Analysis of ‘The Graduate’

The Graduate is a 1967 comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols, based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb.  The film stars Dustin Hoffman in a career-making role as Benjamin Braddock, a 20-21-year-old who has just graduated from an unnamed university in the American northeast, and has returned to his home in Pasadena, California.  As the tagline in the movie ad reads, “He’s a little worried about his future.”

The film also stars Anne Bancroft as the seductive, scheming Mrs. Robinson (after whom the famous Simon and Garfunkel song is named), and Katharine Ross as the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Benjamin’s love interest).  While the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ wasn’t yet in its final form for the movie, a truncated version was used, and other songs by Simon and Garfunkel were also used, most notably “The Sound of Silence,” their version of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April, Come She Will.”

The American Film Institute in 1998 ranked the film #7 in its list of the 100 best films of all time; then in the 10th anniversary list, it was made film #17.  It was also listed the #9 comedy, “Mrs. Robinson” was listed the #6 song, and these quotes made the top 100 movie quotes:

“Plastics.” –Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin (#42)

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.  Aren’t you?” –Benjamin (#63)

The main themes of this movie include: parental dominance (and by extension, that of the “[don’t trust anyone] over thirty” generation); rebellion against authority (which came naturally in any late Sixties movie); alienation and isolation (which came naturally in the 20th century), and the loss of innocence.

Motifs in the film include water (the fish tank, the swimming pool, the rain), light and darkness (including their extremes, black and white), plants (flowers or ‘jungle’ plants), and clothes with animal designs, or designs suggestive of animals (leopards, giraffes, or zebras, worn by Mrs. Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Benjamin’s mother).

[This analysis is largely my own, but I owe a big debt to the influence of Howard Suber’s analysis of the film.  The analysis is only available on the Criterion Edition Laserdisk of the film that, I believe, was released in the 90s for a year or two, and is now rather hard to find.]

The movie begins with Benjamin in an airplane, being passively taken along, going where others would have him go.  “The Sound of Silence” begins with the line, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”  Benjamin is alone among all the other passengers, then in the airport he is seen on a treadmill, once again having something else move him instead of him directing his own movements.

The movie’s very use of “The Sound of Silence” is significant in itself, since the song’s about how people fail to communicate properly, “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.”  The paradoxical title expresses this idea aptly.  “And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made,” but they paid no attention to its message, that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”  One of Benjamin’s biggest problems is how neither his parents nor any of the older people, those in authority, ever listen to him.

In his bedroom at home, he sits alone in the dim light (for darkness, suggesting a loss of innocence he will soon experience, and ultimately be liberated by, is his “old friend”), avoiding the mature guests at a graduation party his parents have arranged…more for themselves than for him.  Behind Benjamin is a fish tank, a symbol of the trap he’s found himself in.  All those fish swimming in that small space, unable to swim anywhere else; also, there’s a small black figurine of a scuba diver sitting at the bottom of it.

His father, not at all listening to him when he discusses his worries about his future, makes him go downstairs to meet the guests, all his parents’ mature friends and none of his own (indeed, Ben is so isolated and alienated that he seems to have no friends), of his graduation party.  The party is clearly to give face to his parents, it’s not for his sake; Benjamin, academic success and athletic star, is his parents’ jewellery, to be shown off to impress the neighbours.

One guest, Mr. McGuire, has one word to say to Ben: “Plastics.”  Apparently, there is a great future in plastics, an unnatural, man-made material.  In other words, Ben’s future will be successful, but also fake and phoney, hence his fears about it.  It’s all for his Mom and Dad, and not one bit for his own sake.

After putting up with the guests as best he can, Benjamin goes back up to his room.  Mrs. Robinson walks into the room suddenly, pretending she’s looking for the washroom.  She manipulates him into driving her home even after he’s given her his car keys.  Significantly, instead of just giving them to him, she throws them into the fish tank.  Keys, symbols of a way to freedom–they’re for opening doors or driving cars–have been tossed into Ben’s trap symbol.  In spite of her intentions, the sexual trap she’s luring him into will ultimately, and ironically, lead him to his freedom.

The key to Ben’s freedom is for him to lose his innocence, to go from boyhood to manhood (and be a graduate in a different sense), and feel himself so constricted by both the dominance of his parents and that of his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, that he must rebel against their authority to be free.  The only way he’ll be motivated to rebel–through his love for Elaine Robinson–is to be compelled to snatch her from those who forbid him to be with her, her parents.  And while his parents want to match him to her–for the sake of their own agenda, to create a bond between the Braddocks and the Robinsons (oddly, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Braddock’s partner in a law firm, doesn’t attend Ben’s graduation party!)–Ben would marry her for his own sake.

Ben dislikes his own parents’ oppressiveness so much that, at first, and despite his nervousness around the sexually aggressive Mrs. Robinson, he finds the Robinsons to be replacement parents in a kind of family romance.  Indeed, there is much Freudian symbolism in this movie, and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson (his mother dresses similarly in some respects to her, and is similarly attractive and domineering), a woman twice his age, is clearly Oedipal.

In her home, at the back by the window to the backyard, Mrs. Robinson gives Ben a drink (not listening to his wish not to have one, let alone his wish to leave immediately) and plays some soft mood music.  The ‘cougar woman’ is wearing a dress with a zebra design, and a bra and slip with a leopard design (we’ll see the bra and slip later when she’s undressing in the bedroom); and looking out the back window whose awning has a zebra-like striped design, we see plants that make us think of the jungle.

His nervousness over her continuing seduction of him, with her spread legs, is Oedipal in how, deep down, he is as turned on as he is afraid.  (Later, she asks him if he wants her to seduce him.)  When he asks her if she’s trying to seduce him, we see him asking in a shot through her opened legs, which frame him in a triangle, trapping him in her sexuality.

A child’s Oedipal relationship with his mother can be a source of her dominance over him; and Mrs. Robinson, Ben’s symbolic mother here, is manipulating this Oedipus complex expertly.  When she asks him to bring her purse up to the bedroom, he’d rather leave it at the foot of the stairs; but the undressing beauty angrily commands him to bring it into the bedroom.  And there she displays her nakedness to his horrified–and horny–face.

When Mr. Robinson arrives, and obviously doesn’t know what his wife has just done, he becomes Ben’s symbolic father: he even tells Ben that he thinks of him as a son, and advises him to relax by chasing some girls.

On Benjamin’s 21st birthday (the year he comes of age), Mr. and Mrs. Braddock throw another party…but it’s clearly not for him–again, it’s for themselves, to gain face before their neighbours.  Benjamin is made to dress in a black scuba diving outfit (his birthday gift, it would seem) and go into the backyard swimming pool, an enlarged version of the fish tank, and he is an enlarged version of the scuba diver figurine at the bottom of the fish tank.  Similarly trapped, Ben lets himself sink to the bottom of the pool, and he passively sits there.

At the same time, though, we see the beginnings of Ben’s rebellion against his parents’ authority (like his avoidance of the guests at the graduation party), for instead of swimming about and putting on a show to entertain the neighbours, he just sits there at the bottom, like the figurine in the fish tank.  There is a dialectical tension between his increasing feeling of being trapped, and of his push to freedom.

As mentioned above, Ben was shocked at Mrs. Robinson’s attempted seduction of him, but also aroused.  He calls her from a hotel and asks her to join him.  Nervous as always, his id urges to have his symbolic mother are in a battle with his superego’s chiding him for acting out his taboo Oedipal fantasies.

After being annoyed by elderly guests, other symbolic authority figures, he sees Mrs. Robinson, who is wearing a leopard-skin coat, and we see them sit in an area decorated with more ‘jungle’ plants, appropriate for the ‘animal’ act they’re about to engage in.

After this commencement of their affair, and Ben’s loss of virginity (and innocence), he is now a man, and he lies on an inflatable raft, floating on the surface of the water in his pool, wearing black sunglasses and looking like a stud.  He isn’t trapped under the water of his ‘fish tank,’ so his loss of innocence is the furthering of his liberation, but he’s still in the pool; he must continue striving for freedom to get out completely.

A juxtaposition of images of him in the pool, with his parents, or with Mrs. Robinson ensues, suggesting the association between the Robinsons (his replacement parents in the family romance) and his actual parents.  This association also suggests his Oedipal relationship with his replacement mother.  The montage ends with Ben jumping on the inflatable raft, a visual that quickly switches to the hotel room, with him landing on Mrs. Robinson in bed: his affair with her, his loss of innocence, equals being on top of the pool water, freed (at least relatively) from his trap, the big fish tank that is the swimming pool.

His father is clearly unhappy with his free floating on the pool, drifting instead of ‘swimming’ under the water, if you will, for courses in graduate school.  The Robinsons, his substitute parents, then arrive: in the novel, it’s a very straight-forward get-together; but in the film, the scene is glowing, blurred (seen through his sunglasses), dream-like, for this is Ben’s family romance, with the mother of his new Oedipus complex saying hello to him.

His real mother asks him, while he’s shaving, where he’s going every night.  Like Mrs. Robinson, his mother is also pretty, and wears attractive clothes suggestive of dark sexuality, including the black top she wears in this scene–black, the colour of lost innocence.

After Ben ends the affair with Mrs. Robinson, who forbids him ever to date her daughter Elaine, his parents start pushing him to take her out.  Mr. Braddock is in black and white in the kitchen when he first suggests this (or gives the implied command, actually); then he and Mrs. Braddock pressure Ben some more in the swimming pool, and after Ben tries to resist, his mother says she’ll have to invite all the Robinsons over, causing Ben to fall off his raft and swim deep under the water.  He’s trapped again, like those fish in his fish tank.

After taking Elaine out, being rude to her, and quickly regretting his ungentlemanly behaviour, he opens up to her.  He soon realizes, for the first time in the movie, that he’s found a friend…someone his own age.  Her sweetness is in direct contrast to the vampishness of her mother, who wanted only sex and no conversation.  In Elaine, Ben has a most welcome reverse, which is appropriate, since innocent Elaine is the opposite of Mrs. Robinson.

When Ben is driving over to the Robinsons’ house to meet with Elaine, with whom he’s falling in love, Mrs. Robinson rushes over and gets into his car.  She threatens to tell Elaine about their affair if he continues dating her, putting Ben back into a trap.  Significantly, it’s been raining, and when Ben and Mrs. Robinson run into the house, both of them–two fish submerged in the watery trap of their own fish tank–are soaking wet.

Knowing Elaine hates him now that she knows (or thinks she knows) what happened between him and her mother, Ben contemplates his trap while looking at his fish tank.  The song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” can be heard while he’s watching her, separated by hedges and flowers.  The words, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” are heard over and over; they rhyme with the line, “She once was a true love of mine.”  Innocent Elaine is the flower Ben loves, and her innocence is preventing him, the loser of his own innocence (and therefore of her), from getting her back.

