10 October 1993
For many years, critics have delved into the possibilities of Hamlet and the Oedipus complex, began by Ernest Jones in his book Hamlet and Oedipus. Lora Heller and Abraham Heller do not agree. In their article, "Hamlet's Parents: The Dynamic Formulation of A Tragedy," they present valid textual arguments, competing with Jones' observations. They say that this Oedipal motivation of Hamlet is "finally unacceptable... because if an unresolved Oedipal conflict is the crux of Hamlet's problem, then Shakespeare has given us... an intensely neurotic, incapacitated tragic hero."
One main thing that the authors work off is the lack of a significant bad relationship between Hamlet and his father. This "assumption, truly, cannot be supported textually." The Hellers go on to say that this means that Hamlet regressed to the period of Oedipal conflict rather than never coming to Oedipal maturity. The Hellers cite the first meeting of the Ghost and Hamlet as one that shows no indications of a conflicted relationship. "His unthinking, whole-hearted, instant support of his father, 'that I.../ May sweep to my revenge.' I can find nothing in this scene but the non-dependent, supportive love of a mature young man for his father, and the admiration and respect of father for son." This last sentence shows how the Hellers have presented their evidence and draw cunningly cold assertions with confidence.
Another main bit of evidence that the authors bring forth is one line spoken by Gertrude in the scene where the Ghost comes to remind Hamlet of his promise not to hurt his mother: "To whom do you speak this?" (III,iv,131). "As addressed to the Ghost, these words strongly stress the fact that in Hamlet's regressed state the appearance of his father utterly castrates him." This leads the Hellers again to Hamlet's regression to the Oedipal state. In the first meeting, Hamlet was a strong, collected character in speaking and is now different. Hamlet "is no longer the same person whom his father's appearance in the mother's bedroom once again threatens with an old childhood fear."
The Hellers also present the fact that Hamlet feels an intense hostility towards Gertrude. While Claudius did indeed
do the deed, Hamlet, suddenly deprived of the father he had identified with, believes that "it was his mother who essentially murdered his father." The authors come specifically out to say that they don't believe in Gertrude being an accomplice in the murder. "The words of the Ghost imply a two-fold motive for Claudius: the Queen and the crown." The Hellers are not afraid to make a statement, which they then backup with textually supported facts.
Getting to the heart of the Oedipal question, the authors speak of Hamlet identifying Claudius as his mother. This is based on Hamlet's words: "father and mother is man and wife,/ man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother" (IV,iii,54-55). "This is an attempt to focus on the murderer as the Ghost directed." Hamlet can satisfy his own urges against his mother and appease the Ghost at the same time.
The Oedipal conflict is then easily seen as a regression. "It is an everyday commonness that the death, especially the sudden death, of the parent with whom the child was identified is often interpreted by the child as a murder by the surviving parent toward whom he has long felt hostility."
One of the main reasons I like this article is how blunt the authors are. The Hellers come right out in a clear, concise manner and state exactly what they want to say. There is no hedging on their points and that makes me accept them easier. This is by far the simplest article I have read so far in grammar and sentence structure but it was one of the best in content and meaning.
Heller, Lora and Abraham Heller. "Hamlet's Parents: The Dynamic Formulation of A Tragedy." American Imago 17 (1960): 413-421.