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Hamlet: Tragic Hero, Indecisive Villain

Let it be known that Hamlet spent every single act of Hamlet, give or take a few scenes, attempting to justify a reason to follow through with killing his uncle. He suffered through a brutal, miserable, and more-than-slightly ridiculous period of time where his indecision tirelessly tore him to emotional shreds. Throughout the play, Hamlet’s actions (and inaction) were dictated by intense opposing factors of the id, ego, and superego factors of the mental human psyche.

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Hamlet’s id reflected his burning desire for a sexual relationship with his mother, the ego was characterised by the grueling lengthy time period Hamlet spent trying to finalize his decision, and the superego was defined by a constant ongoing battle between the ghost of King Hamlet giving Hamlet directions on what to do and Hamlet’s own person conflicts with procuring the death of his Uncle Claudius.

Hamlet Feels Things

In Freudian psychology, the id is the impulsive part of human psyche that consists of all biological personality traits; also known as “it.” It can be referred to as “the pleasure principle,” the idea that every impulse should be satisfied immediately. It instinctively decides what a being truly wants and is strongest in a person when they are an infant, and seek attention at their every basic need. As it is not affected by reality or consequences, it must be greatly repressed to keep a being from making mistakes (McLeod). In context of Hamlet, Hamlet’s id is his unresolved, tauntingly conflicting feelings for his mother, Gertrude. This Oedipus Complex allows for the physical representations of Hamlet’s id, which thus intensifies his already burning desires for a sexual relationship with Gertrude as Hamlet has a palpable release for his urges (Chiu).

Her character causes further conflict as she seems to consciously provoke excessive anger and passion from Hamlet, most evidently as she so quickly angers Hamlet from her “incestuous deeds” in Act 3, Scene 4 (and because of this, shows how she herself is affected by the Oedipus Complex and retaliates the feelings that her son has for her). Gertrude is the focus of the anger and passions of not only Hamlet, but the two other main male characters in the play as well — Hamlet’s father and his brother, Claudius. Her strong physical and sexual appetites are brought to life in popular film representations of Hamlet, specifically Laurence Olivier’s version. In his portrayal of the closet scene, Hamlet furiously throws Gertrude on to her large, central canopied bed and continues of to verbally assault her while having her in an uncomfortably close embrace all the while.

G: Have you forgot me?
H: No, by the rood not so. You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and (would it were not so) you are my mother. G: Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.
H: Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the (inmost) part of you. (III. 4. 18-25)

Olivier’s film, as others similar to it, portray a deceitful woman that uses her sexuality to arouse strong responses and powerful reaction in men, as well as to obtain an advantage over them. This gives readers and audiences a clearer view of Gertrude’s character and allow a view of what affects Hamlet’s emotions. (Smith)

Claudius himself also physically represents Hamlet’s id. As Claudius is the man that so rapidly replaced King Hamlet, Hamlet is able to direct negative, murderous thoughts towards him without repression. Hamlet wants to and is even directed to take Claudius’ life, and Hamlet’s grief over his father pushes him to do so. (Tuohy)

Hamlet is Conflicted, As Always

The ego is the sector of the human psyche that develops to mediate conflict between the unrealistic id and conflicting superego. In contrast to the how the id works through impulse and desire, the ego operates by the “reality principle,” finding ways to realistically attain the wishes of the id. This, however, often leads to delayed satisfaction. “The id is the horse and the ego is the rider,” compared Freud in one of his researches. The submissive ego is often dominated by the controlling id, constantly attempting to meet the needs of the id while taking reality into account. (McLeod)

The ego in Hamlet is simply his indecision and the immense amount of time it takes him to make his decision. Hamlet frequently plays a mental mind game with himself, trying to justify finally killing his uncle but always finding a reason to put it off. Hamlet’s task is only to kill Claudius, but that also means killing the man who is living the life he wants, the man who embodies his childhood fantasies. The loathing that should drive him to kill is replaced by self-reproaches that remind him that he himself is no better than the sinner whom he is to punish. (Schaeffer)

One other factor that kept Hamlet from acting was that if he did kill Claudius, he would then be king, and he did not take interest in that position. “O God. I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infantile space, were it not I have bad dreams” (II. ii. 248-250). If he were king, Hamlet would gladly ignore his public office. He wouldn’t be able to, though, because his conscious would bother him and force him to take care of his responsibilities. (Walsh) Hamlet’s internal battle with himself is probably the most dominant representation of ego in the play. He is torn with emotions: pity and outrage for his father, shame and scorn for his mother, and guilt over his reluctance to follow through with his orders, his responsibility than he inwardly repudiates. (Walsh)

Hamlet Has Morals, Who Knew?

