Critical Analysis Oedipal Complex in Hamlet






Critical Analysis: Oedipal Complex in Hamlet


William Shakespeare’s literary works have continually enjoyed widespread public acceptance through time. He explicitly explores various themes that have different implications on the audience. He achieves this through the manipulation of different characters that play an important role of relaying vital information to the audience. Notably, his themes exhibit an acceptable degree of maturity in the literary circles. These have various implications and evoke different responses from the audience that are both positive and negative.

In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare presents to the public the sensitive theme of oedipal complex. This is well articulated in the essay through Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet. Hamlet harbors sexual feelings for his mother and this prompts him to assume insanity in order to carry out his plan of revenge. Critical studies in this regard contend that his revenge is triggered by the hatred he feels for Claudius for having won his mother’s affection even after killing his father. It is against this background that this paper provides a critical analysis of the inherent theme of oedipal complex and underscores how it affects and influences the characters of Hamlet.

Essentially, the oedipal complex affirms that a male child often desires an intimate and sexual relationship with his mother. This is often triggered by feelings of rivalry and the need for utmost attention from his father. The principle is derived from the mythological stories of Oedipus, the prince who supposedly killed his father and later unknowingly married his mother. According to Freud, this is a normal behavioral attribute that is mainly experienced between the age three and five years and disappears with time once the child develops the superego that enables the same to deal with such desires accordingly. In Hamlet, Shakespeare explores this through evaluation of the behavior of Hamlet. The audience is made to believe that Hamlet harbors an unconscious sexual desire for his mother.

At the beginning of the essay, it is certain that the family structure of Hamlet is altered through the introduction of Claudius. This makes it difficult for Hamlet to make viable choices with regard to the person that he needs to refer to as his father. This is further compounded by the fact that Hamlet is also masculine and needs to further this position within the family context. He finds it tricky to deal with this disjointed identity and therefore decides to eliminate the second masculine figure that is presented by his uncle. In the previous years, Hamlet had idolized his father and regarded him differently, something he found difficult to do when his uncle enters his life.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, Hamlet is conceived to be overwhelmed with oedipal feelings. To begin with, his desire to murder his uncle is inclined in the need to take this position from his uncle. Hamlet according to this school of thought can go to any length to eliminate his uncle form the life of his father. The desire for vengeance stems from Hamlet’s frustration of having lost the ability to further his sexual feelings that he had for his mother (Jacques 13). In this respect, it is posited that Claudius prevented him from pursuing the feelings he had suppressed since his childhood. The urge to pursue this vengeance is also encouraged by his father’s ghost who informs him that the marriage of his mother is adulterous. Basically, this is true because Claudius was his paternal uncle and therefore marrying his mother was incestuous.

It is also argued that the oedipal feelings that are exhibited by Hamlet are contributed to by the character of his mother. In particular, her hasty marriage with Claudius, hardly a month after the death of her husband was insensitive to the feelings of her son. In this respect, it is speculated that when experiencing grief, a son always yearns for feelings of affections from his mother. These are natural feelings that can be effectively addressed through assurance. Thus by getting marred before Hamlet had fully grieved for the death of his father; it indicates that these feelings were not attended to. This makes Hamlet jealous and increases his desire for revenge to Claudius whom he believes is an obstacle between his mother and him.

As indicated earlier, Hamlet had idolized his father whom he held in high regard. When his mother remarries quickly after his father’s death and he believes that his uncle is responsible for this, he considers it his duty to carry out his revenge. This urge and the relative anger are further perpetuated by his father’s ghost that informs him that the marriage is actually adulterous.

Carrying out the revenge would possibly make his father, although absent, to be proud of him. In addition, it can be argued that carrying out this plan was an exemplification of the respect he had for his father. The fact that he idolized his father motivates him to carry out his plans and thus fulfills his emotional feelings. Fulfillment of wishes in this respect denotes the desire that is unconsciously motivated and that which seeks to enable an individual to achieve the kind of things that enhances personal pleasure. Satisfaction of this desire according to Freud’s thinking is fundamental for enhancing happiness of both the ego and the id.

Ophelia’s death also provides useful insights that point to the desire that Hamlet has for his mother. At this point, he ascertains that he is unable to love any other person but his mother. During Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet is enraged because of the fact that the death of unexpected. This makes him to tell the king and queen that “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane, drink off this portion” (Shakespeare xi). Notably, he mentions incest to these despite the fact that they did not involve in any. Critical studies ascertain that this could be a subconscious indication of the sexual feelings that he had for his mother but which he made efforts to suppress. However, this can be contested on the premise that Hamlet was actually influenced by rage and was exhibiting some level of insanity as he did not have full control over his feelings. However, critical studies in this regard argue that Hamlet’s madness was feigned and all along, he was aware of his actions and conversation (Strachey 238). In this consideration therefore, it is certain that he actually implied feelings of sexual desire for his mother.

