Leverenz Reading

The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal ViewAuthor(s): David Leverenz. Source: Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 291-308.


“John, I guess there are some people around here who think you have some little old lady in you.”[JOHN DEAN, Blind Ambition] “Who’s there?” Bernardo’s anxious shout, which begins Shakespeare’s most problematic play, raises the fundamental question of Hamlet’s identity. Various male authority figures advance simple answers. For the Ghost, Hamlet is a dutiful son who should sweep to his revenge and forget about his mother. For Claudius, Hamlet is a possible rebel who should be either made tractable or banished and killed. For Polonius, Hamlet is the heir gone mad through frustrated love of Ophelia, whom Polonius has denied him partly for reasons of state. But for Hamlet, the roles of dutiful son, ambitious rebel, or mad lovesick heir are just that: roles, to be played for others but not felt for himself. The “Who” re- mains unsettled within and without, “the heart of my mystery” (3.2.351).1 The mixed and contradictory expectations of these father figures reflect their own divided image of dutiful reason and bestial lust. At times their power seems to be defined by their ability to order women and children around. Hamlet sees Gertrude give way to Claudius, Ophelia give way to Polonius, and himself at last yield to the Ghost. But Hamlet also sees duplicity and falseness in all the fathers, except perhaps his own, and even there his famous delay may well indicate unconscious perception, rather than the unconscious guilt ascribed to him by a strict Freudian interpretation. Hamlet resists his father’s commands to obey. Despite his illusory idealization of the senior Hamlet as pure and angelic, he senses the Ghost’s complicity in the paternal double-speak that bends Gertrude and Ophelia, indeed bends feelings and the body itself, to self-falsifying Reason and filial loyalty. Hamlet is part hysteric, as Freud said, and part Puritan in his disgust at contamination and his idealization of his absent father. But he is also, as Goethe was the first to say, part woman. Goethe was wrong, as Freud was wrong, to assume that “woman” means weakness. To equate women with weak and tainted bodies, words, and feelings while men possess noble reason and ambi- tious purpose is to participate in Denmark’s disease dividing mind from body, act from feeling, man from woman. Hamlet’s tragedy is the forced triumph of filial duty over sensitivity to his own heart. To fulfill various fathers’ commands, he has to deny his self-awareness, just as Gertrude and Ophelia have done. That denial is equivalent to suicide, as the language of the last act shows. His puritani- cal cries about whoredom in himself and others, his hysterical outbursts to Ophelia about nunneries and painted women, are the outer shell of a horror at what the nurtured, loving, and well-loved soul has been cor- rupted to. From a more modern perspective than the play allows, we can sense that the destruction of good mothering is the real issue, at least from Hamlet’s point of view. Freudians, too many of whom have their own paternal answers to “Who’s there,” see Hamlet as an unconscious Claudius-Oedipus, or as a man baffled by pre-Oedipal ambivalences about his weak-willed, pas- sionate, fickle mother.2 While acknowledging Hamlet’s parricidal and matricidal impulses, we should see these inchoate feelings as responses, not innate drives. Interpersonal expectations, more than self-contained desires, are what divide Hamlet from himself and conscript him to false social purposes. In this perspective, taken from Harry Stack Sullivan, R. D. Laing, and D. W. Winnicott, Hamlet’s supposed delay is a natural reaction to overwhelming interpersonal confusion.3 His self- preoccupation is paradoxically grounded not so much in himself as in the extraordinary and unremitting array of “mixed signals” that sepa- rate role from self, reason from feeling, duty from love. Hamlet has no way of unambiguously understanding what anyone says to him. The girl who supposedly loves him inexplicably refuses his attentions. His grieving mother suddenly marries. His dead father, sud- denly alive, twice tells him to deny his anger at his mother’s shocking change of heart. Two of his best friends “make love to this employment” of snooping against him (5.2.57). Polonius, Claudius, and the Ghost all manifest themselves as loving fathers, yet expect the worst from their sons and spy on their children, either directly or through messengers. Who is this “uncle-father” and “aunt-mother” (2.2.366), or this courtier- father, who preach the unity of being true to oneself and others yet are false to everyone, who can “smile, smile, and be a villain” (1.5.108)? Gertrude’s ihconstancy not only brings on disgust and incestuous feel- ings, it is also the sign of diseased doubleness in everyone who has accommodated to his or her social role. Usurping Claudius is the symbol of all those “pretenders,” who are now trying to bring Hamlet into line. No wonder Hamlet weeps at the sight of a genuine actor-the irony reveals the problem-playing Hecuba’s grief. The male expressing a woman’s constancy once again mirrors Hamlet’s need. And the role, though feigned, at least is openly played. The actor’s tears are the play’s one unambiguous reflection of the grief Hamlet thought his mother shared with him before the onset of so many multitudinous double- dealings. To kill or not to kill cannot be entertained when one is not even sure of existing with any integrity. Being, not desiring or revenging, is the question. Freudians assume that everyone has strong desires blocked by stronger repressions, but contemporary work with schizophrenics re- veals the tragic variety of people whose voices are only amalgams of other people’s voices, with caustic self-observation or a still more terrify- ing vacuum as their incessant inward reality. This is Hamlet to a degree, as it is Ophelia completely. As Laing says of her in The Divided Self, “in her madness, there is no one there. She is not a person. There is no integral selfhood gexpressed through her actions or utterances. In- comprehensible statements are said by nothing. She has already died. There is now only a vacuum where there was once a person.”4 Laing misrepresents her state only because there are many voices in Ophelia’s madness speaking through her, all making sense, and none of them her own. She becomes the mirror for a madness-inducing world. Hamlet resists these pressures at the cost of a terrifying isolation. Once he thinks his mother has abandoned him, there is nothing and no one to “mirror” his feelings, as Winnicott puts it.5 Hamlet is utterly alone, beyond the loving semi-understanding of reasonable Horatio or obedient Ophelia. A world of fathers and sons, ambition and lust, considers grief “un- manly,” as Claudius preaches (1.2.94). Hamlet seems to agree, at least to himself, citing his “whorish” doubts as the cause of his inability to take manly filial action. This female imagery, which reflects the play’s male- centered world view, represents a covert homosexual fantasy, according to Freudian interpretation.6 Certainly Hamlet’s idealizations of his father and of Horatio’s friendship show a hunger for male closeness. Poisoning in the ear may unconsciously evoke anal intercourse. And the climactic swordplay with Laertes does lead to a brotherly understanding. But these instances of covert homosexual desire are responses to a lack. Poisoning in the ear evokes conscious and unconscious perversity to intimate the perversion of communication, especially between men. The woman in Hamlet is the source of his most acute perceptions about the diseased, disordered patriarchal society that tries to “play upon this pipe” of Hamlet’s soul (3.2.336), even as a ghost returning from the dead” (291-94).



