The play Hamlet, written by William Shakesphere, is set in the late middle ages in Denmark and is a tragedy in which the main character, Prince Hamlet, seeks revenge against his uncle, Claudius. It is said that Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, in order to seize the throne and marry Hamlet’s mother, Gurtrude. In the play Hamlet is romantically involved with Ophila, the daughter of Polonius. Polonius is the chief counsellor of the king and alongside Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, believes that Hamlet’s intentions with Ophelia are deceiving and views her as a sexual object rather than a love-worthy companion. Since Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and has been well known for centuries, critics have observed the play through many different perspectives, each offering a new approach to analyzing the complex play along with its characters. While analyzing the play through the psychological Freudian perspective, it becomes clear how Hamlet and Ophelia are influenced by their id and superego. In the play, their inability to successfully balance their id and superego results in them unable to effectively control their desires and eventually causes them to end in a state of melancholia.
A major topic that arises from the Freudian perspective in Hamlet would be the Oedipus Complex, when a boy develops unconscious feelings of sexual desire towards his own mother (McLeod 3). Hamlet’s Oedipal feelings are just one of the few components to his id. A person’s id is their “unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs, and desires” (Freud 1). Hamlet feels irate since Claudius not only murdered his father, but is taking his mother away from him, eventually fueling the anger he has towards Gertrude throughout the play. Hamlet is disgusted with the idea of Claudius and Gertrude being in a relationship and develops an obsessive jealousy toward Claudius. In Act III Scene 4, Gertrude decides to confront Hamlet about his actions after killing Polonius. Throughout their conversation, Hamlet would change the topic and constantly turn the blame onto his mother. He brought up the idea of his mother having sexual relationships with someone who was not his father and that his mother was sinner for being with Claudius. His jealousy towards Claudius being in a relationship with his mother comes from his unconscious desires towards his mother. Hamlet is hesitant to kill Claudius because of how he feels about his mother and is only able to kill Claudius when his mother dies. Once Hamlet wounds Claudius he tells him, “Here, thou incestuous, damned Dane, Drink this potion! Is here? Follow my mother!” (Shakespeare 5.2.307-309). Raged with anger since he lost the only person whom he consciously and unconsciously loves and cherishes, he forced Claudius to drink the poison to make sure he follows Gertrude to the afterlife. Overall, Hamlet’s powerful id becomes apparent throughout the play with Hamlet’s obsession towards his mother’s love life and his hatred towards Claudius, due to him suffering from the Oedipus Complex.
Just like Hamlet, Ophelia’s id also becomes apparent early in the play. Ophelia desires Hamlet’s love and throughout the play constantly seeks an unrealistic expectation of love from Hamlet. However, it is obvious in the play that Hamlet is not meeting up to these expectations. In Act III Scene 1 it can be further assumed that Hamlet does not love Ophelia and thinks of her as a whore; Hamlet says to Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery!” (Shakespeare 3.1.141-142). Hamlet believes that Ophelia will become “a breeder of sinners” (Shakespeare 3.1.118) and will ruin the life of whoever she marries. In a person’s life, “the id acts as the driving force of personality” (Cherry 5); Ophelia’s desire to be loved and appreciated by Hamlet is what drives her to believe the best of Hamlet’s intentions, regarding what her brother and father say. In Act I Scene 3, both Ophelia’s father and brother try to convince her that Hamlet is a bad person and that he has “improper intent”. However, Ophelia in response dismisses their ideas and beliefs about Hamlet and instead chooses to focus on other good qualities about him. Ophelia is convinced of his good intentions and tries to convince her father. In the play, Ophelia’s id is her urge to be loved by Hamlet in the way she loves him.
In contrast to a person’s id, people also have their superego. According to Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality, superego is a “component of personality composed of the internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and society” (Freud 2). A person’s superego refers to their morals and values obtained by their parents, as well as the principles they obtain from society to justify what is right versus what is wrong. In the play Hamlet’s superego is his father, who appears in the play as a ghost. In Act III Scene 4 when Hamlet is having a conversation with his mother, leading him to talk about her sexual actions, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in the room. In this scene Hamlet’s id is extremely strong and the ghost appears as his superego in hopes to stop his urges. The ghost responds to Hamlet by saying “Do not forget! The visitation. Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (Shakespeare 3.4. 185-187). At this moment, Hamlets superego is able to overpower his id and he is able to continue with his mission of avenging his father’s death. Superego makes up the morals that guide a person through their life. The ghost encourages Hamlet to ignore the selfish feelings he has for his mother since it goes against traditional family beliefs and distracts him from exacting revenge on the person who killed his father. However, although the ghost encourages Hamlet to kill Claudius, Hamlet makes multiple attempts with no success. This is because his superego is weak and has little control over his actions. “The weaker [the superego], the less we will engage reality and the more we will flee to superstition, wishing rather than acting… and an egocentric viewpoint” (Mitchell 23). Since his superego, the ghost of his father, is minimally present throughout the play, Hamlet is unable to kill Claudius when it’s the want of his superego and is only able to kill him when it becomes the focus of his id after his mother dies.
