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  • Freud and Regicide
  • Elisabeth Roudinesco (bio)

Freud consecrated two books solely to the question of the murder of the father, Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism.1 In contrast, he never wrote the slightest work on Oedipus, even though Sophocles’ tragedy serves as the pivot of his doctrine, to such an extent that one could deduce from it that if he had remained reliant on a neurophysiological model, he would have never been able either to create a new discipline, or to update the great founding myths of human history. In other words, without the Freudian reinterpretation of the Greek myths, Oedipus would have remained a fictional character and not a universal model of psychic functioning.

Through Oedipus, Freud establishes a tragic vision of humanity. Guilty of two of the worst crimes—incest, which disturbs the genealogical order, and parricide, which introduces barbarism in the place of right—the Oedipus invented by Freud is thus determined by his destiny, that is to say, by his unconscious. He is crucible of the modern conscience. Assuming his guilt, he punishes himself and doesn’t project his fault onto some other. And yet, I repeat, there is no book on the character of Oedipus anywhere other than the famous letter to Wilhelm Fliess (of October 15, 1897) in which Freud states, “Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy” (Freud, 1985, p. 272).2

For Freud, the figure of Oedipus is constantly associated with that of Hamlet: on one side, the unconscious disguised as destiny, and on the other, the birth of a guilty subjectivity. In contrast to Oedipus, Hamlet doesn’t kill the father but finds himself constrained to be the instrument of the father’s vengeance. The only one who possesses a truth that no one else realizes—the assassination of his father by Claudius—is confronted [End Page 605] by ghosts, and he hesitates. Hamlet is the tragedy of a melancholic subject, haunted by his fantasies or his phantoms, while Oedipus is the tragedy of the logic of the unconscious.3 Shakespeare’s hero doesn’t succeed in accomplishing his act while Sophocles’ character goes logically to his destiny’s end. In other words, the guilty conscience is constantly mistaken while the unconscious never misses its goal. The destiny is always implacable: it kills definitely by imposing a history on the subject that determines the subject without its knowledge. Through unconscious obedience to the terrible fatum, Jocasta commits suicide, and Oedipus pokes out his eyes.

In contrast, Hamlet commits failed acts. He erroneously kills Polonius, Ophelia’s father, thinking that he is killing Claudius, who assassinated his father in order to marry his mother (Gertrude) and reign over the kingdom of Denmark. Afterwards, Laertes, the brother of Ophelia, returns to Denmark to avenge his father. Claudius then organizes a duel between Laertes and Hamlet, but the dice are loaded: the point of Laertes’ sword is poisoned. He thus kills Hamlet, who kills him, and then Hamlet turns his sword against Claudius. As for Gertrude, she accidentally poisons herself by drinking the contents of a cup destined for her son.

In the case of Hamlet, the murders are always accomplished on the stage, in either real or simulated combats. The theater of the crime is as a result a theater in the theater, a game in the game inside which the criminal fantasy joins the reality of the act to be accomplished. Thus is produced a permanent mixture between the dream of a killing and a murder, between murder and crime, between crime and assassination, and finally between murder and the failed act of murder. In order to avenge the assassin who is at once a parricide and a regicide, Hamlet must commit a tyrannicide (killing Claudius) and a parricide (killing his mother).

In 1927, Freud adds a third part to this affair of murder of the father: that of parricide drawn from a novel by Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.4 He is interested here in the driven nature (la nature pulsionnelle) of the desire to murder. According to him, each of the brothers is inhabited by the desire to really kill the father, but only one...


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