After tainting Oedipus, Sigmund Freud goes even further in his defaming of virtuous characters in literature, dragging the noble Hamlet through the same ignoble mire of his smutty, sex-obsessed imagination…
The ignorant pronounce it Frood,
to cavil or applaud.
The well-informed pronounce it Froyd,
But I pronounce it Fraud. —G.K. Chesterton (“On Professor Freud”)
Poor old Oedipus. Not only was he the victim of circumstances beyond his ken and control, he has been tainted in our own deplorable epoch by having a Freudian “complex” named after him. For those blessed enough to be ignorant of the notion of the Oedipus Complex, as was everyone prior to Sigmund Fraud’s “discovery” of it at the end of the nineteenth century, it is a child’s unconscious and neurotic sexual desire for its opposite-sex parent, usually a boy’s sexual desire for his mother. The irony is that Oedipus cannot possibly have suffered from the “complex” that Freud unjustly pins on him. As a boy, he didn’t even know his own mother, and therefore could not possibly have had sexual designs upon her, unconsciously or otherwise. As an adult, he falls in love and marries a woman, blissfully ignorant of the fact that she is his biological mother. When he discovers the awful truth, he blinds himself in an apoplectic fit of penitential rage and self-loathing. All of this is told by Sophocles in his play, Oedipus Rex, and, as Sophocles shows us in the play’s sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, the experience of being the victim of circumstances of which he was entirely ignorant and therefore entirely innocent leads to a growth in wisdom, fortified by the knowledge that, like Shakespeare’s Lear, he has been more sinned against than sinning. Ultimately, his attainment of the wisdom that comes from the acceptance of suffering leads to his being taken up into heaven by the gods.
Sophocles’ noble paganism, which prefigures the redemptive suffering at the heart of Christianity, is sullied and soiled by the smutty imagination of the sex-obsessed Freud, who has made of Oedipus a byword for a perversion of which the tragic hero was clearly not guilty. This would have been bad enough; yet Freud goes even further in his defaming of virtuous characters in literature, dragging the noble Hamlet through the same ignoble mire through which he had dragged the hapless Oedipus. In his morally iconoclastic book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud claimed that the play Hamlet “has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex“: “In [Oedipus Rex] the child’s wishful fantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and—just as in the case of a neurosis—we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.” Anyone who knows either play should be astonished at Freud’s woeful misreading of each of these thoroughly moral texts, the one prefiguring Christian morality and the other clearly manifesting it. And yet the blind Oedipus, like the blind Tiresias before him, and the blind Gloucester after him, see more than Freud and those willfully self-blinded souls who follow in Freud’s eros-blinded and venereal footsteps. “I stumbled when I saw,” says Gloucester in King Lear, his words serving as a warning to those who refuse to see the light of day because they prefer the darkness of the night. Such is the case with the way that Hamlet is so often produced in our darkened days, or darkened daze. Take, for instance, the way that Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh follow Freud’s lead in their respective portrayals of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, preferring to indulge the sordidness of the Freudian fantasy rather than the solidness of the Christian philosophy that enlightens Hamlet’s reason.
Hamlet, like Oedipus, is not a static character throughout the unfolding of the play. He begins in a state of near-suicidal melancholy, having experienced, like Oedipus, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” until, after much passionate circumspection, he arrives at the settled serenity and sagacious resignation of the final act. He is on a journey, a pilgrim en route from a close encounter with hell, via purgatory, to a glimpse of the heaven that beckons offstage. In the midst of this journey, we should not expect our hero to behave impeccably, without a blemish on his character. He is, as he says of himself, “very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.” He is a miserable sinner, though more sinned against than sinning, who finds himself “crawling between earth and heaven.” He is, in fact, very much like the rest of us, except perhaps that he has more reason than most of us for being angry with the situation in which he finds himself. The key point, however, is that even at his most earthy he never loses sight of heaven. He knows right from wrong, and virtue from vice, and tries to do what a good and virtuous man is called to do. He doesn’t always succeed, occasionally allowing imprudent passion to overpower his usual prudent circumspection. Such moments are, however, the exception and emphatically not the rule.
Hamlet knows that unbridled passion is wrong, whether it be in the service of lust, as in the case of the “incestuous” relationship between his mother and King Claudius, or whether in the service of hatred, as in the case of his anger towards his usurping and adulterous uncle. This is made abundantly plain in his complaint to his mother that “reason panders will,” i.e. that reason panders our desires instead of our desires being governed by reason. If our desires are governed by reason, we are subjecting the subjective to the objective, and, in so doing, we ensure that that which seems to be is mastered by that which is. If, on the other hand, “reason panders will” we are subjecting the objective to the subjective, and, in so doing, that which is is sacrificed to that which seems to be. Put plainly, there is a natural moral law, not invented by man, which transcends and trumps our desires. Something is right or wrong, whether we like it or not. We can be fooled by our desires into believing that what we want is good for us, whereas in fact, it is harmful. It seems to be good but it is in fact harmful. The whole of Hamlet turns on this inescapable distinction between reason and will, between that which is and that which seems to be, and the test of success is the extent to which the protagonists conform their will to reason. This is Hamlet’s struggle throughout the play and we see at the end that he succeeds.
It is intriguing that Hamlet makes this distinction between reason and will, with all that it implies, during his impassioned meeting with his mother, and even more so in the context of the reappearance of the Ghost. Why is it that Hamlet can see the Ghost but his mother cannot? It is not because the Ghost is only a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, as his mother believes, because we know that Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus have also seen it. Is it because Hamlet’s mother is blind to the spiritual truth that the Ghost represents? Has her disordered will usurped her reason to the extent that she no longer perceives the spiritual basis of reality? In losing her reason has she lost her faith? Is she unable to see either the truth or the necessity of repentance because her disordered will has made her blind? There are, after all, and as we have seen already, none so blind as those who will not see. Her response is to believe that the Ghost does not exist, even though we know that independent witnesses testify to its objective existence, and, furthermore, she believes that the one who sees it is mad. “Alas, he’s mad,” she exclaims when Hamlet sees the arrival of the Ghost (3.4.106). Hamlet’s response to her blindness and misperception is unequivocal:
It is not madness
That I have uttered …
Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
… Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come,
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue.
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
The conclusion that must be drawn from this exchange between mother and son is apparent enough. Hamlet is begging her to repent of her sins of lust and adultery, which is the overarching and recurring theme of this entire scene. There is no sign in the least of his having any sexual feelings towards his mother; it is her feelings towards the murderer she has married which is his only concern. It beggars belief that anyone could believe Freud’s nonsense, and frankly astonishing that those who should know better, such as Gibson and Branagh, should have done so. As for the final word on such nonsense, let’s return to Hamlet himself. In the “fatness” and grossness of these “pursy times,” it is virtue itself which has become the unforgivable sin. “Forgive me this my virtue,” Hamlet asks of his vicious mother, adding with bitter irony that “virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.” In such crazy times, it is safer to follow noble pagans, such as Sophocles, or noble Christians, such as Shakespeare, than it is to follow those who fantasize with Freud about figments of the pornographic imagination.
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