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The Unconscious in Shakespeare's Plays

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Just as concerts emerge from the interaction of many instruments, so our understanding of Shakespeare is enriched by different approaches to him. Psychoanalysis assumes that creative writers have the need to both reveal and conceal their own inner conflicts in their works. They leave residues in their works that, if we pay attention, can become building blocks that reveal aspects of the unconscious. It is my hope that readers may find that the questions raised add to the pleasure of reading Shakespeare and that they deepens their understanding of his plays. Topics covered include the pivotal position of Hamlet, the poet and his calling, the Oedipus complex, intrapsychic conflict, the battle against paranoia and the homosexual compromise. By using psychoanalytic techniques in analyzing his plays and characters, I hope to reveal more about Shakespeare's hidden motivations and mental health.

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Chapter One - Hamlet: The Inability to Mourn and the Inability to Love

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This chapter on Hamlet carries a special responsibility in this book. It is Shakespeare's deepest and psychologically most complex play as well as the longest running at nearly 4000 words. It is one of the greatest works of world literature. Hamlet contains more than 600 words not found in previous works by Shakespeare and new to the English language (Greenblatt, 2004: p. 308). Shakespeare needed new words, mostly to express psychological concepts not put into words before. Previous tragedies had already established Shakespeare as an eminent playwright but Hamlet is a milestone in the exploration of human interiority. A psychological study of the new words Shakespeare created could be an enriching experience.

We compare Hamlet to an earlier Shakespeare character, Richard III. There is nothing ultimately mysterious about Richard, whereas we never fully understand Hamlet. Shakespeare made the discovery that characters are more interesting and lead richer inner lives when they do not fully know themselves.

 

Chapter Two - A Midsummer Night's Dream: How Shakespeare Won the Right to Write Plays

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A Midsummer Night's Dream was selected as the first chapter of part three, because in it Shakespeare dealt with the relationship of the poet to his unconscious. It was an achievement of a kind he would not reach again.

Two soliloquies, one by Theseus and the other by Puck, are the keys to the unconscious meaning of this play.

The wish to demonstrate that madmen, lovers, and poets have something in common draws attention to the unconscious that they have in common. Their “seething brains” emphasises the restlessness of the three categories but then, being a sober man, Theseus goes on to differentiate amongst them.

Theseus is the spokesman for the part of Shakespeare's audience that resists falling under the spell of the poet. He compares the madman, the lover, and the poet. All three “Are of imagination all compact”. They show an excess of fantasy, more than “cool reason ever comprehends”. The lover and the lunatic are private individuals, while the poet gives “local habitation” to “airy nothing”, which is Shakespeare's original way of saying the poet verbalises what is preverbal in the rest of us. In psychoanalytic language, all three have allowed their unconscious more power over their lives than sane men allow. Theseus is neither madman nor poet and may not even be in love, but he mistrusts poets. It is of interest that Theseus does not mention the dreamer along with the madman, lover, and poet.

 

Chapter Three - The Tempest: The Abdication of Creativity

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The Tempest is an abdication and renunciation play; it is a personal play of greater interest to the author but not a topic easily welcome to the audience. Shakespeare is trying to explain to us the reasons for his abdication and unconsciously he is asking for our permission to do so. He is pursuing two not-easily-reconciled wishes: to explain his abdication and at the same time not to depress his audience.

The Tempest is believed to have been written in 1611, when Shakespeare was forty-seven years old. Shakespeare's first play, Henry VI, Part I, is thought to have been written in 1589, when he was twenty-five years old, a span of twenty two years of creative play writing.

The Tempest is believed to be Shakespeare's last independently written play. It describes in symbolic language the playwright's waning powers as a poet and the decision to abdicate. In my reading, it can be read as the counterpart to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1589), in which the poet overcame his doubts and inhibitions, gaining the inner right to be a poet.

 

Chapter Four - Timon of Athens: The Loss of Creativity

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It is generally assumed that Timon of Athens was written in 1607–08, the year Coriolanus was written and before The Winter's Tale or The Tempest. It was never performed in Shakespeare's time and it is far more likely to be read than seen on stage. It is very simple in design but not easy to read. Anyone interested in understanding what failing inspiration in a great poet looks like, will find this play clinically interesting if not a satisfactory work of art. It also highlights the difference between a psychoanalytic approach and that of a literary study of Shakespeare's plays.

It so happens that two prominent contemporary Shakespeare scholars have given us two different evaluations of Timon of Athens and I will present both.

Harold Bloom suspects that with this play “Shakespeare experienced a personal revulsion at what he was finishing, and turned away from it” (Bloom, 1998: p. 588). Bloom also found that “the play stages better than it reads; it is intensely dramatic, but unevenly expressed” (Bloom, 1998: p. 588).

