“SOMETHING IS ROTTEN…” in Hamlet’s Denmark: Claudius as Perverse and Psychopathic Character
by Judith Hamilton
July 11, 2011
This paper presents a late-20th century interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet using Bruce Fink’s account of the Lacanian theory of character structures, the work of Robert Hare on white-collar psychopathy, Lucie Cantin on the pervert-hysteric couple, and that of other authors. In this example of applied psychoanalysis, Hamlet’s character is described as vacillating between that of the obsessional and the hysteric. However, his delay in seeking revenge for his father’s murder is understood as the result of his having to deal with Claudius, his father’s brother, murderer, and replacement on the throne of Denmark, whose character is perverse and psychopathic. The play provides a fine illustration of emotional and behavioural effects in a group of people when, as a group and as individuals, they are engaged and manipulated, unawares, by such a person. Such situations are not infrequent in contemporary relationships, institutions, governments and in the histories of psychoanalytic patients.
I gave this paper originally, entitled Hamlet’s Desire, using clips from a number of filmic versions of Hamlet, to illustrate and discuss psychoanalytic interpretations through the generations as different social and professional interests led to new interpretations. I was stimulated to do this by reading Lacan’s analysis in 6 chapters of his Seminar VI entitled Desire and its Interpretation. (1958-59). Freud’s analysis of Hamlet, in the early part of the 20th century, articulated the complications arising because of Hamlet’s desire for his mother, his inability to act being the result of his unresolved Oedipus complex. Killing his uncle, his mother’s new husband, would represent killing himself, the son who guiltily desired his mother and was rivalrous with his father and his substitutes. This dynamic was excellently illustrated, most prominently in the closet scene, in Laurence Olivier’s film production of Hamlet, with himself as Hamlet and Eileen Hurlie as Gertrude, in 1948.
Lacan’s analysis was in the mid-century with the influences on him characteristic of that period. With a subtle turning of the psychoanalytic prism, he said that Hamlet was unable to act because of problems in his own desire, and that these were the result of his mother’s desire, for him, for his uncle and for herself. These dynamics were illustrated especially well in Zeffirelli’s 1990 production of Hamlet, in the scene in which Gertrude, played by Glenn Close, tried to talk Hamlet, played by Mel Gibson, out of his depression in the first Act, and also in the closet scene when she kissed him full on the mouth to try to calm him down.
While working on this, and also because of social and professional influences on me, I came to what I see as a late 20th century interpretation. I started with another set of concepts developed in Lacan’s early work – character structures as we encounter them in clinical practice and in institutions, and, more specifically, the nature and effects on the others of the introduction into a group of people a perverse and psychopathic character such as Claudius. These dynamics were well illustrated by a recent, 2000 film production of Hamlet by Michael Almereyda. In this film the court of Elsinore is replaced by the Denmark Corporation in NYC and the Elsinore Hotel; the CEO is killed and replaced by his brother Claudius, played by Kyle McLaughlin. Hamlet is played by Ethan Hawke. In the scene in which Claudius questions Hamlet about the whereabouts of Polonius’s body, he actually punches Hamlet in the stomach.
Lacan describes three major groups of structures of the subject:
1. the neurotic/normal, which he subdivides into the hysteric and the obsessional.
2. the perverse
3. the psychotic
The division is based on their differences in respect of:
each according to their relation to the phallus, the object desired by the mother;
each according to their stalemating conflict in one of the three stages of the Oedipus complex; and
each according to their relationship to the Name-of-the-Father (the paternal metaphor) and later, to the big Other.
Lacan suggested that Hamlet has elements of each of the obsessional and the hysteric character structures. For example, Hamlet's soliloquy To be or not to be seems to be a meditation on death, a typical preoccupation of the obsessional. It is also a meditation on "being", an aspect of the obsessional subject's typical question of being, Am I dead or alive? and a meditation on the threat to his "being the phallus" for his mother. He tried, in the hallway scene in Act 3, Scene 1, to erode Ophelia’s desire for him, and he could only be aware of his desire for Ophelia, who was his previous and culturally appropriate object of desire, when she became the impossible, because dead, object. His problem is often understood as caused by indecisiveness and procrastination, with the examples of his making notes, reading and over-thinking things; this achieved distance for him and interfered with or precluded action, all characteristics of the obsessional. Finally, Hamlet was able to claim his identity and personal desire only when he was roused by his jealousy caused by his counterpart’s, Laertes’s, jumping into Ophelia’s grave, and he was able to act in revenge for his father’s murder only when the deadline was almost past, when he was about to die himself.
On the other hand, many aspects of Hamlet's character seem more like those of the hysteric – his reactivity, emotionality, dramatic personifications, and his profuse use of imagery in his speech. He several times acts impulsively, even rashly. He had multiple shifting identifications as he expressed his various attitudes. He oriented himself always to the other; as Lacan says, he manifested a fundamental availability and acted always in the "time of the other" or at the behest of the other – for example, to the timing of the ghost’s command, to his mother’s wish to see him after the play, to Laertes’s speech at Ophelia’s burial, to Claudius’s wager. Typical of an hysteric, Hamlet hated to be in the limelight, to have the responsibility of enacting this revenge. He wondered: Do I have the right to do this? which may echo the hysteric's question Am I a man or a woman? And, as the hysteric does, through a narrowing of consciousness, he finally joined himself whole-heartedly to his destiny; all his questions, qualifiers, fears and moral qualms fell away, he gave up his "ego-self" and aligned himself as subject with his desire, finally chasing down and lunging for Claudius.
