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Hamlet as Sexual Puritan

Academic Discipline: English Literature
Course Name: English Literature
Assignment Subject: Hamlet and Freud: Gertrude & Ophelia
Academic Level: Undergraduate-1st Year
Referencing Style: MLA
Word Count: 1,749

Hamlet never ceases to offer literary analysts issues and questions to examine, re-examine, dismiss and revive. One of the two most frequently discussed issues concerns the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, a much-considered subsidiary issue involves the true nature of his feelings for Ophelia.

This paper lumps both issues together to ask the overarching question: “What was Hamlet’s view of sex?”

Many commentators have linked Hamlet’s behaviour to the sexual theories of Sigmund Freud. Most often, the question is asked whether Hamlet had an Oedipus complex. But when we look a bit below the surface, we can see elements of his holding a related Freudian concept, the ‘Madonna or whore’ view of women. This in turn heavily influenced his relations with both Gertrude and Ophelia.

As Freud originally explained it, some men cannot imagine a woman deserving of love as being a sexual person, in that they view sex as inherently sinful and literally de-grading. The obvious source of this is the Biblical depiction of Mary, the Madonna, who as the mother of Jesus must be as pure as snow. Accordingly, Mary becomes pregnant without sex (the so-called Immaculate Conception). True virtue cannot have anything to do with something as base as sex.

Thus such men can only have sex with ‘de-graded’, impure women – essentially whores because having sex lowers their virtue that much. As Freud himself put it succinctly, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love”

As to why some men have such a distorted view, Freud linked it to a fierce attempt to fight off Oedipal desires. The mother is put on a pedestal to prevent any sexual desires attaching to her. Maternal love is then used as a model for love in general, such that purity becomes the prime factor in determining a girl’s worth. This, of course, also fits into the view of most Christian religious denominations. It is certainly the view of the Catholic church, and the view that would have been dominant in Shakespeare’s Anglo-Catholic England. Another church-sponsored view was that all women are insatiably lusty and seek constantly to tempt men into sin – a hang-over of the Eve myth. It is evident that, taken straight, this can engender a general hatred of women. Only the impossibly pure Madonna can be respected; all others are sinners.

There are strong indications that Hamlet subscribes to this view. His anger at his mother seems at least in part directed at her evident passion for Claudius, which Hamlet finds revolting on a number of levels. In the closet scene, he is obviously appalled that his mother is having sex with Claudius, at her age (“You cannot call it love, for at your age/ the heyday in the blood is tame” – III, iv, 78-79) and he demands that she stop all sexual activity (“Live the purer…/ Go not to mine uncle’s bed” – III. iv, 179-180).

Along this line of mother as Madonna, it is interesting (and Freudian) that in his descriptions of the love expressed between Gertrude and his father, there is absolutely no sexual component. Rather his father would care for his mother as if she were still a fragile virgin (“So loving to my mother/ that he might not beteem the winds of heaven/ visit her face too roughly” – I, ii. 145-146) Hamlet seems to believe that his mother only had sex with his father once, for his conception, and then abstained from the vulgar act forever after.

In this perspective, it is not the speed of Gertrude’s remarriage that so offends Hamlet, it is the fact that she remarried at all. The way he puts his father on a pedestal (“So excellent a king was this/Hyperion to a satyr” – I, ii, 143-144) indicates that he probably believes his mother should spend the rest of her life in constant devotion to her departed husband.

The question of whether Claudius and Gertrude had an affair before Old Hamlet was murdered is much debated. Certainly in the closet scene, there are strong hints (“Thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul/ and there I see such black, engrained spots” – III, iv, 100-101), but there is no outright admission of guilt. But the very idea that his mother might have cheated on his father enrages him to the point where Old Hamlet has to intervene to stop his stream of vilification against his mother. His dead father also has to remind Hamlet that the real mission is to kill Claudius.

Hamlet is obviously disgusted with the idea that Gertrude might be enjoying sex with Claudius. In fact, the point of telling her to avoid the marital bed seems to be as much to restore his idea of what a mother should be (“Assume a virtue if you have it not” – III, iv, 181) as to deprive Claudius. However, given the ‘fallen state’ into which Gertrude has fallen in his eyes, Hamlet believes his mother will betray him for ‘a pair of reechy kisses’ and some pawing by Claudius. Thus it seems that Hamlet is more offended by sex than murder.

