ENGL 339: Shakespeare’s Drama

English 339
December 7, 2012
Dr. Risden

Freud’s Death Drive in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Othello

In Shakespeare’s plays, central themes are often desire, love, and death. From a Freudian standpoint, one can clearly see the death drive enacted in several of the plays. To Freud, psychoanalysis is much like the theory of tragedy being that it recreates a “quest for a representation of a traumatic event that would produce catharsis” (West). Therefore, through psychoanalysis, and, more importantly, through death drives, we can explain human behavior. Pleasure actually seems to serve our death instincts because once we achieve our desires and pleasures, we as humans immediately long to return to the “organic” state of death (Mills). Death lurks ahead of all human beings as an impending doom. However, Freud points out that death also lies within us, and despite our psyche’s evolutionary nature, death leads to decay (Mills). In Shakespeare’s plays, the theme of the death-drive opens up many questions surrounding the abstract emotions surrounding death, Christian reason, and the relation of sex to death. If we apply Freud’s death drive to Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Othello, we are able to understand them from an entirely different angle.

Like many of William Shakespeare’s plays, Much Ado About Nothing has the human desire for true love at its center. The longing to find the appropriate mate entirely takes over the main characters of the play. When the pure ideal of the search becomes tarnished, the lover immediately longs for death. Such a death wish is a critique of the fleeting desires of human beings and exposes a flaw in our nature. Reading the play in this way casts it in a rather tragic light and places it far from a comedy. Because Shakespeare places this play in the comedy category, we as an audience might view it as being a playful critique of a critical, yet almost unavoidable fallacy. Also, the play centers on the concept of dissembling which in itself is an abstract theme. The concealing of truth from other characters proves to be extremely harmful and Shakespeare is clearly playing on the concept of humans wounding each other in an abstract way. The abstract emotional wounding of the characters contrasts the longing for permanent death. Much Ado About Nothing uses the abstract theme of dissembling and the longing for true love to contrast the concrete wish for death.

Beatrice and Benedick openly represent the contrast of the fleeting longing for love and death because they communicate more than anyone else in the play; the communication, however, is fraught with dissembling. In the opening scene of the play, Beatrice needs to know if “Signor Montanto returned from the wars, or no?” (1.1, 25). Benedick wonders the same about the lady within the first couple lines of their conversation, “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” (1.1, 97). The lovers immediately ask whether or not the other is alive because they both know that if one stops longing for love, they begin wishing to die which shows that that they do indeed long for one another, but as individual characters they both understand the consequence of such a strong yet fleeting human emotion. Benedick proclaims, “I will do myself the right to trust none. And the fine is—for the which I may go the finer—I will live a bachelor” (1.1, 199-201). Living as a bachelor is to be taken literally here because Benedick believes that if he were to be in love, it eventually would end and he would die married. Beatrice appears to be not any keener on the idea of being in love either. When asked if she will go in to hell if unwed, she replies “So deliver I up my apes and away to Saint Peter fore the heavens. He shows me where the bachelors sit, and there we live as merry as the day is long” (1.3, 39-41). Beatrice knows that loving someone eventually leads to a longing for death so that one can live eternally in heaven alone. Her disordered courting list sums up her knowledge of the fate of lovers. She believes that the list of love is as follows: “wooing, wedding, and repenting” (1.3, 60). The wooed lovers get married then realize that the desire of true love is ever fleeting and the pair finds themselves longing for death and therefore repenting. With as cautious a couple as Beatrice and Benedick, the only way to get them to finally wed is through trickery.