Jacques also points out that in some instances, normal conversations can influence expression of one’s feelings unconsciously (23). This is manifested when Hamlet has lengthy conversation with his mother in which he sets certain regulations with regard to sexuality. These feelings are undoubtedly unusual as Hamlet presents his mother with certain rules that he deems would deliver her current adulterous marriage. He tells his mother “Oh throw away the worst part of it, and live the purer with the other half. Goodnight-but go not to my uncle’s bed” (Shakespeare xii). In this conversation, it is certain that Hamlet’s words are suggestive and imply that Gertrude should be in love with him and not with Claudius. Both he and his mother do not seem to understand the underlying meaning of these words.

Later when he holds another conversation with his mother, Hamlet confesses that her relationship with his uncle triggers feelings of jealousy in him. “Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, inch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, for a pair of reechy kisses, or paddling your neck with his damned fingers” (Shakespeare xiii). These words are filled with a high degree of contempt and suggest that Hamlet disregards the sexual relations that she shares with his mother.

According to the theoretical construct, the desire in the oedipal dream is usually in a warped form although there are inherent echoes of the same in reality. At a personal level, Hamlet makes a self evaluation and suspects that he could be in love with his mother. He posits “That I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft” (Shakespeare xii). This implies that he was pretending to be mad in order to pursue his plans. This had however made him obsessed with craftiness and gradually, he was assuming madness. Nonetheless, it can be argued that Hamlet could not be in position to understand his feelings and by stating that he was mad in craft, it indicates that he was confused and unsure of his behavior.

After killing Polonius, he makes a critical remark that portrays his feelings and perceptions of love. “From the fair forehead of an innocent love and sets a blister there, makes marriage vows as false as dicers’ oaths” (Shakespeare xii). This means that Hamlet does not believe that love is an imperative aspect of marriage. He asserts that marriage is not an indication of love rather true love is multifaceted and complex and its meaning goes beyond the institution of marriage. This can also be used to imply that Hamlet had differential feelings towards the marriage of his uncle and his mother. It is clear that he believes that his uncle did not love his mother as much as he did. By complexity, he ascertains that his unusual behavior and assumption of love is greatly contributed to by the feelings of affection that he has for his mother.


Shakespeare’s effective presentation of the vital themes in his text plays a critical in enhancing the attention of the audience as well as evoking relevant response from the same. The theme of Oedipus complex has raised various concerns since historical times. The relative arguments have increasingly been inclined in the Freudian theories as well as the teachings of psychoanalysis. From the preceding analysis, it is certain that Oedipus complex greatly influences the behavior that is exhibited by young Hamlet. He presents a notion of harboring sexual feelings for his mother. This is contributed to by his mother’s marriage to his uncle hardly a month after her husband died. This raised suspicion and Hamlet believed that he was responsible for the death of his father.

Because he idolized his father and held him in high regard, he deemed it impetrative to revenge by killing his uncle. This triggers him to undertake revenge as he believes that Claudius is responsible for the death of his father. This feeling is further perpetuated by the encouragement that he gets from his father’s ghost. As it has come out from the study, it is certain that Hamlet has sexual feelings for her mother. This is exemplified through the insane behavior that he assumes. Notably, the “normal” conversations that he holds with his mother imply that he is jealous of his uncle. He goes to the extent of making attempts to stop his mother from sleeping with his uncle. In addition, he posits that the marriage institution that the two share is not based on love and likens his feelings to the complexity that is used to define love.

Annotated Bibliography

“Family Romances.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 9. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1959. 237-241

The author provides an insightful analysis of Sigmund Freud’s approach to psychoanalysis. He explores the basic elements of Oedipus complex from a psychoanalytic point of view. Notably, this information provides a basement upon which vital deductions regarding to Hamlet’s play are made.

“Introduction.” Hamlet, By William Shakespeare: Screenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996. xi-xv.

This provides vital background information that informs the audience of the conflict in the play. This enables the audience to be well informed in advance about the anticipated conflict and therefore follow the same closely. This knowledge is important for effective analysis of the play.

Lacan, Jacques. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet (1977).” Literature and Psychoanalysis–The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Shoshana Felman, ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 11-52

The author provides an in depth analysis of the inherent desire in Hamlet fro a psychoanalytic point of view. He contends that Hamlet’s sexual desire compels him to carry out the revenge. He ascertains that satisfaction of desire is a requisite for attainment of happiness. This information provided vita guidance for the study under review.


Oedipal complex is one of the sensitive themes that Shakespeare manages to effectively explore in his Hamlet. Notably, this theme triggers various events and revolves around the main characters in the story. It can be considered one of the central themes that augment other themes such as revenge and insanity. Moreover it triggers the relative events and makes it possible for the author to enhance coherence in the play. Despite this elemental role, it is certain that this is deeply embedded and requires critical thinking in order to identify it within the text. As it will come out from the study, the sexual feelings that Ham let harbors for his mother are implicated for triggering him to pursue revenge against his uncle whom he believed denied him a chance to satisfy these feelings.