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Hamlet--the lonely only and his siblings.


O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon't Hamlet--the lonely only and his siblings V A brother's murder ... (Claudius, Hamlet, 3.3.37)

This paper suggests that, paradoxically, the only child gives us the template for the psychological dimension of sibling relations and offers a useful insight into the initiating place of siblings in the construction of social life (Mitchell, 2003; 2006a; 2006b; 2013). It is argued that siblinghood as a lateral relationship along a horizontal axis is distinct from the vertical axis of the parent-child relationship, although of course they interact. Although the wealth of sibling relations in psychoanalytic case histories--particularly child treatments--is in the background, the reading of Hamlet offered in this paper exemplifies the contention that we need to develop a fuller understanding of the horizontal.

In Shakespeare's comedies women are all-important. The heroines may be sisters such as Kate and Bianca or twinned as Viola and Sebastian. If they are only children then they are doubled in sibling-like relations: for better (Rosalind and Celia) or worse (Hermia and Helena). Being a singleton is accidental and rapidly compensated for. The comedies demonstrate that siblings and those lateral relations that surround and succeed them, peers, cousins, friends, affines and finally consorts, despite all the problems and disturbances, constitute a positive social world in which endings are more-or-less happy. Their plots involve the sorting out of difficulties in order to restore the social world.

All Shakespeare's tragic heroes are men and singletons. Being at start and finish a 'lonely only' is definitional of the tragic hero: 'my way of life / Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf / And that which should accompany old age / As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends / I must not look to have' (Macbeth, 5.3.24-8). The world of the tragedies is one of warring and war. The social order is demolished so that a new one may arise. It is as though at the tragedies' conclusions, aloneness is ultimately realized in death, and the grave is an intrinsically private place. The social is as 'rotten' as is the State of Denmark; the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate killing, legitimate and illegitimate sexuality are blurred. Where in the comedies, some brother's sister can be transformed through kinship allowances into a symbolic 'brother's' wife, in the tragedies a man's social destiny as omnipotent King, Commander or soldier collapses or cannot be realized; and yet for a man to be a man there is nothing else: 'Othello's occupation's gone' is matched at the end of Hamlet (5.2.349-55).
   Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;
   For he was likely, had he been put on,
   To have proved most royally; and for his passage,
   The soldiers' music and the rites of war
   Speak loudly for him.

Creative artists, with their exploration and presentation of multiple meanings, are usually ahead of social scientists, as Freud, with a typical reference to Hamlet, recognized:

[creative writers] are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we have not yet opened up for science (Freud, 1907, p. 8).

In particular, dramatists, directors and actors explore and re-explore, with different interpretations over time, what it means to be a person. With this in mind, what can the singleton hero and the revenge play Hamlet tell us about siblings, and what can a psychoanalytic approach to siblings contribute to an interpretation of Shakespeare? For Freud, who founded psychoanalysis on a new understanding of dreaming and on the universal human propensity to hysteria (Mitchell, 2000), Hamlet, the 'hysteric' who has 'bad dreams', arguably contributed as much to the Oedipus complex, the 'shibboleth' of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1905, p. 226) as Sophocles' Oedipus. From Freud onwards, most psychoanalytical interpretations of Hamlet are expansions and variations of the Oedipal theme.

Siblings are omnipresent in Shakespeare's plays; they are much mentioned in the critical literature (e.g. Fineman 1980). However, because psychoanalysis assimilates siblings to the vertical axis, literary critics who use psychoanalysis mostly follow suit. The attempt here is to move the focus of our understanding from the exclusive vertical to the additional horizontal axis as a general proposition.

Where literary critics who use psychoanalysis have noted the interplay of Hamlet's identifications with Claudius as uncle/father and uncle/brother, they do so without differentiating the roles. This is not surprising--if Hamlet were a person he would make both identifications in an unconscious non-contradictory way. An adult will in his infancy have passed through both sibling and Oedipal traumatic experiences; he therefore will have both scenarios mingled together, one dominant in one instance, the other in another. The methodology deployed in these literary-psychoanalytic readings also follows Freud's repeated theoretical proposal that the Oedipus complex opens onto a family complex and that sisters and brothers stand in the same place as mothers and fathers. This can be the case--for instance as when a father dies and the eldest son instantly becomes the new head of the family, tribe or nation. But this is also not by any means always the case and the argument here depends on making clear the distinction between lineal and lateral relations. Failing to grasp the distinction repeats rather than analyses the confusion that indeed underlies the distinction. When a later trauma occurs that replays the earlier one then the present mingles with the past and the chaos to which Shakespeare's tragedies bear witness has come again.

When he is aged thirty, Hamlet experiences a trauma that would have re-evoked the infantile situation. Hamlet's present age of thirty years and his birth thirty years previously are quite insistently coupled thus bringing his adulthood and his infancy together in our minds. Act 5, for example, includes a comment about 'that day/that our last king Hamlet o'came Fortinbras/the very day that young Hamlet was born' (5.1.3640). The resulting chaos of the conflation of present and past trauma is certainly represented by a son marrying his mother, but we should also note that Oedipus is the brother of his four children. This lateral relationship seems to go un-noted by experts and lay audiences alike (Mitchell, 2003).

Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, were part of Freud's creative bloodstream. He always read the plays in English. Where Freud's references are not explicit and developed, his language is impregnated with half-buried phrases and quotations. In his turn, Shakespeare has been credited with producing in general, and with Hamlet in particular, the first play of modern psychology (Bloom, 1999) or, looking before and afterwards, standing on the cusp of the Renaissance and modernity (Greenblatt, 1990), or as being our contemporary (Kott, 1967). This timeless, generic quality within a specific historical context of either 'then' or 'now' is shared by psychoanalysis.

The fact that Hamlet is an only child is appropriate: the only child wonders what has happened to the sibling who should have arrived (Mitchell, 2003; 2011; 2013). How far is he confused with his uncle Claudius not only as an Oedipal son lusting for his mother, but as a brother who fears he may have committed Cain's 'primal' crime--a brother's murder? Hamlet is haunted by the question of sibling murder. We are introduced to Hamlet in the second scene of the play as a young man mourning his father. Hamlet's insistent grief is blasted by a traumatic discovery: his father did not die of a snake bite but was murdered by his own brother. As with all psychological trauma the present experience re-evokes a major earlier one. Because of the deferred action (Freud, 1895; 1918) of the infantile trauma with its implications of murder, Hamlet's 'prophetic soul' would have had an unconscious awareness of the crime. The news of fratricide from the ghost of his father nevertheless shakes him to his foundations. Hamlet loses the plot of his own life: he is no longer the Renaissance Prince whom Ophelia describes later, with a 'courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword' (3.1.152), nor any more the mourner whose otherwise appropriate 'inky cloak' (1.2.78) of mourning instead sticks out like a sore thumb in the general revelry of his mother's marriage to his uncle. Traumatized, Hamlet's mourning for his father, which should have been socially shared, regresses to individual melancholia; his black costume becoming the insignia of what today would be called clinical depression. Here it is suggested that the fraternal murder replays for Hamlet the generic sibling trauma which takes place on the cusp of the transition from infancy to childhood: the 'terrible twos' when the toddler wants to exterminate the baby who has taken its place as hitherto the only baby: 'Babies do not kill each other [simply] because we do not give them access to knives and guns' (Tremblay as cited in Pinker, 2011, p. 483).

Siblings and the sibling trauma

The comedies, then, give us the positive of sibling relations and the social life they introduce; the tragedies, the negative. These are two sides of the same coin: we all have both aspects inside us. My concern here is not with the myriad relationships that, through the ages and across the world, siblings have had with each other. Rather, what does being a sibling mean generically? In brief, the extensive clinical literature indicates that it means to love passionately someone who is like you (with the danger of incest) and to hate violently that same person who is also different from you (with the danger of murder) (Mitchell, 2003; 2006a; 2006b; 2011; 2013). The traumatized toddler who feels replaced, its identity annihilated, cannot be allowed to kill or, more weakly, to be incestuous with its sibling. Siblings are thus the object of a prohibition.

So far in the theory and the explanations offered, only the symbolic father has featured as the law-giver standing in the place from which prohibitions originate (Lacan, 1981). Introducing siblings as objects of the law goes hand in hand with proposing the symbolic mother as enunciator of the law that operates between them. This is a different law. The sibling trauma calls forth the prohibitions and allowances of the 'Law of the Mother' (Mitchell, 2003). This places trauma upfront in an attempt to think theoretically about the unconscious effects of lateral relations on a horizontal axis.

In part, only children are variations on a theme, an accidental or chance occurrence as they are in Shakespeare's comedies; as with where one is placed in the birth order, they are a particular instance within a general rule (Mitchell, 2013). The rule is that, in unconscious fantasy at the very least, we all have siblings much as, differently but analogously, we all have fathers whether or not we know who they are. Fathers are always there in biological reality; with siblings it is not quite as absolute as this. However, if we include deaths, abortions, miscarriages, half-siblings and step-siblings then actual siblings are most likely the rule in most of the world. For those whose siblings are alive, there may well be others who are not.

Even if this were not the case, in the kinship arrangements that characterize all human societies, siblings or their substitutes are a necessity. What we might call symbolic sisters (those who stand in the place of sisters) are exchanged as wives between symbolic brothers (Mitchell, 2013). This twofold situation of biological and/or cultural necessity is sufficient to establish that, in their presence or their absence, siblings are there in our minds. Only children are then more than simple variations, they are exemplary of the general process: the argument here is that Hamlet, the 'lonely only', demonstrates the paradox that only children epitomize what it means to have siblings in fact or in mind.

If the only child is lonely it is not simply because it has no immediate actual peer-kin with which to share its intimate life. It is also because of the kind of explanations children give themselves if a sibling is missing: 'Perhaps my parents do not like children?' 'Did they really want me?' 'What have I done to the baby who should be here?' 'Have I destroyed it?' A toddler, at the age when its mother is becoming separate and many fellow toddlers have new siblings, will expect a sibling which does not arrive; the missing sibling may have died. Children try to explain the world to themselves as best they can. Clinical and observational experience and a study of psychoanalytic case histories and literary examples indicates that, because of the sibling trauma, we are all unconsciously anxious lest we have destroyed those who are missing; we have all wanted to kill those who are present. Because of the Law of the Mother which prohibits us from enacting our desire to murder actual or imagined siblings, we all have 'dead' siblings. What is known as reversal into its opposite (Freud 1915; A. Freud, 1937) applies par excellence to the toddler's love and hate for the usurping baby who is both more of its baby self and ineradicably 'other'. Because around the age of two to two and a half years we do not want siblings just as forcefully as we desire them, we all have within us the drive to get rid of them completely. At any age, when people are traumatized, as Hamlet is by learning of his father's murder, they regress to such earlier psychic anxieties and disasters. In addition, if these were by definition traumatic, then they also force their way through from where they were buried. The sibling trauma is an underlying trauma waiting to surface within later disturbances.

