Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Revenge in Hamlet

by Joanna Montgomery Byles

August 25, 2005


This essay explores the psychological origins of revenge in Hamlet through the concept of the superego as both an individual and cultural agency of dynamic conflict. In Hamlet, Shakespeare subverts the logic of the revenge form by representing revenge as an inward tragedy that carries Hamlet toward death. The rejection of eros in the play results in the release of superego aggressions that consume both protagonist and the generational continuity motivated by love. As Hamlet’s efforts at displacement fail, he and the play move toward the final enactment of unintegrated aggression. Shakespeare holds a mirror up to our own potential for externalized aggression as revenge.


Hamlet tells us, he has 'that within which passes show' (I. ii. 85). We become intensely aware of Hamlet's inner life through his soliloquies, which externalize and dramatize his inner conflicts so powerfully. How to denote these inner tensions, and his all-pervasive feelings of powerlessness and rage, and to express them truly is Hamlet's problem throughout the play.

     In this essay I should like to focus on some of the psychological origins of revenge in Hamlet. I acknowledge that what I have to say leaves out many other problems, but from the perspective of psychoanalysis we might pose the following questions: what is the psychological object of mimesis in revenge tragedies, particularly in Hamlet ? Why are many of Hamlet's actions motivated by impulse rather than reason? What is being represented? What role do destructive and self-destructive impulses play in Hamlet's destiny? What part does the socialized and/or individual superego play in creating the revenge tragedy in Hamlet ? Is tragic revenge different from tragi-comic revenge? Is there some basic dynamic pattern of psychic action that Shakespearean tragedy dramatizes as revenge? How can Freud and other theorists help us to understand this dynamic pattern?

     The concept of the superego, both individual and cultural, is important to our understanding of the dynamics of aggressive destruction in Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge. The Freudian superego is usually thought of as heir to the Oedipus complex, the internalization of parental values and the source of punitive, approving and idealizing attitudes towards the self.1 In drama, the tragic hero's superego is, of course, separate from the cultural superego. Superego aggression may be directed against the self or the external world; the operative feeling in this unconscious aggression is externalized and dramatized as revengeful hatred. Revenge is an important means of dramatizing this dynamic and its cultural significance within family relationships in the drama.

     On one level, Hamlet is a play about conflict between the generations; within the play, parents and children are often enemies. All the younger generation are manipulated by the older generation for selfish ends. Clearly, Hamlet invites reflection on the proper relation between generations and the significance of inter-generational conflict.2 After the death of his father, Hamlet cannot leave his family until he is forced into exile; he cannot separate from them, not just geographically but emotionally. Laertes is the only one to escape from Elsinore of his own free will. Ophelia is in much the same position as Hamlet until she takes her own life. Hamlet thinks constantly of suicide or murderous revenge; at times, he is totally absorbed by these deathly desires. Further, in this play two sons are slain, a daughter commits suicide, a mother and two fathers are murdered, and one, old Norway, is killed. The Pyrrhus speech with its arrested sword of vengeance first 'Repugnant to command' (II. ii. 467) and then 'Aroused' (II. ii. 484) falling on old Priam, whose sons had ambushed and murdered Pyrrhus' father, Achilles, extends this appalling pattern, metaphorically, to a fourth murdered father. The allusion looks back to the long ritual of revenge in literature. And, of course, it foreshadows Hamlet's own actions. Hamlet has already recalled the dire effect of this ancient revenge story on families in his earlier prompting of the chief Player: Pyrrhus is described as

horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons

(II. ii. 453-4)

     In Hamlet, Shakespeare subverts the essential logic of the revenge form by representing revenge as an inward tragic event, reinforced by destructive family relationships whose psychic energies violate and destroy the protagonist's psychic wholeness, fragmenting and ultimately dissolving the personality. In Hamlet himself, hate and destructiveness are consuming passions; the deep movement of superego aggression that motivates revenge carries him towards death.

