To This Favor She Must Come: Tinguely’s Cow and Hamlet’s Mother

by Burton Melnick

February 1, 2012


In Tinguely’s construction “La Vache Suisse—Corso Fleurie [sic],” the cow’s head is represented, beneath a floral headdress, by the real skull of a dead cow.  Drawing on Freud, the author—who has elsewhere identified the iconic Swiss cow as a mother figure—suggests that the bitterness expressed by “La Vache Suisse” originates largely in infantile resentment at having received insufficient milk from the mother.  This feeling is linked to a sense of betrayal and also to a perception that the mother was unavailable for nursing because she was dead, so that the mother’s mortality becomes a source of angry resentment.  The same dynamics, the author argues, apply to Hamlet, where one of Hamlet’s grievances against women is that they, like Tinguely’s cow, hide their corruptibility under an artificially beautified appearance.  Though triggered by her present behavior, Hamlet’s feelings towards his mother also reflect the oral frustration of the past.



To This Favor She Must Come: Tinguely’s Cow and Hamlet’s Mother[1]


What follows consists almost entirely of a set of personal associations. Eventually, however, they will lead to Hamlet. My hope is to shed light on the interconnectedness of some of the issues in that play—specifically, Hamlet’s feelings about women, his obsession with mortality, and the theme of false appearance.

But the associations begin with cows. Several years ago I wrote a paper that tried to account for the emotional investment attached to cows in Swiss folklore. It dealt in particular with the extraordinary nostalgic evocativeness of the Swiss cowherd’s call known as the “Ranz des Vaches,” which is used to summon the cows for milking. At one point I asked, “What is a cow?” And I answered, “A cow is a large, gentle, female animal that gives milk. Indeed,” I recalled, “in the ‘Ranz des Vaches’ the singer is calling the cow to come and give her milk” (Melnick, 2008). In other words, I suggested, in this context a cow is a mother.

Now, soon after I had come to this conclusion in my own thinking, I happened to visit the Jean Tinguely museum in Basel. There I was struck by a late sculpture of Tinguely’s called “La Vache Suisse—Corso Fleurie [sic].” “Vache suisse,” of course, means “Swiss cow.” A “corso fleuri” is a parade with floats that are lavishly decorated with flowers. But in Switzerland the expression can also refer to the annual procession of the cows up to their Alpine pasturing. For this event the cowherds put on traditional outfits, and they decorate some of their cows with headdresses of flowers. (To see photos click here and here. Double click on the photos to enlarge them.) Tinguely’s sculpture, a full two meters tall, depicts one of these cows with a floral headdress (Click here for photo.). For the headdress Tinguely has used plastic. The “body” of the cow—or its skeleton—is rendered, in a cartoonish, Rube Goldberg sort of way, mainly in scrap iron. But the cow’s head, which bears the headdress of flowers (in the Swiss national colors), is real. It is the real skull of a dead cow.

The sculpture, which dates from the next to last year of Tinguely’s life, is a stark, bitter, and darkly humorous reminder of the inevitability of death. It makes a sardonic, disabused comment on the custom of dressing up cows with flowers. More generally, it comments on the attempts of human beings to mask or disregard the omnipresence of mortality. “Have all the childish celebrations that you want,” the sculpture seems to be saying. “Dress up all you want. Cover me with all the flowers you can find. No matter. In the end you and I will become what we already are beneath the surface—naked bones.” I’ll confess that the words I’ve just put into the cow’s mouth are influenced by Hamlet’s words to Yorick’s skull: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that” (5.1.163-165). There is, it seems to me, a similarity of feeling between Tinguely’s sculpture and Hamlet’s speech.

I’ve said that I encountered Tinguely’s construction just as I had come to believe that unconsciously the Swiss cow represents a mother. (Animal skulls first appear in Tinguely’s work, by the way, soon after the death of his mother in 1980.) I couldn’t help asking myself—to leave Hamlet aside for a moment—how that unconscious identification of cow with mother might affect the atmosphere of Tinguely’s sculpture. I didn’t—and don’t—want to claim that the feeling I got from the sculpture can’t be understood without reference to mothers. We feel resentful about mortality, period; and each of us, I imagine, is even more upset about his own mortality than about his mother’s. Still, I wondered, might not the sense of a mother’s mortality somehow color or intensify the feeling in the sculpture? That feeling, I’ve said, is in large part bitterness. Why would one feel bitter—rather than simply bereaved or sad—about one’s mother’s death?