In contrast to Hamlet, Ophelia’s superego overpowers her id. Ophelia is portrayed as a weak character who struggles with the ability to think for herself. Towards the beginning of the play, Ophelia says to her father, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (Shakespeare 1.3.164-165). This shows that Ophelia’s character struggles with having a sense of personal identity and part of her identity comes from her father. Early in the play, Polonius and Laertes constantly try to sway Ophelia from loving Hamlet. They believe that Hamlet has selfish intentions with Ophelia, and that he is unworthy to give Ophelia the love she expects from him. In play Laertes says to Ophelia, “And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch. The virtue of his will; but you must fear, His greatness weighed, his will is not his own” (Shakespeare 1.3.143-151). In this line, Laertes tries to help Ophelia understand that Hamlet is a man who is selfish and untrusted by many people. He is trying to convince Ophelia that he is not worthy of Hamlet’s love and that it will only bring sadness and disappointment. Although a person’s superego plays a crucial part in shaping who they are, if a person places too much dependence on their superego it can lead to them being unstable and can even cause moral anxiety (Hasib 12). Polonius and Laetres act as Ophelia’s moral compass. However, Ophelia tends to rely heavily on them to guide her through what is right and what is wrong, leading to her superego overpowering her id.
Having too much superego or too much id can cause a person to become morose. In an article published on Simply Psychology, the author explores different psychological theories for depression and melancholia, one of them being that “[they] are simply due to an excessively severe superego or id” (McLeod 8). According to the Dictionary, Melancholia can be categorized as a “deep sadness or gloom and a mental condition marked by persistent depression” (Dictionary). Throughout the play, Hamlet’s struggle with depression becomes a focus point and his inability to balance his superego and id leads to him becoming his own enemy. Hamlet’s id eventually becomes stronger than his superego and leads him to act irrationally based on his id. “If the id gets too strong, impulses and self gratification take over a person’s life” (Central 3). For most of the play, Hamlet becomes compulsive towards his mother’s romantic relationship with Claudius, eventually taking over his life and becoming obsessive. This allows him to be controlled by whatever crosses through his mind without giving it further thought or consideration, which in turn leads to self destructive thoughts and actions that stem the root of his depression. When his mother marries Claudius he feels as if his unconcious, selfish desires, were being challenged and allowed himself to be consumed by negative thoughts and emotions. This caused him to act selfishly instead of abiding to his superego and in turn makes him depressed and feeling lost in the world. In the play Hamlet says, “that the Everlasting had not fixed. His canon gainst self-slaughter” (Shakespeare 1.2.131-132). Hamlet is so depressed that he contemplates suicide; however, won’t go through with it because it’s considered a sin. According to Psychology Today, one of the main reasons for people to feel suicidal would be because of their “ inability to see solutions to problems or to cope with challenging life circumstances” (Psychology Today 1). Hamlet is unable to balance his id and superego and eventually his id overpowers his superego and he allows himself to be controlled by unconscious wants. This makes it difficult for Hamlet to cope with his emotions and eventually leads him to a state of melancholia.
Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia’s melancholia develops later in the play. Once Ophelia’s father died and her brother leaves, her superego vanishes. Polonius and Laertes were Ophelia’s superego, encouraging her to act in her own best interest and eventually being her moral compass to what is right and what is wrong. The superego mainly controls a person’s id and when the superego is no longer present, it will be hard to control the id. When her father dies, Ophelia loses a major part of herself, in the sense that she could not think for herself and was dependent on her father to guide her actions. Ophelia’s “identity disappears along with the disappearance of male dominance… as a result of her madness, she is unable to recognize herself as an independent person without these dominant male figures” (Wilber 5). Ophelia’s madness and depression, in the end, leads her to commit suicide by drowning in a river since she had nothing to live for without her father, who bestowed her sense of identity upon her. However, Ophelia’s superego is not the only thing that drove her to a state of melancholia. Ophelia also had to watch the man she loves, Hamlet, start to go “insane” and kill her father without feeling much guilt. After this event, Ophelia further understands that Hamlet does not truly love her, destroying not only her superego, but also her id. A person’s id acts in accordance with their pleasure principle and “ If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension” (Cherry 7). Ophelia’s desire to be loved by Hamlet does not get fulfilled which also causes her to become depressed. Overall, Ophelia’s id and superego contradicted each other and when she lost her superego, she realized that her id was not fulfilled which caused her to become mentally unstable, later resulting in a state of melancholia.
Although William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, can be criticized through many different lenses, the psychological Freudian perspective allows critics to take a deeper and more complex view on the character’s unconscious motives and desires, such as their id and superego. While analyzing the play through this perspective, one can see the impact of a person’s id and superego and how Hamlet and Ophelia’s inability to effectively maintain a balance between them leads the characters to end in a state of depression and melancholia.