It was Winnicott, psychoanalyst and paediatrician extraordinaire, who explored this widely noted critical toddler event as explicitly traumatic (Mitchell, 2006a; 2006b) with all that such a claim implies psychically. Winnicott thus offers a locus classicus for understandings of trauma and mother-child relations. What is needed is to add child-child relations.

Both childbirth and child-rearing practices are, of course, immensely varied; however, prototypically, when her child is around two years old, the mother wants to separate from it to some degree. Traditionally she has weaned it, resumed sexual relations, perhaps become pregnant again and regained a degree of personal independence. Winnicott calls the separation from the mother when the child can first walk and talk the 'trauma of separation at two years' (Winnicott, 1971 p. 80). Interlocking with the trauma of the withdrawal and relative absence of the mother is the trauma of the presence of the new sibling. Winnicott's theoretical framework, like that of psychoanalysis in general (Mitchell, 2000; 2006a; 2006b; 2011; 2013), argued only for the vertical dimension of mother and child. Nevertheless the empirical material in his clinical observations confirm an interlocking but autonomous horizontal sibling trauma.

What happens to us in infancy when we are becoming social human beings stays with us all our lives: accruing moss, losing some of the past's detritus as we hurtle towards the future. This is not just normal development and its variations--a movement from past to present; it is an individual's history. To grasp it we have to read a life backwards from the time of the older child or of the adult such as portrayed by Hamlet, back to infancy when we depended for survival on another older human being; this dependency assured our socialization and acculturation. The principle of psychoanalysis is that it is easier to see this when something goes wrong. Sarah, an adolescent girl in considerable emotional trouble, went to see Winnicott for some clinical sessions and, among other things, told him of a recent school episode when 'she screamed and screamed and screamed' (1971, p. 126). Together they trace this back to the time of her first significant separation from her mother and what may have been a too early and precipitous move from infancy to childhood. It so happens that this 'construction' (Freud, 1937) of the infantile past can be verified. 'Phyllis' in another of Winnicott's case histories is clearly Sarah under a different name. When she was about twenty months old, Phyllis/Sarah was told her mother was pregnant:

Two days after being given this news [of the expected baby] ... (Phyllis) [aged one and three quarters] reacted with a week of refusal to take food, and she screamed incessantly. After this she settled down into being nervous and irritable and somewhat of a problem of management. Thus did her illness start (Winnicott 1965, p. 138).

Phyllis does not want a new baby. Screaming infant Phyllis and adolescent Sarah show the unconscious burden from the past erupting in the present, and the present referencing the past.

Of the specific event of an expected sibling, Winnicott explains elsewhere:

A baby under two years cannot be properly informed about a new baby that is expected, although 'by twenty months or so' it becomes increasingly possible to explain this in words that a baby can understand. When no understanding can be given, then when the mother is away to have a new baby she is dead from the point of view of the child. This is what dead means (Winnicott 1971, p. 2122, my italics).

If, to the infant who is becoming a toddler, the absent mother is a dead mother, the missing sibling will also be psychically a dead sibling. Demonstrating the persistence of the trauma when the rest of life either works or does not work, and reversing the order from adult to child, the traumatized Hamlet whose unsuccessful mourning has turned to melancholia on the news from the ghost, like the 'screaming' teenage Sarah/Phyllis, reacts with an updated version of what was the generic earlier sibling trauma. Phyllis/Sarah has a live sibling she wants to get rid of; Hamlet has no-one. For the lonely only, the missing baby (like the too missing mother) is a dead baby, the 'brother' is dead--'am I to blame?'

The separation trauma and the sibling trauma are two aspects of one and the same event, a generic event that everyone must pass through. When the mother weans, resumes sex and achieves her separation from her toddler, she will conceive, fail to conceive or in some way prevent conception: whichever outcome it may be, there is, either positively or negatively, another baby in everyone's mind. We think about what is expected but turns out not to be there more actively than what is there--absence demands the representation which presence obviates.

Oedipus and/or Cain: Hamlet and his psychological 'brother' Claudius

Hamlet exemplifies drama's freedom. The playwright offers the audience the possibility that they can imagine a time before and after the play's action, and also a psychological space in which events and people can be understood in their self-diversity not randomly but as wide ranging as the manifold aspects of human nature which are being depicted. Director and actor certainly, and audience/reader hopefully, can explore different Hamlets. Here a different Hamlet is offered not in the spirit of exclusivity but of addition. Does this give us new insights into siblings; does an additional psychoanalytic reading of siblings highlight another side of Hamlet?

