Hamlet’s Oedipal Complex In William Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, the Oedipus complex plays a critical role in the affairs of the young prince. Sigmund Freud’s theory states that it is normal for children to have sexual desires for their parent of the opposite sex. He says that it is also normal to have feelings of hatred for the other parent that is of the same sex as the child. Most children experience these feelings at a very young age, after which the feelings are overcome or in some individuals become deeply suppressed. Those that carry on these feelings into adulthood are considered to have an Oedipus complex.
These feelings, in some cases, are linked to a physical separation between father and son. This leads the child into a paradoxical state of masculinity, wherein the child spends much of his time solely with the mother, and yet a sense of guilt or femininity, because the mother is significantly older. This sense of guilt and femininity also prevents Hamlet from identifying with women their own age, a societal norm. Furthermore, Hamlet’s Oedipal feelings have been buried within him since his childhood. These feelings were hidden during the life of Hamlet, Sr. because the two had a strong connection.
However, the death of King Hamlet and hasty marriage to Gertrude by Claudius sparked jealousy within Hamlet. He felt no connection to Claudius, nor felt guilty by having feelings for his mother. It was due to this event that Hamlet’s latent Oedipal Complex took over. Although Freud outlined this complex almost 300 years after the publication of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s characterizations in regards to the Oedipus complex cannot be refuted. The three main aspects including hatred of the father, intimate desires of the mother, and disconnection from the loving Ophelia show Hamlet’s embodiment of the Oedipus complex.
Hamlet’s actions and mental health are affected by the presence of these Oedipal qualities. Freud had said that the son takes the mother as the object of his desires. Because of this desire to be with Gertrude, a rivalry forms between Hamlet and Claudius. In the play, Hamlet shows great hostility towards Claudius because of his mother’s hasty remarriage. This infuriates Hamlet as he begins to see murdering Claudius as a way of asserting masculine dominance and avenging his father. Once King Hamlet’s ghost tells Hamlet that it was
Claudius who murdered him, Hamlet feels conflicted. Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles internally over killing Claudius. It is something he wants to do, but is unable to carry out the task. Because of his Oedipus complex, Hamlet has wanted to kill his own father for at least 20 years, as outlined by Freud. Hamlet desperately wants to desperately forget the presence of his father and mother together, as illustrated in this excerpt in Act 1, Scene 2 from Hamlet. “Must I remember? Why she would hang on him, as if increase of appetite had grown” (William Shakespeare, 29).
In using the word “would” to show the past tense, Hamlet is referring the dependency of Gertrude upon King Hamlet, rather than Claudius. Shakespeare also is redundant with the phrase “increase of appetite had grown”. But Shakespeare is emphasizing the fact that Gertrude became increasingly voracious for King Hamlet’s love, which further disturbed Hamlet. In essence, Hamlet feels weak because Claudius did what Hamlet could not. These feelings of inferiority, along with the Oedipus qualities, create feelings of guilt and repulsion towards Claudius. Hamlet becomes aware that he is no better than Claudius is.
In murdering Claudius, Hamlet kills himself as well. Claudius has achieved Hamlet’s Freudian ideal, killed his father, taken his place, and fulfilled his incestuous desire in winning over Gertrude. Hamlet is able to identify, and even sympathize with Claudius for having done what Hamlet only wished he could do. Hamlet and his mother’s relationship is also shown as more intimate than the traditional mother-son relationship due to Hamlet’s language regarding his mother his mother, as well as the rivalry toward Claudius for his Gertrude’s attention.
This suggests that Shakespeare also saw the behavioral characteristics of the oedipal complex in humanity that Freud did, explaining them through the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. In the word choice Hamlet uses when addressing Gertrude, he shows a discreet desire for his mother bordering on the sexual. In Gertrude’s bedroom in Act 3, Scene 4, he addresses her with the following: “Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love over the nasty sty! ” (William Shakespeare, 175).
