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American Imago 58.3 (2001) 707-722

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Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors:
An Essay at Interpretation

Bennett Simon

In the 400 years of Hamlet interpretation, psychoanalysis is a relative newcomer, only a century or so old. During that century, there have been notable shifts in the mode of interpreting the play, both in the critical world at large and in the narrower psychoanalytic world. In part, changes in the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play have had to do with shifts in dominant psychoanalytic paradigms--a process even more striking in the history of interpretation of Oedipus Rex than of Hamlet. 1 In part, however, changes in the dominant mode of literary critical interpretations of the play have set the stage, as it were, for new psychoanalytic approaches. 2

I would like, in this essay, to review several broad trends in the history of interpretation of the play and to locate within those trends some dominant themes in psychoanalytic interpretation. In that context, I then want to offer my own late-twentieth-century psychoanalytic interpretation--both of Hamlet and Hamlet--based on trauma theory.

My fundamental thesis is that psychoanalytic interpretations, particularly those of individual characters in the play, rely on a long-standing "medical model." This is most prominent in regard to the question of Hamlet's insanity--whether it is real, feigned, or both. The medical model goes back at least to 1778, according to the New Variorum edition, when a certain Dr. Akenside is said to have been the first physician "to assert that Hamlet's insanity is real" (Furness 1877, 195). 3 Much energy has gone into diagnosing the precise nature of Hamlet's melancholy and Ophelia's madness. Like King Lear and Lady Macbeth, both characters gradually became exemplars of derangement for clinical medicine to the point where a nineteenth-century asylum doctor could write that he had admitted "many Ophelias" to his ward (Showalter 1985, 86). [End Page 707]

Apart from illustrating the crossover between the medical and literary (or theatrical) realms, this kind of diagnostic effort is important for my purpose because it tends to locate the problem within the individual. Hamlet, in other words, is thought to be a certain way because that is the way melancholics are. This kind of medical diagnosing shortcircuits literary and social questions, such as how much Hamlet is affected by the external rottenness in Denmark and how much is due to his innate disposition. I suggest that even psychoanalytic interpretations, which in principle can address the interplay between individual temperament and social circumstances, have a propensity for fixing, even freezing, the character into a mold. The moral onus is, as it were, placed on the individual character, and not on the world of other actors and agents who surround him or her. Hamlet's alleged Oedipus complex is thus sufficient to explain Hamlet's problem. But the risk of this approach is registered both in the play itself when Hamlet attacks Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern for seeking to "pluck out the heart of my mystery" (3.2.355) 4 and by critics such as Bertrand Russell (1954), who described Hamlet's nightmare as that of being psychoanalyzed. When I come to offer my own formulation about the play and its eponymous hero, I shall propose a theory that is at the crossroads of clinical diagnosis and psychodynamic analysis, while trying to assess the risks and benefits of this approach.

The ensuing highlighting of trends in literary and theatrical analysis of the play is extensively indebted to Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare (1991). I should preface my remarks by making the obvious disclaimer that they are not intended to be a definitive review. What is more, nothing dies in Hamlet criticism; the same insights found in older paradigms recur under a different guise in the newer paradigms that have apparently superseded them.

During the Restoration and through the mid-eighteenth century, Hamlet was generally interpreted as an unambivalent hero who simply needed to ascertain the facts and decide the best time and place of getting revenge. In Taylor's view...


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