     I necessarily assume that tragic action directly links the protagonist's suffering and death to the vengeful destructiveness of his superego and that of the community he exists in, especially his family. Tragic revenge dramatizes qualitative differences between various forms of superego aggressiveness. Ultimately, it is the tragic revenge hero's fate to satisfy the conflicting demands of the socialized and his own superego; when these demands coalesce, we have a definitive tragic image: the destruction and self-sacrifice of the tragic hero.3

     In Hamlet, Osric is the agent of this coalescence. The wager represents the poisonous revenge of both Laertes and Claudius; it is Hamlet's death warrant, but Hamlet has surrendered himself to its treachery and, more importantly, to his own death. The devoted Horatio guesses Hamlet's terrifying and deep resignation:

If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair
hither and say you are not fit.

(V. ii. 213-14)

     But Hamlet is ready to 'Let be' (V. ii. 220). At the end of the tragedy, there is a deathly co-operation between the protagonist and his environment in which destructive aggression is resolved and guilt atoned.

     The theatre supplies the external frame onto which the internal struggle of the ego and superego is most commonly projected. The tragic hero involved in revenge acts out the inner conflict of the ego's struggle against the cruel demands of both his own and the socialized superego. The play represents the author's working out of this unconscious conflict which is transformed, with all its identifications into the play. The question of the socialized superego, or the communal or cultural superego, allows us to shift from the inner dynamics of the hero to those who surround him, the external figures in the social world of the play, who not only influence his inner life, but his entire tragic history, especially his family history. For example, at the beginning of the play Hamlet is mourning his lost father, and, in another sense his lost mother; what he needs to do is to refashion his emotional attachments to them. However, the circumstances of the play, the 'rottenness' in the State of Denmark and the crucial command to revenge, prevent Hamlet from identifying himself as the new heir; the demand to revenge intensifies his introjection of his father whose ideal he cannot live up to, and whose demands he cannot carry out. Instead of feeling the support and love of his father, he feels the fear, separation and anxiety of frustration and hostility. Added to all this is the general menacing atmosphere of the court, covered, of course, by a courtly show of good manners, in which nearly everyone seems to spy on him; the play is full of licit and illicit listening, secrecy and anxiety. The command to murderous revenge denies Hamlet the possibility of developing the healing processes of mourning whereby the lost loved one is internalized. Moreover, Hamlet's dead father's revelations cause Hamlet cruelly to reject Ophelia, who might have saved him from himself, and would, in fact, have prevented the separation of Eros and aggression in Hamlet's psychodynamic story.

     Ophelia, too, is a victim of parental authority. She allows her father to deny what for her is her most crucial reality: her love for Hamlet and its history.4 : Although she is in love with Hamlet and has encouraged his intimacies, Ophelia allows her father to deny this emotional reality:

OPHELIA: My lord, he hath importun'd me with love
In honourable fashion.
POLONIUS: Ay, fashion you may call it. Go to, go to.
OPHELIA: And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
POLONIUS: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows.
.   .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
                                          This is for all.
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to't, I charge you. Come your ways.
OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.


Polonius is clearly not at all interested in what Ophelia feels or how she perceives her relationship with Hamlet. Moreover, he forces her to be untrue to herself: to deny her love for Hamlet. He forces her into an invidious position and uses her to entrap Hamlet, so that he can prove himself right about Hamlet's 'madness', which then allows Claudius to take advantage of Hamlet's 'madness'.5 But it is the poor, motherless Ophelia, who actually goes mad. All the fathers in the play, including the Ghost, without the slightest compunction gratify their own needs by manipulating their children

      Why, many critics have asked, does Hamlet accept the role of revenger? Ethically and morally, it may be considered right or wrong; but, from a psychoanalytic perspective, it is the only thing he can do, mobilized as he is by the traumatic effects of his family predicament. He must identify with his dead father's outrage, and rescue his mother from her incestuous marriage, if he is to recover an integrated self and the integrity he needs to become his father's rightful heir:

Remember thee?

Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmix'd with baser matter.

(I. v. 95-104)

But all this unconsciously involves the murderous and self-murderous superego, dramatized as delay. The inward traumatic pressures of the past cannot so easily be wiped out.