In reading the sibling trauma into Hamlet's character there is no question of inventing a particular biography for him. Everybody encounters trauma in their lives. Mostly this occurs by chance; those trauma which revolve around a prohibition, however, are constitutive of human culture: they have to happen. We are forbidden to rid ourselves of the sibling usurper. Although such murder may be desired, it is also utterly prohibited: 'It hath the eldest primal curse upon't' (3.3.37). The fear and the guilt attaches to having had the desire (which persists unconsciously) and therefore having defied the prohibition in one's wishes or, like Claudius, in reality.

Claudius's murdered brother is King Hamlet, Hamlet's father. While it is murder that frames the play, Hamlet's personal obsession to start with is as much the fact that his mother has gone 'with such dexterity to incestuous sheets' (1.2.156). From Freud onwards, psychoanalytic readings have argued that Hamlet's forbidden and unconscious Oedipal love for his mother and his wish to get rid of his father inform the whole play and account for his renowned prevarication. This is the nub of Freud's (1906), Jones's (1949), Sharpe's (1929) and Eisler's (1971) classical accounts and the very many subsequent psychoanalytical interpretations of Hamlet's dilemma even where they stress other elements such as his melancholia (e.g. Reid, 1974) or his femininity (e.g. Rose, 1995). But Hamlet will also have wanted to have killed his usurping 'brother' substitute who had taken his place with his mother. Hamlet's psychological entwinement with his 'uncle-father and auntmother' would be confused in a sibling way with the brother side of his father-brother and therefore also with the sister side of his mother-sister (Gertrude is Claudius's quondam sister-in-law, 'our sometimes sister, now our queen' (1.2.8)).

Claudius has 'stolen' his brother's wife. Descent is vertical but marriage takes place horizontally. Despite being married to his mother, Hamlet repudiates Claudius's wish to call him 'son' and in his turn Claudius plots to kill Hamlet not as a son but as a lateral rival. It is as though they are on a generational level: Hamlet claims that Claudius had '[p]opped in between th'election and my hopes' (5.2.67), stopping Hamlet from becoming king as Claudius's brother, King Hamlet, through primogeniture, had stopped Claudius. His mother loves this brother/uncle who in his turn is very aware of how much his wife who 'is so conjunctive to (his) life and soul' (4.7.14) also excessively loves her son as though they were in lateral competition for this love: 'The Queen his mother/ Lives almost by his looks;' (4.7.11-12). It would be have been impossible for Shakespeare not to have had some awareness that Henry VIII renounced his marriage to his brother's widow by declaring this incestuous, thus founding the Church of England and making way for the ascendancy of Elizabeth I to the throne (Jardine, 1996).

If Claudius in some way occupies the position of brother, Hamlet will also psychically identify with him as such. This identification would then implicate him unconsciously in possibly being, like Claudius, a brother-murderer. Claudius murders an older brother but refers his deed to that of Cain who killed his younger brother. Even when the one murdered is older, the initial trauma is the replacement by the new, younger baby--it is the violence of this event which will be used. Claudius, the younger and seemingly last child, like an only child, has no actual siblings after him. He and Hamlet in respect to a new sibling are in the same position: it is missing, presumed dead. By the same token, because Hamlet at the same time knows he himself is not (as yet) a murderer, this identification would entail that Claudius too may not really have carried out such an act. Horatio initially suggests that the ghost may be a tempting lying devil and this possibility stays with Hamlet as a major motive which he gives for his prevarication:
   The spirit that I have seen
   May be the devil, and the devil hath power
   T'assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
   Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
   As he is very potent with such spirits,
   Abuses me to damn me (2.2.587-92)

This, however, takes us full circle as it suggests that if he is worrying that he is the victim of the devil's temptation, implicitly he must thus also be tempted to murder as Claudius has done.

Shakespeare in using earlier 'Hamlet' stories was the first to give father and son the same name (Rank as cited in Holland, 1966). It is the dead King's name which reverberates through the opening scenes, Prince Hamlet only appearing for the first time in the second scene. This has the effect of presenting both Hamlets as though they were the same brother-victim, past, present and future, of Claudius. Some valency is given to brother or quasi-brother murder: Claudius murders his brother King Hamlet and soon plots and finally realizes the murder of the lateral rival for his wife and crown, Prince Hamlet. Hamlet, tasked with killing his father's brother, eventually stabs and poisons him along with Laertes, the brother of his affianced 'sister' Ophelia.

The identification between brothers, at the very least, plays into both the prevarication and the melancholy: 'am I like him and have killed a brother, or is he like me and has not killed a brother?' Although unconscious, these postulates are two sides of the same coin which would make anyone given to self-reflection hesitate to act.


By the time Hamlet was performed, Bright's (1586) A Treatise of Melancholy was well-known (Hillman, 2007). Melancholia, known throughout human history, was in the news. Just short of twenty years after Hamlet, Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, wrote that melancholics 'are commonly distrustful, timorous, apt to mistake, and amplify, facile irascibiles, testy, pettish, peevish' (Burton, 1893, pp. 449-50). Horatio tells Gertrude and Claudius that mad Ophelia 'spurns enviously at straws' (4.5.6; p. 297). The editor of the Oxford University Press edition of Hamlet, G. R. Hibbard, interprets: 'i.e. takes offence and turns spiteful on the slightest pretext' and comments: 'These were recognised symptoms of melancholy' (Shakespeare 2008, p. 297n). Burton distinguished between fits of despondency which everyone will feel from time to time and melancholy as an ineradicable habit. He cites the desire for revenge as a trigger for melancholy.