A child, to state the obvious, doesn’t understand death. To a child being dead means not being there. Imagine a baby who is hungry or otherwise distressed. She cries for her mother, who doesn’t come. The child feels abandoned. Her distress increases. The mother isn’t there. If not being there and being dead are in some sense the same thing, then the child will experience the “death” of the mother—or even the possibility that the mother could be dead, that is to say, the mother’s mortality—as a kind of abandonment and betrayal, which makes the child keenly aware of her own vulnerability. The sense of betrayal will be all the greater if, as is likely, the child remembers her previous encounter with the mother as a time of love and well-being and sensual pleasure.

The experience I’ve just been imagining may never exist, as a single, unitary experience, in anyone’s actual history. Some of the perceptions I’ve described are those of a very young infant, practically a newborn. Some are those of a slightly older child, who already has a concept, however immature, of death. And so on. I have constructed this pseudo-experience. But the unconscious often constructs pseudo-experiences. It does so through rewriting or restranscribing memories via the process that Freud called Nachträglichkeit. One result of Nachträglichkeit can be the fusion of memories and perceptions and feelings from different moments into a single “memory”—a single pseudo-experience. Now, Freud has written that the oldest “reproach” a child makes to its mother is “that she gave the child too little milk” (1964, p. 122). I am suggesting that this reproach becomes woven into a constructed—and later forgotten (or repressed)—memory of calling for the mother’s loving, nourishing presence and getting the mother’s absence, which is construed as her death, which is construed as a betrayal. The mother’s previous loving, nourishing, pleasure-giving behavior is perceived in retrospect as a cruel deception. This might help to explain the bitterness that I see in Tinguely’s construction.

I would add one point. Since the pseudo-memory I’ve been describing is constructed out of material from different times, it can call upon a piece of knowledge that (intellectually) the very young infant does not possess: that nourishment is a necessity of life. The child calls for nourishment. The mother is absent—“dead”—and cannot provide it, and without nourishment, the child may die. The mother’s mortality, in other words, seems to entail the child’s own death. I have even wondered if on some level we don’t reproach our mothers for our own mortality.

Be that as it may, I think that the symbolism and the dynamics that I’ve been discussing in “La Vache Suisse” are also at work in Hamlet. Like “La Vache Suisse,” both Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character are preoccupied with mortality (a theme, incidentally, which is first explicitly stated by Hamlet’s mother). And I hardly need to recall that Hamlet feels very bitter indeed towards his mother, though he has, to be sure, good, perfectly evident reasons for that. Moreover, the issue of artificial embellishment (like the cow’s floral headdress) has considerable importance in Hamlet. When Hamlet says, “ . . . get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come,” he is elaborating on a sentiment about women that he has already expressed to Ophelia: “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (3.1.137-138). This image of a woman’s beautifying make-up as intended to mask her true nature is not merely a personal preoccupation of Hamlet’s. Claudius uses it too, about himself: “The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word” (3.1.51-53).

But Claudius is a man. I’ve been discussing artificial beautification in terms of women and mothers and the breast. How to reconcile that with Claudius’s using a striking image of artificial beautification in reference to himself? I have to give a very unscientific answer. All I can say is that I have long felt that the infant’s initial representation of mother has nothing to do with the later opposition mother/father. The original mother, it seems to me, is a universal, all-purpose, non-gendered caregiver, incorporating functions that only later come to be gendered and assigned to mother and father. This original unicity would help to explain Hamlet’s ironic insistence on the identity of mother withfather. As you remember, upon learning that he’s being sent to England, he tells Claudius, “Farewell, dear mother.” Claudius corrects him, “Thy loving father, Hamlet.” And Hamlet replies, “My mother—father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother” (4.3. 45-49). We understand the bitter reference to sexual union, but behind Hamlet’s words there may also be an allusion to another, more infantile vision of the unity of one’s two parents. If this is so, then Hamlet’s familiar lines about a smiling villain may originate as much in old feelings about his mother as in present feelings about his uncle. He says,

O most pernicious woman!

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!