So what about Hamlet’s relationship(s) with Ophelia? Another perennial question is whether Hamlet and Ophelia have been to bed before the play action begins. The argument that they have been lovers mostly arises from the song she sings in her madness about the dishonoured maid (“Young men will do it, if they come to it/ By Cock they are to blame” – IV, v, 65-66) But Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s early comments on the subject give no evidence of an affair. Ophelia insists to Laertes that she’s still virtuous (“I shall the effect of this good lesson keep/ as watchman to my heart” – I, iii, 49-50), and obeys her father’s command to avoid Hamlet entirely – something that Juliet, for example, will not do. So what then are we to make of Hamlet’s professions of love?

It is interesting that his approaches to Ophelia are mostly literary. He writes elegant letters (“Doubt truth to be a liar” etc. – II, ii, 126-127) which seem more designed to show off his cleverness than to talk a girl into bed. He never mentions Ophelia to Horatio (imagine Romeo never mentioning Juliet to Mercutio and Benvolio); he doesn’t even mention her in his soliloquies, although he does mention his mother in the first (“Frailty, thy name is woman” – I, ii, 150) and in the second (“Oh most pernicious woman” – I, v, 112). Before the appearance of the Ghost, he is anxious to get back to his studies at Wittenberg University, although this will separate him from Ophelia. When he actually confronts her in her chambers, it is to put on an act giving the look of madness, which he wants to use as a disguise. Thus at Ophelia’s gravesite, when he puts on a great show of professed love, we have the impression that he does this because it’s expected, not because it’s felt.

When Polonius, ever the delusional fool, decides that Hamlet’s madness is caused by Ophelia’s rejection, he ‘looses’ his daughter to try to confirm this. In this confrontation, we see Hamlet’s full-blown Madonna/whore dichotomy, as he rages at Ophelia, not so much for herself, but as a representative of her gender, which he insults copiously. He in effect calls Ophelia a liar (“the power of beauty will soon transform honesty/ from what it is to a bawd” – III, i. 121-122) and then states that all women are nothing but deceivers (“God hath given you one face and you/ make yourselves another” – III, I, 155-156). Capping his division of women, he keeps telling Ophelia to join a ‘nunnery’. Since ‘nunnery’ was also Elizabethan slang for a whorehouse, he is once again saying that if a woman can’t be ‘honest’, she might as well acknowledge that she’s really just a whore.

This scene appears to confirm that it is his mother’s conduct in breaking the illusion of holy and chaste ‘proper’ female conduct and demeanour that has truly engaged Hamlet’s greatest ire. Ophelia’s collusion with her father and the King confirms that women cannot be trusted (beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is into a bawd – i.e. women will use their beauty to undermine their honesty). Later on, before the start of the ‘Mousetrap’ play, he makes crude sexual jokes at Ophelia’s expenses (“Did you think I meant country (cunt-ry) matters?” III, ii, 123)

Indeed, it is in the closet scene that we see the full extent of Hamlet’s anger – and it’s directed at Gertrude, not Claudius. Consider how he accuses her of

“Such an act/ That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose/ From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows/ As false as dicers’ oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks/ The very soul…” (III, iv, 49-56)

In other words, her adultery (and incest) with Claudius seems worse than Claudius’ act of murder. He goes on to describe her sexual passion in the vilest possible words (“to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/ Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty” – III, iv, 104-106), as if she were a rutting sow.

So ultimately, Hamlet proves a prude. He can sort of understand the pull of sexual desire in the young, although he believes that a ‘good girl’ would certainly fight off any urges. That so few disappoint and disillusion him. But what truly disgusts him is the thought that these feelings would still be present in an older woman – specifically, his mother. Her duty was to remain the Vestal semi-virgin, keeping alive the flame of memory for her dead husband. Hamlet’s totally exaggerated idealization of his father – who appears to have been distant and unloving, as well as no saint (“the foul crimes done in my days of nature” – II, v, 17) – makes his mother’s sins (“Mutine in a matron’s bones” – III, iv, 140) all the worse. Killing people doesn’t bother him at all (Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – to say nothing of his admiration for his father’s bloodthirsty war-mongering). But sex by any woman other than a whore does. So in the classic Freudian analysis, his main problems are caused by his division of all women into either Madonnas or promiscuous women. He would make a good modern fundamentalist preacher.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1609) Folger Shakespeare Library. Ed. Mowat, Barbara A, and Westine, Paul. Retrieved: