Around 1905 or 1906, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay, unpublished in his lifetime, called “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage.” The essay addressed the question of what we, as spectators, get out of watching people go crazy. Freud’s theory was that we’re fascinated by crazy characters because they help us express our own repressed impulses. Drama, of course, can’t express our fantasies too literally; when that happens, we call it pornography and walk out of the theatre. Instead, a good playwright maneuvers our desires into the light using a mixture of titillation and censure, fantasy and irony, obscenity and euphemism, daring and reproach. A good play, Freud wrote, provokes “not merely an enjoyment of the liberation but a resistance to it as well.” That resistance is key. It lets us enjoy our desires without quite admitting that they’re ours.
“Hamlet,” Freud thought, best exemplified the appeal of managed self-expression. Watching “Hamlet,” we think that it’s about revenge—a familiar, safe subject. In fact, “Hamlet” is about desire. The real engine of the play is Oedipal. Caught up in Hamlet’s quest to kill Claudius—and reassured by his self-censure—we can safely, and perhaps unconsciously, explore those desires. Freud thought that prudery and denial had for centuries prevented critics from acknowledging the play’s propulsive undercurrent, which, he believed, the new psychoanalytic vocabulary made it possible to acknowledge. “The conflict in ‘Hamlet’ is so effectively concealed,” he wrote, “that it was left to me to unearth it.”
Freud’s hilarious (and no doubt self-conscious) boast is doubly resonant in “Stay, Illusion!,” the thoughtful, fascinating, and difficult new book about “Hamlet,” by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster. Critchley, a philosopher at the New School, and Webster, a psychoanalyst, can’t help but thrill to Freud’s “delightfully arrogant assertion”: they are, after all, writing a book about “Hamlet,” and you only do that if you believe that nearly every great thinker in Western literature has gotten it wrong. At the same time, they resist the idea that “the Oedipus complex provides the definitive interpretation of ‘Hamlet.’ ” Critchley and Webster, a married couple, have clearly been conducting a long-running two-person seminar on “Hamlet.” They call their book the “late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession.” Their book convenes a sort of literary-philosophical-psychoanalytic roundtable—featuring Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Joyce, and Lacan, among others—to question Freud’s interpretation.
Desire and its repression, they conclude, might be too small a frame for “Hamlet.” It’s better to think about the play in terms of love and its internal contradictions. They argue that we tell the story wrong when we say that Freud used the idea of the Oedipus complex to understand “Hamlet.” In fact, it was the other way around: “Hamlet” helped Freud understand, and perhaps even invent, psychoanalysis. The Oedipus complex is a misnomer. It should be called the Hamlet complex.
Critchley and Webster are proud as well as nervous about the fact that they’re “outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism.” “What is staged in ‘Hamlet,’ ” they write, “touches very close to the experience of being a psychoanalyst, that is, someone who has to listen to patients day after day, hour after hour.” Rather than get caught up in the “game of scholarship and interpretation,” their plan is to “cup [their] ear”—that is, to attend to and elaborate on the themes that the play obsesses about. Nothingness is one of those themes; it comes up over and over in the text of the play. (Ophelia to Hamlet: “You are naught, you are naught.” Hamlet to himself: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”) Is “Hamlet,” they wonder, “a nihilist drama”? Love or, more accurately, the failure to love is also a theme. Shame is another. (“For us,” they write, “at its deepest, this is a play about shame.”)
Accounting for the action of the play, to most people, means accounting for Hamlet’s famous “delay” in killing Claudius. (This delay was Shakespeare’s big innovation when he wrote his own version of the already extant Hamlet story: in earlier versions, Hamlet either flew swiftly to his revenge or spent a long time meticulously planning it.) Broadly speaking, there have been two explanations for the delay. The first is that Hamlet waits because he is a sane person in an insane world. To begin with, he is unsure about trusting the ghost and must stage “The Mouse-Trap,” the play within the play, to verify Claudius’s guilt. Then, later, Hamlet must confront his own thoughtful, nonviolent nature. After Hamlet tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!,” she rebukes him this way:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’expentency and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down!
