What Can Psychoanalysis Tell Us About Hamlet?

What does a psychoanalytic interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet involve, and how does literature help us to understand psychoanalysis?

Nov 16, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

psychoanalysis hamlet


Hamlet is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest and most difficult play. Set in a fictional version of Denmark, it follows the tragedy which unfolds between Prince Hamlet, his family, and the court. This play has historically been scrutinized in a psychoanalytic mode and so functions well as an introduction to psychoanalytic interpretations of literature. We begin by summarizing the plot of Hamlet. We then move on to discuss elements of psychoanalysis and expand on the theory of Jacques Lacan in particular. We then conclude by analyzing Lacanian interpretations of the play and relating aspects of Hamlet to core Lacanian concepts.


What Happens in Hamlet?

ophelia millais
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, ca. 1851, via Google Arts & Cultue


After the death of his father, the King of Denmark, Prince Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who has now married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. Filled with grief and a desire for revenge, Hamlet feigns madness as he plots to avenge his father’s death.


As Hamlet grapples with his plan, his relationships become strained. He rejects Ophelia, his love interest, and becomes suspicious of everyone around him. Hamlet stages a play called “The Mousetrap” to gauge Claudius’s reaction and confirm his guilt. During a confrontation with his mother, Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, Ophelia’s father, thinking he is Claudius. This exacerbates the tensions in the kingdom, and Ophelia, driven mad by her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection, drowns herself.


Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, returns to Denmark seeking revenge for his family’s demise. Claudius manipulates him into challenging Hamlet to a fencing duel, in which Laertes will use a poisoned sword. Meanwhile, Claudius conspires to poison Hamlet with a poisoned cup of wine. In the climactic duel, both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded by the poisoned sword. Queen Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine intended for Hamlet and dies. As Hamlet realizes his impending death, he kills Claudius with the poisoned sword and reveals the truth about his father’s murder. As the play reaches its tragic conclusion, Hamlet appoints his friend Horatio to tell his story, and Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, assumes the throne of Denmark.

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Freud, Lacan, and Psychoanalysis 

sigmund freud photograph
Sigmund Freud, Max Halberstadt, ca. 1931, via Google Arts & Culture.


What is psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis is a way of theorizing the mind and a method for treating mental disorders. At its core, psychoanalysis seeks to explore and understand the unconscious mind, which Sigmund Freud—the founder of psychoanalysis—believed contains thoughts, memories, desires, and impulses that are outside of conscious awareness but still influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.


It is important to stress at this stage that psychoanalysis is a discipline with various schools and approaches and that it is important not to fixate on one of these as the psychoanalytic approach. This article is going to examine a psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet based on the theories of Jacques Lacan.


Let us first introduce Lacan and his work before moving on to his analysis of the play. Jacques Lacan was and remains the most influential post-Freudian psychoanalyst, with the possible competition of Carl Jung, and it is the diversity of his intellectual interests which sets his work apart from many other psychoanalysts. In particular, his engagement with various philosophers (and their engagement with his work in turn) has led Lacan to be seen as expanding on some of the philosophical implications of Freud’s work while at the same time taking psychoanalysis in a direction of his own.


jacques lacan photo
Photo of Lacan, taken from his book “La psychanalyse,” 1975, via Wikimedia Commons.


It is difficult to underestimate Lacan’s influence on French philosophy and intellectual life more generally. During the 1960s, many important philosophers—including Jean Hyppolite, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigara, and Julia Kristeva—attended his seminars. Although much of Lacan’s earlier work can be seen as working out some of the implications of Freud’s work—and involved strident criticisms of other psychoanalysts for deviating too far from the Freudian framework—Lacan’s later work is particularly original and figured as an alternative conception of psychoanalysis to that which Freud supported.


Lacan’s style can be characterized by its formalization, which increased throughout his career. We might follow Adrian Johnston (to whom much of this article is indebted) in suggesting that this move is, in part, a response to the many and various critical flights of fancy which Freud has faced as a result of his deceptively user-friendly use of natural language. It is for this reason that Lacan’s works are often full of complicated-looking diagrams, and his favored analogical subject is mathematics.


