Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hamlet and Incest

Oedipal Desires & the Subconscious in the Language of Hamlet

For many people, especially those who have never encountered Shakespeare, or who have only experienced Bowdlerized versions, Shakespeare’s works are a clean and wholesome alternative to what they consider “modern filth.” However, even a basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s writing reveals themes such as those found in Hamlet: Self-harm, murder, incest, and more, all used to reveal deeper truths about humanity. This essay will examine Hamlet’s use of incestuous themes, particularly Ophelia’s song to deceased Polonius and two of Hamlet’s interactions with Gertrude; find that Hamlet and Ophelia indeed possess Oedipal desires; and examine possible reasons for Shakespeare’s inclusion of such longings. 
In 4.5, Ophelia sings a lament to her dead father, Polonius. What is on the surface a lament is actually a set of sexual puns. These innuendos are sung by a young woman to her dead father in a double-taboo of incest and necrophilia. Ophelia asks of Polonius, “Will he not come again?” (4.5.185) At a cursory glance, Ophelia wonders whether she will ever meet her father again. However, “come” is also an un-subtle reference to sexual climax, revealing unconscious desires on Ophelia’s part. These longings are apparently sublimated to such an extent that only Ophelia’s mental breakdown at Polonius’ death can bring them to light.

This association of death and sex by Shakespeare is intriguing, especially as another name for orgasm is “little death.” Deciding that Polonius will not return, as he is dead, Ophelia continues to link sexuality and mortality, commanding herself, “Go to thy death-bed / He never will come again.” (4.5.188-189) It would appear that, in her subconscious, Ophelia considers sex and death linked. She decides, since her father’s sexuality has been ended, to retreat to her death-bed, or place of orgasm. For Ophelia to have connected sexual satisfaction with her father, such that even when Polonius is dead she continues to link him with her own sexuality, reveals the depths of her Oedipal desires.

(Also the depths of the pool she drowns in, but that's another story.)

Continuing to lay bare her subconscious, Ophelia declares that, as Polonius is gone, she will “cast away moan.” (4.5.193) Combined with her previous innuendos, Ophelia’s statement means that, without Polonius, she will have to pleasure herself. It is plain that her unconscious has irrevocably linked sex with her father. Without Polonius, there can be no sex, is the unconscious thought in Ophelia’s mind. Indeed, as sex with oneself cannot lead to procreation—considered to be the prime purpose of sex—her moans are thus doubly cast away. In other words, left-behind Ophelia moans in sorrowing ecstasy, desiring a relationship, that, with Polonius’ death, she cannot obtain.

All of these examples indicate that Ophelia has a reverse-Oedipal complex. Not only does Ophelia unconsciously connect sexuality with her father, Polonius, but her language reveals that, without Polonius, her sexuality will wither.

Hamlet also exhibits Oedipal traits, though in a more standard Freudian configuration. At first, his subconscious desires are filtered through Ophelia, In 3.2. Gertrude requests that Hamlet sit beside her. Instead, he chooses to sit with Ophelia. However, while Hamlet banters with Ophelia, he is also directing his words at Gertrude. Hamlet’s unconscious accordingly begins to exhibit his incestuous desires.

In refusing to sit with Gertrude, Hamlet focuses on attractiveness, stating, “here’s mettle more attractive.” (3.2.199) Hamlet’s excuse that he finds Ophelia more physically appealing is an intriguing metric when comparing his mother to his lover. By judging both Gertrude and Ophelia by appearance, Hamlet conflates them, allowing him to use Ophelia as an outlet for the sexual desire he harbors toward Gertrude.

Immediately, and within earshot of Gertrude, Hamlet begins to proposition Ophelia, asking, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” (3.2.101) In other words, he wishes to know if Ophelia will sleep with him. While Hamlet passes this off as a slip of the tongue, he immediately returns to innuendo, querying if Ophelia thought he meant “country matters.” (3.2.105) For a man so skilled with words, Hamlet proves himself rather unsubtle in his innuendo—“country matters” can be read as both an euphemism for intercourse and also a reference to female genitalia if syllables are stressed correctly. After his recent conflation of Ophelia and Gertrude, Hamlet’s wording shows that he doesn’t merely find Gertrude desirable—he associates his lover, and thereby his mother, with sex and genitalia.

Ophelia acts as a superego to the id Hamlet is displaying in this scene by attempting to quiet Hamlet. But even her gentle protestation of “I think nothing, my lord” is not enough to stop Hamlet, who makes a double pun of her statement. (3.2.106) In one gutter-minded swoop, Hamlet implies that Ophelia refers both to female genitalia (linked to the shape of a zero), and male genitalia—a “thing.” (3.2.107) Such a remark to his lover would not be so unusual. However, Ophelia is melded in Hamlet’s mind with Gertrude, meaning that Hamlet has subconsciously implied Gertrude’s vulgarity.

And indeed, even as Hamlet prods Ophelia, his thoughts turn toward his mother. Ophelia remarks that he is merry. In response, Hamlet asks, “What should a man do / but be merry? For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, / and my father died within ‘s two hours.” (3.2.113-115) Only short lines before, Hamlet blithely implied that Ophelia (and therefore Gertrude) is dirty-minded—now he is completely focused upon his mother. While the old saying claims that men think about sex every seven seconds, Hamlet thinks about his mother every sixth second, and sex every seventh.

