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Shakespeare on the Couch

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Drawing upon a vast literature in psychoanalytic journals and either upon Shakespeare's characters themselves or alluding to those characters in the course of other topics, this book discusses eight of Shakespeare's plays and the relationships between the main characters in them.Psychoanalytic and literary approaches sometimes diverge, but they can also concur in seeing characters either as true examples of different psychological states and types of relating or as symbolic of aspects of the personality. The chapters contain many references to psychoanalytic interpretations from Freud onwards, although these cannot be proved, and in some cases are over-stretched, there will be times when psychoanalytic criticism 'rings bells' in the reader. The importance of this book lies in its drawing together from a large number of disparate sources, many of which will be inaccessible to those who do not have access to the journals or psychoanalytic databases. It is nonetheless relevant for counsellors and therapists, as well as for those interested in literature, particularly in Shakespearean studies. It is written for the thinking lay reader, and does not blind the ordinary reader with psychoanalytic terminology and concepts. Readers who are therapists may gain some insights into aspects of some of their clients; everyone should be encouraged through these ideas and theories to muse upon aspects of his or her own personality, thoughts, fantasies and behaviours.

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Chapter One - The Qualities of People

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CHAPTER ONE

The qualities of people

Psychoanalysis has developed an enduring interest in literature, just as literary criticism has not been averse to drawing upon various possibilities thrown up by psychoanalysis. Perhaps this is not surprising when Freud wrote of his own case histories: ‘It still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science’ (Freud & Breuer, 1895d, p. 160). The richness of his associations appears to show sheer enjoyment and fascination as he explored the imagery and relationships in a once popular novel, Jensen's Gradiva (1907a). Other essays of his use literary figures, sometimes through his wish to protect the confidentiality of his patients (e.g., 1916d), sometimes because the figures themselves lead to interesting speculation (e.g., 1913f). Shakespeare's characters, as well as indeed the identity of Shakespeare himself (a mistaken hypothesis in Freud's case) also feature strongly in some of his essays, as well as in his major works, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The chapters that follow demonstrate how often Shakespeare's characters have either been the basis of psychoanalytic study in themselves, or have informed or been informed by the case work of many analysts. Two articles (Greenberg & Rothenberg, 1974; Willbern, 1978), which list references to Shakespeare's plays, principally in psychoanalytic literature, provide respectively details of 318 and 316 articles or books; and Levey (1993) lists 403 more that have been published since the appearance of those bibliographies.

 

Chapter Two - Much Deceived: Leontes and Othello

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CHAPTER TWO

Much deceived: Leontes and Othello

Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, and Othello have this in common. Both become intensely jealous, with disastrous results for themselves as well as for their wives. In Leontes' case this jealousy appears to spring from nowhere; and with Othello he is set up by his trusted companion Iago. But can we really believe in the intensity of their jealousy? These two characters provide dramatic examples of the debate referred to in Chapter One: do they accurately represent states of mind that contemporary men and women feel? Are there relationships such as theirs where innocent partners are psychologically or literally destroyed? Or does Shakespeare create these situations to titillate and entertain? More generously, does he exaggerate in order to draw attention to possibilities otherwise only faintly acknowledged within us?

The first act of The Winter's Tale is all the more remarkable because, within one hundred lines, and on very little pretext, Leontes appears to snap, turning on his heavily pregnant wife Hermione; and within a few lines he is seething with jealousy, all because Hermione has persuaded his boyhood friend Polixenes to stay on at court a little longer.

 

Chapter Three - Death and the Maiden

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CHAPTER THREE

Death and the maiden

The Merchant of Venice is listed from the First Folio onwards as a comedy, although there is scarcely much to laugh at in it, except perhaps in the portrayal of the first two men to woo Portia's hand: under Jonathan Miller's direction (The Merchant of Venice, 1992), they do provide some welcome light relief. Bloom writes that his students find it difficult to accept that Shylock is a comic villain (1999, p. 171), and he admits that he has never seen the play staged with Shylock as comic. There is a record of the play being performed in this way in 1709, when a critic at that time wrote: “while the part of the Jew [was] perform'd by an excellent Comedian, yet I cannot but think that it was design'd Tragically by the Author” (Brown, 1959, p. xxxiv). If, as “comedy” was originally used, it is a tale with a happy ending, then perhaps the term can be applied to The Merchant of Venice, although it is only a happy ending for the four lovers, not for Shylock, or even perhaps for the merchant Antonio. As in Dante's Divine Comedy, there is much suffering before the finale.

