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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shakespeare & Oedipus Variations

Sometimes I wonder if Shakespeare was the real inventor of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud just kind of repackaged his insights and sold to the world.

I have always found Freud's argument that Hamlet is driven by Oedipus Complex unconvincing. In fact, Freud's argument that Oedipus is driven by Oedipus Complex is pretty unconvincing, too. But then I am not a son, so what do I know?

But I can't help but pick up a related but different type of parent-child tension in Shakespeare's work: Father-daughter relationship, namely the father's possessiveness of his daughter and jealousy toward her husband. To prove this point, I have numerous examples from the plays, and every one of them is a lot more solid than Hamlet's desire for his mother.

1. Othello. The play opens with Desdemona's father, Brabantio, raging on the news that she had just eloped --- in the middle of the night! --- to marry the Moor. He was so angry that he asked the Duke of Venice to punish Othello for his unlawful seduction. When that didn't work (because Venice needed Othello to defend the city against enemies), Brabantio parted with his new son-in-law with a bitter warning: My daughter has betrayed me. She's gonna do the same to you some day.

2. King Lear. Cordelia was his favorite, as everyone knew. As soon as she said, once I get married, I will put all my love in my husband, no longer in you, he flew into a rage and threw her out of the house. Well, can it be any more obvious what the problem is? 

3. Hamlet. Polonius kept warning Ophelia to stay away from that rascal Hamlet. He may be the prince but he's bad news. In a most overtly suggestive scene, Hamlet killed Polonius. We are led to believe it was an accident, but given the way they both had been fighting over Ophelia, a deadly confrontation would probably have been inevitable.

4.The Merchant of Venice. OK, here Shylock's anger and revenge were mostly directed at Antonio rather than the guy with whom his daughter eloped. Nevertheless, between the money-related hatred and the loss of his daughter, the latter seems to the real reason that tipped him over the edge.

The pattern is so obvious that it's becoming a motif. Shakespeare was clearly preoccupied with the sticky and uncomfortable position fathers might be in when their daughters come of age. Isn't it curious and revealing that Freud himself theorized that it is the child who develops a sexual attraction to the parents, but never mentioned the sexual rivalry fathers have against their sons-in-law and mothers have against their daughters-in-law? Especially when we consider the rampant family problem for daughters in Victorian societies.

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