These characteristics being said, I think that Hamlet's alarm, confusion, lack of ability to act in a planned way combined with impulsivity, his sensing of danger but not being able to locate its source or assess its reality, his intense engagement in the affair, are the result of his having to deal with Claudius, who, I think, is a perverse character in the Lacanian sense, and psychopathic in the contemporary social sense. Although there are no unequivocal referents supporting this proposal – a feature that is quite typical of the psychopath who is often described socially as a “complex” character - all of the filmed interpretations of Claudius have portrayed him as cold, controlled, calculating, controlling and forceful, as not vulnerable in the way that the other characters are.
Lacan theorized this position as the perverse subject's disavowal of the fact of his own castration and of the lack in the big Other, with one result being that he takes it as his mission in life to supply the unlimited big Other, with whose incarnation he identifies, with jouissance. To carry this out, in his own mind and in the minds of others the perverse character creates and runs an alternate reality where the usual personal and social limits are absent; he persuades the vulnerable to be guided by him. He gets away with minor delinquencies that make him secretly admired by earth-bound neurotics, and he hides major delinquencies with charm and rationalizations and language that emphasizes the opposite, fooling even not-so-gullible people. On the other side, the perverse subject identifies himself with the phallus that the mother desired and thus with being the natural vehicle through which the little other (married to someone else or not) should achieve sexual and narcissistic pleasure. The more transgressive his actions are, that is, the more exalted or dignified the woman who is seduced, the more jouissance is achieved by the representative of the big Other within himself. This all gives him a casual sense of superiority over lesser, mundane mortals and makes him feel justified in doing whatever it takes to get whatever he wants, about which he can be quite self-important and conscientious.
Claudius's chief interest is in achieving and retaining power as the king of Denmark. His only affects are anxiety, mainly in the form of fear of losing his power, and rage. He uses language to elicit support for his position publicly by referring to the ancient divine right of kings to rule their subjects, to Gertrude as “my queen” and to Hamlet as “my son” and “heir”. Although he might privately admit to his ambition, he cloaks it publicly in his having been elected king, responsibly taking on the burden following the death of his brother, presenting himself as having gallantly stepped into the breach. Any personal anxiety in himself, he quells with quick, determined, calculated and manipulative actions.
To achieve power Claudius has murdered his esteemed, even heroic, brother; with false ingenuousness, he has stepped onto the throne and married his brother's wife; he devised a plan to have his nephew murdered. Claudius is aware of his crime, but is not repentant, saying, in a self-pitying prayer in the chapel: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go. Far from having concern for the welfare and integrity of his brother, his nephew, his new wife or the national weal, he considers that they are all available to be used for his purposes, simply requiring skillful management by him. He has deepened his hold on power by seducing and marrying Gertrude, offering himself as a compelling sexual partner, pulling her dignity and legitimate righteousness down into a compromised, degraded position. And he persuades others to compromise their values in order to achieve their help and loyalty; he persuades Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to spy on their friend, and corrupts Laertes into turning violently against his friend. Even we, by the end of the play, hardly remember what Claudius has done that is so grievous.
Hamlet has had an intuition about his father's murder at the hand of Claudius which is confirmed by the visitation of the ghost, but he cannot act in revenge. As is typical in a struggle of the hysteric with the perverse individual, Hamlet vacillates between believing his knowledge unquestioningly, and not believing it, being on the one hand able to identify and respond with horror and outrage to the flagrant immorality and abuse of the law, but on the other hand, within the same speeches, doubting himself and collapsing in various ways – with self-blame, questioning his right to act, wishing the situation were otherwise or that he could escape from it. So conflicted is he that he keeps his knowledge a secret, waiting, looking for proof. Theoretically, since he knows he himself is not the phallus, he does not know whether or not the phallus has truly passed from his father to Claudius and therefore he cannot assess Claudius's legitimacy. Nor can he count on others to help him. He thinks that others can't or won't confirm his interpretations of the behaviour of Claudius because they are swept up in Claudius's project or the rewards he may bestow, or they are simply afraid of his ruthlessness if they cross him. The world that once contained hope and sweetness and love becomes soured for Hamlet as he experiences bitter disillusionment, to which there seems to be no end; he is filled with contempt for formerly admired others, and the deepening misery of betrayal and loss.
Things go too fast for both the hysteric and the obsessional Hamlet. He becomes crowded by the actions of others and then further crowded by the consequences of his own actions, which he recognizes as compromising, cowardly and cynical. He never does accommodate to this new world proposed by Claudius. Though he still needs in the end to be sort of pushed into action by there being no time left for him to worry and prevaricate, and by the unequivocal support from Laertes as to the immediate guilt of Claudius in causing the deaths of Laertes, his mother and himself.