Hamlet, in other words, is a well-rounded person; to kill Claudius, he has to narrow himself into a kind of action hero. That requires time and psychic work. Taken to its logical conclusion, this reading of “Hamlet” suggests that the word “delay” actually does him a disservice. What sane person, finding himself in Hamlet’s position, wouldn’t delay? Perhaps there’s something a little unhinged about the whole problem. In the nineties, in a brilliant essay called “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge,” the writer René Girard faulted critics for writing as though “no more was needed than some ghost to ask for it, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.” Our response to “Hamlet,” he thought, said more about our bloodlust (and about the roots of theatre in religious sacrifice) than it did about Shakespeare. Some critics have brought gender into the discussion: most “Hamlet” criticism has been written by men, and perhaps they’ve yearned for a manly, decisive killer-hero.
Webster and Critchley recoil from this line of argument. They incline toward the Freudian reading of “Hamlet,” which holds that Hamlet delays because he feels guilty. Hamlet’s problem, they argue, isn’t really that he’s hesitant about violence. Rather, it’s that the possibility of being violent fills him with shame. In “Hamlet,” they write, shame is pervasive; it has settled on Elsinore like a fog. For Freud, Hamlet’s shame has to do with his Oedipal desires. But for Webster and Critchley it’s more abstract. It has to do with the shame of needing to love, the shame about the emptiness that, they hold, is at the center of the experience of love.
The idea of love as something tied to emptiness or nothingness is central to psychoanalysis. Often, Webster and Critchley write, we’re inclined to think of love as the opposite of emptiness—we see it as “a system of mutual favors” that acts as a kind of bonus to life, a surplus. Instead, we love because we lack. Inside each of us there’s an emptiness, and that emptiness can never be filled. None of us can ever be loved enough—by our parents, by our children, by our husbands or wives. The bottomlessness of our need for love means that, even in our most stable, permanent, and healthy relationships, love “can only be renewed and invented anew, again and again. I love you. I love you. I love you.” Each time you declare your love, you admit that there’s a lack in yourself. And when two people are in love with one another, they’re offering up their equivalent emptinesses. When love works, it makes something out of nothing.
If the essence of love is wanting, it’s no wonder that shame and narcissism are so often part of love. It’s intrinsically shameful to need and need and need, and the bottomlessness of this need breeds anger and resentment. Your love is genuine, but so are your perpetual feelings of emptiness and of powerlessness. What’s most galling, perhaps, is the realization that the people whom you love are similarly empty. If this is love, then you can come to resent the people you love simply because you love them.
Webster and Critchley read “Hamlet” as a story about love and its shameful, empty, needy interior. Hamlet loves his parents while also, like any child, resenting that love. The ghost’s command forces him to look deep within his love for them, and what he finds is disappointing, even chilling. Does Hamlet really love his father? Or is he, in fact, envious of him? Does he really love his mother? Perhaps he actually holds her in contempt. Do they really love him? Perhaps all they want is the outward show of his love for them. Everyone is insatiable, selfish, and disappointing. The ghost tells him:
Howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let they soul contrive
Against thy mother aught.
But Hamlet finds that his mind is already tainted, not with incestuous desires but, rather, with the desperate neediness and angry narcissism that are nonnegotiable parts of real love. Hamlet is disgusted. Even revenge, he realizes, is narcissistic. (What act of love could be more self-involved?) It’s all about nothing. We’re all just living in our own heads, chasing after impossible fulfillment. We claim to love one another, but it’s just “words, words, words.” If this is what love is, then Hamlet doesn’t want it.
It may be that Hamlet is seeing the truth about love. But that, Webster and Critchley argue, is where the psychoanalytic attitude is useful. People tend to think of psychoanalysis as a technique for effecting the dispersal of fantasy in favor of the reality. In fact, they write, for the psychoanalyst, “speaking the truth is not necessarily a sign of mental health”; “perhaps illness and truth telling are more closely allied than we might want to believe.” It’s important to acknowledge the truth, of course. But “the analyst confirms the truth only in order to finally get beyond it.” Yes, you’re a flawed human being—now what? Critchley and Webster imagine a “smug Polonius-like analyst” diagnosing Hamlet: “Hamlet’s problem is he cannot love.” To that, they suggest, Lacan would respond, “And you can?”