 

Chapter Five - Richard III: The Oedipus Complex and the Villain

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The play opens with a long soliloquy of the Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III, explaining how he decided to become a villain. Shakespeare's interest in creating villains (and there is a whole series of them) was stimulated by the dramatic success of Marlowe's villain in The Jew of Malta. We are drawn into the action and feel as if he is confiding in us, as if we were given special permission to enter the mind of the chief actor. What we hear is standard Renaissance, beautifully expressed. Mars, the god of war, is lying in the arms of Venus and as a result peace prevails.

 

Now that England's civil war is over Richard is restless.

It takes some suspension of disbelief for us to imagine that such a deformed man was nevertheless a great warrior. Furthermore, the soliloquy implies that becoming a villain was entirely a conscious decision, which strikes those of us acquainted with Freud's work as unlikely.

A “dissembling nature” is an original metaphor that betrays paranoid tendencies, as if nature, personified as a woman, has deliberately decided to cheat him of what he was entitled to have. Most of Richard's encounters in this play are with women whose husbands or children he has killed, a symbolic revenge on dissembling nature. In today's language Richard III has an “inferiority complex” and a powerful sense of narcissistic entitlement, which will transpose him into a villain. In psychoanalytic history Richard sides with Alfred Adler in his debate with Freud. Adler put “the feeling of inferiority with the inferiority of certain organs” as causing a “passionate desire for triumph”. It was in this debate, on 1 February 1911 that Freud declared, “This is not psychoanalysis” and then started the first irreconcilable division within psychoanalysis (Nunberg & Federn, 1974: p. 129). Had Adler known Shakespeare he could have quoted Richard III in his own defense.

 

Chapter Six - Julius Caesar and Freud's Totem and Taboo

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From a psychoanalytic perspective, Julius Caesar is an oedipal play. Its central theme consists of a band of brothers uniting to kill a father figure. What is astonishing is that the leader of this band, Brutus, is a highly moral person. What is further surprising is that, contrary to what clinical experience has taught us, Brutus' superego not only does not forbid this murder but actually demands it.

As the play unfolds it turns out that this murder was not a success. The conspirators succeed in killing Caesar but psychologically the victory goes to Caesar. The playwright is not a republican; his heart is not with the rebels. This attitude was also the wise one politically, as Shakespeare lived under a strict monarchy and siding with the rebels would have prohibited this play from being performed. Julius Caesar can be contrasted with another play Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller, written a century later and made into an opera by Verdi, who clearly sided with the son rather than the father.

 

Chapter Seven - Macbeth: An Audacious Variant on the Oedipal Theme

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In this chapter the reader will find a radically new interpretation of the joint murder of King Duncan.

The witches have just delivered their prophecy to Macbeth. Banquo turns to Macbeth and says, “Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” (Macbeth, I.iii.51–52). Banquo then, without fear, invites the “weird sisters” to tell him what is in store for him. The differences in how the two men react to the prophecies is Shakespeare's way of telling us that for Macbeth the prophecy suddenly made conscious wishes that had already been active but repressed; to hear them expressed made him “start”, but the prophecy had no similar effect on Banquo because he had no unconscious oedipal wishes to replace the king.

Had the witches reversed their prophecies, would Banquo have killed the king? Most likely not: he would have assumed that the prophecy would be fulfilled if he simply waited. Macbeth assumes that he himself must bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy and do it immediately. For a moment Macbeth hesitates and considers adopting Banquo's attitude, and says in an aside, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (I.iii.143–144). However, once the wish was aroused he is not capable of inaction, nor can Macbeth wait until he arrives home to let his wife know what has happened; she must be informed immediately. Scene five of act I opens with Lady Macbeth reading his letter. What impressed Macbeth is that the first part of the prophecy, that he would become Thane of Cawdor, was immediately fulfilled when a messenger sent by the king announced his new honour. The letter states:

 

Chapter Eight - Antony and Cleopatra: Dangerous Dotage

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Anyone approaching this play with a psychoanalytic frame in mind will see it first as a magnificent description of an intrapsychic conflict. If I imagine teachers of psychoanalysis or even secondary education teachers trying to convey to their students what an inner conflict is, they could hardly do better than to suggest reading this play. Antony is a Roman general in competition with several other men for the position of leader of the known world. In his outlook and in his ego ideal, he is a Roman at a moment in history when the days of Republican Rome are over and the heritage of Julius Caesar was up for grabs. This very same man falls into submissive love with Cleopatra and the play is a description of his conflict and its dire consequences.

