I remember as one of the arguments for Hamlet having an unconscious Oedipus complex was that when confronting his mother about her part in his father's death, and accidentally killing Polonius, Freud says that Hamlet seems overly upset about the whole thing.

Freud gives his opinion of Hamlet in a long footnote to Chapter 5 in The Interpretation of Dreams:

In Oedipus Rex the basic wish-phantasy of the child is brought to light and realized as it is in dreams; in Hamlet it remains repressed, and we learn of its existence–as we discover the relevant facts in a neurosis– only through the inhibitory effects which proceed from it. In the more modern drama, the curious fact that it is possible to remain in complete uncertainty as to the character of the hero has proved to be quite consistent with the over-powering effect of the tragedy. The play is based upon Hamlet's hesitation in accomplishing the task of revenge assigned to him; the text does not give the cause or the motive of this hesitation, nor have the manifold attempts at interpretation succeeded in doing so. According to the still prevailing conception, a conception for which Goethe was first responsible. Hamlet represents the type of man whose active energy is paralyzed by excessive intellectual activity: "Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." According to another conception. the poet has endeavoured to portray a morbid, irresolute character, on the verge of neurasthenia. The plot of the drama, however, shows us that Hamlet is by no means intended to appear as a character wholly incapable of action. On two separate occasions we see him assert himself: once in a sudden outburst of rage, when he stabs the eavesdropper behind the arras, and on the other occasion when he deliberately, and even craftily, with the complete unscrupulousness of a prince of the Renaissance, sends the two courtiers to the death which was intended for himself. What is it, then, that inhibits him in accomplishing the task which his father's ghost has laid upon him? Here the explanation offers itself that it is the peculiar nature of this task. Hamlet is able to do anything but take vengeance upon the man who did away with his father and has taken his father's place with his mother–the man who shows him in realization the repressed desires of his own childhood. The loathing which should have driven him to revenge is thus replaced by self-reproach, by conscientious scruples, which tell him that he himself is no better than the murderer whom he is required to punish. I have here translated into consciousness what had to remain unconscious in the mind of the hero; if anyone wishes to call Hamlet an hysterical subject I cannot but admit that this is the deduction to be drawn from my interpretation.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1899. 3rd ed., 1911. Trans. and Intro. A. A. Brill. London: Allen and Unwin, New York: Macmillan, 1913. pp. 224–225 n. Accessed at archive.org 13 May 2024.

But nothing here quite matches my memory that Freud says Hamlet's overreaction is a clue to his Oedipal feelings. Does anyone have any resources that confirm my memory on this, hopefully with links so I can read the whole text?

1 Answer 1


You are misremembering. It was not Freud, but his student Ernest Jones who cited Hamlet's hostility to his mother and Polonius as evidence of his repressed Oedipal desire:

The intensity of Hamlet's repulsion against woman in general, and Ophelia in particular, is a measure of the powerful "repression" to which his sexual feelings are being subjected. The outlet for those feelings in the direction of his mother has always been firmly dammed, and now that the narrower channel in Ophelia's direction has also been closed the increase in the original direction consequent on the awakening of early memories tasks all his energy to maintain the "repression". His pent-up feelings find a partial vent in other directions. The petulant irascibility and explosive outbursts called forth by his vexation at the hands of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and especially of Polonius, are evidently to be interpreted in this way, as also is in part the burning nature of his reproaches to his mother. Indeed, towards the end of his interview with his mother the thought of her misconduct expresses itself in that almost physical disgust which is so characteristic a manifestation of intensely "repressed' sexual feeling.

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out (Act III, Sc. 4)

Hamlet's attitude towards Polonius is highly instructive. Here the absence of family tie and of other similar influences enables him to indulge to a relatively unrestrained extent his hostility towards what he regards as a prating and sententious dotard.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. 1949. New York: Norton, 1976. pp. 86–87. Accessed at archive.org 13 May 2024.

The development of Jones's 1949 monograph occurred over several years:

  • Jones first expanded on Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams footnote in an essay entitled "The Œdipus-complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive," published in The American Journal of Psychology vol. 21 (1910). This essay is available on Wikisource.
  • The subsequent year, an enlarged version was published in German as Das Problem Des Hamlet und Der Ödipus-Komplex (Trans. Paul Tausig. Schriften zur angewandten Seelenkunde, Heft 10. Leipzig and Vienna: Deuticke, 1911. Accessed at archive.org 13 May 2024).
  • Jones further elaborated this into a longer essay that was published as the first chapter of his Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis (International Psycho-Analytical Library 5. London and Vienna: International Psycho-Analytic Press, 1923. Accessed at archive.org 13 May 2024).
  • After the book-length version of the essay appeared in 1949, subsequent editions of Jones's Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis dropped the first chapter, but include a related essay called "The Death of Hamlet's Father" (Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis: Vol. I, Miscellaneous Essays. The International Psycho-Analytical Library 40. London: Hogarth, 1951. pp. 323–328. Accessed at archive.org 13 May 2024). This latter essay had first been published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 1948.

It is left as an exercise for the reader to trace this particular idea (that Hamlet's anger at his mother and his enraged murder of Polonius is a reaction formation betraying his barely suppressed lust for Gertrude) through all of Jones's increasingly longer restatements of Freud's original digression.

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