My tables—meet it is I set it down

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. (1.5.105-108)

Yes, the woman is Gertrude, and the villain is Claudius, but Hamlet’s actual words—“O most pernicious woman! / O villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain”—allow for, and possibly even imply, an identity between the two.

Now, if that unconscious identity does exist between mother and father, that would add further poignancy and further significance to the particular means by which King Hamlet is killed. In discussing the resentment that we feel for not having been given enough milk by our mothers, Freud comments, “The fear of being poisoned is also probably connected with the withdrawal of the breast. Poison is nourishment that makes one ill” (1964, p. 122). King Hamlet was poisoned, and his ghost even describes the action of the poison administered to him in terms of milk:

And with a sudden vigor it doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood. (1.5.68-70)

Northrop Frye once invited his readers to “‘stand back’ from the beginning of the fifth act of Hamlet” (1957, p. 140), so as to see an archetypal structure. If I stand back from an earlier moment in Hamlet, I see someone, who appears to lack the power of speech, being lovingly embraced by a woman, then—if we can trust the stage direction describing the dumbshow (3.2)—laying his head on her neck, then falling asleep and dying of poison. The thematic importance of poison in Hamlet has to do with its being a particularly deceitful and treacherous means of killing. I wonder whether Hamlet’s bitterness about treachery and duplicity, which certainly has many obvious causes, isn’t also fueled by unconscious memories of bad experiences connected with the breast—experiences perceived as the result of treachery by a duplicitous mother.

One last point about poison. Despite the bloodshed caused by rapiers, all the deaths that occur at the end of the play are due to poison. Laertes doesn’t trust his unblunted rapier to kill Hamlet unassisted; he poisons the rapier. Hamlet, at the climax of the play, finishes off the already bleeding Claudius by forcing a poisoned drink into his mouth. Now, a rapier is a phallic weapon, and in Hamlet there is a great deal about phallic activity, which roughly corresponds to what in his most famous soliloquy Hamlet calls “action.” I have to wonder whether the act of killing in Hamlet may not have, so to speak, both a phallic and an oral mode. Perhaps Hamlet’s vengefulness, largely rooted in oral experience as well as in the ghost’s command, cannot be fully satisfied unless the killing of Claudius is accomplished in a way that unites both modes, the phallic and the oral.

I have not discussed phallic activity, which is not really part of my subject. There are many other aspects of the play that I haven’t even mentioned. And there’s a great deal that I’ve left unsaid about themes that I have discussed: art and beautification, mortality, the untrustworthiness of women, the imagery of eating and ingestion. I haven’t been attempting to give an interpretation of Hamlet. I’ve been trying, much more modestly, to develop my associations to Tinguely’s “La Vache Suisse” with the hope that they might open up yet one more way of looking at Hamlet and his problems. T. S. Eliot’s has famously commented, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son” (1920, p. 98) and “Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her” (p. 101). If this is so, it may be because Hamlet’s emotion responds not only to Gertrude’s guilt in the present but also to some very early experiences. Classical psychoanalytic criticism points to oedipal conflicts and oedipal jealousy. I am suggesting that Hamlet’s “disgust” is nourished also by infantile feelings originating in oral frustration. These feelings—hunger, loneliness, anger, resentment, and an inarticulate fear of dying—are known to everyone, and come from a time when the mother was the entire world.



Eliot, T. S. (1920). Hamlet and his problems. In The sacred wood: Essays on poetry and criticism (pp. 95-103). London: Methuen.

Freud, S. (1964). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 22, pp. 1-182). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1933).

Frye, N. (1957). The anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Melnick, B. (2008). Swiss Cows and an English Poet: Empathic Nostalgia in a Sonnet of Wordsworth’s. PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. November 2, 2008. Available January 13, 2012.

Shakespeare, W. (2003). Hamlet, prince of Denmark (Updated ed., P. Edwards, Ed.). The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1603.)



[1] I I am indebted to Sherry Zivley of the University of Houston, who provoked my first thoughts on Swiss cows, and to Annja Müller-Alspach of the Tinguely Museum, who provided much helpful information about Tinguely and “La Vache Suisse.”


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Burton Melnick "To This Favor She Must Come: Tinguely’s Cow and Hamlet’s Mother". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: February 1, 2012, Published: February 1, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Burton Melnick