There may be a kind of psychic fastidiousness, an erotic perfectionism (or, to put it more charitably, a romantic idealism) that keeps Hamlet from pursuing his own ends in a world of flawed people. It’s in this sense that “Hamlet” may have helped Freud to think about the aims of psychoanalysis. “We may hear something in ‘Hamlet,’ ” Webster and Critchley write, “that allows us to become oriented to whatever might be meant by the idea of psychoanalytic cure”:
The modesty of analysts is such that they only issue a call. This is what you are! It is not in their power to set any human defect, if there even is such a thing, right. They can only bring you toward a gap in yourself, a place of radical loss in the abyss of desire. Give yourself to it.
All humans need too much. That might not be such a bad thing: at least it is a flaw that we share. But Hamlet, according to Critchley and Webster, is too ashamed to share. He rejects not just love—and Ophelia—but all of the passions. That’s a mistake. “To be or not to be—is that the question?” the authors ask. “Perhaps not… . Love is an admission of the power of powerlessness that cuts through the binary opposition of being and not being.” The stability and solidity of love might be a kind of illusion, but it’s a mutual one. Its mutuality makes it sustaining.
Is this what “Hamlet” is really about? Maybe, maybe not. This way of reading the play has one huge advantage: it makes sense of Hamlet’s enraged breakup with Ophelia. Inevitably, it leaves other themes— including the meaning of vengeance, the need for law, the nature of inheritance, the inexorability of death—to the side. One of the difficulties in literary criticism is rhetorical: in order to fully lay out your ideas, you often have to claim that they are satisfying explanations in themselves, when you know that they represent just one of many equal, and perhaps simultaneously true, alternatives.
The ideas in “Stay, Illusion!” can’t explain the whole play, but what ideas can? Webster and Critchley illuminate “Hamlet.” They highlight its ghostliness and expand our sense of its eroticism. They suggest that the play has a lot to tell us about the value of illusion in our own lives, and they justify our sense that the tragedy in “Hamlet” isn’t really about the pile of bodies left on stage. Instead, it inheres in Hamlet’s disillusion. Even as we reject it, it’s a feeling we can understand.
Photograph: Two Cities Films.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has remained the most perplexing, as well as the most popular, of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. Whether considered as literature, philosophy, or drama, its artistic stature is universally admitted. To explain the reasons for its excellence in a few words, however, is a daunting task. Apart from the matchless artistry of its language, the play’s appeal rests in large measure on the character of Hamlet himself. Called upon to avenge his father’s murder, he is compelled to face problems of duty, morality, and ethics that have been human concerns through the ages. The play has tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery, that of Hamlet’s complex behavior, most notably his indecision and his reluctance to act.
Freudian critics have located Hamlet’s motivation in the psychodynamic triad of the father-mother-son relationship. According to this view, Hamlet is disturbed and eventually deranged by his Oedipal jealousy of the uncle who has done what, Freud claimed, all sons long to do themselves. Other critics have taken the more conventional tack of identifying as Hamlet’s tragic flaw the lack of courage or moral resolution. In this view, Hamlet’s indecision is a sign of moral ambivalence that he overcomes too late.
Both of these views presuppose a precise discovery of Hamlet’s motivation. However, Renaissance drama is not generally a drama of motivation, either by psychological character or moral predetermination. Rather, the Renaissance tendency is to present characters with well-delineated moral and ethical dispositions who are faced with dilemmas. It is the outcome of these conflicts, the consequences rather than the process, that normally holds center stage. What Shakespeare presents in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is an agonizing confrontation between the will of a good and intelligent man and the uncongenial role—that of avenger—that fate calls upon him to play.
