To Be or Not to Be Hamlet
Psychoanalysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet would seem to be a vain attempt to mold the storytelling art to suit the needs of a theoretical prejudice. As far as the character of Hamlet is concerned, there is paltry psychoanalytical structure to his development, unless it is through considerably dubious leaps. For this reason, an interpretation based on historicism would hold more validity for the play, as historical circumstances are intrinsic to the playwright, his audiences, and future generations of observers. From a historical standpoint, Hamlet shows humanity, its psychological state and is a measure of its mental evolution.
Human beings can’t escape the world into which they’re born. This applies to Shakespeare, Hamlet, and we sentient beings observing and breathing life into the continually evolving organism that is Hamlet. Hamlet is an introspective character that understands the inexplicable and capricious nature of human existence: “But I have that within which passeth show; These but the trappings and the suits of woe,” he says when commenting on customary mourning rituals of his time and Gertrude’s inquiries into his grief over the death of his father. He is a misplaced character, knowing himself “a little more than kin, and less than kind” to Claudius his uncle and stepfather. A universal human distaste for the situation that Hamlet finds himself in reverberates across all times and cultures, and to this day audiences can relate to his pain and torture. Anyone in any time would be less than content seeing their mother wedded and bedded with their deceased father’s brother so soon after his passing (or at all!). If Hamlet suffered from any oedipal complex, as the psychoanalysts would have us believe, he wouldn’t need any ghostly specter to act as impetus for his repressed sexual and patricidal desires; the circumstances would be enough! He is certainly disgusted at the state of affairs, but hardly incestuous and homicidal.
The belief in the eternal soul is represented in the figure of Hamlet’s murdered father, whose apparition‘s frequent appearance (in full battle array) confounds Hamlet’s introspective and gentle nature. His estate is representative of the human race, trapped in a purgatory of shame and disgrace as a result of misguided beliefs and misconceptions. Christianity and emerging Protestantism were the religious schools of Shakespeare’s England, and these competing philosophies no doubt weighed on his mind as he wrote the play. What is sin and who in greater purgatory than man in contemplation of his own wretched self? Hamlet says “O, that this too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!… How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!” These are the words of a tortured soul and a tortured humanity, who would lend credence to the motives from which they’re spoken (Gertrude’s and Claudius’ incestuous union). There can come no other end when arrayed in such torture, but further self-abuse and death; a ghostly specter of an afterlife notwithstanding. Is any age to trust such rationale? From Hamlet’s perspective, could any imaginary hell be more horrible than the present? Would Hamlet not have been better served putting it all out of his mind and dancing around a psychoanalytic phallic symbol, to celebrate life, in opposition to death? For his madness is rooted in fear and Hamlet would have been better off resolving himself to strenuous inquisition of his father’s ghost (perhaps to uncover some beautiful and repressed knowledge of the afterlife), while refusing the ordained task. Who’s to say that the apparition wasn’t manipulating Hamlet to its own ends, out of spite for being dead, or as a faded remnant of mankind’s eternal conscience warning us to what byways such pernicious beliefs in tragic realities lead?
Hamlet’s contemplative nature is a commentary on his humanity in general, opposing the unnatural tendencies and misguided desires of the principal characters around him. Greed, fear, and self-obsessed poverty of soul are the undercurrents of Hamlet, a trap which Hamlet himself tries to reason his way out of. The play spans human history over a couple of thousand years, repeated and rationalized in a Shakespearean way. We modern humans still carry Hamlet within ourselves, to our detriment, and we remain “historical” humans in that sense. Psychoanalysis is doomed in the case of Hamlet, as he is a far better self-critic than any outside, fleeting system of human psychology could be. Hamlet’s lessons are truly timeless, but have yet to be learned by the human race: “to be or not to be” Hamlet… That is the question.