Note how plants have represented both of Ben’s loves: the jungle plants of Mrs. Robinson, the wild woman, the whore; and the flowers of Elaine, the sweet, innocent virgin (as we can safely assume).  When we see Ben on the campus of Elaine’s university in Berkeley, we see an abundance of plants and flowers.

He later tells his parents of his plan to marry Elaine, something that delights them so much that his mother screams for joy (incidentally, Mrs. Braddock is wearing an outfit with a zebra-like design: she’s as wild an animal, in her own way, as Mrs. Robinson is).  The irony here is that all this pressure to comply with parental authority (dating a girl forbidden to him by her mother, his symbolic mother, who used her dominance to make him, symbolically her Oedipus, satisfy her sexually) is giving him the impetus to break free; for Ben doesn’t want Elaine for his parents’ sake–he wants her for his own.

Now, Benjamin is finally taking charge of his life, instead of just passively acquiescing to the demands of his parents, literal or symbolic.  As for his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, his family romance with them is over with, and his opportunity–and need–to rebel against all authority is fully realized.

And Ben sure has a lot of people to rebel against.  He loves Elaine, and even when he convinces her to forgive him and love him back, her parents will never forgive him for his affair with Mrs. Robinson, which has torn her family apart.  Mr. Robinson confronts Ben in his room in Berkeley, and here we see the Oedipal hostility between Ben and his symbolic father.  Elaine’s parents would have her marry Carl, some soulless, preppy type to ensure her never being with Ben.

But that won’t stop him.

As he’s racing in his car to Santa Barbara, the song “Mrs. Robinson” is heard.  Though the song isn’t heard in its final form, the finished lyrics do reflect what’s going on in the movie, and thus are worth referencing: we all wish to help fallen Mrs. Robinson, apparently, telling her to receive Jesus so her sins will be forgiven (in other words, this is salvation by social conformity, submission to authority, and the bourgeois hypocrisy of hiding the affair).  Still, she’s lost her innocence, as has Ben, and the symbols of good, heroic America have gone away, leaving us with the same old corrupt politicians, who’ll never change.

As Ben’s car slows and runs out of gas, so does the guitar strumming of the song; and in its turn, so does the hypocrisy of pretending to be innocent (i.e., Mrs. Robinson the whore attending church) run out of gas.

Ben arrives at the church too late: Elaine has already married Carl; but this won’t stop a man in love.  He bangs on the glass (rather like the fish tank glass) that separates him from the conformist attendees, who include Mrs. Robinson.  Her gloating over his misfortune, in what’s supposed to be a holy place, shows her authoritarian hypocrisy.

But Elaine sees Ben, knowing he truly loves her; and while her parents and Carl are seen yelling angrily at her for looking up lovingly at him, neither we nor Elaine can hear them, for their sound of silence is an oppressive authority we won’t listen to anymore.

Now Ben’s defying the authority of another father, God the Father; and after hitting Mr. Robinson, his symbolic father, Ben picks up a symbol of Church authority, a large Cross, and uses it to defy the authority of everyone in the church.  He swings it at the guests so he and Elaine can escape from the church together, then he bolts the front door of the church with it, trapping all the guests inside (we see them through glass, like those trapped fish in the fish tank), while he and his love run laughing to a bus.

The irony of using a crucifix–a symbol of authority–to liberate himself and Elaine from authority parallels how Ben used his parents’ wish for him to marry her as a way to liberate himself from their dominance.  Also, we must remember the irony of giving in to Mrs. Robinson’s sexual dominance, which started the chain of events–his loss of innocence, his breaking of social taboos, and his dating of her daughter against her wishes–that has led ultimately to not only Ben’s liberation, but also Elaine’s.

Indeed, though she remains (presumably) a virgin till the end of the movie, Elaine loses her innocence, too, by defying her parents and running off with Ben, right after saying her wedding vows!

With Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus, they laugh and grin in victory; but director Nichols wisely let the camera keep going, and after seeing a shot of mostly (if not all) elderly people staring at the young rebels, we see the two stop smiling, just before the ending credits.  This suggests that the movie has ended where it began, with young people passively being taken away instead of moving on their own initiative, and with them uncertain of their future.  After all, what will their parents think of what they’ve just done?

Analysis of ‘Henry V’

Henry V is a history play that Shakespeare wrote in about 1599.  It is part of the second of two tetralogies he wrote to chronicle the history of England’s kings.  The first tetralogy, among his very first plays, were Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and Richard III, his first great play; the second tetralogy dealt with the years before the first, and are thus a ‘prequel tetralogy,’ so to speak–Richard II, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V.  While most of these plays are dark and gloomy, sometimes even tragic in tone (indeed, Richard III is fully titled The Tragedy of King Richard III), Henry V is largely the one ray of sunshine in the whole cloudy chronicling.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention.” –Chorus, Prologue to Act I, lines 1-2

2. “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;/His present and your pains we thank you for./When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,/We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.” –Henry, Act I, scene ii, lines 259-263

3. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead./In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/As modest stillness and humility;/But when the blast of war blows in our ears,/Then imitate the action of the tiger.” –Henry, III, i, 1-6

4. “This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered–/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” –Henry, IV, iii, 56-67

The main theme running through this play is that of pride, in all of its variations and permutations: arrogant, overweening pride, wounded pride, honour, shame, humility, and even maidenly bashfulness.

The play opens with the Chorus humbly admitting that an Elizabethan stage cannot properly show the vast fields of France (see Quote #1, above), or a battle with hundreds of knights either marching or on horseback.  Thus, with the play’s producers’ pride held firmly in check, the Chorus, speaking on their behalf, asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the play’s imperfections, and to judge it kindly.

When King Henry V is presented with tennis balls, a gift meant as a slur on his abilities as a king, his pride is wounded (see Quote #2).  The sender of this insulting gift is the arrogant Dauphin of France, next in line to be the French king…except for Henry.  While feeling his power threatened by King Henry’s plans to invade France and claim the country as his by right, the Dauphin haughtily presumes that Henry is the same reputedly dissolute youth of his earlier years as a prince, and imagines Henry must be a similarly feckless king now.

With the ‘moral’ sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (who would rather their king invade and loot France, causing death and destruction there, than deprive the English Church of funds, for such is the arrogance of the Church’s sense of entitlement), and now angered by the Dauphin’s proud provocation, King Henry promises to “play a set” with those tennis balls that will so shock the Dauphin as to turn his pride into shame.

Speaking of shame, when the king is in Southampton preparing to cross the English Channel to France with his men, he uncovers a plot engineered by three traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, who have been suborned by France to kill Henry.  When his knowledge of the plot against him is shown to the traitors, they admit to their guilt and shame, wishing only death for themselves, as their pride knows that receiving the death penalty willingly is the only honourable way out.

Other dishonourable knaves in the play show their pride in other ways.  Nym and Pistol squabble over who gets to have Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head tavern.  Pistol has already married her, but Nym is too proud to accept this.  Pistol comments on Nym’s excessive pride, saying, “O braggart vile and damned furious wight!”  A swordfight between them is stopped just in time by Bardolph.

Meanwhile, in France, the Dauphin continues to scoff at what he considers Henry’s weak resolution, saying the French court should consider the preparation for war to be little more than “a Whitsun morris-dance.”  Even his fellow courtiers cannot endure his presumption.  The king of France humbly holds his pride firmly in check when he acknowledges the strength of Henry and his family, who have shaken and shamed France in defeats in war in the past.  Indeed, the other courtiers (apart from the Dauphin) realize how much Henry has changed, and the Duke of Exeter, visiting the French king, relays the contempt of the English onto the proud Dauphin.

Already in France, Henry’s men have besieged the castle in Harfleur, where he urges them to carry on fighting (see Quote #3).  During peacetime, it is proper to be modest; but during war, one should fight as proudly as a tiger.

Later during that scene, we see such soldiers as the Welsh Fluellen and the Irish Macmorris proudly arguing over whether Ireland is deserving of the scorn Fluellen gives her, and whether Macmorris’s supervision of the digging of the mines is up to standard in “the disciplines of the war”.

The French princess and Alice discuss learning English; but the French princess is shocked at how some English words sound dangerously close to certain rude words in French.  Namely, Alice mispronounces ‘gown’ as ‘con,’ a French word that refers to a certain part of the female anatomy–one that in English also begins with a c; the other word, ‘foot,’ is mispronounced so as to sound like the French word for a certain intimate bedroom activity, a word for which the English equivalent also begins with an f.  The princess’s pride would rather not allow her to degrade herself by saying words of such an immodest sound.

When the French learn of Henry’s victory at Harfleur, they feel their pride wounded, and fearing that their women will dishonour them by preferring Englishmen as lovers who will litter France with bastard sons, the French king will have his army meet Henry’s with their “sharp defiance,” and his herald, Montjoy, is to send Henry a warning: either pay a ransom for the damages he’s caused France, or be her prisoner.  The Dauphin’s pride is wounded at not being allowed by his father, for the moment, to join the other French to fight Henry.

Montjoy meets with Henry and gives him the French king’s warning, saying proudly, “Though we seem’d dead, we did but sleep; advantage is a better soldier than rashness. Tell him we could have rebuk’d him at Harfleur, but that we thought not good to bruise an injury till it were full ripe. Now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.”

Henry proudly replies, “forgive me, God,/That I do brag thus! This your air of France/Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent./Go therefore, tell thy master here I am;/My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk,/My army but a weak and sickly guard;/Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,/Though France himself and such another neighbour/Stand in our way.”

On the night before the battle of Agincourt, in a tent in the French camp, the nobles all show proud impatience for the sun to come up, so they can kill the English and prove the valour of the French.  The Constable brags that he has “the best armour of the world,” and the Duke of Orleans brags of his horse; but the Dauphin’s boasting of his horse is so excessive that it annoys the other French nobles.

Meanwhile, in a tent in the English camp, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham to cover himself with, and thus keep his identity unknown to his men as he goes about to learn of their true feelings about him and the next day’s battle.  In bringing himself down to their level, he briefly forgoes his royal dignity and pride, and humbles himself, for he needs to know how his men really feel.  And with “A largess universal” he “doth give to every one…A little touch of Harry in the night.”

When he encounters Williams’s proud disdain of the king’s–to him–questionable justification for war, and the risk of his men’s lives, Henry gets angry, and the two proud men agree to a personal quarrel after the battle, if both men survive.

The next morning, the English are daunted by the far greater number of French adversaries they must face.  Then King Henry approaches, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech (see Quote #4), he proudly speaks of how he covets honour, greedily wanting as large a portion for himself, and for each of his men–however smaller a number they may be in total–as possible.  Indeed, he is content to allow any men without a stomach for the immanent battle to return to England.  And those men in bed in England on this day will, in the future, feel greatly wounded pride in the presence of any who have fought with the king on St. Crispin’s Day.