The superego part of the human psyche incorporates the values and morals learned from an early age. The main function of the superego is to control the id’s impulses, especially those that society looks down upon such as sex and aggression. It also has the power to persuade the ego towards moral solutions instead of just realistic ones. The superego is the most complex sect of the psyche as it is made up of two parts: the conscious and the ideal self. The conscious is responsible for the emotions felt after a decision is made, which is guilt more often than anything else. The ideal self is an imaginary, made up picture of how a person ought to be. It represents career goals, how one ought to acts towards others, and how to become a functioning human being in society. These two parts combine to form the superego and to aid in the attempts of hindering the id. (McLeod)

In context of Hamlet, there are multiple conflicting superegos that hinder Hamlet in his decision to kill Claudius. The ghost of King Hamlet is the primary superego in favor of killing Claudius. “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / against thy mother ought. Leave her to heaven. / And to those thoughts that in her bosom lodge / to pick and sting her.” (I. v. 85-88) Hamlet is extremely conflicted, because his father’s ghost found him, and specifically ordered Hamlet to avenge his death.

This unwelcome paternal superego exacts the killing of Claudius even as it forbids Hamlet to kill himself. In his request, King Hamlet reveals that because Gertrude fell so quickly to Claudius, the King feels emasculated. King Hamlet engenders sexual confusion in Hamlet as he asks him to identify with his feminized self. Claudius killed King Hamlet, and thus King Hamlet “is in the feminine position of being penetrated by the man who has already penetrated his wife,” according to Stone. The King impedes the son’s mind by saying that Claudius “won by lustful sin, the heart of my most seeming virtuous queen.” (I. v. 53)

By highlighting Gertrude’s fickleness and shallowness in this quote, the ghost characterizes her as a damsel that Hamlet needs to save. Hamlet feels as if he’s morally obligated to complete the task for his father, and to “save” his mother from such a monster, and these intense feelings supplement as a secondary superego in favor of killing Claudius. There were many other minor superego factors opposed to killing Claudius, however. Some were simple, such as the law, religion, and Hamlet’s own morals.

The law simply forbid murder, especially in Hamlet’s case as he was the Prince of Denmark and having the prince kill the king would be an abomination. Hamlet’s religion held him back from his task because Hamlet was taught that killing was a sin, therefore it should not be committed and vengeance should be left to God and God alone. Hamlet’s own morals also stood in his way, as he had firm beliefs that killing was wrong. (Stone)

Claudius himself, though he is a facet of Hamlet’s id, is also a representation of Hamlet’s superego. Hamlet’s loyalty to his father breaks down into subconcious identification with the brother who murdered him; and is “the brother” now possess exactly what Hamlet desires: Gertrude. Because of this, Hamlet is engrossed in a subconscious rivalry with Claudius, as he constantly battles him for Gertrude’s attentions. (Walsh)

In the End

Ultimately, Hamlet’s refusal to make a decision became his decision. “My fate cries out!” (I. iv. 58) He is in turmoil for so long, he becomes mad with despair. His despondency seems more focused on his mother’s remarriage than it does on his father’s death, even after the revelation of his uncle’s crime. There were countless opportunities to kill Claudius, but Hamlet always found excuses to avoid it. The real reason why Hamlet never killed Claudius: killing Claudius would mean that Hamlet would also be killing a small part of himself; the part that loved Gertrude..

Things soon change, however. After Gertrude dies in the final scene, Hamlet no longer has a need to repress his sexual desires. His strength returns, and thus he is finally able to kill Claudius. After Claudius’ death, Hamlet no longer struggles, and can therefore finally rest (die peacefully). (Tuohy)

The factors that arise from Hamlet’s inability to make the decision to kill Claudius or not arise from his id, ego, and superego. The id being his desire for an Oedipal relationship with his mother, the ego being the time it took to follow through with a decision, and the superego being many factors, dominantly the ghost of King Hamlet. The id was a stronger force than the the super ego, which was the reason behind all of Hamlet’s emotional outbursts. Hamlet was only able to find inner peace and kill Claudius after Gertrude died, which takes the possibility of his desires away. After he had completed his mission and he did not have to live for Gertrude anymore, he could finally die in peace.