A Response to Ernest Jones’ ‘A Psycho-analytic Study of Hamlet’

My thoughts about his beliefs on the connection between Queen Gertrude and Prince Hamlet.

(link to his essay: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5441df7ee4b02f59465d2869/t/56006c66e4b0c5c38c97d6bd/1442868326835/A+Psycho-Analytic+Study+of+Hamlet.pdf)

Ernest Jones’ argument for Hamlet is incredibly interesting and fascinating to read. The relationship between Queen Gertrude and Prince Hamlet is a peculiar one that people have spent centuries trying to better understand. Jones makes some valid and powerful arguments as to his belief that Hamlet has an Oedipus Complex towards his own mother, further leading his readers to begin to question even more the true nature of this mother and son relationship. Hamlet truly does focus on his mother and her relationship with Claudius more than the relationship and betrayal that Claudius had with his brother, King Hamlet. Yet, while Jones’ argument is compelling and fascinating, there is one scene that seems to negate everything that he is saying: the scene of Gertrude’s death.

In the final scene of the play itself, Laertes and Hamlet are dueling one another and, in a quest to cheer Hamlet on towards victory, Gertrude drinks from the cup that is meant to be his and thereby poisons herself. Soon after, she collapses and calls out that she has been poisoned before dying. Hamlet has four lines directed towards Gertrude in this scene, “How does the Queen?” (Act 5, Scene 2, line 282) after she collapses, “O villainy! Ho, let the door be locked! Treachery! Seek it out!” (lines 286-287) after she dies, “Here, thou incestuous, damed Dane…Follow my mother” (lines 299 and 301) which he says as he forces Claudius to drink the poison as well, and when he says, “Wretched Queen, adieu” (line 307) when his goal is finished. While all of Jones’ arguments hold weight, the fact that these lines of Hamlet towards his own mother’s welfare- who Jones’ claim he lusts after – are said with such clear disdain for her it seems to strike through Jones’ very ideas. 

His own mother has been killed right before him and instead of grieving over her as most children would, he seems to ignore the event. Instead, he goes about his final plans now that Claudius and Laertes’ plans have been revealed and that Hamlet is about to die himself. Quite a shocking reaction considering this entire play has been centered around Hamlet’s deep grief over the death of his father, the King, to the point that others worried about his mental welfare and his prolonged grieving period. Now, one could possibly argue with the first three lines quote’s that Hamlet is furious and dismayed at his own mother’s death, enough to kill the man that caused it to happen through the use of the very poison that killed her. But, the fact that his dead mother is lying on the ground and is gone, and yet the first words he truly directs at her is him calling her ‘wretched’ and saying goodbye to her- this immediately calls into question any love or care he could have felt for her. 

Yes, one could say in defense of Jones that this action and blasé nature towards his own mother could be due to his own disgust at his sexual feelings for her, but honestly the other idea seems more compelling as the hate seems more directed towards her in this line than towards himself and his own feelings and actions. He points the blame and sin towards her, not himself as Oedipus did in his own situation(his mother being unknowingly guilty of the crime). Even more, Ernest Jones is writing this essay in 1922 when the field of Psycho-analytics has been well mapped. But, in Shakespeare’s time, such ideas and understandings didn’t really exist yet- it feels more like Jones is taking a modern idea and superimposing it on past literature than anything true or present in the story.

From there, he is creating a claim for him to argue- which, in the end, feels like a backwards and incorrect way to confidently argue a point with any true power and control. So while Jones’ ideas are interesting, in the end they deal too much in suppositions and modern ideas to truly have any weight to them. While a reader does have the right to ponder and create their own ideas and beliefs of the stories they read, their comes a point when they are making mountains out of molehills or taking the story down a direction that the author never intended.

I mean, when Shakespeare wrote this play, it was only a few decades after Henry VIII had testified to the Catholic Church that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be broken due to the fact that she had been previously married to his older brother Arthur and that they had consummated their marriage- which would’ve then made his marriage to Catherine of Aragon against the law. This means that there was precedence for Shakespeare to use such ideas(and it wouldn’t have reflected badly on Queen Elizabeth as she was born from Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, and not Catherine of Aragon, his first wife) to catch the audience’s attention. But for him to then even think to allude to an amorous connection between Prince Hamlet and Queen Gertrude- I think that would have been blasphemous for the audience of that day and unthinkable for Shakespeare to even want to mention as such things were a huge no.

There was a resurgence of classic Greek and Roman stories being passed around in this time period, making Jones’ mention of Oedipus logical, but I don’t think the playwright William Shakespeare who was so loved by the Queen would have taken the risk to make that connection, especially since it would create an even more scandalous view of a royal family then his play already used. It already has Fratricide(killing of one’s brother), Regicide(killing of a king), accidental Uxoricide(killing your wife), and Parricide(killing a close relative)- one successful and the other attempted. To then add in incest between a mother and son? Too much scandal and horror in the end really. Honestly, there are already so many deep and interesting plot points and topics clearly seen within Hamlet that one really does not need to start wondering down obscure paths based on new, popular, and controversial ideas like Sigmund Freud’s topic of the Oedipus complex.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William; edited by Robert S. Miola, “Hamlet”, Second Norton Critical Edition, WW Norton & Company Inc: New York, 2019, p. 264-270.