     In one sense, we might consider the characters in Hamlet as agents of the Ghost's hate. Or the Ghost may be a dramatic means of externalizing Hamlet's desire to kill Claudius, since the command to kill Claudius seems to come from outside himself. Daniel E. Schneider writes that a play is like a dream turned inside out — and an interpretation at the same time, the success and coherence depending upon the talents of the dramatist to organize and interpret fantasies so that they resonate with the fantasies of the audience. The dream's conflicting pain / pleasure principle made paramount and explicit is the emotional force of the drama; and the interpretation subsidiary and implicit is in its action, in plot, the exposition and motivating force of the drama's story, the dynamic of the author's conflict as it is externalized and interpreted into the fully realized social world of the drama.7 I find this idea interesting and useful because it unites three essentials: the dramatist's psychic conflicts, the drama itself in all its identifications and the psyche or psyches of the audience. It takes account of the complexity of the tragedy as a work of art and the variety of reactions it stimulates in its audience, from the release of passion under the protection of aesthetic illusion, to the highly complex process of recreation under the dramatist's guidance, of a series of processes of psychic discharge that take place in the audience, including pity and fear. The audience must be drawn into the drama and its resistances overcome; Shakespeare forces the audience to identify and act out in their minds his interpretation of inner conflict and disturbing fantasies that provide the unconscious dynamic as the action moves through conflict, crisis, climax and resolution. In Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge, the action is nearly always fatal, and we, too, must experience this pressure, recognizing with terror the cruel power of superego aggression, of the dynamic that powers hateful revenge, in ourselves as well as in our representatives on stage, in life as well as in the drama. One reason why revenge tragedies were popular in Shakespeare's culture and are still popular in our own, is that revenge is profoundly disturbing; for an audience the projection of revenge is extremely therapeutic.8

     A definitive image of tragi-comedy is of forgiveness, reconciliation and regeneration. The endings of tragic revenges are quite otherwise, and perhaps relate to an earlier or more primitive form of psychic conflict (such as scapegoating) than to the life-asserting endings of many tragi-comedies, the underlying dynamic of which is shame, not guilt. Guilt, and the hateful destructiveness and rage which accompany it, are at the centre of Hamlet's experience. The superego is a highly important factor in illustrating the fate of the protagonist in revenge tragedy; he is one for whom the conscious and / or unconscious sense of guilt, with the corresponding need for punishment, satisfied through suffering and eventually through an honourable death, plays a decisive part in his will and willingness to die. In revenge tragedy, as opposed to tragi-comedy involving revenge, the protagonist's superego is a cruelly persecuting agency which his ego has good reason to dread, and much of the tragic hero's motivation, once he has renounced Eros (defusion), derives from the struggle either to avoid or to submit to its claims. When the hostile elements in the external world of the play are directed against Hamlet, he not only internalizes them, but they combine with his own self-destructive tendencies to produce a deep need for inner punishment: death. But this is the final dynamic of Hamlet's psychic journey; the dramatic action covers much ground before that ultimate act.

Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Aggression

To some extent, it is the denial of Eros and the destructiveness of family attachments which largely contribute to the fate of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. All these tragic figures make the initial mistake of rejecting a crucial and sustaining love relationship. These tragic heroes fail in love, are usually unsuccessful in their ambition, which often includes a powerful and fatal desire for revenge, and suffer from a highly developed superego, whose effect is to produce a pronounced sense of guilt. As I have already suggested, when this inner dynamic of guilt combines with the hostile tendencies of the cultural superego within the social world of the drama, we have a definitive generic marker of tragedy: the self-sacrifice of the tragic figure.

     There are two Freudian concepts which might help us to understand these psychodynamics of tragic action and how Shakespeare dramatizes them in the revenge motif of Hamlet in particular:

    (1) Defusion of the dual instincts of Eros and Death, and
    (2) Superego aggression, which is one aspect of the death instinct.9

      Freud employs the idea of Eros, from Plato's Symposium, in his final instinct theory (1930), to connote the whole of the life instincts, as opposed to the death instinct. According to Freud, the dual instincts are usually mingled with one another or fused. 'Normally,' Freud says, 'the two kinds of instincts seldom appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and different proportions, and so become unrecognizable to our judgment'.10 It is important to understand that Eros neutralizes aggression, and that the ego must find objects for Eros and aggression. Usually, aggression is modified in its impact

    (1) by displacement to other object;
    (2) by restriction of its aim;
    (3) by the sublimation of the aggressive energy; and
    (4) through the influence of fusion.

Ultimately, none of these modifications applies to Hamlet.