The role of avenger is a familiar one in Renaissance drama. In the opening description of Hamlet as bereft by the death of his father and distressed by his mother’s hasty marriage, Shakespeare creates an ideal candidate to assume such a role. Hamlet’s despondency need not be Oedipal to explain the extremity of his grief. His father, whom he deeply loved and admired, is recently deceased, and he himself seems to have been robbed of his birthright. Shakespeare points to Hamlet’s shock at Gertrude’s disrespect to the memory of his father, rather than his love for his mother, as the source of his distress. Hamlet’s suspicion is reinforced by the ghostly visitation and the revelation of murder.
If Hamlet had simply proceeded to act out the avenger role assigned to him, the play would have lacked the moral and theological complexity that provides its special fascination. Hamlet has, after all, been a student of theology at Wittenberg, and his knowledge complicates the situation. His accusation of incest is not an adolescent excess but an accurate theological description of a marriage between a widow and her dead husband’s brother. Moreover, Hamlet’s theological accomplishments do more than exacerbate his feelings. For the ordinary avenger, the commission from the ghost of a murdered father would be more than enough, but Hamlet is aware of the unreliability of otherworldly apparitions and consequently reluctant to heed the ghost’s injunction to perform an action that to him seems objectively evil. In addition, the fear that his father was murdered in a state of sin and is condemned to hell not only increases Hamlet’s sense of injustice but also, paradoxically, casts further doubt on the reliability of the ghost’s exhortation, for the ghost may be an infernal spirit goading him to sin.
Hamlet’s indecision is therefore not an indication of weakness but the result of his complex understanding of the moral dilemma with which he is faced. He is unwilling to act unjustly, yet he is afraid that he is failing to exact a deserved retribution. He debates the murky issue until he becomes unsure whether his own behavior is caused by moral scruple or cowardice. His ruminations stand in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius, just as the play stands in sharp contrast with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy. Through Hamlet’s intelligence, Shakespeare transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict.
Hamlet believes that he must have greater certitude of Claudius’s guilt if he is to take action. The device of the play within a play provides greater assurance that Claudius is suffering from a guilty conscience, but it simultaneously sharpens Hamlet’s anguish. Seeing a re-creation of his father’s death and Claudius’s response stiffens Hamlet’s resolve to act, but once again he hesitates when he sees Claudius in prayer. Hamlet’s inaction in this scene is not the result of cowardice or even of a perception of moral ambiguity but rather of the very thoroughness of his commitment: Having once decided on revenge, he wants to destroy his uncle body and soul. It is ironic that Hamlet is thwarted this time by the combination of theological insight with the extreme ferocity of his vengeful intention. After he leaves Claudius in prayer, the irony of the scene is intensified, for Claudius reveals to the audience that he has not been praying successfully and was not in a state of grace after all.
That Hamlet loses his mental stability is arguable from his behavior toward Ophelia and his subsequent meanderings. Circumstance has forced upon the prince a role whose enormity has overwhelmed the fine emotional and intellectual balance of a sensitive, well-educated man. Gradually, he is shown regaining control of himself and arming himself with a cold determination to do what he has decided is the just thing. Even then, it is only in the carnage of the concluding scenes that Hamlet finally carries out his intention. Having concluded that “the readiness is all,” he strikes his uncle only after he has discovered Claudius’s final scheme to kill him.
The arrival of Fortinbras, who has been lurking in the background throughout the play, superficially seems to indicate that a new, more direct and courageous order will prevail in the place of the evil of Claudius and the weakness of Hamlet. Fortinbras’ superiority is only superficial, however. He brings stasis and stability back to a disordered kingdom but does not have the self-consciousness and moral sensitivity that destroy and redeem Hamlet.
Gerald Else has interpreted Aristotle’s notion of catharsis to be not a purging of the emotions but a purging of the moral horror, pity, and fear ordinarily associated with them. If that is so, then Hamlet, by the conflict of his ethical will with his role, has purged the avenger of his bloodthirstiness and turned the stock figure into a self-conscious hero in moral conflict.