Hamlet is not so much a full-throated tragedy as an ironic stifling of a hero’s identity by structures of rule that no longer have legitimacy. It is the most frustrating of Shakespeare’s plays precisely because it is the one most specifically about frustration. Shakespeare uses the opposition be- tween male and female to denote the impossibility of speaking truly in a public role without violating or being violated. Too aware of paternal duplicity, Hamlet remains wordlessly modem in his excess of words, unable to center himself in a society whose “offence is rank” (3.3.36) in every sense, and where the quest for self-knowledge is womanishly at odds with the manly roles he must put on. Even Ophelia only loved his mind. Hamlet’s final assumption of a swordsman’s identity is not a healthy solution to Oedipal conflicts but a mute submission to his father’s command to “whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.112). The manly identity is imposed, not grown into. Hamlet delays revenging his father’s death because his real struggle is to restore his mother’s validation of his feelings, though “whore” is the only word available to him for his heartsick disgust. For Freudians to call Hamlet a mini-Claudius, to ac- cept his male world’s perspectives of ambition and lust as sufficient mo- tives, is to do what all the fathers want to do: explain Hamlet by their own divided selves. Perhaps even incest fantasies, as Laing tells us, may be defenses against the dread of being alone.15 What T. S. Eliot took for Hamlet’s failure, Shakespeare took for theme, as I have tried to show.16 It is a play “dealing with the effects of a mother’s guilt upon her son,” not as sexuality but as identity itself. Ham- let’s self-doubt is joined to Gertrude’s insufficiency. Her “negative and insignificant” character “arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is in- capable of representing,” Eliot rightly says, while the demand of his father for revenge calls Hamlet to a clear though false role.17 But these are not flaws in the drama. They are flaws in the patriarchal order, which has cracked all the mirrors for self-confirmation. Hamlet succeeds so well, and has lasted so long, because it speaks so keenly to the dissociation of sensibility Eliot elsewhere describes.18 Whether we call it role and self, reason and nature, mind and body, manly and womanly, or the language of power and the language of feeling, we recognize these dichotomies in our world and in ourselves. How poisonous rule o’ercrows every per- son’s spirit (5.2.342) is indeed the fundamental answer to “Who’s there,” as Eliot’s critique implies. To pursue the question, Hamlet learns much too well, is not only to fail, but to participate in the collusion” (307-8).