 

Chapter Four - The rei(g)ns of Power

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CHAPTER FOUR

The rei(g)ns of power

Freud's idiosyncratic interpretation of the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice concludes with his thoughts about Lear and Cordelia—Cordelia, the Goddess of Death. To achieve this interpretation he has to reverse the situation in the last act of King Lear, because it is Lear who carries Cordelia's body on to the stage, rather than Cordelia, the Death-goddess, who carries the dead hero from the battlefield (1913f, p. 301). But if the choice of death as Freud's theme was in any way prefiguring his nascent interest in the death drive, the choice of Cordelia as an example may have been influenced, as Freud's letter to Ferenczi shows, by his own “little daughter” Anna (Gay, 1988, p. 433). Although later in life Anna Freud became an Antigone to Freud as the ailing Oedipus, Cordelia remains a fitting image, since the youngest daughter's devotion to the welfare of an aging father is an apt parallel.

Differing interpretations are endemic to all great literature, and if Freud has his views on King Lear, contrasting views are naturally found elsewhere. In summarizing the plot of the play, there is therefore a temptation to emphasize some features against others, because of a particular interpretation. Is it, for example, a play about the relationship between generations (as Miller, 1993, convincingly argues—see below) and the issue of inheritance?

 

Chapter Five - Part-objects: Prospero and Caliban

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CHAPTER FIVE

Part-objects: Prospero and Caliban

There are a number of obvious links between King Lear and The Tempest, such as the storm scenes in King Lear and the storm that opens The Tempest, as well as that by now familiar theme, the relationship between father and daughter. There is even a hint of harshness in the relationship between Prospero and his daughter Miranda, although this is, of course, muted in comparison to Lear and Cordelia. But many of these images or themes are common ones, not only seen elsewhere in the Shakespearean canon, but in other literature as well. Some have speculated that the father–daughter relationship that runs through all the late plays might be linked to Shakespeare's own relationship to one or both of his daughters, Susanna and Judith. Because we know so little about the author, it is a brave person who would dare to assert any definite link between his life and the literature he produced. Psychoanalytic treatment of Shakespeare is often speculative, as will be seen in some of the references in this chapter. For example, in placing King Lear in the previous chapter and The Tempest following it, this might appear to reinforce the theory put forward by Ella Freeman Sharpe in 1946, when she suggests that the sequence of the several plays from King Lear through to The Tempest portrays a shift in Shakespeare's own mind from rage and despair in the tragedies through to resolution in The Tempest It is, of course, an interesting theory, but it is perhaps rather too neat to detain us for long. Nevertheless, other early twentieth–century critics have interpreted The Tempest as about reconciliation, and as a play that transcends the painfulness of the series of tragedies that dominates the final phase of Shakespeare's writing (Sokol, 1995, p. 183).

 

Chapter Six - “Father” and son: Prince Hal and Falstaff

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CHAPTER SIX

“Father” and son: Prince Hal and Falstaff

While psychoanalytic writing has turned its attention many times to Shakespeare's plays, the history plays do not feature very obviously in the bibliographies of books, articles, and papers on characters and themes in the plays. The exceptions are Henry IV and the two Richards (II and III), although even in these instances the references are few. Perhaps that is because the history plays at first appear more a series tracing the dynastic struggles leading up to the Tudor monarchs.

The same relative paucity of interest applies also to the plays in performance. There are from time to time performances of the histories in sequence, and at one time Henry V attracted patriotic attention. But one of the more popular of the history plays remains Henry IV Part 1, perhaps for two reasons. The first is the inclusion in the cast of characters of Sir John Falstaff—a figure almost larger than life. Yet Sir John also appears in Henry IV Part 2, and in half the scenes. Nevertheless, Part 2 is performed less frequently and appears to have had less success even when it was written. The other ingredient that turns Part 1's dramatic history into a historical drama is the theme that runs through it of pretence, or of role-playing, even what the latest editor of the Arden edition calls “counterfeiting”. This is a reference in part to the motif of coinage that is a constant feature of the language of the play; but, even more so, counterfeiting refers to the fact that Henry IV has usurped the throne, that his son Prince Hal appears to deliberately associate with low life in order to appear all the grander when he becomes King and rises above it, as well as the pretence of Falstaff at the concluding battle of Shrewsbury.