     The tragic process (which includes the total environment of the play, with all its hostilities and hatreds, its failures in loving, and its tremendous emphasis on guilt and the corresponding need for punishment and suffering), instead of strengthening the ego in its task of regulating Eros and aggression so that they do not clash with reality and defuse (separate), is one in which the ego is destroyed by the undermining of its total organization. Fusion represents an integrated ego, one which is functioning well, and, with the aid of Eros, able to modify aggression in the four normal ways just mentioned. The failure of Eros results in complete defusion (separation) of the dual instincts and the dominance of the aggressive death instinct, whose agency is the harsh, self-abusive superego. It is then the task of the ego to defend itself by keeping the aggression directed outward in the interests of self-preservation. According to Freud, 'It would seem that aggression when it is impeded entails serious injury, and that we have to destroy other things and other people in order not to destroy ourselves, in order to protect ourselves from the tendency to self-destruction.'11 As long as the protagonist can displace his inner aggression onto others, usually through hating and revenging, he survives. After separation of the dual instincts (defusion), the erotic component no longer has the power to bind the whole of the destructiveness that was combined with it, and this releases much of the cruelty and violence that is so characteristic of superego aggression and of Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge, as we see in Hamlet.

Sources, Formation and Function of Superego

The superego is the psychic agency that produces the sense of the ideal, of the way things ought to be, not the way they are, and so it is not always oriented towards reality. Freud thought the source of the superego was the internalization of the castrating Oedipal father. He also thought the superego was one aspect of the death instinct (thanatos) in its aggressive need for punishment. Freud theorized that the cruel superego was also the revengeful aggressor that produces not only the need to idealize, but also the need for aggressive self-abuse when the ideal fails: for suicide or murder.12 Although the formation of the superego is grounded in hostile Oedipal wishes and in the renunciation of loving, it is subsequently refined, according to Freud, by the contributions of social and cultural requirements (education, religion, morality).13

      In her chapter on superego formation, Edith Jacobson states that the core of the superego is 'the law against patricide and matricide and the incest taboo'; she then goes on to say that superego fear continues and replaces castration fear, but that some people may 'unconsciously equate the superego with the threatening paternal — or their own — phallus'. She also points out that 'there is a tremendous step between the simple moral logic of castration fear, fear of punishment and hope of reward, to the abstract moral level of a superego which has expanded from the taboo of incest and murder to a set of impersonal, ethical principles and regulations for human behaviour.'14 Melanie Klein traces the beginning of the superego back to early (infant) oral fantasies of self-destruction, which is a direct manifestation of the death instinct.15 In his re-interpretation of the death instinct, Jean Laplanche sees the death drive 'not as an element in conflict but as conflict itself substantialized, an internal principle of strife and disunion.'16 In his chapter on the death instinct, Paul Ricoeur sees the superego as an essential instinct problem for the philosophy of art.

      The death instinct is a useful concept in many ways: it represents a decomposition of the ego under attack by the superego; it tends to weaken object relations, and it tends to narcissistic withdrawal. In other words, the person in whom the aggressive tendencies of the death instinct are dominant over the life instincts has a weakened ego, and in an effort to regain the strength of self-esteem and self-confidence, he / she tries narcissistically to withdraw from persons and conflicts altogether. This is particularly true if the person's love relations have failed. If one thinks of Eros as a life-preserving force (the ego needs Eros to carry out its intricate life-preserving functions), and if one thinks of the idealistic superego as the self-aggressor, promoting life-denying tendencies, then the beloved may become a means whereby the ego is defeated. More often than not, Shakespeare dramatizes sexuality as a destructive force, and this is especially true of Hamlet.

      One striking collusion between the dynamics of character and the universe of Shakespearean tragedy is that the protagonist chooses the wrong lover, or his perception of the loved one is disastrously flawed, or his family relationships are intimately destructive. The ability to relate to the other/s is an immense difficulty, if not to say impossibility for Hamlet. This may be because, as Richard P. Wheeler and others have suggested, men are less able to merge their identity with the other/s, than women are (i.e., men have more definite boundaries to the self than women), or because tragedy dramatizes the inability to steer a relationship through loving betrayal to survival.18 D. W. Winnicott describes these phases in psychoanalytic object-relations terms as using, destroying and surviving.19 Winnicott's idea applies more to tragi-comedy than to tragedy. A definitive image of tragi-comedy is forgiveness, reconciliation and regeneration; that of tragedy is self-sacrifice and death.

