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Md Daniyal Ansari

Dr. Akbar J. A. Syed


20 April 2019

Psychological Analysis of Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes: Hamlet and Macbeth

Shakespeare’s works, as creations of a human mind and as examples of various aspects of human

behavior, are inexorably linked to psychology. Although there are various ways to read

Shakespeare’s works, it is difficult to get away from the pressing psychological issues and

differences within his characters. For example, while King Lear's behavior may just be read as

elderly eccentricities, they may also be read from a Freudian perspective as a regression into an

earlier phase of development such as the oral stage in which the infant identifies wholly with

their caregiver, and relies completely on them to provide for their needs (the caregivers in Lear's

case being his daughters). The contemporary era has witnessed a proliferation of psychoanalytic

thought, and has produced a range of theoretical approaches, many of which have been

rewardingly applied to Shakespeare’s comedies, romances, as well as the tragedies.

The myriad subjects of psychoanalytic criticism coupled with the breadth of Shakespeare’s

drama makes it one of the largest field of Shakespearean criticism. Unconscious motivation,

neurosis, jealousy, matters of autonomy and emotional isolation, sexual desire and Oedipal or

pre-Oedipal conflicts spread prominently among the multitude of psychological topics related to

the dramas. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of his most notable plays of all time. The play revolves

around the protagonist Hamlet, who experiences a mixture of emotions after the death of his

father, King Hamlet, and the remarriage of his mother, Gertrude.

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Fortinbras is a minor character that does a great job of highlighting Hamlet’s personality. Both

Hamlet and Fortinbras experience similar circumstances but lead very different lives. Fortinbras

also loses his father and wants to avenge him by winning a piece of land that they had lost to

Denmark in a bet. The difference between the experiences of the two is the amount of strife that

Hamlet has to experience over the other. Hamlet’s father was murdered and after two months his

mother married his uncle. His friends spied on him and everyone called his behavior odd as he

grieved. In finding contrasting features between Hamlet and Fortinbras, the former stands out

even more.

An equally important factor in determining how Hamlet is highlighted by Fortinbras is Hamlet’s

reaction at the opportunity to kill Claudius. At the end of the third scene of the third act, Hamlet

is presented with the perfect opportunity to kill the man that murdered his father, but he walks

away from the situation and talks about how he wanted Claudius to suffer the worst death

possible and did not want him to go to heaven after his death. While this does sound like a good

excuse, it is still an excuse. Hamlet was rationalizing his decision of not killing Claudius with the

possibility of finding him doing something worse. Rationalization is described in Friedman’s

Personality textbook as a defense mechanism in which ‘post-hoc’ logical explanations are

provided for actions that were actually driven by unconscious internal motives.

Given an understanding of what Sigmund Freud considered to be the essential Oedipal feelings

common to all men, and the effects of the repression used to keep these guilty fantasies at bay,

Freudian critics then go on to address what they consider the heart of the matter in Hamlet; the

reasons for Hamlet's seeming delay in killing Claudius. For them, Claudius represents, in flesh

and blood, the embodiment of Hamlet's Oedipal urges. He has actually killed Hamlet's father and

is sleeping with his mother. Hamlet's hesitation in killing Claudius, according to Freud, has to do
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with his deeper association with him. Claudius serves as a flesh and blood expression of his own

repressed childhood fantasies, and to kill him would be to murder a part of his own inner self

already associated with self-loathing.

In interpreting Macbeth's murder of Duncan, there have been psychoanalytic interpretations that

include emasculation, incestuous, or even Oedipal fears. Certainly, the spirits that seem to make

Macbeth potent, actually make him impotent. This paradoxical motif runs the entirety of

‘Macbeth’ and is evident in Macbeth's defeat of Macdonwald and his murder of Duncan as

perverting the natural order of inheritance.

In his murder of Macdonwald in Act I, for instance, Macbeth is described by the captain as

having "carved out his passage", with his "brandished steel/Which smoked with bloody

execution" as he "carved out his passage". A suggestion of ending generational continuity exists

in these lines. Again, as Macbeth ponders over his murderous deed of the ‘father’ of the country,

he sees before him the dagger, which is often interpreted as phallic. Led by this phallic dagger,

he approaches Duncan's bed chamber “with Tarquin's ravishing strides”. Convinced by Lady

Macbeth to become the ‘serpent’, striking at the ‘Innocent flower’. This idea of Oedipal patricide

is underscored by Lady Macbeth, who gets troubled by Duncan's resemblance to her own father.

When she warns Macbeth to "consider it not so deeply", she, in fact, echoes Jocasta's words to

Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. She also assumes a murderous maternal role if Macbeth fails to

complete the task of killing Duncan. With her brutal words, Lady Macbeth propels her husband

to his ambitious deed; however, Macbeth hesitates because of his vision of the dagger and

ponders over his act of "ripping the hereditary body politic untimely from its haven in Duncan's

body" and "knowing what 'twere kill a father".

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Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's plan to have male children does not come to fruition.

Instead, Macbeth's attempt to conceive a new self also becomes skewered as he is left "with a

barren scepter" and his abuse of the power of his ‘dagger’ leads to his downfall as he is haunted

by the foulness of his unnatural deed - "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" -

realizing that his "vaulting ambition" has destroyed him.

Before Macbeth kills Duncan, his nerves get to him. One might even say that he feels dreadful

about what he is about to do. After he has killed Duncan, he is wracked with guilt about it. In

Act II, Scene 1, Macbeth is readying himself to kill Duncan. His state of mind is best shown by

the vision he sees. As he plans his actions, he sees a bloody dagger floating in the air. This

indicates towards his skepticism about killing his king.

The tragic heroes in William Shakespeare's tragic plays often show repeating traits and

parallelisms. Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear all show very similar attributes which all

suggest a basic mold used by Shakespeare for his characters. Beyond the hamartia of pride,

which is shown in all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, a number of other flaws and quirks are

repeated as well as basic beliefs and morals. Ultimately, the links and readings of Shakespeare

within the realm of psychology are numerous. As psychology continues to develop, involving

not only behavioral and cognitive basics, but inducting humanistic and sociocultural standpoints

more and more readily, the complexity of psychological Shakespearian readings will continue to


1172 words
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Works cited

“Dr. Freud's Hamlet.” Dr. Freud's Hamlet,

“Psychology and Shakespeare.” The Shakespearean Psychological Institute,

“An Analysis of the Psychology in Macbeth, a Play by William Shakespeare.” Kibin,

“Flaws in Human Psychology Presented in Macbeth.” Scribd, Scribd,

Dinh, Hali. “The Psychological Criticism of Hamlet by William Shakespeare.”, 22

Jan. 2015,