Freud (1917) analysed melancholia in a remarkable way, much of which has since been lost in its re-definition as the world-prevalent pathology of 'clinical depression'. What Freud noted was that, hidden within the endless characteristic self-attacks, the melancholic is denouncing another person. Hamlet confirms and potentially adds to Freud's crucial insight. A psychotherapist puzzled by the violence of the melancholic's self-reproaches, like the audience to Hamlet, will be tempted to agree with this negative self-assessment: 'Yet I / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing ... Am I a coward?' (2.2.554-9). Indeed! But because it is a play and the otherwise silent inner thoughts of the depressive are openly uttered, Hamlet helps us to restore Freud's lost insight: he oscillates all the time between, on the one hand, self-attacks to the point of contemplating suicide (typical of clinical depression) and, on the other, wild fury with his mother and utter contempt for the man she loves--his uncle/brother Claudius--and the same general irritability as displayed by Phyllis, Ophelia and Burton's melancholic. This lateral self-other interplay originates in the sibling trauma when an attack on the self-as-other is, at the same time, an attack on the otheras-self (Girard, 1986). The same violence towards the baby as another person will be felt towards the toddler-self who, psychologically, is also the same person, still the baby; for the melancholic, murder is suicide and suicide, murder.

Hamlet's perception of himself as feminine (e.g. Jones 1949; Eissler, 1971; Sharpe, 1929; Eliot, 1920; Rose, 1995; Green 1982/2003) reveals this self-other interchange: on the vertical he attacks his mother only to find that, like her, he is a debased woman.
   Why what an ass am I! Ay, sure. This is most brave,
   That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
   Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
   Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
   And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
   A scullion! (2.2.571-6 my italics)

This dynamic is found also on the horizontal where the other is also the hated baby-as-self: the baby to whose status and identity the displaced toddler regresses. As the toddler comes to terms with the baby as other, it will denigrate it as weaker, smaller, inferior to itself. These are par excellence the qualities assigned to femininity; the feminization of the hated baby helps account for the misogyny in Hamlet's melancholia. Above all, this misogyny is expressed in his attacks on his lateral peer, his affianced, beloved Ophelia. Hamlet acts mad; Ophelia is his truly mad and suicidal foil.

This dynamic of inner and outer violence is confirmed when Hamlet starts to recover from depression by turning all of it outwards. Melancholia is the psychic condition that both stays his hand and knows its intrinsic violence. So Hamlet warns Laertes: 'For though I am not splenative and rash,/Yet have I something in me dangerous/Which let thy wiseness fear' (5.1.251-3), and urges his revenge with hate speech: 'ere this/I should have fatted all the region's kites/With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!' (2.2.565-9).

It is a commonplace observation that there is anger latent in the stasis of depression; it is less commonly remembered that the anger is directed to another person who is concealed by the self-hatred. The first half of Hamlet is dominated by the unconscious psychological confusion and identification of Hamlet and Claudius with its recurrence of prohibited violence that therefore turns inwards. Turning the violence outwards onto an object separate from himself effectively ends his melancholia. Hamlet can only act when he sees himself and others as separate. It is then that he attacks those who have betrayed his love for them: his incestuous mother, Gertrude, his pawn-beloved, Ophelia, and his Judas friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He can rage at Laertes for imagining fraternal love could anywhere near equal his true-love of Ophelia. Here it is as though he recognizes that affinal love is sublimated, superior sibling love: 'I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not, with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum...' (5.1.259-61). Affianced/marital love is love in the social world to which siblinghood leads. This recognized, Hamlet can love Laertes as his brother because he is Ophelia's brother and they would have been brothers-in-law, an ironic inversion of the older generation where fratricide destroyed an erstwhile sister-in-law. Melancholia (with its underlying sibling trauma) now over, love and hate are no longer the same chaotic, fused emotions existing in a perpetual pin-head reversal of one into the other: they are separate from each other.

Because the violence is coming out, Hamlet is at first extremely harsh in his judgements. This melancholic glove turned inside-out gives us insight into the violence of clinical depression: an apparent self attack that has no recourse but suicide now facilitates murder or turns murder (Polonius) into legitimate killing (Claudius). Legitimate killing is a major aspect of the social world. It has its peaceful side too: we can watch Hamlet, as he starts to recover from his melancholia, begin to make realistic assessments in the social world. He can properly appreciate his only true friend, Horatio, and appropriately value his former rival and heir, Fortinbras. He can also dispense with the device of madness and no more be haunted by the ghost who instead of being a shared illusion has come to represent 'the ecstasy' and 'very coinage of [his] brain' (3.4.132-3), an illusion which is near madness because he alone can perceive it. What is the relationship of this melancholy and this madness to the sibling trauma?