      Perhaps narcissism is relevant here.20 The aim of the narcissist is to be loved, and the narcissistic lover is usually dangerously dependent on his beloved. One who loves in this way has 'expropriated' part of his narcissism, which can only be replaced by his being loved. There is a constant need to replenish the amount of self-love the narcissistic lover gives the other. If, instead of being loved, the narcissistic person is betrayed, it is as if he had betrayed himself; he feels a painful lowering of self-esteem and is full of self-pity. He does not, however, hate himself as the idealist does in similar circumstances. On the contrary, betrayal usually leads to a compensatory increase in narcissism; instead of being fixated on the loved one, the narcissist regresses to a previous point in his life when he loved only himself. In other words, a narcissistic lover who is betrayed is often sustained by his narcissism, whereas an idealistic lover feels utterly worthless and hates himself sometimes to the point of suicide. The idealist lover is driven by superego demands either to murder his beloved and / or himself.

      It is only fair to say that there has been enormous resistance to Freud's idea of a death instinct since he first formulated it. Perhaps this resistance has something to do with our unwillingness to accept the violence of self-destructive and revengeful tendencies within ourselves. It seems it is easier to bear punishment inflicted from the outside than to face internal self-destructive tendencies. Possibly the origin of the superego also represents a similar attempt at externalization.. Ehrenzweig suggests that instead of being rent by internal tensions, it is as if the ego projects its self-destructive aggression onto a split-off part, the superego, and prefers to submit to its attacks which now come to it from outside.21 Superego aggression also projects itself into the outside world and onto the figures of punishing parents, punitive laws, repressive political regimes, conquest and invasions.

      The superego's function is to induce guilt and to repress; openness (not closure) requires a weakening of the superego power of repression. Yet a lifting of repression, or recognition of repressed material, may produce extreme anxiety, even panic. For example, on one level of interpretation, the Ghost represents the unrepressed hostility Hamlet feels for his father. The hostility Hamlet feels for his father is externalized as revengeful hatred not only for Claudius, his 'uncle-father', but also for Gertrude, his 'aunt-mother', and for Ophelia. These internal processes are externalized and dramatized in the soliloquies, where the thought is frequently revengeful, sadistic and self-destructive. Hamlet's soliloquies are also expressions of superego conflict: to die or to live; to honour or to revenge; duty to oneself or to one's father. On one level, Hamlet is ashamed of his father's command to revenge, and, at the same time, ashamed of his inability to fulfil the command. Eleanor Prosser suggests the Ghost is an idea Hamlet has long been waiting for.22 It is possible that the Ghost is not only a projection of Hamlet's hostile feelings towards his father, but also serves as a projection of his murderous feelings about his mother's husband:

0 villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
.   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .  
So, uncle, there you are.

(I. v. 106-10)

      If the command to murder Claudius is another instance of repressed wishes surfacing into conscious intention, then it is obviously less threatening that the revengeful need seems to come from outside, from the superego demands of authority, of the outraged father, husband and king. The Oedipal theory clearly works here. Hamlet has been thinking, on some pre-conscious level, about his uncle-father; and that is why at first he thrills to the command to revenge and murder: '0 my prophetic soul! My uncle!' (I. v.41).

      By creating the Ghost, Shakespeare creates a father-son-mother confrontation at the heart of the play. The play dramatizes a crisis in Hamlet's identification with his idealized, murdered, heroic father, who returns from the dead to demand Hamlet revenge his death, and in so doing, rescue his mother from her second, and incestuous marriage. At first Hamlet responds with alacrity to his ghostly father's demands; then with paralyzing reluctance: '0 cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right' (I. v. 196-7). Everything hinges on Hamlet's struggle to identify with his father's superego demands that he revenge; that is, after all, justice within the revenge genre, and it coincides with one aspect of the cultural superego — it is the right thing to do — but Shakespeare sets up the problem of revenge in such a disruptive way that the action on moral, ethical and psychic levels is blocked. The conflict of revenge engages the action on many levels, delaying revenge through ambiguities in psychological motivation, language and action.

