Tragicomedy 'Hamlet' and the Oedipus Complex: Critical Essay

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Shakespeare's tragicomedy 'Hamlet' is notable for only two female characters, both of whom are closely related to Hamlet as the protagonist: Gertrude, Hamlet's mother and matriarch of the play, and Ophelia, Hamlet's younger love. In this essay, the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude will be explored in relation to the Freudian Oedipus complex.

Hamlet’s toxic relationship with his mother can be viewed as being Freudian, specifically in relation to the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex is a stage that Freud determines as taking place during infancy and surrounds the maternal bond between mother and child, linked closely to the child’s ‘libido’ – not for sex but for pleasure and nourishment, such as being placed on the mother’s breast to feed. During this time, there is an intense bond between the mother and the child, where the father is seen as a rival for the mother’s affection and is shunned. This complex has been misconstrued to relate to sexual or incestuous endeavors – even relating to Hamlet with the suggestion that Hamlet wants to have a sexual relationship with his mother. While this reading of 'Hamlet' is not necessarily ‘wrong’ on the face of it, there are multiple other readings of 'Hamlet' and its relationship to the Oedipus complex that holds stronger merit.

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For instance, the multiple times throughout the play where Hamlet’s dislike for his mother and her sexual behavior is made explicit can be read as jealousy; Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius has disrupted the maternal bond between her and Hamlet, and so Hamlet wants to ‘claim’ Gertrude from Claudius once more. However, Hamlet is not propelled forward by jealousy in his desire to claim Gertrude as his own again. Rather, he is attempting to re-establish the Oedipus complex – to allow Gertrude to bring him pleasure and rebuild their broken bond.

The actions of Gertrude and Claudius marrying have disturbed Hamlet’s anti-carnivalesque desire for structure and order. In terms of ‘carnival’, we look toward Bahktin and his view of the Renaissance as a “unique epoch, where folk culture and high culture converge” and of “the transgression of boundaries and of norms” (Lachmann et al., 1988; p.116). With this definition, carnivalesque theory emerges in the opening of 'Hamlet', wherein readers are placed in a celebration commending Gertrude and Claudius’ marriage, juxtaposed to Hamlet, mourning his deceased father, wearing funeral attire. In Gertrude and Claudius’ marrying, the aforementioned ‘boundaries and norms’ are blurred. Hamlet feels people should be mourning, but Claudius has usurped his father’s boundaries and allowed for a celebration. This is what regresses Hamlet to the stage of infancy wherein the Oedipus complex is most pertinent; he needs to resolve the blurred boundaries before he is able to overcome the Oedipal complex, and this results in his puerile hatred of the female figure.

It should be noted, however, that this reading of 'Hamlet' and the Oedipus complex can be flipped on its head entirely. The order that comes from the deceased Old Hamlet at the beginning of the play works hand in hand with Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius to help set the play in motion – Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father. An alternate viewpoint, then, is that Hamlet is not experiencing the Oedipal complex but rather anger at the fact that Gertrude’s promiscuity and marriage to Claudius have broken the link between Hamlet and his father entirely. His attempts to murder Claudius while shunning his mother act as an attempt to re-establish not a maternal bond but some form of paternal bond despite it being unattainable.

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Tragicomedy ‘Hamlet’ and the Oedipus Complex: Critical Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/tragicomedy-hamlet-and-the-oedipus-complex-critical-essay/
“Tragicomedy ‘Hamlet’ and the Oedipus Complex: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 15 Nov. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/tragicomedy-hamlet-and-the-oedipus-complex-critical-essay/
Tragicomedy ‘Hamlet’ and the Oedipus Complex: Critical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/tragicomedy-hamlet-and-the-oedipus-complex-critical-essay/> [Accessed 15 Apr. 2024].
Tragicomedy ‘Hamlet’ and the Oedipus Complex: Critical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/tragicomedy-hamlet-and-the-oedipus-complex-critical-essay/
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