Lacan’s Three Registers: The Imaginary, The Symbolic, The Real

jacques lacan plaque
A commemorative plaque for Jacques Lacan, 2010, via Wikimedia Commons.


Lacan’s analysis of human beings in terms of three different registers or aspects constitutes one of, if not the, characteristic conceptual mechanisms within his philosophy. These registers are the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. Lacan’s oeuvre is often periodized in terms of the emphasis he placed on each of these registers: the 1930s and 40s focusing on the Imaginary, the 50s on the Symbolic, and the 60s and 70s on the Real.


The Imaginary is the arena of consciousness, of self-awareness. It is the area associated with everyday reality, with fiction, with simulation. The Imaginary is where we mistake the Real for the Symbolic and vice versa—when, for instance, we load incidental occurrences with significance, a pattern that is constitutive of paranoia and delusion.


The Symbolic was originally theorized such that it had a manifestly intimate relationship with language. This initial theorization related the Symbolic closely to ideas of symbolic order: to customs, institutions, mores, and norms which govern society. Linguistic customs, mores, and norms are some of the most powerful and the most diffuse ones. Lacan’s interaction with developments in linguistics led him to model his conception of the unconscious closely on emergent conceptions of syntax, such that we could reasonably say that the structure of the unconscious is, if not the structure of language, then the structure of the structure of language.


psyche cupid garden
Psyche entering Cupid’s garden, John Waterhouse, 1903, via ArtUK.


The Real is arguably Lacan’s most difficult concept. The difficulty of the concept is intrinsic to it. At certain points in Lacan’s work, it seems to be closely related to—if not the direct equivalent of—the Kantian notion of ‘things in themselves.’ This developed into an emphasis on fullness and plenitude and the suggestion that the Real is a space of concreteness, absent of antagonism. These antagonisms are insertions of the Symbolic: “only through the power of language can material being in itself be said to be “missing” things.”


This idea developed further into an idea of the Real that reintroduces, if not antagonism, then certainly tension in the form of a conception of the Real as the convergence of opposites. Lacan’s Real developed an ever-proliferating range of features as his career went on.


Hamlet presents a number of opportunities to explore these Lacanian ideas. Certainly, his famous (and controversial) theory of ‘sexuation’ appears relevant to an analysis of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. This was an account of sexual difference which was represented by a non-biological set of subject positions, which held that sexed subjects were necessarily out of sync with one another. Thus the famous Lacanian edict: “there is no sexual relationship.”


Lacan on Hamlet and Fantasy

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Fantasy on Modern Costume, Leon Bakst, 1912, via WikiArt


Lacan deals with Hamlet explicitly too, and his lecture on the play raises a number of interesting questions. One question revolves around the nature of the fantasy. Firstly, there is the relationship between desire and the signifier, which is the subject the essay begins with. The signifier is a kind of opposing concept to the symbol, in that a symbol is something that “represents something for someone,” whereas the signifier “represents a subject for another signifier.”


It is the relationship between desire and a signifier that Hamlet reveals. Hamlet is the image of the level of subjectivity of a signifier—“there is a level on which it can be said that his fate is expressed in terms of a pure signifier.” Hamlet embodies the idea of signifiers as expressions of fate, which is to say, expressions of the location of human beings in relation to vehicles of meaning rather than vice versa.


Lacan’s essay explores Hamlet as the ‘drama of an individual subjectivity,’ a phrase intimately bound up in the idea of fantasy. Fantasy is, for Lacan, an ambiguous concept because it appears to draw together both the deepest unconscious and surface-level awareness of oneself. The fantasy has meaning—which is to say, it is rescued from being absurd precisely by the unconscious interpretation of it. The unconscious level is how we understand Hamlet’s distraction from his task, and the significance of Ophelia in the play is making this aspect of the fantasy explicit, in forcing Hamlet’s negativity to the fore. This is why Lacan is able to say that Ophelia is, if not the most important character in the play, the character that is most emblematic of the play’s intentions.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.