      The creation of the Ghost is itself a piece of theatrical aggression for it stops Hamlet's initial fierce self-restraint; allows him to express his deeply conflicted feelings about Claudius, and his desire to kill him. The Ghost's revelation of murder, incest and adultery — 'Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast' (I. v. 42) — is a validation of Hamlet's suspicions and justification of his loathing of Claudius the man who, with 'traitorous gifts' (I. v. 43), seduced ' his mother, that 'seeming-virtuous queen' (I. v. 46). 'Seeming', as we learn earlier from Hamlet, can cover all kinds of deception and crime. The revelation is also conclusive and irreversible affirmation of his intense feelings about his mother: '0 most pernicious woman!' (I. v. 105). The Ghost and Hamlet share the same obsession: Gertrude. Together they comprise an ancient and often cursed triangle. The acting of The Mousetrap, as arranged by Hamlet, is, in fact, a fantasized murder in which Hamlet revenges by doubling as 'one Lucianus, nephew to the King' (III. ii. 239). As actor-manager, Hamlet externalizes or projects his inner conflict about revenge onto the directing and acting of the entire scene of his father's murder, which, by pure chance (or dramatic device!) parallels The Murder of Gonzago:

                                   I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle

(II. ii. 590-2).

The play reaches its climax with Hamlet ferociously urging Lucianus on: 'Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge' (III. ii. 247-8). As director, actor, chorus and audience, Hamlet is ecstatic at the end of this performance, because it is as if he had avenged his father. The successful displacement of inner aggression affords Hamlet immense relief. Moreover, he has made public the entire story, from known beginning to wished-for conclusion.

      The Ghost is the means of dramatizing Hamlet's deep-seated inner fears and anxiety, his hatred of Claudius and his unconscious desire to kill the man who has 'whor'd' (V. ii. 64) his mother, murdered his father and has

Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes,

(V. ii. 65)

The Ghost's foul imaginings about Gertrude's lustful sexuality anticipate Hamlet's own image of 'incestuous sheets' (I. ii. 157). There is very little evidence in Gertrude's dialogue that she is as lustful as her first husband and Hamlet would have us suppose. Just as lago voices Othello's disturbing, destructive, jealous fantasies, so the Ghost does Hamlet's. It may be objected that the Ghost tells Hamlet to leave his mother 'to heaven' (I. v. 86). In the closet scene, he pleads with Hamlet to 'step between her and her fighting soul' (III. iv. 113). But it is too late. And Hamlet's father knows it. He has timed his intervention perfectly; for, in his passionate and deeply conflicted interview with his mother. Hamlet has already used enough verbal daggers to cleave her 'heart in twain' (III. iv. 158). It is needless to labour the Oedipal basis of the closet scene. It is a famous piece of psychoanalytic criticism frequently incorporated into contemporary productions.23 It is clear that Hamlet is torn between love and loathing for his mother, and that the destructive impulses of his own superego are displaced temporarily in trying to be her conscience.24 This affords him some relief from the intense anxiety and painful tension of inner aggressiveness, just as his cruel treatment of Ophelia did, and for similar reasons. But what chance does Hamlet have of keeping the crucial love of Ophelia, which might have sustained him? None. Hamlet is irretrievably trapped in a parental relationship involving murder, adultery and incest. What chance is there of detaching himself from this overwhelming guilt? None. He has been made responsible for wiping it out; moreover, he has promised to do so. And Hamlet is a responsible person; his superego sees to that, even if he curses his masculinity in being 'born to set it right' (I. v. 197). Yet Hamlet cannot become his father's avenger because that would involve him and his mother still further in family guilt. His repudiation of her makes clear the powerful family knot of emotional attachments that ruin their relationship:

You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And, would it were not so, you are my mother.

(III. iv. 14-16)

      The superego, then, is a revengeful force which seeks to punish. Hamlet tries to become his father's superego, but because he cannot act on it, his own superego takes revenge on him — tortures him, kills him eventually. He cannot consciously question the morality of avenging his father's murder, because that would be to challenge his father; moreover, part of him is torn by the moral discrepancy involved in committing murder as a solution to the problem of murder. In a conscious effort to gain control over the destructiveness of the superego, the tragic hero tries to project his sense of guilt, through his ambition or revenge, onto others. Hamlet channels his vengeful aggression in a variety of ways: through his constant cruelty to others, his verbal hostility and his 'antic disposition' (I. v. 180).