As the play opens Antony has developed a dotage on Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra are as young as Romeo and Juliet; they are middle aged. Speaking of Cleopatra's past relationship with Caesar, Agrippa says:

It is easy to miss this casual remark that plays no further role in the unfolding story, but if we pay attention to the unconscious we cannot ignore that Antony's stormy love relationship is, on a symbolic level, a sexual relationship with his mother. Julius Caesar was symbolically Antony's father and Antony's fame rested on the fact that he punished Caesar's murderers in his role of loyal son. Now he is deeply in love with the woman Caesar “ploughed”.

 

Chapter Nine - Coriolanus: An Astounding Description of a Destructive Mother–Child Relationship

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Shakespeare wrote a number of plays where the mother is conspicuously absent—The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and The Tempest are examples—but only one play where the mother-son conflict is central, Coriolanus. This fact alone would make this play of interest within the frame of reference of this book, but there is yet another reason why the play brings Shakespeare and psychoanalysis closer.

In Coriolanus Shakespeare showed an astonishing understanding of a mother-son relationship. Today, largely under the influence of psychoanalysis, we take it for granted that the early years and the relationship to the parents are decisive in forming our characters, but in Shakespeare's time none of this was known. Even today psychoanalytic patients discover to their astonishment how decisive the father or mother was in the formation of their characters.

Act I, scene three takes place in Coriolanus’ house, between his mother Volumnia and his wife Virgilia.

The phrase, “If my son were my husband” would probably not occur to an ordinary mother, and if it did, it would not be allowed to be told to the daughter-in-law because it betrays a sexualised attitude towards the son. It can pass censorship in this case because the sexuality is negated in the second sentence.

 

Chapter Ten - King Lear: The Daughter as a Replacement for the Mother

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If a student were struggling to understand what psychoanalysis means by regression, King Lear's wish to abdicate his kingdom and crawl towards death unburdened would be an excellent example. The metaphor arouses psychoanalytic interest. Lear crawled as an infant before he learned to walk and now he wishes to crawl again, this time towards death. To be unburdened he has to be taken care of by his daughters; the wish is based on a “role reversal” and therefore must fail. Today, when medicine has done so much to prolong life and so many adults are burdened by the need to take care of older parents, the problems in the play have a new urgency. In clinical psychoanalytic practice such a wish is often encountered when the mother has transferred her oedipal wishes for her father to her son at the expense of the husband or a father prefers his daughter to his wife.

According to Kermode, King Lear was entered in the Stationer's Register in November 1607, while the play was performed in December 1606. We have no record of how it was received. Kermode writes that the audience “lacked the desire, or perhaps the terminology, to record its reaction”. (Kermode, 1969: p. 12)

 

Chapter Eleven - Richard II: Abdication as a Father's Reaction to the Oedipus Complex

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Abdication was a theme of great interest to Shakespeare. Richard II is only the first play in which abdication plays a central role; King Lear and The Tempest will follow. Only a king can abdicate; the rest of us can only resign.

We noted in an earlier chapter that Shakespeare was in conflict about his calling as a poet. To him, being a poet seems to be the equivalent of being a magician. In this play the assumption is made that he imagined himself as a king forced to abdicate.

Richard II was written in 1595, some three years after Richard III. William Hazlitt, writing in 1817, left us a great psychological description of Richard II.

Richard II is a play little known compared with Richard III which last is a play that every unfledged candidate for theatrical fame chuses to strut and fret his hour upon the stage in; yet we confess that we prefer the nature and feeling of the one to the noise and bustle of the other; at least, as we are so often forced to see it acted. In Richard II the weakness of the king leaves us leisure to take a greater interest in the misfortunes of the man. After the first act, in which the arbitrariness of his behaviour only proves his want of resolution, we see him staggering under the unlooked-for blows of fortune, bewailing his loss of kingly power, not preventing it, sinking under the aspiring genius of Bolingbroke, his authority trampled on, his hopes failing him, and his pride crushed and broken down under insults and injuries, which his own misconduct had provoked, but which he has not courage or manliness to resent. (Hazlitt, 1817: pp. 178–179)

 

Chapter Twelve - Measure for Measure: The Disintegration of a Harsh Superego

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The title of this play is derived from Matthew 7: 1–2:

1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

The title suggests that the play deals with justice and punishment and it is believed that Shakespeare wrote it in 1604, the same year as Othello and a year before King Lear. It is hard to classify Measure for Measure since it is neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It is of psychoanalytic interest because it deals with the need for and the disappointment in the harshness of the superego, as well as the development of the relationship of Isabella and Angelo, who are both in search of a stricter superego. We find ourselves in a situation that recalls the time when progressive education was introduced. Angelo introduces the problem with an original metaphor.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is in agreement.