Madness north, north-west

According to Winnicott (1971) too early or too long a separation from the mother results in traumatic helplessness and an experience of madness. Helpless because it does not understand, a child uses false innocence (pretending not to understand) to find out what is going on in such a way that the adults cannot suspect him of the curiosity which is essential for survival. Feigning it, Hamlet is only mad 'north-northwest' (2.2.373) but is being treated like a child: condescended to, cheated, lied to, played with, spied upon, all of which also make him 'mad' in the sense of wild and desperate. He kills those who cheat and deceive--Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The small child is often in despair because people tend not to tell it the truth but instead indulge in make-believe: 'It will be lovely when you go to stay with Grandma and when you come back Mummy will have a new baby for you to play with'. As Hamlet bursts out to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, people are playing games with him, making a mockery of him; lying to him, in a conventional way, as we do to small children. No-one but the ghost (and to an extent Horatio and the grave diggers) will tell him the truth about anything; he minds and is maddened just as small children mind and are maddened--helplessly. Not understanding and not being understood share the same territory: people think they understand and assess psychoanalysis but cannot really do so as they do not have the clinical petrie-dish in which experiments are carried out.

In what my technique consists I cannot explain so easily. The instrument of the soul is not so easy to play and my technique is very painstaking and tedious. Any amateur attempt may have the most evil consequences. I am reminded of the burst of fury of a world-famous neurotic who, indeed, was not in the hands of a doctor, but only in the fantasy of a poet's brain. I mean Prince Hamlet of Denmark. The King has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to him to find out the secrets of his illhumor. He defends himself against them. Flutes are brought onto the stage. Hamlet takes up a flute and asks one of his tormentors to play on it, it is as easy as lying. The courtier refuses for he has never even had a flute in his hand. Then Hamlet bursts forth 'Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me, You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. Sblood, do you think, I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.' (interview with Freud, Boston Transcript, Sept. 11, 1909; in Albrecht, 1968, p. 338)

Travelling with Jung, visiting America, it would seem that Freud felt helpless in the face of the huge success and the equally large misunderstanding of psychoanalysis by well-meaning people who were not practitioners.

Hamlet and his social siblings

Melanie Klein is the theorist who has elaborated most fully the baby's violent attacks on the frustrating mother. Wanting to kill the mother and wanting to kill the new baby are different. Even a toddler really can kill a baby where it cannot kill its mother. The 'destroyed' mother will survive thereby making a destructive action safe (Winnicott, 1971); were the baby to be attacked by the toddler, it may well not survive. This distinction has very important implications. The prohibition on killing (or damaging) the baby must be absolute. This is the prohibition the mother puts in place between her children.

When the mother prohibits the toddler killing the baby, she introduces what we can call social reality: you are unique and not unique, there are others. This extends to the world beyond the family which, of course, has always been there for the baby. This social reality will be carried forward as a knowledge of those whom one may not kill because they represent sisters and brothers in the larger community. A normative and omnipresent social splitting is induced: to those whom we may not kill are added those whom we may kill; friend and foe, the importance of knowing, as Hamlet idiomatically puts it, 'a hawk from a handsaw' (2.2.374).

What Klein called the 'paranoid-schizoid position' of baby towards its mother has quite a different outcome when it is understood on the horizontal level. It will need to be built on to produce the essential splitting that constitutes our social life. The toddler's prohibited violence is not repressed, as are Oedipal desires, but is split-off--put in a cupboard that can later be opened in warfare or that breaks down the doors in illegal criminal violence. We are not, as with repression, looking at buried vertical layers but rather at a lateral psychic process. Winnicott claimed, implicitly opposing Klein, that what happened earliest in life was not deep, it was not the archaeological layer upon layer of repression but a lateral cutting-up. Splitting is both a psychological defence underlying serious pathologies and, at its other end, a normative, constitutive feature of social life. The 'Law of the Mother' thus opens the way to the many splittings of social life.

Fantasy and re-presentation; playing and acting

When he is attacking his mother with his contempt for Claudius, Hamlet reveals that he sometimes retains a child's illusion that his father is a God. He tells her that King Hamlet, compared to Claudius, is 'Hyperion to a satyr' (1.2.140). Thus he still believes his illusion as though it were reality, and hence it is useless to him. The child must learn the difference between fantasy and reality if it is to be able to use both. An actor knows that that which he is so completely living on stage as 'real' is also an illusion. Many actors discuss the dangers and difficulties of holding the distinction in place while necessarily also forgetting it. The key is representation. A fantasy has verbal and visual images but does not represent something that all can recognize as somehow really there. The two terms we need are then not fantasy and reality but fantasy and representation.

In fantasy, although images and actions proliferate, they do not refer to something else--they are presentations rather than re-presentations (David-Menard, 1989). They are only themselves. To contrast the dead end quality of fantasy with the possibilities of the creative dream, Winnicott (1971, p. 31) writes:
   The patient posed the question: 'When I am walking upon
   that pink cloud, is that my imagination enriching life or is
   it this thing that you are calling fantasizing which happens
   when I am doing nothing and which makes me feel that I
   do not exist?'

   For me the work of this session had produced an
   important result. It had taught me that fantasizing
   interferes with action and with life in the real or external
   world.... it interferes with dream and with the personal or
   inner psychic reality, the living core of the individual

Hamlet the fantasist, the small child persisting in being the one-and-only baby when it no longer is this, feels he does not exist. In this posttraumatic moment, living under a bell-jar, Hamlet is everyone when he is no one.

The dream when it only belongs to the dreamer is a presentation not a representation. However, it presents the world in a distorted manner which can be turned into a shared representation by being deciphered and interpreted and its underlying reality constructed. Playing, with its move from the private to the shared, likewise moves from presentation to representation. The play as drama is a representation that reveals its origin in that it can always fall back for the actor into the private illusion which would constitute madness.

