all comedy can be read with a depth analysis that sees unconscious motives underlying its surface plot.

I have written about Karl Marx reading the tragic underside of Shakespeare’s comedies and how this deepens one’s understanding of those plays. Could Freud’s reading be similarly useful as a critical theory that peers into the depth under the surface? I will be writing a paper about this for a psychoanalytic conference in June. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on this subject.


March 06, 2012

Shakespeare and the Hero

 photo by xion

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.

 Young Freud


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