Hamlet is so wrapped in his intertwining obsessions with Gertrude and sexuality that he willingly shares Gertrude’s sexuality with others. Hamlet, through the Player Queen, declares, “A second time I kill my husband dead, / When second husband kisses me in bed.” (3.2.166-167) Hamlet is not merely airing the dirty laundry in public, he’s attaching a sign that explains the meaning of every little stain. It would be impossible for the players to be ignorant of Gertrude and Claudius’ relationship and draw conclusions about Gertrude from their speeches.

In addition, despite orders to the contrary from Hamlet Senior, the Player Queen’s speech is an attempt by Hamlet to prick Gertrude’s conscience rather than leaving her to Heaven. Hamlet’s disobedience to Hamlet Senior’s will forms the other half of his Oedipal complex—not only does Hamlet lust after his mother, but he metaphorically kills Hamlet Senior through betrayal.

(And the poor guy's got enough problems as-is. Just look at that posture!)

Hamlet’s fretting over his mother’s sexuality reaches a climax in 3.4, when he goes into great detail about his mother’s supposed bedroom behavior. “Nay, but to live,” he cries, “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty—” (3.4.81-85) Clearly Hamlet has spent much time thinking about what his mother does in bed. While Hamlet attempts to pass such thoughts off as worry over his mother’s sin and disrespect to Hamlet Senior, an earlier remark from Gertrude seems appropriate: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (3.2.210) Hamlet’s concern for his mother’s behavior may be genuine, but the amount of specificity he exhibits reveals a subconscious desire Hamlet Senior would not approve of at all.

Hamlet continues to act as if he cannot bear to think of Gertrude consorting with Claudius, begging her, “Go not to mine uncle’s bed. Assume a virtue if you have it not. / Refrain tonight, / and that shall lend a kind of easiness / to the next abstinence.” (3.4.151-154) Hamlet has just compared his mother to a virtueless whore. Whether or not such an accusation is true, Hamlet certainly desires it to be. Not only that, but by once again meddling with his mother’s behavior, he has betrayed Hamlet Senior once again, cementing his moral patricide.

Once more before he departs, Hamlet lingers on the sordid details of his mother’s relationship with Claudius. He begs Gertrude not to “let the bloat King tempt you again to bed, / pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, / and let him for a pair of reechy [filthy] kisses, / or paddling in your neck with his damnéd fingers, / make you to ravel all this matter out.” (3.4.166-170) For a man who cannot bear to think of his mother being sexually active, Hamlet goes into great detail about the particulars of Claudius’ interrogation. While his fear of betrayal may be real, Hamlet’s lengthy description of sexual activities is a plain product of his Oedipal subconscious. In fact, it almost appears that Hamlet has been fantasizing about his mother’s sexuality, creating an erotic tale within his own mind that he spills forth to Gertrude. Even in his mental erotica, though, Hamlet has not fully acknowledged his desires for Gertrude, as it is Claudius who molests Gertrude, not Hamlet. Not only that, but Hamlet has a very low opinion of his mother’s ability to resist sexual overtures. This, too, is based on Hamlet’s unconscious fantasy. Hamlet is not merely imagining Gertrude and Claudius (standing in for Hamlet) engaging in sexual activity, he is projecting his own desire onto Gertrude. In other words, Hamlet’s fantasy Gertrude—whom he conflates with the real Gertrude—also possesses such incestuous longings.

Both Hamlet and Ophelia unconsciously express their incestuous desires through their use of language. While Ophelia stays primarily in the realm of innuendo, Hamlet goes into uncomfortable detail under the guise of concern for his mother’s soul. In each case, there is ample evidence that Hamlet and Ophelia have subconscious Oedipal complexes. However, the question remains: Why do these incestuous longings appear in Hamlet?

Perhaps Shakespeare intended such Oedipal themes as social commentary. Denmark’s court in Hamlet is sexually repressive: Ophelia is told by Polonius her relationship with Hamlet must end; Laertes lectures Ophelia on proper sexuality (that is, none); Hamlet must break off his relationship with Ophelia to continue his schemes; even Laertes, who is not present at court, is spied upon by Polonius and chastised by Ophelia not to be promiscuous. This highly-repressed sexuality would then be transferred to those who Hamlet and Ophelia can safely feel affection for—their relatives. The idea of familial bonds reoccurs in Hamlet—Hamlet’s quest to avenge Hamlet Senior, Laertes’ rage at his father’s death, Fortinbras Junior’s attempt to overthrow Claudius and redeem his father. This love is considered proper within the court. It would not be surprising, then, if familial love became incestuous lust, when all other sexual outlets are exhausted. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, many outlets for “inappropriate” sexuality, such as whorehouses and premarital sex, were being repressed by religious leaders. Could the Oedipal tones in Hamlet be Shakespeare’s prediction of what would result? Only Shakespeare knows. 

(All citations follow Act.Scene.Line format as found in The Norton Shakespeare.)