At the opening of the play Duke Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna, decides on a temporary abdication. He will leave Vienna in the hands of his deputy Angelo, known for being much stricter than the duke. The theme of abdication has a long history in Shakespeare's work, recalling King Lear, Richard II, and Prospero in The Tempest. In this play, however, Vincentio does not leave his kingdom but remains there disguised as a friar in order to see what will happen under Angelo's stricter rule.

 

Chapter Thirteen - Othello: Motiveless Malignity or Latent Homosexuality?

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Shakespeare's Othello is probably the greatest literary work on the subject of jealousy. The source for the play was Cinthio's Hecatommithi, published in Venice in 1566. In the original, the jealousy is a simple heterosexual one, in which an ensign, Iago, passionately desires Desdemona. When she fails to respond he becomes convinced that she loves another officer, a Moorish captain named Cassio; the love turns into a murderous jealousy and Desdemona is killed. In this version the Moor is not in love with or married to Desdemona.

Shakespeare transformed this relatively simple story into the tale of the capacity of one man, Iago, to transform the sexually non-consummated love relationship between the Moor, Othello, and the young white woman, Desdemona, into her murder by Othello in a fit of jealousy. Iago leaves us with an uncanny impression because he kindles this jealousy and at the same time warns Othello against it.

These are difficult lines, conveying a complex message. Jealousy is said to be a “green-eyed monster” that mocks “the meat it feeds on”, meaning that it renders ridiculous the very person who succumbs to it. But in the middle of the third line a very different message is transmitted. According to Iago, one is particularly a victim of the green-eyed monster if one both dotes (loves submissively) and suspects one's lover at the same time. These very complex lines are uttered not by a thinker on the nature of jealousy, but by a man planning to snare another man by evoking his jealousy and causing him to kill the woman he loves.

 

Chapter Fourteen - The Winter's Tale: Latent Homosexuality and Paranoia

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Othello was written in 1604 and The Winter's Tale in 1610–11. Both plays have paranoia as their central theme. Shakespeare's need to return to this subject suggests that writing Othello did not succeed in liberating its author from this dangerous capacity. The two plays may add to our understanding of this aspect of Shakespeare's unconscious.

Leontes, King of Sicily, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, grew up together as children. Polixenes has been Leontes’ guest for nine months and as the play opens he wishes to return home. In the first act Camillo, a lord in attendance on Leontes, introduces the theme of the play.

This happiness does not come true because of Leontes’ paranoid fear that Polixenes had a sexual relationship with Hermione, Leontes’ wife. Recalling Freud's classification of different types of jealousy, discussed in the chapter on Othello, we conclude that Leontes’ jealousy is of the delusional type.

Intense desexualised love relationships between children of the same gender are not uncommon. Shakespeare himself described such a relationship between Helena and Hermione in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

 

Chapter Fifteen - The Merchant of Venice: A Portrayal of Masochistic Homosexuality

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For The Merchant of Venice to be included in this book I had to overcome a feeling analogous to what psychoanalysis calls countertransference. Countertransference is defined as a situation in which the analyst's feelings and attitude towards a patient are derived from earlier situations in the analyst's life that have been displaced onto the patient. All the other plays I approached with inherent curiousity and a wish to understand them in psychoanalytic terms; this play's powerful anti-Semitism renders this more difficult. It threatens my idealisation of Shakespeare. I had to overcome a strong resistance expressed in the wish to skip this play. The feeling is not unconscious and strictly speaking not a countertransference, but it did require some extra energy not to be repelled by the play's blatant anti-Semitism. In psychoanalysis the countertransference has to be faced and, if possible, overcome if the analysis is to be successful; an analogous process will have to be undertaken not only by me but also by the readers of this chapter. Shylock is not just a Jewish moneylender; he is the Jew incarnate. We are in Act IV, scene one.

 

Chapter Sixteen - Twelfth Night: A Sublimation of Bisexuality in Homosexuality

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It is well known to us from Sonnet 62 that Shakespeare regarded self-love as a psychic danger. In this play he tried another technique to combat it: ridicule. It may be interesting to compare the two approaches.

Sonnet 62

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye

And all my soul, and all my every part;

And for this sin there is no remedy,

It is so grounded inward in my heart.

Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,

No shape so true, no truth of such account;

And for myself mine own worth do define,

As I all other in all worths surmount.

But when my glass shows me myself indeed,

Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,

Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;

Self so self-loving were iniquity.

‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,

Paintng my age with beauty of thy days.

In this sonnet the poet's biography is condensed. The first eight lines express a self gratifying narcissism but then the poet discovers signs of aging: “chopped with tanned antiquity”. Now the poet recognises a split within himself; creativity is expressed as “thee, myself”, that is, being praised for myself.

 

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