The ghost is a sign that Hamlet cannot give up believing the illusion: his father is still the King of his infancy. Hamlet cannot know that he was a King but now he is dead. His mourning dress, which should be, but is not, appropriate because of the wedding that has replaced the funeral, resembles a dressing-up in which neither he, nor anyone else, can completely believe. He is unable, as yet, to mourn a dead father. After the acting of the play The Mousetrap, the play-within-the-play, Hamlet uses his idealization of his father to abuse his mother. This is the first move from the stasis of fantasy to an enactment of what his parents really meant to him: they were a loving couple whom his mother has betrayed and, by betraying, has betrayed their child. Were there not a murder at stake, Hamlet's behaviour would indeed be childish. He is violent and vulgar with the full force of the sexuality of the life drive mitigating the death drive, marking the end of his melancholia, which hitherto was 'a pure culture of the death instinct' (Freud 1923, p. 53). He compares the portrait miniatures of the two brothers to show his mother her descent into incest and debauchery. His idealization is now a representation. He no longer needs a child's belief in it; it belongs to the miniaturist who has portrayed 'Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,/An eye like Mars...' (3.4.57-8). Hamlet gets through to his mother as neither he nor anyone else has managed to do hitherto. His femininity abandoned with his melancholia, Hamlet the man can tell a woman what she must do. She asks him how she should act and he directs her: she must not accept sex with Claudius. The ghost now suddenly appears in the scene not as the armed conqueror of Fortinbras senior thirty years earlier, but casually dressed: 'My father, in his habit as he lived' (3.4.129-30). Gertrude cannot see him. Hamlet can make use of what his mother calls 'the ecstasy' and 'very coinage of your brain' (3.4.132-3) not to be mad after this final outburst but instead, through what has become just a personal hallucination, to learn that an illusion is an illusion. The ghost does not appear again.

The ghost was initially a perception shared only with those social 'brothers' who knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark. After it divulged the murder only to Hamlet it belonged to him alone (we learn later he has shared it off-stage with Horatio). After the play, Hamlet exploits it fully with his mother--but it becomes his hallucination and vanishes along with any danger that he was really mad. Right and wrong, innocence and guilt, like love and hate, can be separated: Claudius is a murderer, Hamlet is not.

As so often in Shakespeare, as in Winnicott's theory and therapy, play is the thing that enables these transitions. Midway through the drama, hearing the players recite their lines about Hecuba and Pyrrus, Hamlet is enabled to access his own violence. The murder of Gonzago, the play-within-the-play, acts as a switch-scene. When The Mousetrap forces Claudius to reveal his guilt, Hamlet can be convinced because he has already been freed from his unconscious identification with Claudius by understanding the acting of Hecuba and Pyrrhus. Hamlet realizes that an actor can be passionate about the part he is playing--'what's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?' (2.2.547)--but that he, Hamlet has been able only to fantasize, 'unpack [his] heart with words' (2.2.574). The players' acting opens the door to social reality. Their acting releases his action.

What the actor accomplishes through acting a play, the small child achieves through playing--first mainly on its own (for Winnicott essentially in the presence of its mother with whom it is still identified), and later, after the sibling trauma, with others--peers and siblings. One can play (with bricks, with playmates or in the theatre) with illusion and thus come to know it is illusion: 'you be a cat and I will be a dog'; 'you be the mummy, I'll be the daddy'. You are and are not. A two-year-old might put a conical waste-bin on her head and march up and down the room as a policeman, while the room full of adults collapses in laughter --she is a policeman. This the actor replicates; the child's representation has become a representation.

From fantasy to dreaming; from dissociation to sociality

Although he is talking about dying ('not to be'), the first words of Hamlet's famous soliloquy suggest that he has lost what it is 'to be' simply in the sense of 'being there'. This is what dissociation feels like: one is not there when one is there--one acts without inhabiting one's actions. Winnicott, who makes use of Hamlet in this connection, sees dissociation as a loss of one's sense of 'being' (1971). It is a precondition of fantasy.

The soliloquy gives voice to inner thoughts when Hamlet thinks he is alone. From the viewpoint of the audience, 'to be or not to be' takes place in the presence of a hidden spy, Polonius, and of a decoy, Ophelia, who is pretending to read a devotional book. Ophelia has been set up by her father, with the connivance of Claudius and Gertrude. Unsure of one's perceptions, one loses one's sense of being and feels dissociated when one is being deceived. Infants are normatively helped into society through deceptions.

Hamlet's apparent indifference to his arranging the killing of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz (as also of his stabbing of Polonius) is a brilliant portrait of the failure of someone in a state of psychological dissociation to identify with the position of the other person. Were such an identification to have been possible, it would not have been the mirroring identification of Hamlet and Claudius in which they are confused with each other. It would have been a deliberate identification with someone whom one knew to be separate and other--a social sibling, and thus a stage on the path to both individuation of the self and the sociality of others. Hamlet is not yet in this psychological position.