This rousing speech fires up the pride of Henry’s men, whose fear has been changed to steely valour.  In the ensuing battle, their smaller number gloriously defeats the over-confident French (thanks in no small part to the English archers and their use of the effective English longbow).  The pride of the French changes to the heaviest shame.

Their shame increases by their ignominious act of killing all the boys in the English camp, a deed that infuriates King Henry.  But when he learns of the huge number of dead French as against the small number of English dead, he forbids himself pride, insisting instead that God won the battle for him.  He has his men sing ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’ to show their humble thanks to God.  After this moment of humility, Williams is made to realize that the man he was to quarrel with would have been the king himself, and Williams must humbly beg Henry’s forgiveness.

Later, Fluellen makes Pistol, who has insulted the Welsh, swallow his pride by force-feeding him a leek, the symbol of Wales.

When the English and French kings meet, with their respective nobles, to go over the terms of the peace treaty, Henry has a private meeting with the French princess, whom he hopes to marry.  As he woos her in English, she replies in her still far-from-perfect English; then he swallows some pride in speaking just-as-broken French, moving her only to laugh at him.

Finally, he asks to kiss her, but her maidenly modesty won’t permit her to do so, for her pride won’t allow her to dishonour herself.  But he proudly insists that kings and (future) queens are the makers of manners (“nice customs curtsy to great kings”), and then gets a kiss from her.

The play ends with the Chorus reminding us of how England, after her glorious victory over the French, all too soon would feel her pride wounded when the poorly-managed English kingdom of the child King Henry VI would lose France.  This story, of course, had been presented many times on the London stage, in the Henry VI tetralogy mentioned above.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the father of psychoanalysis.  He was born in the Moravian town of Pribor, then part of the Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic.  While he certainly didn’t invent the idea of the unconscious mind, he created a kind of road map, as it were, for navigating the unconscious; and the resulting insights have made him one of the most important psychiatric thinkers of the twentieth century, influencing art, literature, and film.

Here are some famous quotes of his:

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  —The Interpretation of Dreams

“A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”  —Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”  –Letter to an American mother’s plea to cure her son’s homosexuality (1935)

‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” –said once to Marie Bonaparte; Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 16. In a footnote Jones gives the original German, “Was will das Weib?

“It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”  —The Ego and the Id

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”  –Letter to Ernest Jones (1933), as quoted in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1993) by Robert Andrews, p. 779

I: Early Years

Freud was immensely learned, being proficient in many languages, including German, Hebrew, classical Greek and Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, and French.  He could actually read Shakespeare in the original English…from a young age!  Indeed, Shakespeare’s insight into human nature influenced Freud, who interpreted much in Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and other plays.  Other writers to have a strong influence on Freud were Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche.

He graduated with a medical degree, but never practiced internal medicine.  Instead, he studied cerebral anatomy, neurology, neuropathology (on which he was a lecturer from 1885 to the beginning years of the 20th century), cerebral palsy, and he even did investigations to find the location of the sexual organs of eels (!).

His research into neuropathology led to him trying to help patients with ‘nervous illness’ (neurosis).  He went to Paris to study and attend demonstrations of hypnosis by Jean-Martin Charcot.  Impressed by its apparent effectiveness in treating hysterical patients, Freud tried hypnosis on several hysterical patients of his during the 1880s, the most famous of whom was “Anna O,” who called Freud’s particular application of hypnosis, involving her speaking while hypnotized, the “talking cure.”  He published his Studies on Hysteria with his colleague of the time, Josef Breuer.

II: Free Association

He found, however, that hypnosis didn’t seem to effect a lasting cure for hysteria or neurosis, so he began to devise his own method called free association.  He could have the patient lie supine on a couch, thus relaxing the patient to the point of being in a state comparable to hypnosis, which would allow the patient’s unconscious mind to be open and accessible to the therapist.  Freud would then tell the patient to speak of anything on his or her mind.  There would be no rules at all: the patient just had to talk and talk.  There was no need to censor subject matter considered rude, sexually inappropriate, or in any way ‘irrelevant’; in fact, it would be necessary to include such talk, for this would give the therapist free flowing access to the patient’s unconscious mind.

As the patient continued talking and talking, however, he or she would sooner or later hit a wall, as it were, and stop talking.  Sometimes this was because the patient knew an anxiety-causing subject was coming dangerously close to being discussed; at other times, the patient simply didn’t know why no more subject matter could be thought of, to continue the chain of associations the therapist was writing down and linking together by way of recurring themes spotted.  In the latter case, Freud would assume that anxiety-producing subject matter was being repressed, deep down in the unconscious, so while the patient didn’t know why he or she couldn’t continue, Freud could link together the recurring themes of everything talked about, then speculate on what the cause of repression might be.

One early theory Freud had was called the seduction theory.  He found that a lot of his patients were describing sexual relationships with their parents, so he assumed they’d been sexually abused as children, and that this had caused their psychological problems.  As it turned out, the sheer proliferation of so many cases of apparent child sexual abuse, as well as his own self-analysis, caused Freud to change this theory into that of the Oedipus complex. Some think he fabricated this new theory to save his career and avoid dealing with the wrath of a mass of parents implicated as child molesters, but such speculations are far from proven. If changing from the seduction theory to a theory of infantile sexuality was meant to improve his reputation among a prudish Victorian audience committed to the belief in the innocence of childhood, Freud chose a very strange way to improve his standing.

III: Dreams

Another method Freud used in mapping out the unconscious mind was dream analysis.  Fortunately for the sake of his research, he had made a habit of recording his dreams in journals from childhood, so when he began analyzing himself, he had lots of dreams for material to work with.  From his research of his own dreams as well as those of his patients, he produced his first great work, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, but with the year 1900 printed on the title page, to usher in the twentieth century.  In this seminal book, he theorized that all dreams, without exception, even nightmares, were forms of wish-fulfillment.

Now, it is easy to see how having a dream about making love with an attractive partner, or about winning millions of dollars in the lottery, can be wish-fulfillment, but how can anxiety-causing dreams be?  Here, we must take into account conflict in Freudian psychology.  In our minds, part of us wants to do or have one thing, another part of us wants something contradictory to the first, and we mentally battle it out to see which instinctual drive wins out.  When these conflicts become too difficult to reconcile, anxiety results, and this unease can be reflected in the dream content.  Hence, nightmares can be an attempt at the fulfillment of contradictory–and anxiety-producing–wishes; they can thus simply be a failure of the dream to sustain sleep.

Let us imagine, for example, a young man who–though he sees himself as heterosexual, nonetheless has repressed homosexual feelings for his handsome male doctor.  His urges are so repressed that he isn’t even consciously aware of them, so shocking would they be if ever revealed.  Still, he has an odd habit of feeling so chronically ill that he must see his doctor for regular checkups.  Now, in his dreams, he probably wouldn’t see himself in bed with the doctor, for this would make him wake up bathed in sweat; for after all, the purpose of dreams is to ensure restful, uninterrupted sleep.

If, on the other hand, the young man dreamed of getting naked for his doctor in a physical examination, his wish fulfillment could thus be indirectly realized, by way of associative compromise; or he could symbolically fulfill his unconscious wish by dreaming of his handsome doctor putting a phallic tongue depressor in his mouth, or a shot from a needle in his behind.  There is much distortion of conflicting wishes in dreams, hence their strangeness; and the distortion can reconcile the conflict in a way that facilitates sleep.

But guilt and anxiety from such wishes, especially guilt imposed by an intolerant society, may require a ‘wish’ to be somehow punished or shamed for having these taboo desires.  Hence, in his dream, the naked young man, during his examination, may see the door to the examination room suddenly swing open, and all his family and friends outside see him.  Or the tongue depressor may be put too deep inside his mouth, causing him to gag or choke; or the shot from the needle may be especially painful.  Thus, an anxiety-causing dream fulfills taboo wishes–if only indirectly and symbolically–and also satisfies the wish to alleviate guilt by providing some form of punishment.  And the anxiety-causing nature of the ‘punishment’ results in a failure to sustain sleep–the dreamer wakes up from a nightmare.

Apart from Freud’s ideas about dreams as wish fulfillment, and the distortion of dreams, he also touched on such ideas as penis envy and the Oedipus complex.  This latter idea is dealt with in a special way, through his analysis of perhaps the two greatest tragedies in Western literature, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Why is any work of art considered great?  Because it communicates ideas we can all relate to in some way, and Freud believed these plays to fulfill a man’s deepest unconscious fantasy: to be rid of his father and to have his mother.

In Oedipus Rex, the title character has directly, if unwittingly, fulfilled this wish, and the tragedy of the play comes from his horror and shame in realizing he has murdered his father and married his mother.  In the case of Hamlet, the fantasy is fulfilled vicariously by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and Hamlet delays his revenge because he unconsciously understands that he is no better than Claudius.  So he can’t bring himself to kill his uncle.  Productions of Hamlet throughout the twentieth century portrayed the Danish prince as having a thing for his mother.

IV: Errors and Humour

Freud’s next book was The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  In this book, he theorized about the psychology of errors.  Slips of the tongue or of the pen, or mistakes of any kind were, in Freud’s opinion, not mere accidents: they expressed unconscious wishes.  Again, conflicting instincts in the mind–part of us wants to do something, another part of us doesn’t want to do this thing–cause us to resolve them by ‘half doing’ things, or doing them incorrectly.  Particularly amusing slips of the tongue, ones whose unconscious meanings are obvious, and often sexual, are called “Freudian slips.”

Let me tell you an amusing story.

Back in about 1997, at the English cram school where I was teaching Taiwanese kids, I had a habit, well known among my coworkers, of eating late lunches at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) before teaching my later afternoon and evening classes.  One afternoon, I was outside the school, about to get something to eat, and I was chatting with an attractive young female Taiwanese teaching assistant.  Her English was reasonably good, but she made errors in grammar here and there.  During our brief chat, we were being flirtatious.  Our chat ended, and I was about to leave.  She said, “So, are you going to FCK now?”

Speaking of humour, another book Freud wrote around this time (early 1900s) was Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  In this book, he wrote of how all the jokes we tell reflect unconscious desires.

V: Stages of Psychosexual Development

Now, one of Freud’s most controversial ideas, particularly shocking during the prudish Victorian era, were his theories about childhood sexuality.  These ideas were dealt with in such writings as the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” among others.

The stages of psychosexual development have a child going through polymorphous perversity, when a child can be aroused by virtually anything, or have anything be an object to satisfy his libido, no matter how bizarre, since so young a person hasn’t yet been taught by society to focus his or her sexual energies on ‘acceptable’ objects.

The first of these psychosexual stages is the oral stage, during which an infant or child gains pleasure from sucking or biting on things.  Obviously, it is connected with the years when a baby is breast-fed.  If a person, however, is fixated on the oral stage later in life, he or she may express this fixation through such habits as smoking.  In light of Freud’s insight into such matters, it is astonishing how he, a lifelong smoker of cigars (which eventually gave him cancer of the jaw), wouldn’t give up his habit.

