The Oedipus Complex and its Application to “Hamlet”

Shakespeare’s play Hamlet consists of multiple characters whose motivations are utterly unexplainable and altogether bewildering. Hamlet’s actions, being the main character, are always under the scholarly lens for close examination. Hamlet is criticized for his inability to act on any of his conscious desires. Freud explains that this is due to his “Oedipus Complex.” Oedipus is a play which the main character Oedipus fulfils the prophesy given to him at birth by murdering his father and marrying his mother. Freud employs the play to support his claim that, “it is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud 921). But in Hamlet, Hamlet’s subconscious wish to murder his father and wed his mother is complicated by Claudius manifesting these desires before he can. Freud’s claims that Hamlet is conflicted by Claudius’s presence are plausible and directly explain Hamlet’s source of conflict. Presumably this Oedipus complex that Freud enlightens the audience with can be successfully applied to Hamlet’s scenario. Hamlet’s complacency is due to a lack of evidence supporting his claims. Hamlet seeks to out Claudius as a treacherous murderer to distance himself from Hamlet sr. thus making it easier for him to kill Claudius while avoiding the repressed Oedipal taboo.

The play Oedipus is a story in which a prophecy of a child killing his father and marrying his mother rocks the foundation of a kingdom. The parents of this child (also the King and Queen) send him away to avoid this dreadful fate. The child grows up to unknowingly defeat his father in battle on the road and marry his mother. Most read the play as a tale of destiny that irrevocably disputes a person’s ability to stray from a predestined outcome. After presenting this argument though, Freud belittles it by offering the play as a far more complex critique on the psychoanalysis of youth. He asserts that the play exemplifies an innate desire in each person to hate and wish to murder their father, while sexually lusting for their mother.

Applying this story to Hamlet, Freud argues that Hamlet is encountering the same facet of emotions, as it is a repressed emotion in everyone. Hamlet wishes to murder his father and marry his mother, only the father figure is now Claudius (which as we will later see complicates tings greatly). If it is to be presumed Hamlet does lust his mother, his inconsistent relationship with Ophelia is slightly clarified. Hamlet’s complex and subtle desires for his mother resonate through his various interactions with Ophelia. In one moment Hamlet will force distance between himself and Ophelia making statements such as “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare 3.1. 120), only to later revoke the former assertion and profess his love: “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum” (Shakespeare 5.1. 255-257). These interactions can correlate with Hamlet’s conflicting emotions towards his mother due to his subconscious sexual desires. Hamlet most likely understands that Ophelia is a woman better suited for him, but he seems flustered and confused by these sexual nuances between Gertrude and himself. This relationship helps reassure us that Freud’s ideas are not completely farfetched.

Assuming this Oedipus complex can be applied, Hamlet’s desire to fill his fathers role is muddled by Claudius. In Freud’s terms, Claudius is “the man who shows him [Hamlet] the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized” (Freud 923). Because Claudius is the manifestation of Hamlet’s desires, Hamlet receives a glimpse as to where he could be. According to Freud one reason Hamlet does not act out against Claudius is because Claudius reminds him “he himself is literally no better than the sinner who he is to punish” (Freud 923). Hamlet see’s the evils that Claudius has done and as much as he may subconsciously desire to murder him and take his mothers hand, his hindsight reveals the hypocrisy prevalent.

The murder of Hamlet’s father does not inhibit Hamlet from acting out his desires, rather provides a catalyst for them. Through Claudius’s unwarranted murder of Hamlet Sr., Hamlet is provided an opportunity to seize his mother’s sexuality and his father’s role. Hamlet can justify obtaining the throne and Gertrude by claiming that he was avenging his father. Although Freud says that Claudius reigning in his father’s position paralyzes Hamlet, logically it seems that it should in fact launch Hamlet into action. The only thing blocking Hamlet’s road to the throne is public opinion. For Hamlet’s conviction to have any merit he needs indisputable proof that Claudius was guilty of the murder; otherwise acting out would be deem treacherous. Hamlet is not paralyzed by conflicting feelings towards Claudius, rather a lack of evidence to support his claims and allow him to appear not to be acting on Oedipal instincts.

In the play-within-a-play that Hamlet orchestrates to inspect Claudius’ potentially guilty reaction, he reenacts Claudius’ murder of Hamlet Sr. but for one crucial detail. In the play it is the nephew of the king that murders for the throne. This modification, whether subconscious or not, is a clear threat to Claudius, revealing Hamlet’s desire to achieve the kingdom and Gertrude’s hand. Freud claims that this play exemplifies Hamlet further delaying any action. Hamlet is stalling in Freud’s opinion because he is torn between fulfilling hi father’s role and condemning himself.

Hamlet’s orchestration of the play is most likely just as he claims, a search for evidence. Hamlet states, “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (Shakespeare 3.1. 584-585). Hamlet needs reassurance that Claudius is guilty, not just for himself, but to prove to the public he is not acting under an Oedipal scope rather a vengeful one. If the public knew that Claudius was the one who killed Hamlet Sr., Hamlet would be justified in dethroning Claudius. Unfortunately all Hamlet as is his word and the word of a ghost, not an entirely reliable source. This is why Hamlet seeks to publicly out Claudius by reenacting the murder on stage in front of him.

The next peculiar moment to examine comes when Hamlet stumbles upon an unsuspecting Claudius entranced in prayer. This seems to be the perfect opportunity to strike down Claudius and claim Gertrude his lover, but Hamlet does not do this. He claims that he avoids killing Claudius because he is praying because it would send him to heaven rather than hell: “am I then revenged, to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and season’d for passage? No!” (Shakespeare, 3.3. 84-87), thus rendering the plan futile. This moment though is not an ideal setting for Hamlet to murder Claudius for another reason. Hamlet requires public evidence to avoid the accusation of his repressed Oedipal tendencies, and such a conniving and deceitful murder would not translate to this necessity.

Freud discusses Claudius as a manifestation of Hamlet’s desires, but hamlet has another mirroring figure in the play. Laertes, like Hamlet, loses his father to a murderer. Laertes though, as far as we know, has no mother to direct his sexual frustration towards and whole-heartedly seeks revenge and nothing more. Freud would implement this idea towards his theory that because Laertes has no sexual frustration towards a mother figure combined with public support for his revenge, he is Hamlet without the complication, and can therefore immediately act.

Laertes may lack a mother and therefore that aspect of Hamlet’s confusion, but Laertes also lacks the powerful disdain from public opinion. Hamlet indisputably murdered Polonius, and therefore Laertes’ lust for revenge on Hamlet would be deemed acceptable in the public eye. Claudius reassures Laertes that the public is behind him, saying “And we shall jointly labor with your soul to give it due content” (Shakespeare 4.5. 208-209). Hamlet however has no reliable proof that Claudius is the murderer of his father, thus cannot justifiably seek revenge. The delay in action by Hamlet, as proven here, is not the result of complex emotional discourse towards Claudius, but a lack of proof to back his claims.

The play offers multiple scenarios that remain open to interpretation. Utilizing the Oedipus complex as an explanation for Hamlet’s confusion does not correlate with his inability to act. Freud is right to point out that Hamlet cannot be represented as a person unable to act, as we see he does on a few occasions. But Freud’s idea that it is the convoluted relationship with Claudius that stills Hamlet does not ring true. Hamlet does all he can to seek evidence for his fathers murder, but cannot seek revenge without acknowledging the backlash of doing so without proper evidence.


Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The interpretations of Dreams.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 913-923.

William, Shakespeare. Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. Print.