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In recent times, a psychoanalytical approach has been taken to explain a person's behavior. Freud argued quite heavily that people have a subconscious drive that determines many of their actions. Hamlet does not differ from this. A psychoanalytical approach will find a reasonable explanation of Hamlet's actions in Shakespeare's Hamlet. His actions are characteristic of one who has been abused. Hamlet's Oedipus complex is more pronounced because of it. Other factors indicate abuse. Ultimately, his delay is due to the abuse as well. It is important to understand that he was abused as a child, which is reflected, first, in his Oedipus complex. A complex which must be understood better.
An Oedipus complex is often misinterpreted as a son who is in love with the mother and truly wants to kill (or has killed) the father. The Oedipus complex is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:
a subconscious sexual desire in a child . . . for the parent of the opposite sex,usually accompanied by hostility to the parent of the same sex. If unresolved naturally, this complex may result in neurosis and an inability to form normal sexual relationships in adulthood.
Hamlet clearly has some problems. He is having trouble forming a sexual relationship with Ophelia. His constant banter with her is almost ridiculous. Throughout the play, Hamlet toys with her, never quite able to just say anything or take any action. Hamlet says, "be thou chaste as ice, as pure a snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, farewell." (3.2.. 133) He also makes some suggestions to her prior to the play within the play.:
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap.
OPHELIA: No my lord.
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap.
OPHELIA: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters.
OPHELIA: I think nothing my lord.
HAMLET: That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs. (3.2. 101-106)
One does not have to be a genius in order to understand that Hamlet is referring to sex. No where in the play does he taken any action to initiate a relationship of sexual orientation with Ophelia. Instead, like the previous statement, he is playing with her and the notion of sex. According to Steven Bavolek, Ph. D., abuse can cause sexual tension which "may be diverted into games involving teasing, mock spanking, and wrestling" (106).
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"Hamlet's Indecision, Hesitation and Delay in Relation to the Abuse He Suffered." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Nov 2018
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Hamlet's relationship with his mother is also odd. Tobin suggests that abuse can modify the Oedipal complex and delay it. He argues that if a child is abused during a period of time when the Oedipus complex should be undergoing resolution, it can be postponed. Both points are important. The delay means that the love affair with the mother is later and sexual maturity is closer. The modification can be a more pronounced love affair. Hamlet displays this in the play as well. His conversation with Ophelia is proceeded by the queen (his mother) asking him to sit down by her. Hamlet replies, "No mother, here's metal more attractive [Ophelia]" (3.2. 98). He is trying to produce a jealous reaction in his mother. This shows the strong Oedipal complex. However, it was abuse Hamlet endured from the queen that strengthened it. Bavolek said that a trait common to abusive parents is that of needing the child only to bolster self image or to satisfy their own needs (143). The king mentions this when he says, "The Queen his mother lives almost by his looks" (4.3. 11-12). Through Hamlet, she satisfies herself, possibly sexually and mentally, and has done so all his life, as abusive mothers often do (Bavolek 134). In the modification of the Oedipal complex, it is quite possible that Gertrude slept in the same bed as Hamlet after his father's death. Each seeking comfort in the other while morning the death of Hamlet, Sr. This, according to Bavolek, is potentially harmful in that the mother may deny any erotic stimulation, but the child may be stimulated, prolonging sensual dependency on the mother (Bavolek 106).
The abuse of Hamlet does not contribute only to his Oedipal complex. It does explain why his Oedipal complex is strong and explain some behaviors, but there are other factors which abuse has influenced. In fact, Hamlet probably does have some sort of disorder. Literary critics have accused Hamlet of being insane. However, he even says that he may behave differently when after her meets the ghost,
Here as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some'er I bear myself. . .
That you, at such times, seeing me, never, shall
With arms encumbered thus, or this headshake. . . (1.5. 168-174)
Hamlet is not insane, but there are other possibilities.
Hamlet might have a depressive disorder. He exhibits the symptoms of a person with major depression. He fits the diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - IV as follows. He has a diminished interest in usual pleasure. He has gained weight throughout the play the queen says, "He's [Hamlet] fat, and scant of breath" (5.2. 263). An explanation offered to why he feels guilty (and delays) is because he wants to be with his mother, in his uncle's place (Jones 205). Indecisiveness, which is reflected throughout the play, is indicated by his not killing Claudius. A good example is after he realizes Claudius' guilt and seems him in prayer,
Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying
And now I'll do't . . .
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage. . . (3.2. 73-89)
Even here he cannot manage to get himself to reach a decision. According to the DSM-IV, this would give Hamlet a diagnosis for depression. Also according to the DSM-IV he has a manic episode in the play (163-4). He enters with the intention "to speak daggers to her" (3.2. 359), thus reflecting his inflated grandiosity since he also establishes his boldness in going to her. Once there he has a flight of ideas. Hamlet certainly speaks to her quickly about his father's death and his incestuous uncle, he has racing thoughts. He was more talkative than usual, cutting his mother off from speech. His apparent sexuality in his lecturing of his mother is also a reflector of the manic episode.
Having manic episodes as well as depression diagnoses him as a manic-depressive. This could be why so many literary critics have attempted to label Hamlet insane. Hamlet exhibits an incredible focus (which may be yet another reason). His mind is preoccupied with avenging his father's death and killing Claudius. Returning more to the abuse Hamlet suffered as a child, one should note that a trait of abused children is the failure to fully develop and internalization of controls ( Bavolek 135). Tobin expresses that often times traits such as that will carry through into adulthood. However, Tobin points out an abused child can become very focused on a single event or action, i.e. Hamlet deciding to murder Claudius. Granted, yes, he may want to avenge his father, but the ghost was just providing an opportunity for Hamlet.
Another important effect of child abuse, to note, is the hypervigelence of abused children, that is their testing the mood of adults (Bavolek 134). Hamlet tests the mood of the king by creating a play to check his guilt, not just assuming it to be true. As well as testing the mood, he could have just attacked the king, legally, to remove him from the throne but abused children generally do not challenge parents openly (Bavolek 134). Another effect of abuse that brings the final point is that of abused children being slow to become involved in dramatic play (Bavolek 135). Tobin did point out that these effects can carry on into adult hood, and Hamlet certainly does delay.
Hamlet's delay, in killing Claudius, stems from his possible abuse during adolescence. Many points have indicated the fact that Hamlet was probably abused, but his lack of action is definitely of interest. Bavolek explained that children both have a hard time becoming involved and Tobin explained the intense focus. The two combined explain his drive to murder Claudius and his indecisiveness and delay in doing so. Of course many critics have offered many suggestions as to why Hamlet delayed. It may be that Hamlet delayed because he was instance, but most likely it is part of the remnants of his abuse. Hamlet takes a long time to kill Claudius in two ways. The first being that he takes a long time to involve himself. He waits to figure out if the king murdered his father. He waits once he knows. Second, once Hamlet knows, he decides he is going to kill Claudius. This decision becomes all consuming, it is his primary goal. He takes the time but suffers from too much indecisiveness. However, it was his inability to become quickly involved that kept him from taking action.
His delay in murderring Claudius came, most likely, from the abuse that he suffered as a child. The recent Oedipus complex, the other factors, and his delay all suggest he was abused. Abuse can do terrible things to people and while it was not clear who did it, Hamlet did suffer because of it.
Bavolek, Stephen J. A Handbook for Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect Family Development Associates, Inc. 106, 134, 135, 143.
Jones, Ernest. "Tragedy and the Mind of the Infant." Norton, 1949. Rpt. in Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992. 205.
Tobin, Joseph M. Personal interview. 15. Dec. 1996.