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.