"Hamlet" and Narcissus: On the relevance of contemporary psychoanalytic theory to Shakespearean tragedy

John Joseph Russell, Fordham University


The classic psychoanalytic approach to Hamlet is based on Freud's concept of the Oedipus conflict. The Oedipal conflict as Freud conceived it, however, is in turn based on assumptions concerning psychosexual development that many analysts no longer endorse. Heinz Kohut, for example, argues that the narcissistic line of development is more fundamental than the sexual line of development. According to Kohut, the child is naturally impelled to progress from a state of primordial narcissism, in which it seeks to bring the responses of its world into total accord with its needs, to one of healthy narcissism, in which it tolerates and affirms the limits that reality imposes on its demands. But the child's move from primordial to healthy narcissism must be assisted by parents who validate the child's growing independence. Parents who refuse to relinquish their authority over the child's developing self maintain the child in a state of dependence and illusory gratification. The dynamics informing and shaping the world of Hamlet can best be understood within the framework supplied by contemporary psychoanalysis. Hamlet has accepted the task of revenge imposed on him by the father. Yet he cannot carry out that task: he identifies with the man who has destroyed the paternal author and reclaimed his right to the mother. But as murderously as Hamlet hates his father, he worships him, a figure into whose godlike power he has narcissistically assimilated his own identity. As the representative of the post-Oedipal ideal, Hamlet seeks revenge. Committed still, however, to the dream of the maternal paradise, he cannot take action against the man who has killed the father and won exclusive possession of the mother. Caught in the conflict of narcissistic agendas Hamlet delays, finding his resolution finally in suicide, itself, however, only another manifestation of the irreconcilable conflict in which he is trapped.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Psychology|Theater

Recommended Citation

Russell, John Joseph, ""Hamlet" and Narcissus: On the relevance of contemporary psychoanalytic theory to Shakespearean tragedy" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127045.