The fact that Beatrice and Benedick end up on the verge of marrying due to the concealment of the truth is a very abstract interference because it seems to the audience that the lovers have a very concrete foundation of communication. Because the other characters in the play believe that the two are indeed in love (without ever asking either of them), they feel the need to bring them together through lies; this shows the ignorance of the contributing characters in the play. They do not realize the consequence of at once embracing the ideal of true love and marriage. Benedick, after believing that Beatrice has indeed confessed her love for him, states that “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married” (2.3, 214-6). He does this because he wants to contradict his earlier statement about love resulting, ultimately, in the longing for death. This shows that his feelings for Beatrice are indeed genuine but dissembling results in his decision to go through with his feelings. In order to actually get married, they finally have to communicate about the deception. When other, more ignorant characters reveal letters of affection from Beatrice and Benedick about one another, Benedick says, “A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts” (5.4, 91). Until the very end, they do not want to ultimately proclaim their love for one another. They are very hesitant, but finally give in because of the pressure of others. Here, Shakespeare is critiquing the fleeting desires of the human heart and how rashly people act when in love. In the realm of this play, one literally plays with life and death when they are dealing with the notion of love. The audience sees the themes of life and death come to life in the relationship between Hero and Claudio.

The tragic relationship between Hero and Claudio is the most dramatic representation of the longing for abstract love versus concrete death. Early on, Claudio claims that “I love her, I feel” (1.1, 186). However, the two lack communication entirely. Even in courting Hero, Claudio relies on deception by sending Don Pedro to confess his feelings instead. True to form, Don Pedro agrees to “unclasp my heart/ And take her hearing prisoner with the force/ And strong encounter of my amorous tale” (1.1, 269-71). Shakespeare uses such harsh language to draw the audience’s attention to the power that lies beneath the desire for true love. Claudio wishes to imprison Hero in the relationship and such a harsh desire is not thought to end well. Once he has been deceived, we see his desires immediately change. He wishes to embarrass Hero, to hurt her emotionally. He states that “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow, in the congregation where I should wed, there I will shame her” (3.2, 103-5). Claudio reveals his ignorance here because even he does not recognize the power of the longing for true love. On the wedding day, before the Friar tells Hero to fake her death, she falls to the ground with the pain of shame and slander. The Friar, understanding the scene, pleads that “She—dying, as it must be so maintained/ Upon the instant that she was accused—/ Shall be lamented, pitied, and excused/ Of every hearer” (4.1, 213-6). By having Hero fake her death (another abstract way of manipulating the human heart) the other characters are to realize the error in their rash ways, but it also is to highlight the connection between the longing for true and the desire for death. Even before the wedding, Hero proclaims that her “heart is exceeding heavy” (3.4, 21-2). Her feeling of dread is heavy because she is very aware of the amount of control love has over her life. Claudio becomes aware of the fleeting desire for love once he believes that Hero is indeed dead. When Benedick challenges him, he rises with enthusiasm though he knows he will lose and die. Knowing that both characters have ultimately longed for death once the fleeting desire for love has at once died, the audience can hardly take solace in their reunion at the end of the play. Shakespeare purposely does not provide solace to question the human ideal of true love and to present the contrast between abstract emotional deception and physical death.

The character that fully embodies the dramatic contrast between the abstract and physical is Leonato; he feverishly desires the honorable love between Claudio and Hero then, with equal if not greater enthusiasm wishes death upon his daughter. As soon as shame is brought upon Hero in the church, Leonato’s honor is crushed and he immediately wishes her dead. He laments,

Do not live, hero, do not ope thine eyes

For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,

Though I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,

Myself would on the rearword of reproaches

Strike at thy life. (4.1, 122-6)                  

When faced with dishonor, Leonato quickly desires Hero’s death because it breaks her down to a form that he can control once more. He can better grasp such a tragedy if she lies dead and incapable of speaking out against her wrongs. Leonato revels in the fact that “She not denies it./ Why seek’st thou then to cover with excuse/ That which appears in proper nakedness?” (4.1, 172-4) He shows his extreme inclination to rash decisions in both of the aforementioned scenes, and then lashes out at Claudio by first threatening to kill him, then taunting him with “Canst thou so doff me? Thou hast killed my child./ If thou kill’st me, boy, thou shalt kill a man” (5.1, 78-9). Though his threat to Claudio may seem to come from defending his daughter, Shakespeare uses the rash hostility to further expose his outlandish character. Leonato is used to demonstrate the full spectrum of longing and desire. Once his primary desires crumble or scorn him, he immediately seeks blood for revenge. He wishes for death because death embodies simplicity and a concrete state whereas the threats and dishonor are very abstract.