The next stage is the anal stage, when a child derives pleasure from defecating.  This is linked to a child’s potty training.  If one is fixated at this stage, and becomes anal retentive, one might develop the following personality traits: excessive cleanliness, parsimony, fastidiousness, stubbornness, and a need to be in control.  As Freud theorized in his paper, “Character and Anal Erotism,” one opposite may shift to the other (i.e., from filthy defecation to neat and tidy cleanliness and fastidiousness, through reaction formation); or preoccupation with this unclean state may be expressed associatively (i.e., filthy feces symbolized by a love for filthy lucre, hence, parsimony).

Next comes the particularly controversial phallic stage, when little boys and girls discover a certain anatomical difference between them, resulting in the castration complex.  Imagine, for example, a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister taking a bath together for the first time.  Their mother is getting the bath ready, and the boy and girl, naked, are facing each other, noting the difference between them.

Now imagine the boy’s reaction when he sees his sister, without a penis, but a slit in that place instead.  The slit seems to be a wound: has she been castrated?  With his Oedipal longing for Mommy and wish to dispose of Daddy, the young lad imagines his sister’s ‘castration’ has been her punishment for also wanting to take Mom away from jealous Dad.  Now, the boy realizes Dad may want to castrate him, too, for having the same Oedipal urges.  The fear that the boy has is called castration anxiety.

Castration anxiety has a profound effect on a boy’s psychological development, according to Freud.  It finds symbolic expression in a man’s fear of being humiliated, especially if this involves, for example, losing an argument with a woman.  After all, if women are just ‘castrated men’ in his eyes, then he will often have “an enduringly low opinion of the other sex [i.e., women],” as Freud said in a footnote, added in 1920, to the second of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.  Here, Freud is merely commenting on the reality of sexism: for what seems to be his agreement with sexism, read on…

For the girl’s version of the castration complex, the idea especially detested by feminists, Freud called it penis envy.  Imagine again the naked boy and girl in the bathroom.  When she sees the dangling members on him that she lacks, she feels “unfairly treated,” as Freud argued in his essay, “On the Sexual Theories of Children” (1908).  Why is she deprived of what he has?

Her resulting resentment–coming after a period of denial during which she, for example, attempts urinating while standing (her brother, too, at first denies her ‘castration,’ imagining her ‘penis’ is just really small, and will grow larger later)–causes her to feel a generalized jealousy, which Freud, in his 1925 essay “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” called a “displaced penis-envy.”  Some of this, Freud believed, resulted in feminism.  It also results, apparently, in women having, on average, relatively weak superegos.

Here, Freud’s sexism reached a particularly low point, since even though, in the aforementioned 1925 essay, he would “willingly agree” that most men fall far short of the masculine ideal, and that there is much psychic bisexuality in the personality traits of both sexes, and thus pure maleness and femaleness are socially constructed ideas “of uncertain content,” the historical, worldwide male denunciations of women’s inferior moral sense are, it seems, justified (!).

For feminist defenses of Freud, one can look to the writings of Juliet Mitchell (in particular, her 1974 book Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women) and Camille Paglia (she brings up Freud, the unconscious, and the danger of ignoring these ideas about 15 minutes into this video.  Here’s another, around 6:30 into it.)

Now, with the bringing on of the castration complex, another difference between the sexes arises: the boy’s Oedipus complex ends–or is, at least, repressed–out of the fear of the father’s retribution, replaced by identification with him; and the girl’s original Oedipal love for her mother, out of a belief that Mom castrated her, switches to a new Oedipus complex, hers being a love for her father and a hatred for her mother. Carl Gustav Jung called this the Electra complex (a term Freud scoffed at), also based on Greek myth; for Electra hated her mother, Clytemnestra, for plotting with her lover, Aegisthus, to murder Agamemnon, Electra’s beloved father.

With this new Oedipal attachment, girls apparently long to possess their father’s penis, and as they grow up, this desire to have that “little one” gets displaced, and the desire to have another “little one,” a baby, is supposed to come about in womanhood.  This verbal relationship between penis and baby, both called “das Kleine,” or “little one,” is described in Freud’s 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism.”

When the phallic stage is over, a period of lack of interest in sexual matters, the latency period, occurs from roughly the age of five or six until the onset of adolescence.  Then the sexual instincts reawaken, and if no fixation during any of the earlier stages has occurred, teenagers should have attained the genital stage, in which they derive pleasure from the genitals, a state of affairs considered normal and mature.  Along with this notion of sexual maturity, Freud insisted that a woman’s orgasms should be vaginally based; orgasms based on the clitoris, apparently, are sexually immature (!).

VI: The Theory of the Personality

According to Freud, we all begin with the id (Das Es, ‘It’).  This ‘thing,’ this primitive, selfish, savage animal inside us is on an endless quest for gratification.  It operates on the pleasure principle, which, put bluntly, says, “If it makes you feel good, do it.”  It is like a naughty, bratty, spoiled child, constantly demanding the satisfaction of its urges.

Imagine a little boy who hasn’t developed a sense of restraint yet.  The cookie jar in the kitchen is within his reach.  Without even a second’s consideration of the consequences, he impulsively grabs all the cookies he can eat and munches away.  Then Mom catches him, and he gets a spanking.

Having learned his lesson, the boy begins to develop an ego (Das Ich, “I”).  His id is pushed somewhat into his unconscious, and his ego operates on the reality principle, which is a modification of the pleasure principle, saying, “If it makes you feel good, do it, but only if it’s safe.”  Now if he wants to steal from the cookie jar, he must make sure neither Mom nor Dad catches him; if both are totally distracted by the TV in the living room, and if he doesn’t eat so many cookies that his parents know some are missing, he should get away with his act of petty larceny.  If his parents suspect that some cookies are unaccountably missing, perhaps he can blame the theft on a younger sibling!

So far, our boy still hasn’t learned about morality, but he will, from all the authority figures in his life: his parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc.  When he has learned about right and wrong, he has a superego (Das Uberich, “Over-I”), which demands that all his thoughts and behaviour conform to an ego ideal, or perfect standard of morality.  Now, whenever he is tempted to take a cookie or two from the cookie jar, not only does he have to avoid being caught, he has to wrestle with the guilt of knowing he is selfish and inconsiderate to his family.  Perhaps he is fearful of God watching down from heaven with a disapproving frown!

His id has now been repressed deep down into his unconscious; parts of his ego and superego, like an iceberg, are submerged down there, too; part of those two are also in the preconscious, which is just under the surface, and whose thoughts are accessible to the conscious mind.  And now the ego must act as mediator, managing the conflicting demands of libido, reality, and morality.  How can the ego do this?

VII: Ego Defence Mechanisms

Fortunately, the ego has a number of defence mechanisms, which aim to reduce anxiety and guilt.  We have already encountered a few of these, including these two: repression, which pushes unacceptable urges deep into the unconscious, so one doesn’t even know one has such feelings; and displacement, which moves one’s instincts from an unacceptable object to an acceptable one.

Imagine a man being yelled at by his boss in a manner that’s left him feeling humiliated.  He cannot direct his rage at his boss, of course; so when he goes home, fuming inside, he looks for an excuse to blow up at his wife (bad cooking, nagging at him, etc.) or at his kids (playing too loudly, not doing their homework, etc.).

A special kind of displacement is called transference, which involves, for example, displacement of a patient’s feelings (romantic love, hostility, etc.) onto his or her therapist.  When, for example, some of Freud’s female patients began falling in love with their therapists, at first he found the transference a discomfiting distraction from the psychoanalytic task at hand; later, he found it useful to work with the transference as part of the journey to find a cure for the patient’s neuroses.

Along with transference comes countertransference, when the therapist develops feelings for the patient.  Freud recoiled at this returning of feelings, fearing that an emotional involvement with the patient was unprofessional and damaging to the cool, scientific rigour of psychoanalytic investigation; but later analysts, such as those involved in object relations theory, found good uses for countertransference, feeling that it could simulate, and thus regenerate, relationships stifled in their patients’ childhood, a stifling caused by bad parenting.

Other ego defence mechanisms include suppression, a restraining of instincts, but allowing them to remain conscious.  Also, there is denial, whose guilt-relieving mechanism is self-explanatory; and projection, where one throws one’s anxiety-causing instincts onto others, blaming them instead of oneself for the fault.  For example, I could accuse others of being rejecting of me, when actually it is I who am being rejecting of them.  Rationalization, using excuses to justify unacceptable acts or desires, is another defence mechanism.

Yet another ego defence mechanism is reaction formation, where one creates a contrived reaction that represents the opposite attitude to one’s real, and guilt-causing instinct.  A perfect example is in the movie American Beauty, in which a retired marine (played by Chris Cooper) expresses the most hateful bigotry against homosexuals throughout the film; but near the end, he reveals that he himself has suppressed homosexual feelings when he kisses the protagonist (played by Kevin Spacey) on the lips.

One particularly interesting ego defence mechanism is sublimation.  Instead of the more usual, hypocritical defences, this one is actually quite positive in nature, for it redirects unacceptable impulses into creative outlets.  Homosexual Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures of muscular naked men are a case in point.

Freud’s daughter Anna would develop and see more importance in ego defence mechanisms in her work, especially in her classic work, Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936).  The significance of the unconscious portion of the ego means that in therapy much ego defence is unconscious, so the analyst mustn’t focus only on bringing out id impulses.  Hence, the origin of ego psychology.

VIII: Life and Death Instincts

For much of Freud’s career, he felt that the instinctual drives were all pleasure-based (libido), and sexual in nature.  This is part of the life instinct, also called Eros.

After the horrors of the First World War, however, his thinking about human nature took a darker turn, and would remain essentially thus for the rest of his life (the excruciating pain of his cancer wouldn’t help lighten things up much).  In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud discussed the more destructive side of human nature, and postulated a death instinct (Thanatos would be the word used, though not by him).  This would explain our aggressive and self-destructive sides, as well as our tendency to do the same irrational things over and over again (“the compulsion to repeat“).

All forms of pleasure, whether sexual or death-oriented, involve putting the body into a state of rest.  The cliché of a man and woman in bed after great sex, with him rolled over and fast asleep, and her smoking a cigarette, show how Eros (in this example, in the form of libidinal gratification) leads to a restful state.  As for Thanatos, there is no more absolute a state of rest than death.  As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep–/No more; and by a sleep, to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, –’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep…”  So here, the achievement of self-destruction in a nightmare can be seen as an exception to the idea of all dreams as pleasure-causing wish-fulfillment.

IX: Religion

Freud was born a Jew, but was also an atheist.  He believed that God represents the psychological need many of us have for a father figure.  His two major writings on religion, generally discredited since anthropology was not a field he specialized in, were Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism.  The former dealt with primitive taboos against incest, as well as with Freud’s belief that the killing and ritual eating of the primal father was common in primitive tribes; and in the latter, Freud theorized that Moses was an Egyptian adopted by the ancient Hebrews, who later killed him (this being a reiteration of his theories in Totem and Taboo), then by way of reaction formation assuaged their guilt by revering him as the founding father of their religion.

X: Post-Freud

As previously mentioned, his daughter Anna carried on the torch, with her focus on ego defence mechanisms.  Along with her among the Ego Psychologists was Heinz Hartmann, who focused on how the mind adapts in an evolutionary sense, rather than merely from psychic conflict and frustration.  Given the right environment, a child’s intrinsic potential for adaptation will help it adjust to the demands of the real world, an adaptive development that needn’t be conflictual.

Then there was object relations theory, which explains how problems in adult relationships can be traced to problems in the parent/child relationship.  Famous thinkers in this school include D.W. Winnicott, W.R.D. Fairbairn, and Melanie Klein, with her concepts of the good breast, which nourishes and brings out love, and the bad breast, which doesn’t feed or do any good for the infant, causing it to feel hostility instead.  Her ideas about projective identification expand on Freudian projection to show how a patient can make his projections become real in other people.  Her ideas were quite a break from Freud, though she considered them perfectly consistent with him.

Heinz Kohut, with his conceiving and development of self psychology, did much research and gained much insight into narcissism and NPD.

Jacques Lacan saw himself at one with, even returning to, Freud. Lacan’s notion, for example, that “the unconscious is structured like a language” was in part derived from Freud’s ideas about slips of the tongue and jokes as expressions of the unconscious.  Lacan’s ideas have greatly influenced postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, feminist theory, and such contemporary thinkers as Slavoj Zizek.

Detailed Synopsis of ‘Othello’

Act One: Iago and Roderigo are outside the house of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, one night on a street in Venice.  Roderigo expresses his displeasure at his (justified) belief that Iago has been dishonest with him.  Iago insists that he hates Othello for having promoted Michael Cassio to Lieutenant, when Iago, remaining merely the Moor’s ensign, feels he’s much more deserving of the promotion, since he has the military experience Cassio lacks.  Still, Roderigo doesn’t understand why Iago works for a man he hates; Iago explains that he’s only pretending to be Othello’s loyal servant, and when the opportunity comes, he will have his revenge on the Moor.  (See Quote #1 of my Analysis of ‘Othello’.)

Since Roderigo wishes to have Othello’s woman, Iago tells him to join him in shouting by her father’s window, to wake him up and tell him that Othello has eloped with Desdemona (which he has).  So both Iago and Roderigo shout at the top of their lungs to wake Brabantio up.  Her father is angry to see Roderigo there waking him up, and reminds the dissolute suitor that he has rejected his suit for Desdemona.  Roderigo and Iago tell him that Desdemona is not in bed where she should be; Iago uses particularly crude language to describe Othello’s enjoying of her (See Quotes #2 and 3 of my Analysis).  While Brabantio is even further annoyed with Iago’s foul mouth, Roderigo insists they can prove the truth of what they say, if the old man would come with Roderigo.  Iago tells Roderigo he must join Othello, pretending to be his friend, while Roderigo takes Brabantio with him to arrest the Moor.  Iago leaves, then Brabantio joins Roderigo in looking for Othello.

Iago meets with Othello and Cassio; the Moor has married Desdemona.  Cassio tells Othello that the Duke of Venice wishes to speak with him about a problem in Cyprus.  Roderigo and Brabantio come with officers to arrest Othello for using “magic” to win her heart, since Brabantio cannot imagine his daughter willingly going to “the sooty bosom/Of such a thing” as Othello.  The Moor is taken away by the officers.

The Duke of Venice, with a group of senators, discusses the imminent invasion of Cyprus, a Venetian territory, by the Turks.  They need Othello to lead their navy to repel the invaders.  Othello enters with Brabantio, Roderigo, Iago, and the officers.  Brabantio, with a broken heart, accuses the Moor of using witchcraft on Desdemona.

Othello defends himself in a long, eloquent speech (see Quote #4), telling of how he and Brabantio had been good friends, and Othello was often invited to Brabantio’s home.  Othello would tell stories of all the times he had fought in wars, been caught by the enemy and sold into slavery, and then escaped to freedom.  Othello speaks of how he has encountered many strange peoples in his travels, including cannibals and people whose heads were under their shoulders.

Desdemona loved to hear these stories, wishing not to miss a single word.  She pitied how he’d suffered, and he loved her for so pitying him.  She indirectly expressed her love for him by saying that if a man should ever want to win her love, telling such stories would win her to his heart.  Taking this hint, Othello pursued her, and they fell in love.  This is the only witchcraft that Othello has used on her.

The duke is so impressed with this story that he imagines his own daughter could be won by such a story.  Desdemona has been sent for to confirm the Moor’s story.  She arrives, and her father asks her to whom she owes her duty and obedience.  She says that while she owes duty to Brabantio for raising her, Othello is now her husband.

The duke tells Othello to get the navy ready to fight the Turks.  The Moor must hurry off to Cyprus.  Desdemona wishes to join him, so he will tell Iago, who is also to go to Cyprus, to bring his wife Emilia to attend on her.  Cassio will also go.

The marriage being thus confirmed, Brabantio must grudgingly accept it.  His last words to Othello are a warning that she may one day show deceitfulness to him, having already done so to her father (see Quote #5).  He leaves, as does everyone else except Iago and Roderigo.

This latter, despondent over losing Desdemona, wishes to drown himself.  Iago scoffs at Roderigo’s “silliness,” as he himself calls it, but he doesn’t know what else to do.  Iago advises him to collect all his money and join them on the boats to Cyprus.  Iago says that Desdemona will eventually tire of the Moor, then Roderigo will have his chance to woo her.  He should continue giving gifts to Desdemona, money or jewels, and Iago will (supposedly) continue delivering them for him.  This plan revives the hopes of gullible Roderigo, who will now sell all his land.

After Roderigo leaves, Iago speaks of how he’ll use this fool’s hopes for his own “sport and profit,” since cheating him of his money is Iago’s only reason for spending time with him (Quote #6).

Iago now gives the real reason for his, indeed, most virulent hatred for Othello, mentioning a rumour he’s heard that the Moor has slept with his wife, Emilia.  Iago doesn’t have proof of this adultery, but he’ll assume the story is true and act on this assumption.  He’ll take advantage of Othello’s trust of him, and weave Cassio into his schemes, knowing the lieutenant has a way with the ladies.  Since Othello “is of a free and open nature,” Iago can easily manipulate him.  The ensign now has the germ of a plan to destroy the Moor, his wife Desdemona, and Cassio.

Act Two: In Cyprus, Cassio, Montano, and the other Venetians wait as Othello’s ship sails on the stormy seas; everyone hopes the ship will arrive safely.

Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia arrive.  Cassio kisses Desdemona’s hand; Iago notes this innocent show of affection, and plans to make it seem much more than that.

The Moor arrives, and he will relieve Montano of the duties of governing Cyprus; he also has good news–the Turkish fleet perished in the storm, so there will be no invasion!  Everyone is to celebrate that night.  Cassio is commanded by Othello to watch over the city that night and ensure that the revelry doesn’t get out of hand.

Roderigo appears.  Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio’s kissing of her hand is proof that she is looking for new lovers.  Roderigo doesn’t believe this, thinking (correctly) that Cassio was only showing gentlemanly courtesy; but Iago insists that the kiss was an expression of lust.  He then tells Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio that night, during the festivities, when the lieutenant is drunk.

When the celebrations begin, and everyone has had some wine, Cassio insists he’s had enough, and he must begin his work, watching over the town.  Iago asks him to have some more wine, but Cassio says he mustn’t have any more, since he cannot handle it well.  Iago insists, though, so Cassio reluctantly drinks some more.

Later on, after some singing and rowdiness, Cassio decides he must begin his work.  He is very drunk, but he refuses to admit it, his pride piqued at anyone even thinking he’s drunk.  He leaves to begin his night watch.

Iago speaks with Montano about Cassio, lying that the lieutenant regularly drinks to excess.  Montano finds it worrying that Othello would give such a man a position of such responsibility.

Suddenly, Cassio returns angrily after having fought with Roderigo.  When Montano tries to calm Cassio, he threatens to knock him over the head.  Montano says he’s drunk, provoking him.  Swords drawn, the two men fight briefly, and chaos ensues.  Montano is wounded by Cassio, and Othello arrives, demanding that everyone immediately stop fighting.  He demands an explanation: Montano cannot answer, since he’s badly hurt; the lieutenant is too ashamed to speak.  Othello then turns to Iago, and demands to know who started the fight.

Iago pretends to be reluctant about giving an answer to Othello’s question, acting as though he is loath to blame Cassio.  Othello insists that Iago speak.  Iago speaks in a manner as if only vaguely to justify Cassio’s aggression.  Othello responds in the manner Iago was aiming for: the Moor assumes his ensign is mincing matters to protect Cassio from judgement, but he punishes Cassio by stripping him of his rank of lieutenant.  He gives the responsibility of watching over the town to Iago.  Cassio is crushed.

Desdemona arrives, asking what the matter is; Othello expresses his annoyance that the brawl has woken her up.  He takes her and Montano away with him, since he will bandage Montano’s wound.  Everyone else leaves, except Cassio and Iago.

Cassio complains of how he has “lost [his] reputation,” and blames wine for bringing out the devil in him.  Iago says there is nothing wrong with wine when drunk in moderation.  He also tells Cassio that if he wishes to get his reputation back, he should plead his case to Desdemona, for the “General’s wife is now the General.”  She in turn will plead for Cassio’s sake, asking Othello to forgive him and reinstate him as lieutenant.  This gives Cassio hope, and he leaves.

Alone now, Iago insists he is being no villain for offering such good advice to Cassio (Quote # 7); and yet, it is Iago’s plan to make Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.  With every appeal she makes to Cassio’s virtues, she will all the more arouse the Moor’s suspicions of her infidelity.  Thus will Iago turn her white virtue pitch black.

Roderigo appears, complaining to Iago about the beating he’s got from Cassio, and of how he’s spent almost all his money (given in gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but of course Iago keeps the gifts for himself).  Iago gives the foolish suitor more dubious encouragement by saying that the fight he provoked in Cassio caused him to lose his rank of lieutenant.  This loss of status should make Cassio unattractive to Desdemona, and then Roderigo can have his chance to win her love.  Cheered up, Roderigo leaves.

Act Three: In the garden of the citadel in Cyprus the next day, Cassio asks Emilia if he can speak with Desdemona: she takes him to her.  He asks Desdemona to beg forgiveness of the Moor, and she promises to help him.  He, grateful, says he is her “true servant.”  As they continue talking, Othello and Iago arrive: while the Moor thinks nothing of his wife talking with Cassio, Iago says he doesn’t like what he sees.  Cassio leaves, and Iago characterizes his going as guilty-looking.

Desdemona approaches Othello, asking him to forgive Cassio.  He says they can discuss that at another time, with her at first importuning him when.  She obediently leaves at his request, satisfied that they will resume the discussion of reinstating Cassio.  The Moor expresses his love for Desdemona (Quote #8).

Iago asks Othello about how he began to woo her.  He says Cassio already knew of his wooing of her, and was very diligent in going between Othello and Desdemona.  Iago says, “Indeed,” in a way insinuating bad intentions in Cassio.  Othello begins to wonder what Iago is implying; the Moor recalls when Iago said he didn’t like seeing Cassio guiltily chatting with Desdemona.  He presses the seemingly reluctant Iago to speak his mind.

Using reverse psychology, Iago speaks of how wrong it is to harm someone’s reputation by slandering it, all the while making Othello more and more suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona.  Iago continues to be evasive, pretending Othello shouldn’t think too much of the matter.

Iago climaxes his manipulative words with a warning to Othello about giving in to jealousy (Quote #9), saying it’s better to be a cuckold who is blissfully ignorant of his wife’s infidelities than to suspect an innocent wife of such disloyalty and to torment himself with such suspicion.

Now, ironically, the Moor is fully enmeshed in the net of jealousy, though he denies it.  Knowing this, Iago advises him to watch Desdemona when she is with Cassio.  He reminds Othello of how she’s deceived her father, but still tells him not to worry about this suspicion until better proof is available.  Iago leaves.

Othello ponders what Iago has said, imagining that Desdemona may not find him so attractive because of his dark complexion.  She returns, and seeing he is not well, she tries to wrap around his brow a handkerchief, one designed with a distinct strawberry motif.  He pushes it away, causing it to fall on the ground; the distracted wife follows him as he storms away, forgetting to pick the handkerchief up.

Emilia enters, finding it on the ground.  She picks it up, speaks of wishing to have the pretty thing copied, and remembers how her husband has wanted her to steal it for some unrevealed purpose of his.  He returns, and she tells him she has the handkerchief; she tells Iago that she hasn’t stolen it, but Desdemona left it on the ground “by negligence.”  He takes it from Emilia, but she worries about Desdemona not getting it back, since she will be in a terribly distressed state if she loses it, a special gift from Othello.  Iago tells Emilia to go away; she does.

Iago speaks of how jealous people will consider the most trivial of things to be firm proof of their suspicions.  He will leave the handkerchief with Cassio’s things, knowing this will aid him in his vindictive purposes.  Iago gloats as he sees returning Othello, who is increasingly coming undone.

The Moor angrily demands that Iago produce proof that Desdemona is a whore.  Iago speaks of how regretful he is of his “honesty” being so ill-appreciated.  Othello says he is torn between believing his ensign and trusting Desdemona, and that his vague, unproven suspicions are tormenting him; he must have proof.

Iago says it would be nearly impossible to arrange a viewing of her in bed with Cassio, something the Moor recoils at, saying, “Death and damnation!”  But if some kind of circumstantial evidence were provided, perhaps that would be sufficient for Othello.  He will indeed accept such evidence.

Iago speaks of a night when he and Cassio were sleeping side by side: Cassio, apparently, was talking out loud in his sleep, speaking of how he and Desdemona must hide their love from the Moor.  Then Cassio wrapped his leg around Iago and began kissing him, imagining in his dream that Iago was Desdemona.  Othello grows all the more unsettled by this revelation.

To make matters worse, Iago tells him of a handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries,” that he’s seen Cassio wipe his beard with: Othello knows this to be his gift to his wife, and he is going insane with jealousy now.  He makes Iago his lieutenant; Iago says, “I am your own for ever.”

Before the citadel, Desdemona is going mad herself wondering where her handkerchief is.  She tells Emilia she would rather lose her “purse full of crusadoes” than lose Othello’s dear gift to her.

He enters, finding it difficult to hide his jealousy; she says Cassio will come and speak with him, hoping to bring about a reconciliation between the two men.  This, of course, inflames his jealous rage further.

He asks her to wipe his brow with her handkerchief, but she can only do so with another handkerchief she’s using as a temporary replacement.  Having tested Iago’s story, and dismayed to see it so seemingly confirmed, Othello demands that she produce the strawberry-patterned handkerchief.  She says she cannot find it at the moment.

He tells her that the handkerchief was a magical gift an Egyptian gave to his mother.  As long as his mother had it, his father would continue loving her; but if she were to lose it, she would lose his father’s love.  The implications of the story for Othello’s love for Desdemona frighten her.

He demands again that she find it.  She says she’ll get it later, for now she sees it as a distraction from her suit to get him to reinstate Cassio.  He keeps demanding the handkerchief while she pleads for Cassio; he curses and leaves the room.  Emilia wonders if he is jealous, while Desdemona insists he’s never been that way.  Emilia says men are all stomachs, and women their food to be belched when the eaters are sated.

Cassio gives the handkerchief to Bianca, a girl he’s been seeing; he wants her to have it copied.  She jealously suspects he’s got it from another woman.

Act Four: Iago tells Othello of a time he heard Cassio speaking of lying in bed with Desdemona; Othello gets so upset that he has an epileptic seizure.  Iago gloats to watch Othello coming so unhinged.

After the Moor has swooned and fallen on the ground, Cassio comes by, and wonders what’s wrong with Othello.  Iago tells him the Moor has “fall’n into an epilepsy.”  Cassio suggests rubbing him on the temples, but Iago insists that the epilepsy must be allowed to follow its course.  Iago asks Cassio to leave, but would have him return soon, for he has something important to talk about with Cassio.  Cassio leaves.

The Moor comes out of it, and Iago says Cassio will return; while Othello is hiding, he can eavesdrop on a conversation between Iago and Cassio, one that will confirm the latter’s guilt.  Othello hides, and Cassio returns.

First, Iago speaks of Desdemona with Cassio, and of his hopes that Othello will forgive him.  Then Iago deftly changes the subject to that of Bianca, and in a way that makes Othello think the woman being discussed is still Desdemona.  Cassio laughs, speaking of how she (Bianca, or Desdemona?) is in love with him.  Othello is snarling as he listens to this.

Then, in a turn of fortune better than Iago could have devised, Bianca suddenly appears, showing off the handkerchief so Othello can see it, and complaining jealously that Cassio is seeing another woman, the handkerchief being proof of his two-timing.  She leaves angrily.  Cassio follows after her.

Othello emerges, asking Iago how he should kill Desdemona, now that he has apparent proof of her infidelity.  Iago suggests killing her in her bed, the one she has “contaminated.”  Othello considers this a just punishment.  Iago then offers to kill Cassio.

Lodovico, Desdemona’s cousin, has arrived in Cyprus to tell Othello he is to return to Venice.  The Moor is visibly upset as he reads the letter from the Duke of Venice with his orders to return, and for Cassio to be the new governor of Cyprus.

Lodovico wonders what is troubling him; Desdemona speaks of the friction between her husband and Cassio, a problem she wishes would end, for all the love she bears to Cassio.  Othello is especially offended to hear her dare to say that in front of him, and he slaps her in front of everyone!

She knows she doesn’t deserve such abuse.  Lodovico is shocked at what he’s seen, imagining no one in Venice would believe Othello could behave in such a way.  Surely his reputation as unflappable is in question.

Later, Othello questions Emilia if she has ever seen her mistress with Cassio in an intimate situation; Emilia, of course, hasn’t, for she has never left Desdemona’s company, not even briefly to get a fan or anything.  Emilia, not believed, is told to fetch Desdemona.  The Moor insists that his wife is “a subtle whore.”  Desdemona, frightened, returns with Emilia, and must defend herself against accusations of being a whore.

Othello leaves, and Desdemona complains of her troubles with teary eyes to Emilia and Iago.  They cannot imagine why Othello would slander her so.  Emilia insists some villain has told Othello slanderous lies about his wife, then Emilia recalls how someone similarly calumniated her to Iago about having had an affair with Othello, a vicious rumour that drove Iago to near madness.  Her husband dismisses the story angrily.

Desdemona, in her sweetness, cannot even say the word “whore,” let alone be one.  Iago reasons that Othello is simply annoyed at having to return to Venice, and is thus taking his frustrations out on Desdemona.  Dinner is about to be served, and Iago tries to cheer her up with that, and with hopes that all will soon be resolved.  The women leave.

Alone, Iago is accosted by a furious Roderigo, who demands satisfaction for having been duped by Iago all this time.  Roderigo has spent all his money in his foolish, futile suit for Desdemona, having given gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but Roderigo has gotten no desirable results at all.  Correctly assuming that Iago has been cheating him, Roderigo demands compensation and threatens Iago if he isn’t satisfied.

Quick-thinking Iago praises Roderigo for showing his manhood, and suggests that he use his apparent strength in a fight against Cassio.  Iago will help, it seems; then when Cassio is removed, Roderigo can have Desdemona.  Gullible Roderigo agrees to this plan.

After dinner with Lodovico, Othello tells Desdemona to go to bed alone, and to dismiss Emilia as soon as she has finished getting her ready for bed.  This command is surprising both to Desdemona and to Emilia when she hears it.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, as Emilia is getting her ready for bed, Desdemona remembers a maid from Barbary whose lover went mad and abandoned her.  The maid sang a sad song called ‘Willow,’ which Desdemona then sings.

She asks Emilia if there are any wives anywhere who commit adultery; Emilia says there surely are at least a few; for women have their ways of getting revenge on the wrongs their husbands inflict on them.  Emilia is sure that some women would gladly make their husbands cuckolds if doing so might make their men kings.  (Is she implying here that she, indeed, slept with Othello in the hopes that the Moor would, in return, make Iago his lieutenant?)  Desdemona, ever sweet and innocent, still cannot imagine any wife to be unfaithful to her man.  Emilia leaves her, and she goes to bed.

Act Five: Outside on a street at night, Iago and Roderigo are waiting for Cassio to leave Bianca’s home so they can assault him.  Iago realizes that this altercation will be crucial, for both men must die if Iago is to succeed in his plans.  This night will either make him, or undo him.  Iago and Roderigo are hiding in the shadows.

Cassio appears, and Roderigo attacks him.  Swords drawn, they fight, and Cassio wounds Roderigo.  Then Iago sneaks up behind Cassio with his rapier and stabs him in the leg.  Not knowing who has attacked him, Cassio calls out for help.

Othello watches from his window, and hearing the commotion on the street (as do Lodovico and Gratiano), assumes Iago has killed Cassio.  Satisfied with the achievement of this part of his supposed revenge, Othello heads for Desdemona’s bedroom.

On the street, Lodovico and Gratiano come to help Cassio.  Iago reappears from the shadows, pretending he’s only just arrived and knows nothing of what has happened.  Cassio says his wounded attacker is back somewhere in the shadows.  Iago goes over and mortally wounds Roderigo, who curses him before dying.  Then Iago yells for help.  He binds Cassio’s wound with his shirt.