      Barber and Wheeler write of Hamlet's need to use his hostility to 'protect his integrity against acquiescence in the corrupt world, on the one side, or acquiescence in self-loathing, on the other'.25 These critics also see Hamlet's 'need for revenge as the core of a need for expression and vindication'.26 Certainly Hamlet's aggression finds frequent relief in his violent expressiveness, especially when he turns love into hateful violence in the nunnery and closet scenes. The command to revenge is itself a directive to transform love into violent and vengeful hatred. It is a superego command from the idealized father to his son to hate and destroy the bestial father-figure of Claudius, that heap of 'garbage' (I. v. 57), that 'nasty sty' (III. iv. 94). Initially, the command to revenge displaces some of Hamlet's superego aggression outward in his attempts to 'catch the conscience of the King' (II. ii. 601) and to be his mother's conscience, but the failure to achieve revenge, to murder Claudius, and so be at one with his father, fills him with deep dismay and self-contempt, as his soliloquies reveal. Furthermore, his attempts to act out his inner conflicts, his desire to rescue his mother and kill Claudius, have resulted in the regrettable, accidental killing of Polonius and the devastating suicide of Ophelia. Moreover, his mother still shares his uncle's bed, continues to sleep between those 'incestuous sheets' (I. ii. 157). He suffers acute mental agony for these blunders.

      No wonder Hamlet seems resigned to his own death upon his return from England; all his displacements have failed; the immense energy attached to his sense of guilt turns inward, there is nowhere else for it to go. Hamlet becomes a victim of his own desire for punishment — his need to end his life. He takes revenge upon himself; he accepts the wager from the absurd Osric: "Tis a chuff, but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt' (V. ii. 88). This is the same anguished, grief-stricken Hamlet who, standing in Ophelia's open grave, has willed 'Millions of acres' to be thrown on him so that he may be buried quick with her (V. i. 276). His ego yields to his superego and takes on the suffering the self-abusive superego produces. In these circumstances, the ego collapses under the weight of so much revengeful self-hatred; the pain and anxiety produced by the murderous superego become unendurable. Hamlet submits his person to a duel arranged by one he knows to be his mortal enemy.

      Freud's view of instinctual fusion between erotic and aggressive instincts suggests an admixture of erotic quantities even in destructive processes, and this may explain any masochism there might be in the tragic hero's self-sacrifice, as well as the sadism in superego aggression. In Shakespearean tragic drama, the protagonist's sense of guilt (superego aggression) and need for punishment are so pronounced that the ego is not strong enough to be independent of the superego, or to control it. In normal living, this unconscious aggressive energy is displaced or sublimated. In this kind of tragedy, the ego seems unable to defend itself from the severity of the revengeful demands of the superego by such normal activities as repression, denial or rationalization. The function of the plot is to make sure the protagonist's displacements eventually fail. The ultimate aim of the tragic hero is to act out the compulsive nature of his guilt, both the guilt he feels for his own personal wrong-doing, and the generalized guilt which the social demands represented by the drama have required him to internalize. He is compelled to submit to the deathly demands of his own superego and those of the community.

      In dying, Hamlet's psyche is cleansed of the burden of failed love, familial outrage and grief. As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, in Hamlet, Shakespeare represents revenge as an inward tragic event which is externalized, dramatized, and then reinforced by destructive family relationships whose psychic energies violate and eventually destroy the psychic wholeness of the tragic person. The conflict between ego and superego constitutes the dynamic action of Hamlet on many levels, creating revenge and its delay through acute inner anxieties and mental anguish, as well as ambiguities in action, language and thought. But, in the end, although the superego wins, because Hamlet must die, it is with Hamlet's / Shakespeare's total acceptance, as long as revenge is revealed for what it is: a dynamically hostile, hateful, destructive force, and, in Hamlet, an unbeatable enemy, as well as an Oedipal foe.

