The Freud Museum


Oedipus and Hamlet

“In my experience, which is already extensive, the chief part in the mental lives of all children who later become psycho-neurotics is played by their parents. Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed at that time and which is of such importance in determining the symptoms of the later neurosis. It is not my belief, however, that psycho-neurotics differ sharply in this resect from other human beings who remain normal... They are only distinguished by exhibiting on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred to their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children.

"This discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity: the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles’ drama which bears his name.

"Oedipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, and of Jocasta, was exposed as an infant because an oracle had warned Laius that his still unborn child would be his father’s murderer... The action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever mounting excitement that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further that he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta. Appalled at the abomination which he has unwittingly perpetrated, Oedipus blinds himself and forsakes his home. The oracle has been fulfilled.

"His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours - because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that his is so... While the poet, as he unravels the past, brings to light the guilt of Oedipus, he is at the same time compelling us to recognize our own inner minds, in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found. The contrast with which the closing chorus leaves us confronted strikes as a warning at ourselves and our pride, at us who since our childhood have grown so wise and so mighty in our own eyes:

...Fix on Oedipus your eyes,
Who resolved the dark enigma, noblest champion and most wise.
Like a star his envied fortune mounted beaming far and wide:
Now he sinks in seas of anguish, whelmed beneath a raging tide...

"There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles’ tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primaeval dream-material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality...

"Another of the great creations of tragic poetry, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex. But the changed treatment of the same material reveals the whole difference in the mental life of these two widely separated epochs of civilisation. In the Oedipus the child’s wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realised as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and - just as in the case of neurosis - we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.... Hamlet is able to do anything - except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realised. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish"

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Hamlet and The Ghost by Henry Fuseli

Hamlet and The Ghost by Henry Fuseli

Oedipus and The Sphinx by Gustave Moreau

Oedipus and The Sphinx by Gustave Moreau

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