Outside, Emilia and Bianca come to help Cassio.  Bianca is hysterical with grief over her lover’s hurt, but Emilia and Iago dismiss her as a tramp, implying Cassio’s injury to have been her fault, which she denies.  Cassio is taken away to be treated for his wound.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, Othello gazes on her sleeping body, his heart full of grief over the murder he feels he must commit, for the sake of honour.  He speaks of how he won’t shed her blood, or wound her beautiful skin, as “smooth as monumental alabaster.”

Extinguishing candles by her bed, he speaks sorrowfully of extinguishing the fire of her life (Quote #10), already imagining his regret over killing her, and knowing that, while one can light a candle again after wishing one hasn’t put the fire out, one cannot resurrect the victim one rues having killed.

He reaches over and kisses her several times, the last kiss waking her up.  He asks her if she has said her prayers for the night; she has.  He is glad of this, for he doesn’t wish, in killing her, to send her soul to hell.  She asks why he has murder on his mind, and he accuses her of having an affair with Cassio, who had the handkerchief.

She vehemently denies this adultery, asking to have Cassio summoned to corroborate her story.  Othello says her alleged lover cannot attest to her denial, for he has been killed.  She weeps for Cassio’s sake, infuriating the Moor.

He approaches her to commit the murder, but she begs him to banish her instead. He picks up a pillow and smothers her with it.  There is knocking on the door; Emilia comes in, telling him of Cassio’s injury.  Othello is annoyed to know he is still alive.

Emilia, however, is shocked to see Desdemona murdered; actually, she isn’t quite dead, but her last words are ones of love for Othello.  Then she dies.

When Othello justifies his murder by saying she was unfaithful to him, Emilia refuses to believe him.  He says Iago informed him of the adultery: too horrified to imagine her husband so wicked, she asks of Iago repeatedly to make sure, causing Othello to wonder why she needs to make this “iterance”.  She insists that if Iago really accused Desdemona of infidelity, he is a liar.  Sure of Iago’s reputation for honesty, Othello cannot believe that he lied.  Emilia cries out of the bedroom for help.  “The Moor hath kill’d my mistress!  Murder!  Murder!”

Montano, Iago, Gratiano, and others come into the bedroom.  She asks Iago if he told Othello that Desdemona had had an affair with Cassio: her husband admits that he said so.  Emilia is heartbroken that Iago could tell such “a wicked lie.”  He barks at her to go home; she refuses to, insisting that she have a chance to speak.

When Othello mentions her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession, Emilia is all the more horrified, now knowing Iago’s real purpose in having it stolen.  Emilia refuses to obey her husband’s command to be quiet and go home, for she must tell all.  Iago tries to attack Emilia with a sword, but is stopped by Gratiano, who is shocked he’d try to stab a woman.

When she tells Othello she stole the handkerchief to give to Iago, the Moor finally realizes how wrong and rash he was to murder his wife.  She carries on about how foolish Othello has been, murdering such a sweet and innocent wife.  He is already agonizing over his mistake.  Iago stabs his wife, then flees the room; he is pursued.

She lies beside Desdemona, weakly singing, “Willow, willow, willow,” before dying.  Othello continues grieving over Desdemona.

Iago has been apprehended and is brought back with Lodovico, Montano, and Cassio (who is carried in a chair), and officers.   Othello takes a knife and wounds Iago, who maliciously smiles at him and says the stab isn’t fatal; the Moor, preferring death to life, is glad to let Iago live.  Othello’s sword has been taken from him.

Cassio protests his innocence to Othello, who sadly acknowledges this and apologizes to him.  Othello wants to know why Iago has thus ruined him, but the villain refuses to say any more.

Othello is to be arrested for murder, but he wants a moment to speak, since he’s done some service to Venice.  He asks the people of Venice to speak truthfully “Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well” (Quote #11).  At the end of his speech, he produces a hidden dagger and stabs himself.  He kisses Desdemona and dies (Quote #12).

Lodovico execrates Iago for his villainy, and demands the harshest punishments for him.  Lodovico must now return to Venice and tell this sad story with a heavy heart.

Analysis of ‘Hamlet’

Hamlet is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1599 and 1602.  A revenge play, it is his longest, lasting about four hours if performed uncut.  It is also his most experimental, since its hero is a self-doubting thinker given to long-winded speeches, not a doer.  In spite of how long it takes him finally to avenge his murdered father and kill his uncle, Hamlet has always been one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.

The play is profoundly philosophical, touching on such issues as existentialism; and the reason for Prince Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle, the usurping King Claudius, is one of the great mysteries of literature, for which many theories have been proposed.  Some of these, as well as one of my own, will be examined below.

Hamlet is a goldmine of famous quotes.  Here are but a few:

1.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 65

2.  “Frailty, thy name is woman!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 146

3.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 75

4.  “This above all–to thine own self be true.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 78

5.  “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”  –Marcellus, Act I, Scene iv, line 90

6.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 166-167

7.  “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 189-190

8.  “…brevity is the soul of wit,…”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, line 90

9.  “Words, words, words.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, line 191

10.  “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, lines 203-204

11.  “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 249-250

12.  “I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.  This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty!  in form, how moving, how express and admirable!  in action how like an angel!  in apprehension how like a god!  the beauty of the world!  the paragon of animals!  And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, about lines 295-309

13.  “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/Could force his soul so to his own conceit/That from her working all his visage wann’d;/Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit?  And all for nothing!/For Hecuba!/What’s Hecuba to him or him to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her?  What would he do,/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have?  He would drown the stage with tears,/And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;/Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,/Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/The very faculties of eyes and ears./Yet I,/A dull and muddy-mettl’d rascal, peak,/Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/And can say nothing; no, not for a king/Upon whose property and most dear life/A damn’d defeat was made.  Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,/Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat/As deep as to the lungs?  Who does me this?/Ha!/’Swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be/But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/To make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should ‘a fatted all the region kites/With this slave’s offal.  Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remoreseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!/Why, what an ass am I!  This is most brave,/That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,/Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,/And fall a-cursing like a very drab,/A scullion!  Fie upon’t! foh!/About, my brains.  Hum–I have heard/That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaim’d their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ.  I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle.  I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick.  I ‘a do blench,/I know my course.  The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil; and the devil hath power/T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me.  I’ll have grounds/More relative than this.  The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 543-601

14.  “To be or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them?  To die, to sleep–/No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.  ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d.  To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream.  Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.  There’s the respect/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,/When he himself might his quietus make/With a bare bodkin?  Who would these fardels bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death–/The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns–puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of?/Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pitch and moment,/With this regard, their currents turn awry/And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!/The fair Ophelia.–Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins rememb’red.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 56-90

15.  “Get thee to a nunnery.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, 121

16.  “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.  Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.  O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.  I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod.  Pray you avoid it.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-14

17.  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  –Gertrude, Act III, Scene ii, line 225

18.  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  –Claudius, Act III, Scene iii, lines 97-98

19.  “Let it work./For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard; and’t shall go hard/But I will delve one yard below their mines/And blow them at the moon.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv, lines 205-209

20.  “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/But in battalions!”  –Claudius, Act IV, Scene v, lines 75-76

21.  “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, about lines 179-180

22.  “Let Hercules himself do what he may./The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, lines 285-286

23.  “Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, about lines 211-216

24.  “The rest is silence.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, line 350

25.  “Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”  –Horatio, Act V, Scene ii, 351-352

There are so many themes in this great play as almost to overwhelm the analyst, so we will start by listing those that will be looked at here.  They are the following: sons avenging fathers; death–in the forms of murder (including regicide) and suicide; madness (real and feigned); action vs. inaction; and the uselessness of words vs. the need for action.

Hamlet isn’t the only son avenging his father’s murder.  So is Laertes, who zealously wishes to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius, at Hamlet’s rash hand.  Elsewhere, young prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back for Norway all the territory that Old Hamlet took from Old Fortinbras (Old Hamlet also killed Old Fortinbras).  Then there is Pyrrhus who, as recounted by the First Player in his “passionate speech”, avenged the murder of his father, Achilles, by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.

Death is an extensively explored theme in this play.  One poignant example is when Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and, with Horatio in the graveyard scene (see Quote 21), meditates on the dead jester’s life.  It saddens Hamlet to contemplate how this jester, so dear and beloved to Hamlet when he was a child, is now reduced to nothing by death…and Hamlet is now actually holding Yorick’s skull in his hand!

Similarly, great men of history, like Alexander the Great, are now each reduced to a skull and bones, no better than a beggar.  Also, it astonishes Hamlet that the First Clown (the gravedigger) can so coolly, and disrespectfully, pat with a spade the skulls of men who once may have been lawyers or other respectable men of society.  Death makes us all equal.

Moving over to more particular forms of death, there is much murder, especially regicide, in Hamlet.  Old Hamlet was the king of Denmark until his murder, before the play begins.  Prince Hamlet must avenge him by killing Claudius, the prince’s uncle and usurping king.  And by killing his uncle, Hamlet will be as guilty of regicide as Claudius is.

These aren’t the only regicides, though.  Old Fortinbras was killed by Old Hamlet.  Then there’s the First Player’s recounting of Pyrrhus’ killing of King Priam.  Also, Polonius mentions portraying, when he was young, Julius Caesar in a play, killed by Brutus; now, though Caesar was a dictator rather than a king, his assassination is close enough to be at least a variation on regicide.  It’s certainly no less a murder.

Other murders, accidental or deliberate, are those of Polonius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself.

From murder we move on to suicide, whether successfully (if accidentally) committed or merely contemplated.  Ophelia drowns herself in a brook: at the very least, she, in her madness, fails to pull her head above water; at most, she deliberately drowns herself in her despair over losing Hamlet’s love (or so it seems to her), losing her father Polonius, and losing her sanity.  The clownish gravediggers later debate, in a parody of legal language, whether or not she’s committed suicide, and therefore deserves a Christian burial.

Contemplations of suicide are done by Hamlet (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter!  O God!  God!”; see also Quote 14), and by Horatio at the end of the play, when he wishes to drink from the poisoned cup as he watches Hamlet dying.

From death we must move to the theme of madness.  We’ve already briefly looked at Ophelia’s madness, she who sings bawdy songs and acts wildly after enduring (as she sees it) Hamlet’s madness, his ill-treatment of her, and his murdering of Polonius.

Then we have Hamlet’s madness.  Presumably, he’s only faking it to distract everyone from his plotting to kill Claudius.  Certainly he insists he’s only “mad in craft,” and, interesting first word here, “essentially…not in madness.”

