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DARK LADY PLAYERS WORKING PAPER (2009) NUMBER 5

WHY HAMLET DOES NOT HAVE AN OEDIPAL COMPLEX:


THE FAILURE OF AN EXPLANATORY FRAMEWORK
by John Hudson

Many bad productions of Hamlet have been engendered by Ernst Jones’s


unfortunate psychoanalytic paper "The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of
Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive" (1910). Jones refers in particular to one
passage:
"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 kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out."

In an attempt to explain Hamletʼs behavior by using 19th century psychoanalytic


theory, Jones claims that in this passage Hamletʼs feeling about his motherʼs
misconduct “ expresses itself in that almost 
physical disgust which is so often the
manifestation of intensely ʻrepressedʼ sexual feeling”. Jonesʼs assumptions here
are that Hamlet sexually desires his mother, that this is why he focuses so
intensely upon her incestuous sex with the King, and that this helps explain why
he wants to kill the King who stands for his substitute father---as Oedipus killed
his father. We must however reject this attempt at explanation. Lacking time
machines, Elizabethan playwrights did not equip their characters with 19th

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century psychoanalytic speculation. On the contrary, the reasons for a
characterʼs behavior were not to be found by pretending that literary figures were
real people with inner motives of their own, but to be found in their external
allegorical and typological identities, and the classical and Biblical figures of
which they were a type. This was the set of allusions that the playwright had
used to construct a character which the audience was expected to identify.

Thus in terms of the Classical allegory, as the son of Hyperion, Hamlet has the
title the ʻmouse-killerʼ. His mother who has been given the name Gertrude (not in
the original source) echoes St Gertrude the saint of mice plagues, who in
paintings often had a mouse running up her staff. Since the play features mouse
poisons such as wormwood and chameleon, and Hamlet is in the process of
creating a Mousetrap, Hamletʼs disgust –which Jones correctly notices--is the
disgust of the mouse-killer for the mouse he will exterminate.

In terms of the Biblical allegory, as Linda Hoff noted, Queen Gertrudeʼs identity
is hinted at in the phrase that the king “whorʼd my mother” (5,2,64). Much of
Hamletʼs emphasis on the sex, such as the reference to the en-semened bed, is
disgust with this whoring. This has been put into the play to link Queen Gertrude
the whore with another Queen who was a Whore, the Whore of Babylon,
sometimes seen as an allegory for the Catholic church. She appears in the Book
of Revelation riding on a seven headed beast—sometimes interpreted as the
seven hills of Rome. As shown in contemporary illustrations, the Whore is raising
a golden cup. At the end of the play Gertrude is also shown raising a cup in a
toast (5,2,292).

If the stage action showed Gertrude sitting in the Kingʼs lap, this would
emphasize his identity as the seven headed “scarlet” beast of Rome that the
Whore rides upon. It was normally painted as having serpentine necks. The king
is referred to as the “adulterate beast” (I,5,42) and the “serpent” (1,5,39).

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The playwright also uses the Playerʼs speech to rewrite part of the Aeneid in a
classical allegory. The speech relates how king Priam of Troy (an allegory for
Hamletʼs father) was murdered by Pyrrhus who is described as a “beast” who is
“hellish”, a “painted tyrant” who is totally red from blood “total gules” (2,2,53) as
the result of his murders. This red coloring links him to the scarlet beast from the
bottomless pit in the Book of Revelation, and thus to Claudius, as Kaula
observes.

His name Claudius, which is never uttered on-stage, is an allusion not just to
Claudius Ptolemy, but to Claudius Caesar. After the assassination of Caligula,
Claudius took the throne and married Agrippa. She was killed by her son Nero,
and at one point (3,2,385) Hamlet denies being the Emperor Nero (meaning
black). But also Hamlet was educated at Wittenberg, which is where Luther
began the task of the Reformation, in overthrowing Catholicism. So the Biblical
allegory constructs Hamlet as a church reformer destroying Rome and the
Church, in a new Apocalypse. Hamletʼs disgust with Gertrudeʼs relationship to the
King, is his disgust with Roman Catholicism.

This is paralleled by the Astronomical allegory in the play, in which Hamlet is


over-throwing the current zodiacal orientation of the PolarAxis. pollax or polus
(Polonius), and moving from the geo-centric astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy and
his fixed stars, to a new Helio-centric astronomy in which Hamlet himself, as
Helios, will be the new center.

However identifying Claudius as a Caesar, as Rome, and as the center of a


astronomical system does not explain how these things relate to each other. It
does not explain why Polonius acted the part of Julius Caesar in a play and is
now a rat, why Gertude should be a mouse, or why the playwright arranged for
Hamlet to be a mouse-killer who is very improbably constructing a mousetrap
that traps Caesars right in the central part of the play. Why does the playwright
associate these characters with mice at all? The answer to that is in the Jewish
theological allegory. This refers to a trap constructed by the 3 Flavian
Caesars—who took on the identity of a fictional character whose name was a
pun meaning World Mouse—in order to construct a literary trap to catch Jews.
This literary trap is part of Josephusʼs Jewish Antiquities and is discussed in
chapter 11 of Atwillʼs book Caesarʼs Messiah. It has the same literary structure
as the mousetrap in Hamlet which used it as a model. The playwright constructs
her own version of the trap that was set by a Caesar/Mouse character to catch
Jews by trapping them in a false religion, and reverses it so that it catches
mice/Caesars. Ultimately it is this that drives Hamletʼs behavior.

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