            In Much Ado About Nothing, the desire for love, honor, and truth is central in the play. Once all desires are thwarted by the abstract interference of dissembling, the characters immediately long for permanent, physical death. Beatrice and Benedick are most aware of the consequences of human desire but end up married through dissembling. Claudio and Hero long for love and truly believe it to be wholesome; through dissembling they both wind up longing for death. Leonato embodies the whole spectrum of desire and longing because he, like the other characters, cannot handle the abstract interference of dissembling. By placing such a tragic theme in a “comedic” play, Shakespeare addresses this critical flaw in human nature in a seemingly light-hearted way.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare plays with the human concepts of perception, reason, and truth, especially in regard to death. Each character grapples with the fear of the unknown and acting on what they think they know. In the play, the audience can observe the full-spectrum of human thought surrounding reason and the concept of the unknown. In grappling with the unknown, the audience observes the characters’ methods of attempting to comfort themselves and understand. In Shakespeare’s time, many relied on Christian reason (belief in heaven versus hell) to alleviate the pain of the unknown. Hamlet is the most grounded in Christian reason, while Laertes represents the opposite end of the spectrum; he simply discards reason and does not fear the unknown and nor does he ponder the known. Ophelia attempts to remind everyone to think and consider reason. In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents the human fear that surrounds death and the unknown that follows; the characters represent the full spectrum of Christian reason and thought which, in turn, takes root in perspective. Hamlet struggles with what happens after death and therefore attempts to alleviate his worries by means of reason. He reflects,

            To die, to sleep—

            That flesh is heir to—‘tis a consummation

            Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.

            To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,

            For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

            When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

            Must give us pause. (3.1,62-70)

Hamlet is consumed by his troublesome emotional burdens surrounding the murder of his father and the task of vengeance set before him. Dying, then, seems to be a peaceful solution to his crisis. However, Hamlet, as reasonable as he is, must evaluate all angles of death. He worries of the “dreams” that will come when he shuffles off his “mortal coil.” In other words, Hamlet worries about what happens when we do in fact die. The afterlife is unknown and therefore he finds difficulty applying reason to death. Hamlet clearly practices Christianity and believes whole-heartedly in heaven and hell, but Shakespeare wants the reader to notice that even though Hamle’s beliefs are sound, he questions the nature of afterlife because it remains unknowable. As humans, we like to believe that we know something—that our knowledge and beliefs are steadfast and factual. However, all that we think we know is simply based on our perspective and opinions. Therefore, we do not really know anything at all, and so Shakespeare wants us to ask ourselves if we can actually apply reason to what we think we know. If we discard reason altogether, rash decisions are easily made.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Laertes; he takes what he thinks he knows as facts and therefore does not apply reason at all which results in rash action. When Laertes learns that Hamlet has murdered his father, his desire to act is quick and unyielding. The abandonment of reason is clear in the following scene when Claudius asks Laertes: “What would you undertake/ To show yourself your father’s son in deed/ More than in words?” and Laertes responds, “To cut his throat i’th’ church” (4.7, 96-9). Clearly, Laertes does not have the same moral boundaries as Hamlet does when it comes to Christian reason. Shakespeare creates Hamlet and Laertes as reasonable opposites to show that our beliefs truly cannot be something we know, but are rather based on perspective and opinion. Laertes can act quickly without reason because he does not concern himself with what is known or unknown.