To Horatio's concern, Hamlet claims that the prospective deaths of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are not 'near his conscience' (5.2.59). In our ethics, while it may be acceptable to kill a spy (as with Polonius, who may be Claudius with whom he had previously hidden behind an arras) or even dangerous sycophants who have one's own death in hand, it is nevertheless not allowable not to care, as Hamlet cannot. When the toddler is not allowed to kill, something also happens to the love that was so close as to be confused with the hate. There is a split between the two: those whom one can love and those whom one can hate. But the child cannot as yet care about the separate person: it will cry with another crying child if it thinks it is the same as the other; it will look on in startling indifference if it thinks it is not the same person. This splitting also entails a state of dissociation (Winnicott, 1971). Etymologically at the centre of dissociation is 'socius', the social with which the small child has not yet quite joined up or later in adolescence or adulthood, as with Hamlet, from which one has become psychically divorced.

There is a relationship too between Hamlet's philosophising and fantasy and dissociation. Horatio's rejoinder to Hamlet's speculations about Alexander the Great's remains, plugging a 'bung-hole', is that it is to 'consider too curiously' (5.1.196). One of the moments when Hamlet is wondering 'too curiously' is when he compares the contemporary admiration for child actors and the adulation of Claudius: what do they have in common that people who adored a Hyperion now fawn on a satyr like Claudius? Likewise, how do those who worshipped great adult actors (at Shakespeare's Globe) forget this in their fashionable enthusiasm for child players (in the new private theatres)? "Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out' (2.2.362-363). At its banal end Hamlet's philosophising is a form of dissociated fantasising; at its creative end it could be an invitation to share in the thinking of what is to be done. For Winnicott (1971) the difference is between day-dreaming and dreaming.

The external world is reputedly harder to play with for the 'lonely only' --Hamlet shows that this is only so if one stays locked alone in the world of dissociated fantasy. This is the case for everyone. After the new baby whom one has been promised as a playmate, one plays instead with siblings and peers. Hamlet kills off Polonius (his lover's foolish father), Guildenstern and Rosencrantz (bad brother-friends) and finds his true love for his affianced 'sister' Ophelia (when she is dead), his liking for her/his brother Laertes and a best friend in Horatio--all lateral, or essentially substitute sibling relations with whom one plays and produces a true representation of one's shared world.

Knowing that illusion is illusion is the shared area of culture. For Winnicott (1971) it is paramountly created and constructed through play. Here illusions such as religion, politics, and other ideologies are entered into by people who are alike in their beliefs or interests but may be different in other respects. Only if a private illusion is maintained and insisted upon outside the social context does illusion become delusion--a hallmark of madness. Hamlet was sent into potential madness and private melancholia when his inky cloak was not socially recognized as appropriate mourning. Mainly through the play-within-the play, Hamlet turns being played with (lied to) by a world that is out of joint into a world that must have illusions but, when knowing they are this, is a world that can be acted upon. This is the move not from madness to sanity but from melancholia to mourning and from madness to culture.

A most prominent strand of this transition to the social world involves coming to compete with a rival brother for the love of a symbolic brother's sister. In comedy this works out; in tragedy, it is only achieved in death. In kinship terms one must, as a male, get rid of the male rival and marry one's symbolic brother's sister. Laertes and Hamlet have lost a sister and an affianced: the same person, Ophelia. This recognized, Hamlet apologises to and embraces Laertes, publically regaining the brother: 'Sir, in this audience,/Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil/ Free me so far in your most generous thoughts/That I have shot my arrow o'er the house/And hurt my brother' (5.2.186-9, pp. 345-6).

Regaining a brother, Hamlet can undertake to play at fencing, a social or cultural sport in which he and Laertes both excel. The social world is of course a gendered world and in death Hamlet finally becomes his masculine self--a soldier with a soldier's burial rites. Turning full-circle from his father's defeat by Hamlet's father, Fortinbras the ultimate soldier comes to occupy the place where Hamlet should have been.

Dissociation as a response to an inevitable and necessary trauma produces splitting which can manifest as personal schizoid tendencies or the normative splitting of social life--two dimensions on a continuum. The 'lonely only' is the test case of how we come to divide the world into those who are the same as us, and whom we are mostly forbidden to murder, and those who are different and can, if needs must, be legitimately killed. The social world is constructed through the dialectical oscillations of peace and war (Mitchell, 2013), Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies.


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Juliet Mitchell

University of Cambridge

University College, London University.

Juliet Mitchell's work in psychoanalysis and gender has led to numerous publications, including, among many others, Women: The longest revolution (1966), Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), The Rights and Wrongs of Women (ed. with A. Oakley, 1977), Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Sibling Relationship for the Human Condition (2000) and Siblings: Sex and Violence (2003). Her work has revealed the importance of siblings and the neglect of a horizontal paradigm in contrast to the dominant vertical parent-child relationship of the Pre-Oedipal and Oedipus Complex and more widely in the social and psychological sciences.

Professor Mitchell is currently a Visiting Mellon Fellow at the University of Witswatersrand, South Africa. She is Research Professor at the Expanded Doctoral School in Theoretical Psychoanalysis which she established_at University College London's Psychoanalysis Unit. Recently she was Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the Courtauld Institute of Fine Art and Visiting Professor for the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University. She is also the Founder Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Human Geography, University of Cambridge and Fellow Emeritus of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Emeritus Professor, University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the British and International Psychoanalytical Societies and a Fellow of the British Academy.
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Date:Mar 22, 2013
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