Could he, however, really be mad?  Hamlet himself wonders about that possibility from time to time (Raving abusively at poor Ophelia during his ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ rant in Act III, Scene i, he shouts, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.”).  He has, after all, seen a ghost, and in the pre-modern world of this play, when people were ignorant of modern psychiatry, seeing a ghost is pretty much tantamount to being possessed by an evil spirit, and therefore to going mad.  To be sure, Horatio and Marcellus warn Hamlet not to go alone with the ghost of Old Hamlet, for fear of the prince going mad (Horatio warns Hamlet in Act I, Scene iv, “What if it [the ghost] tempt you toward the flood, my lord, […]/And there assume some…horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness?  Think of it…”).

Next, we must examine the theme of action versus inaction.  We all know of Hamlet’s inability to act, except at the end of the play, when he knows he’s dying from the scratch of a poisoned rapier.  (We will leave discussion of this famous mystery until the end of the analysis.)  Other examples of this theme, from one extreme to the other, and with several intermediate points along the continuum, are worth exploring first.

Fortinbras represents the extreme of action; his name literally means, ‘strong arm’.  The only thing that keeps him from achieving his goal, reached at the very end of the play, is geography: the Norwegian prince must travel a great distance with his army to reconquer the Polish lands, then conquer Denmark and become its new king.  He is, nonetheless, firmly resolute in going after what he wants.

Perhaps only slightly less resolute is Pyrrhus, who briefly hesitates before striking down King Priam with his sword.  (So recounts the First Player: “So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood/And, like a neutral to his will and matter,/Did nothing./[…] so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,/A roused vengeance sets him new a-work;/And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall/On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,/With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword/Now falls on Priam.”)

Next, we have Laertes, who, though wildly resolute in avenging his father, even to the point of traitorously threatening Claudius, nonetheless cools off somewhat as he and Claudius plot the killing of Hamlet in a duel.  Certainly Claudius wonders about Laertes’ commitment to revenge.  (In Act IV, Scene vii, the king says, “Not that I think you did not love your father;/But that I know love is begun by time,/And that I see, in passages of proof,/Time qualifies the spark and fire of it./There lives within the very flame of love/A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;/And nothing is at a like goodness still;/For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,/Dies in his own too much.  That we would do,/We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes,/And hath abatements and delays as many/As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;/And then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift’s sigh/That hurts by easing.”)

Perhaps the crowning theme of this play is the uselessness of words versus the need for action.  Hamlet isn’t Shakespeare’s longest play for nothing.  Indeed, it is overloaded with words and very slow-moving action (see Quote 9), not that this apparent lop-sidedness detracts from the play’s worth, of course; for the whole message of the play can be summed up in the old cliché, ‘action speaks louder than words’.

Reference is constantly made to any character’s effusive or bombastic use of language.  For example, when Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude what he believes to be the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy,” all he needs to say is that Hamlet has gone mad from Ophelia’s rejection of his love; instead, Polonius speaks in the most absurdly prolix manner, even hypocritically saying that being laconic is preferable to being loquacious (see Quote 8).  Gertrude feels compelled to tell the chatterbox to use “More matter with less art.”

Earlier, he is similarly hypocritical with Laertes in advising his son to “Give everyone thy ear, but few thy voice.”  Then there’s his disparaging of the First Player’s passionate speeches about Priam and Hecuba, his own interrupting words angering Hamlet (Polonius: “This is too long.”  Hamlet snaps, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.”).

Another example of needlessly pompous language is towards the end of the play, when Osric tells Hamlet of Laertes’ challenge to a sword duel.  (The foppish courtier says, “Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing.  Indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”)  Indeed, Hamlet and Horatio comment on what a pretentious fool Osric is, right to his face.

During the same scene, Hamlet tells Horatio of when he was on the boat to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He forged letters replacing the original order to kill him with one to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and he, for a change, made practical use of the grandiloquent writing style, overloaded with similes and metaphors, that is the convention used in such letters.  (“I sat me down/Devis’d a new commission; wrote it fair./I once did hold it, as our statists do,/a baseness to write fair, and labour’d much/How to forget that learning; but, sir, now,/It did me yeoman’s service.”  Hamlet goes on to describe the letter, quoting what he wrote thus: “An earnest conjuration from the King,/As England was his faithful tributary,/As love between them like the palm might flourish,/As peace should be her wheaten garland wear,/And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,/And many such like as-es of great charge.”)

Hamlet feels no prickings of conscience from sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, for, when Claudius–fearful of his royal person–tells the prince’s two false friends to take Hamlet to England, even though they perhaps don’t know they are to be taking Hamlet to be executed there, they are clearly on the corrupt king’s side.  Indeed, they saturate Claudius with boot-licking words of how dependant all of Denmark is on the king’s safety.  (Rosencrantz says, ” The single and peculiar life is bound/With all the strength and armour of the mind/To keep itself from noyance; but much more/That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests/The lives of many.  The cease of majesty/Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw/What’s near it with it.  It is a massy wheel,/Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,/To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things/Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which when it falls,/Each small annexment, petty consequence,/Attends the boist’rous ruin.”)

Now we must go to an exploration of how none of this useless garrulousness can replace much-needed action.  When Hamlet is angry over his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle, he says, “break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”  Indeed, he must not speak: he must act, and we all know he can’t do that.  He can’t even act on his contemplated suicide in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

Hamlet isn’t the only one who cannot act, though: neither can Claudius, racked with guilt over having murdered his brother, and incapable of real repentance.  For if he repents, he must give up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life.  After being executed for murder and treason, he’d have his memory stained also as an incestuous adulterer.  All he can do is insincerely pray for forgiveness: more useless words!  (See quote 18.)

And what of Ophelia?  Did she really actively commit suicide in falling into the brook, or did she merely passively allow herself to be submerged while she, in her madness, distractedly sang the words of her songs?  The gravediggers debate whether or not she acted in her drowning, as we discussed above.

And finally, we must come to Hamlet’s own inaction…till the end of the play.  He finally does act, but why wait till after so many deaths?  He’s not afraid to kill: after all, he reverses the king’s order for his own execution in England so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed instead; he also, quite impulsively and thus contrary to his normal sense of caution, kills Polonius.

Indeed, where did this wanton killing of Polonius come from?  He claims he thinks it’s the king behind the arras, but why would Claudius hide there, so soon after praying in his own room?  Surely Hamlet knew it was probably someone other than the king.  Most likely, conflicted Hamlet just lashed out and killed someone, out of a wish to have at least acted in some general sense.

Many theories have been proposed for Hamlet’s delayed revenge, and I will look at some of these, while showing their faults, before proposing my own explanation.

The first is a simple, practical explanation: delaying Hamlet’s revenge is a plot device, intended to lengthen the play to a duration sufficient for the Elizabethan equivalent of a feature film.  The prince would have had easy access to Claudius.  All he’d need to do is ask for a private moment with the king, then when the two were all alone, Hamlet would pull out his rapier and kill Claudius. Had the prince no inhibitions about getting his revenge, the play would have been over in about a half hour.

Such an explanation shows Shakespeare’s reasons for having Hamlet delay, but it doesn’t provide Hamlet’s reasons for waiting so long.  Indeed, Hamlet himself doesn’t know.  (Before getting on the boat for England, he says, “Now, whether it be/Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th’ event–/A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom/And ever three parts coward–I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,/Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,/To do’t.”)

Some have suggested that Hamlet, knowing he was no better, felt sorry for Claudius: I don’t see how the prince, spewing such contempt on his uncle, would ever sympathize with him.  Consider when he rants at his mother in her bedroom: “Here is your husband, like a mildew’d ear/Blasting his wholesome brother.  Have you eyes?/Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,/And batten on this moor?”

It is true that Hamlet, in killing Claudius, would be as usurping and regicidal as his uncle was in killing Old Hamlet, and therefore would be no better than Claudius.  Such moral hypocrisy would send Hamlet to Hell.  This proposed idea would explain Hamlet’s delay, but not his final killing of Claudius.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that Hamlet knew that his revenge would make no difference in the larger sphere of things.  We all live, and we all die: the universe rolls merrily along, as it were, regardless of what petty decisions we make in our all too brief, all too insignificant lives.  Hamlet thus sees getting revenge as pointless.  Again, Hamlet’s delaying is explained, but his final getting of revenge is left unanswered.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud gives a fascinating theory–the Oedipus Complex.  Claudius, in murdering Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, has acted out an unconscious fantasy of the prince’s.  Though Hamlet doesn’t know it, deep down, he wishes he’d killed his father and climbed into bed with Gertrude!  (20th century productions so often show Hamlet having a thing for his mother.)

He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius, because he’s always wanted to do what his uncle has done.  Again, Hamlet fears moral hypocrisy sending him to Hell.  And again, this theory explains the delay, but not the final act of vengeance.

Now I will propose my theory.

I believe that part of what makes Hamlet, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, is its treatment of the subject of regicide, a crime that dates back to prehistoric, pagan times, when the aging king was killed by his younger replacement in a rite of human sacrifice (see such books as Frazer’s Golden Bough for a plethora of examples).  Though a horrible thing to do, killing the sacred king was considered necessary for the survival of the community.

These killings were distorted in the ancient memory of oral tradition and transformed into myths of, for example, dying and resurrecting gods (see Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths for many examples).  Hamlet, I believe, can also be considered such an adaptation of a crime committed throughout history and lodged in our unconscious minds, ever eager to be given new expression in a myth or play.

Killing a king is considered one of the worst crimes to commit, for it combines murder with treason. Furthermore, Claudius commits fratricide as well as regicide, and Hamlet must also kill a family member, making the crime all the more hideous and unnatural.  Yet to leave his father’s murder unavenged would be utterly unfilial.  Hamlet must kill Claudius.

Hamlet must examine his true motives for revenge, already an act that’s paralyzingly paradoxical in its extremes of good and evil.  Is he killing Claudius for his father, or for himself, so he can be the next king of Denmark?

As long as Hamlet is alive and well, he cannot go through with the revenge and physically do it: he can only plot, talk about it in long-winded speeches (Quote 13), and kill other people, those far from his conscience.  It’s often said that he can’t make up his mind, but he has made it up: he just can’t act.

He is psychologically paralyzed by the extreme good of his necessary revenge (revenge for the love of his father, and the morally needed killing of an incestuous regicide) and the extreme evil of his vengeance (Hamlet’s own guilt in committing regicide).

It is only when he knows he’s dying from “the point envenom’d” that he kills Claudius, and when he finally acts, he acts quickly and decisively, totally unlike his hitherto hesitant attitude.  Presumably, when he finally acts, he can feel the poison’s beginning effect on his body, and thus knows there’s no doubt he’s really dying.

Because he’s dying, he knows his revenge can’t at all be from selfish motives: he won’t replace Claudius as king; as he hears Fortinbras approaching with his army, he predicts the Norwegian prince will be king instead.  Now Hamlet’s revenge is only for his father, so he can do it guiltlessly.  The real tragedy of the play, however, is that not only he, but so many others must die alongside Claudius.