 

Chapter Seven - The Macbeths: a Childless Couple?

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The Macbeths: a childless couple?

Father and daughter, father and son—these have been prominent themes in earlier chapters. Coming to Macbeth one of the major issues, at least as posited in psychoanalytic writing, is the principal characters' childlessness. Instead, it is often commented, the parent–child relationship is played out within the marriage of Macbeth and his wife.

This, for example, is the argument put forward by Hildebrand in a chapter titled “The Caledonian tragedy” (2006). Hildebrand chooses his title from one of several alternative names used in the theatre for Macbeth, since there is a superstition amongst actors that the actual name of Shakespeare's tragedy should never be spoken aloud in a theatre. Better known is the title “The Scottish Play”, although there are others that Hildebrand refers to, such as “Harry Lauder”, “That Play” or “The Unmentionable”. Citing material from a book on the play by Huggett (1981), Hildebrand refers to a history of disasters associated with the staging of the play: “theatres collapsing, actors falling ill, being injured in stage fights, running away, breaking down and actresses miscarrying” (Hildebrand, 2006, p. 44). Actors playing the leading roles are said to have died soon after the play opened and many productions have been associated with dreadful experiences for the cast. Because of the play's popularity, it was often thought that the company must be about to close when it was put on, because the management were trying to get the audience into the theatre to save the company from financial collapse. There have apparently been actual deaths in stage duels; and The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon burned down in the 1930s on the night following a performance of Macbeth.

 

Chapter Eight - Antony and Cleopatra—“Star-Cross'd” Lovers?

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Antony and Cleopatra—“star-cross'd” lovers?

Lifting “star-cross'd lovers” from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet is somewhat disingenuous in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, and is even more so when the whole line is quoted: “A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life”. In Romeo and Juliet the reference is to receiving life from the procreation of two rival pairs of parents. This is no reference to suicidal actions, and indeed the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are tragic accidents of fate. But a similar tragic theme pervades both plays—the love that leads to death.

Antony and Cleopatra are different—they are, for a start, older, and, one might have thought, wiser. And one of them indeed takes her life intentionally, while the other throws his life away in what may well appear to be a useless cause. He also throws away his career through his love for Cleopatra. Yet they are also “star-cross'd lovers”, their love conflicting with their other roles as warrior, politician, and monarch.

 

Chapter Nine - Epilogue

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CHAPTER NINE

Epilogue

And the rest…?

There are of course other characters in Shakespeare who might merit the type of examination given to those discussed in previous chapters. Psychoanalytic writing includes a scattering of references to some of those who come to mind—Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, even the narcissistic Malvolio—but there is not generally the interest in them that has been generated in the characters examined here.

Yet Hamlet? “Ay, there's the rub!” (Hamlet, 3(i): 65). That is a completely different picture, and the reader may wonder why there is not a chapter devoted to him within these covers.

The answer is that there are so many articles and books interpreting Hamlet that it is impossible in a single chapter to do either him or psychoanalysis justice. He merits a book to himself, as indeed (referring back to my Prologue) when teaching “Shakespeare on the couch”, nearly the whole of my second course was given over to his play.

Hamlet takes us into the whole question raised by Freud, and pursued in Freud's defence by Ernest Jones (1949), of the Oedipal issues that may have been behind his inability to exact revenge for his father's apparent murder. But, if for some it is the Oedipus myth that helps us unpack his dilemma, for others it is the Orestes myth. Other analysts have challenged the Freud–Jones view, and suggested alternative reasons for Hamlet's inability to act. Apart from the problem of parricide there is the question of matricidal wishes, which may also be present; there are issues of intergenerational conflict, of parental watchfulness and interfering oversight, not just in Hamlet's case, but with regard to Ophelia too. There is much in the way the women in the play—Gertrude and Ophelia—can themselves be understood. Some writing has discussed the mutuality of the Oedipus complex in relation to Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Ophelia is of immense interest, too: apart from Hamlet's ambivalent relationship to her, there have been discussions in psychoanalytic literature of what drove her mad. In addition, there is the question of Hamlet's madness, and whether it was feigned or not; and if it was feigned what the effect of his role-playing madness might have been, both on Hamlet and on the way others treated him. There is the trickery of the play within the play, which itself leads to speculation about its link to dreaming within dreams. There is speculation, too, about the role of the trickster and Hamlet, and of the shape-shifting figure.

 

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