      Through his conscious articulation and dramatization of the unconscious dynamics which drive stories of poisonous revenge, Shakespeare invites our reflection, invites us to hold the mirror up to our own deepest conflicts and desires. The resolution of Hamlet leaves us not only moved, but challenged and enlightened. Hamlet's fatal story is a lesson we must not ignore, but keep in our hearts, too:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

(V. ii. 351-4)

      The mimetic power of violent revenge in Hamlet depends on the reality of those psychic conflicts Shakespeare dramatizes as revenge.


Works Cited


1.  See J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, 'The Oedipus complex plays a fundamental part in the structuring of the personality and in the orientation of human desire' (The Language of Psycho-Analysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1980), p. 283).

2.  See Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 132-40.

3.  J. Montgomery Byles, 'A Basic Pattern of Psychological Conflict in Shakespearean Tragic Drama', University of Hartford Studies in Literature, 11 (1979), 58-71.

4.  J. Montgomery Byles, 'The Problem of Subjectivity in the Language of Ophelia,

Desdemona and Cordelia', Imago, 46 (1989), 37-59.

5.  David Leverenz suggests that there is little sense in Ophelia's madness: 'Not allowed to love and unable to be false, Ophelia breaks. She goes mad rather than gets mad' ('The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View' in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, eds. Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 119). I would argue that there is much subject sense in her language when mad. See also Harry Morris, 'Ophelia's "Bonny Sweet Robin'", Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, (1958), 601-3.

6.  Over the past twenty years or so, many feminist critics have identified the 'man-honour-fight' content of revenge as 'morally bankrupt'. See Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982); Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981); Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate; Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Marianne L. Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

7.  The Psycho-Analyst and the Artist (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), p. 164.

8.  Susan Jacoby asks how audience sympathy for the revenger is gained, lost or compromized, and also what dramatic and rhetorical techniques operate to affect sympathy, mostly in modern literature and film in Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (New York: Harper and Row, 1983). See also Linda Anderson's helpful introduction to the history of revenge in A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987). See also Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), especially pp. 268-99.

9.  Sigmund Freud, 'Instincts and their Vicissitudes' in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, tr. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 24 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), XIV; 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' in Complete Works, XVIII; 'The Ego and the Id' in Complete Works, XIX; and 'Civilization and its Discontents' in Complete Works, XXI.

10.  Freud, 'The Ego and the Id' in Complete Works, XIX, 41-2; see also 'Civilization and its Discontents' in Complete Works, XXI, 119

11.  Freud, Complete Works, XXI, 107.

12.  Freud, Complete Works, XXI, 64-149.

13.  Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, p. 437.

14.  The Self and the Object World (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), p. 127.

15.  Juliet Mitchell, ed., The Selected Melanie Klein (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 80-3.

16.  Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,1976). p. 122.

17.  Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 281-309.

18.  '"Since first we were dissevered": Trust and Autonomy in Shakespearean Tragedy and Romance' in Schwartz and Kahn, eds. Representing Shakespeare, pp. 150-69.

19.  Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971).

20.  Freud, 'On Narcissism' in Complete Works, XIV, 73-105. See also Otto Kemberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1975), and J. M. Byles, 'The Winter's Tale, Othello, and Troilus and Cressida: Narcissism and Sexual Betrayal', Imago, 36 (1979), 80-93.

21.  Anton Ehrenzweig. The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 192.

22.  Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), p. 134.

23.  Although Freud related Hamlet to Oedipus in 1897, and subsequently published the idea in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, Ernest Jones developed it fully in 'Hamlet: The Psychoanalytic Solution' (1910). See M. D. Faber, ed.. The Design Within (New York: Norton, 1970). See also in the same anthology, pp. 113-20, R Wertham's 'Critique of Freud's Interpretation of Hamlet'. For a comprehensive survey of the ramifications of the Freud-Jones view, see Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Octagon Books, 1976).

24.  Janet Adelman concentrates on the maternal point of the triangle between Hamlet, his father and his mother: 'As in a dream, the plot-conjunction of father's funeral and mother's remarriage expresses this return: it tells us that the idealized father's absence releases the threat of maternal sexuality, in effect subjecting the son to her annihilating power' (Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays: 'Hamlet' to 'The Tempest' (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 18.

25.  C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 262.

26.  Barber and Wheeler, The Whole Journey, p. 263.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Joanna Montgomery Byles "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Revenge in Hamlet". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available September 22, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Joanna Montgomery Byles