Various works of literature contain characters who embody the elements of the classic Oedipus Complex, that of a son with an undue and unhealthy attachment to his mother. D.H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, along with other early modernist works, shows how a son’s bond to his mother can lead to that character’s major downfall. Even earlier than works of the late 19th Century does the Oedipus Complex appear, in this case, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark shows the beginning of an Oedipal Complex, with Hamlet’s jealousy of his uncle Claudius for marrying his mother Gertrude and the rage that Hamlet’s emulation causes.
The story behind the Oedipus Complex derives from Sophocles story of Oedipus Rex, King of Thebes. Oedipus, crazed by his love for his mother and envy of his father, plots to kill his father and marry his mother. He succeeds in the murder of his father and marriage to his mother, and later his mother bears children to Oedipus, making a full incestuous cycle. Oedipus’ act on envy and rage leads to the character’s downfall, where his mother commits suicide and Oedipus himself gouges out his own eyes and suffers banishment from his country. The Oedipal Complex involves the indecorous and harmful attachment of a son to his mother, which ultimately leads to the son becoming morbidly suppressed and suffering mental impotence.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet evolves around the title character, Hamlet, and his obsession with correcting a wrong against his father, committed by his father’s brother Claudius. After the King’s death, Claudius marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and takes the throne. Enraged, Hamlet seeks vengeance for his father, whose spirit appears before Hamlet to speak of the unrest he (the King) endures. His depression, caused by the marriage, first shows in his soliloquy after the departure of the others when the whole ‘family’; gathers for the first time. ‘O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!’; begins the explanation that Hamlet despair is great enough to lead to suicide, however, canon law and religious injunction kept him from ‘self-slaughter,’; as suicide is the manifestation of pride, thus an ultimate sin (1.2.129-32). Hamlet divulges into the reasoning behind his depression, that his sadness occurs from his mother marrying at ‘O most wicked speed: to post/With such dexterity to incestious sheets’; (1.2.156-7). He furthers his reasoning behind the marriage causing the depression, claiming that the union can do no good ‘But break his heart’; (1.2.159).
Hamlet’s explains his rage in the first act of the play, but it is not until scene 4 of the third act that we see the full view of his Oedipus Complex. Here, Gertrude is joined by Hamlet in a bedroom moments after Polonius, the Queen’s counselor, advises her to warn Hamlet that ‘his pranks have been too broad to bear with’; (3.4.2). Hamlet, upon killing Polonius, compares his ‘bloody’; act to that of ‘killing a king, and marrying with his brother,’; blatantly expressing his mortification and disapproval with Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius(3.4.29). He then begins to berate his mother, but with many sexual references:
‘That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows
As false as dicers’ oaths’;(3.4.41-5)
Here, Hamlet uses the phrase ‘sets a blister’; in reference to the branding of a harlot, or prostitute, such as in The Scarlet Letter. He claims that she was prostituted to Claudius.
Hamlet then goes on to probe at Gertrude’s sexual life with Claudius, claiming that she lives ‘In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love’; (3.4.91-3). His interrogation goes on, with many lewd references to Gertrude and Claudius’ sexual relations, where Hamlet speaks of the ‘king tempting her again to bed’; and the King’s ‘paddling in her neck with his damn’d fingers’; (3.4.182-5). Hamlet’s constant exploring of his mother’s carnal nature results in the manifestation of an overwhelming sexual concern for his mother, showing that Hamlet is more moved by a corrosive jealousy of Claudius than the traditional idealistic ways of the Renaissance and kindred honor. This contention of the new King eventually derives from Hamlet’s incestuous love for his mother. The slaying of Polonius, Hamlet claims, was meant to be an attack at a rat, however, Hamlet had hoped that Claudius would be in Polonius’ place. By killing Claudius, who serves in the place of Hamlet’s father, both in marriage and family, Hamlet would have come closer to completing the Oedipal cycle.
In scene 4, Hamlet also continuously berates Claudius, and juxtaposes the image of his father to that of Claudius in a demeaning fashion. He amplifies his opinion of his uncle by referring to him as ‘A king of shreds and patches’; and by using many animal references, such as a bloated toad, a bat, and a mangy tom-cat (3.4.102). The bestial comparisons that Hamlet makes of Claudius show his detest for him, and that he views Claudius in a disgusting manner. By making these comparisons, Hamlet causes himself to look better in his mothers eye, possibly for the purpose of replacing Claudius as her husband. Hamlet repeats the likening of Claudius to a ‘satyr’;, as he earlier claimed (1.2.139); this time he goes even lower and poses Claudius as a ‘moor’; that his mother ‘battens’; (3.4.67). By declaring that Gertrude gorges herself in Claudius, Hamlet emphasizes her appetite, as opposed to her reason, as the importance of the marriage.
Following the scene with his mother in her quarters, Hamlet makes the transition from supposed lunacy to absolute insanity. With the murder of Polonius, Claudius now considers Hamlet a threat to the crown and all others he encounters due to his insanity and willingness to act without reason. Claudius plots to have Hamlet killed in a duel between the prince and Laertes. All three die in the battle, along with Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet allows his jealousy to consume his method of revenge, leading to his Oedipal Complex, but he and his mother both die before he has the chance to form union with his mother. He succeeds in the slaying of Claudius, but only after his mother has died by Claudius’ hands, rendering the incestuous goal virtually unobtainable.
Shakespeare’s character Hamlet incorporates the spirit of the Oedipus Complex in his revenge against his father’s brother. Many critics have disagreed with the Freudian view, but the textual evidence from Act 3 provides enough support for Hamlet’s incestuous love for his mother, Queen Gertrude. Claudius replaces Hamlet’s father, both as King and as Gertrude’s husband, and Hamlet desires nothing more than to have Claudius die by his hand, which would enable Hamlet to have his mother’s love all to himself. Unfortunately for Hamlet, a tragic, death-ridden turn of events leads to his goal’s incompletion, but he still had the same ideas and views as did Oedipus Rex in relation to his mother. Hamlet may not have completed the full Oedipal cycle, but he endured enough to classify him as suffering from an Oedipus Complex.