The privacy and intimacy of the bedroom add a new dimension when the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude is examined. Bedrooms are private, usually the setting for sexual activity. Shakespeare placed Hamlet and Gertrude in these quarters to suggest the aspects of Hamlet’s sexual desires for his mother and allow Hamlet to express himself wholeheartedly to his mother. This obsession shows that Hamlet is suffering from an Oedipus complex. The idea of Claudius engaging intimately with his mother brings out the incestuous feelings stirring within Hamlet.
But Hamlet is also confused that, at Gertrude’s age, she can’t control her sexual desires. Hamlet worships Gertrude, he has high expectations of her, treats her as if she were a goddess. But yet, the fact that she cannot control her sexual desires makes Hamlet all the more intrigued. However, Hamlet is also ridden with jealousy in regards to her sexual activities with Claudius. Hamlet confronts Gertrude, accusing her of spending too much time “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”. The phrase “rank sweat” means thick or heavy sweat.
Hamlet, by saying Gertrude lives in Claudius’ bed, is jealous of their constant lovemaking, driving Hamlet to act rashly in killing Polonius. In the Scene, Hamlet wished the person behind the curtain had been Claudius. He would have won over his mother and avenged the death of his father. Because of his feeling of inferiority, Hamlet feels he needs to establish himself as the powerful masculine figure by killing Claudius and becoming king of Denmark. However, his rash behavior and lashing out largely affects his mental state as well.
Ophelia is the character most affected by Hamlet’s Oedipal desires for Gertrude. Hamlet disgraces Ophelia, using her simply for sex and pleasure. She means very little to him as a human being. In Act 3, Scene 1 Hamlet orders her to “Get thee to a nunnery” (William Shakespeare, 131). Completely focused on his desires for Gertrude and murder of Claudius, Hamlet has no need for distractions such as Ophelia. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is completely abnormal. He solely uses Ophelia as a substitute for Gertrude.
Ophelia’s femininity draws Hamlet in, satisfying his lust for his mother and insecurities surrounding Claudius. He toys with Ophelia’s affections, just as Gertrude toys with his. He uses Ophelia for pleasure to an extent, but rather uses her to challenge Gertrude. He wants Gertrude to feel threatened, jealous, or angry with Ophelia. Hamlet feels the need to torture Gertrude because he has been so tormented by her himself. Hamlet goes as far as to attempt to spark jealousy within Gertrude by sitting at Ophelia’s feet rather than Gertrude’s when she asks.
Gertrude, in turn, expresses jealousy of Ophelia by refusing to speak to her following the incident. Alas, Hamlet’s desires are never to be. When Gertrude dies, it frees Hamlet of his Oedipus complex. After her death, Hamlet had the strength, mentally, to carry out the wishes of King Hamlet’s Ghost and kill Claudius, but without the prize he desired. Freud’s Oedipus complex effectively explains Hamlet’s melancholic state of pensiveness and inaction in killing Claudius. Hamlet was focused on the end result, realizing his desire for Gertrude. It was only after her death that he was free from himself.
Hamlet killed Claudius quickly after Gertrude’s death as an act of revenge. His Oedipal love for his mother pushed him to near insanity before her death. Hamlet’s paradoxical relationship to Claudius is one of the Oedipal aspects that plays into the character of Hamlet. Although Claudius denies him of Gertrude, Hamlet cannot help but stand in awe of the fact that Claudius murdered King Hamlet, something Hamlet could never quite bring himself to do. Secondly, his use of language suggested an intimate relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet.
And finally, the abuse of Ophelia gives an example of how the Oedipus complex affected Hamlet’s mentality. He became abusive, confrontational, and obsessed with Gertrude, the woman he could not have. Hamlet was deeply altered by the presence of his Oedipal feelings toward his mother, which transformed changed him from a dedicated scholar to an obsessed lover. These three main aspects including hatred of the father, intimate desires of the mother, and disconnection from the loving Ophelia showed Hamlet’s embodiment of the Oedipus complex.