Between Hamlet and Laertes we have Ophelia, who attempts to remind her brother to apply reason or thoughts to his actions; Shakespeare uses her character to highlight the importance of others’ perspectives and opinions and their impact on action. When handing flowers to Laertes, Ophelia states: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love,/ remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts.” (4.5, 173-4). Ophelia wishes for Laertes to apply thoughts to his actions because judges his rash action and she knows he has abandoned reason altogether. Thinking Ophelia mad, Laertes ignores her advice. Here, Shakespeare perhaps wants the audience to ponder the real use of reason: if we truly do not know anything, then what good does reason serve? Can we let the belief or disbelief in heaven and hell influence our actions, opinions, and perspectives? Questions regarding the true use of human reason can be applied to Hamlet as a whole.

Reason shapes our actions, beliefs, and morals as human beings. The characters of Hamlet apply reason to what they believe they know, and attempt to apply it to what they do not know. However, Shakespeare wants the audience to question what it is that each of the characters actually knows. In essence, they know nothing because all that we know or consider to be unknown is based on our own perspectives (and those of others) and opinions. Attempting to apply reason to what we think we know merely results in the application of reason to our perspectives. I believe that what Shakespeare wishes the audience to question in Hamlet is the role of reason and if the action, or lack thereof, was truly necessary or if it was merely based on perspective.

In the central character in the play Othello, the audience observes his truest love Desdemona become the object of his unbridled fury. The pure love he has for her turns to a sickening combination of lust and wrath, resulting in her murder. Because the scene of the murder is the bed, the audience cannot help but draw conclusions about Shakespeare’s intention to showcase sex and its relation to mortality. Othello murders Desdemona in a concrete representation of the opposing forces of pleasure and death; Shakespeare wants his audience to acknowledge the grotesquely human interrelation of lust and wrath.

Othello kills Desdemona in bed because Shakespeare wants to capitalize on the Freudian notion that the orgasm is when we, as humans, are most aware of our mortality because we have reached the peak of our bodily pleasure and therefore must realize that we are going to die. When Othello is about to murder Desdemona in bed, before he kisses her, he states: “When I have plucked thy rose/ I cannot give it vital growth again” (5.2, 13-4). Of course the lines insinuate the impending death of Desdemona, but Shakespeare also intends for the audience to interpret the statement sexually. Othello can be referencing virginity, or even the orgasm itself because once the body recognizes the highest level of pleasure, the person must accept death because it is the opposite of that pure pleasure; therefore the rose would be plucked and not given “vital growth again.” The audience is led to believe that Shakespeare intends the lines to be interpreted sexually because they are followed with Othello’s kissing of Desdemona, and the very relationship of death and the orgasm is spoken aloud in the final scene.

 Finally realizing that he has been deceived, Othello kills himself and lies down on the bed next to Desdemona, symbolizing the immediate realization of mortality after the peak of pleasure. In the final scene of the play Othello speaks the lines: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this:/ Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (5.2, 368-9). By saying that he both kissed Desdemona and killed her in the bed, Othello is acting out the role that death itself plays in relation to pleasure. He did indeed bring her pleasure, “kissed thee,” in the bed and then brought her death, and “killed thee.” Othello must “die upon a kiss” because he, too, has realized the peak of his bodily pleasure has ended and now he accepts mortality and his indulgence of sin. Also, Othello recognizes the end of his emotional pleasure and love that had peaked in Desdemona and therefore must die.

Shakespeare wants the audience to acknowledge the horrifying relation between sin, love, death, and pleasure to showcase the most basic and most profound elements of being human. Sin and love, death and pleasure all exist in extreme proximity and it is nearly impossible to separate them. Othello is a true horror play because it acts out our fears of what really happens when the peak of physical or emotional pleasure is realized and the descent toward death or sin must follow.

Shakespeare, of course, did not know the theories of Freud, but clearly thought about the connections between pleasure and death and re-enacted such connections in his plays. Death’s inevitable quality haunts us as individuals and we must confront death if not altogether wish for it. If we ignore death, we attempt to stall ourselves and busy our lives with lovers, children, our career, and other outlets. Shakespeare recognizes our need to accept death’s presence within us and realize our mortality, even if that realization comes as a result of achieving our greatest desires and pleasures.