The other characters in the play can likewise be seen to be trying to cope with this unrecognized perverse character in their midst. Gertrude weakened and yielded, against her better judgment and sense of propriety, to Claudius's seduction. As a female hysteric, she knows that she was not the phallus for the mother, nor does she have one except by the proxy route of being first married to a phallic man, then having a son, and then marrying another phallic man when the first one dies. She was no doubt impressed by Claudius’s take-charge attitude and his astute read of the characters of others, especially as regards their disposition to him. After a life-time of being married to the older, military-preoccupied, often absent brother, Hamlet, who was not interested in, nor good at, feelings or sex or court relationships – he was, rather, good at military campaigns, man-to-man relationships, physical strength and honour - Gertrude was attracted to the younger, charming, sexually adept, available brother, Claudius. She had given up any hope she had of knowing her own personal desire. She accepted, though without knowing what Claudius actually did to her husband, the intensity of a physical and sexual relationship with this engaging lesser man and the trappings of pomp and power as a cynical, dulling compromise to support her continuance of life.
But as well, she is confused, on the one hand letting her wishes and naïve hope blind her to the degrading consequences of her o'er hasty marriage, and on the other, worrying about Hamlet and grieving about what happens to the innocent Ophelia. Once she is informed of Hamlet's suspicions, Gertrude is at least briefly brought back by his pleas that she desist from her sexual relationship with Claudius and return to a life of decency and dignity. She wails, in the anguish of horrified belief and disbelief, My heart is cleft in twain, as Hamlet angrily reminds her of her former husband and life. The fact that the ghost of King Hamlet orders young Hamlet to not hurt his mother, to Step between her and her fighting soul, suggests that he too thinks she is not irredeemable. She is a neurotic, not a perverse character. Knowing of her compromise, guilt and shame, she will gladly suffer punishment at the hands of God and, her former husband expects, will become as redeemed as it is possible for an hysteric woman to be.
Polonius is not perverse; he is an obsessional sycophant, using a flow of words to calm himself, busily and righteously inserting himself and his control into other people's affairs. He has insight and wisdom, but he is out of his depth in terms of understanding the real stakes at play, and his blithe self-important helpfulness ends up with his being mistakenly killed.
Laertes becomes a victim of Claudius's maneuverings, betraying his friendship with Hamlet.
Ophelia is a tragic victim in the sense that her desire is betrayed over and over. Unaware of the new context of Claudius having become king by a foul deed, she finds her love objects confusing, disappointing, and disappearing from her. They manipulate her, and, in an hysteric's attempt to please the men with whom she identifies, she lets herself be used as a pawn until she finally regresses to an hysterical psychotic depression. She has so deeply lost herself and her own desire that it is not clear if she actively killed herself or merely acquiesced to the seduction of the water of the brook.
Thus, Claudius, as a typical perverse, psychopathic character pursuing his goals, has multiple dominating effects on the characters of the play, poisoning each of them, as it were, resulting in their confusion, degradation, broken hearts, smashed ideals, emotional breakdowns and death. The play can be studied as a working out of the effects of a person like this, unannounced and unsuspected, on a group of flawed but neurotic/normal human beings who don't realize the malevolence in their midst, nor, when they do glimpse it, can they develop the cohesive, single-minded clarity or sense of purpose necessary to act with the force necessary to stop him.
As you probably know, the effects on individuals and groups of the so-called white-collar psychopath is a very contemporary topic of preoccupation and study. We have known for many years about the criminal psychopaths who are to be found in prisons, we have known about ruthless, lawless heads of governments who may have this character, and we have known about people with so-called perversions in their sexual lives, who are not usually of this character type. It is only recently in the west - perhaps with the rise of the culture of increased narcissism and entitlement, the greed is good mentality of late-capitalism, the wide-spread media coverage of global social and political events, and obvious and unfair differences in material wealth - that the white-collar psychopath has been identified and studied. They are male or female, not infrequently professional, often at the head of an organization or in a position protected from scrutiny, with their psychopathy focused on only one of the three typical areas of sex, money or power, and with often a marked rigid morality about the other two, making it hard for the unsuspecting to believe their delinquency. Occasionally a person with this character has mainly learned it from a family relationship with a psychopath and can give it up when the knowledge and motivation arrive. People with differing character types tend to react differently to the psychopath. The vulnerability of the individual hysteric person to the psychopath’s persuasions is quite well-studied in the literature. Obsessional people tend to think they are immune to them, but, when a psychopath appears in their group, they tend to settle on witty character descriptions, adjust their position privately and take no action. In psychiatric practice, the psychopathic individual appears only if depressed because his or her plans have failed and he or she is deserted, or when he or she is threatened with exposure. But they appear not infrequently as a person the patient in treatment grew up with, or as a spouse or a child or a friend of the patient. Without understanding the deep nature of the person they are dealing with, the patient struggles to adapt to such a person, often blaming themselves for not being sympathetic to the seeming inconsistencies in the demands of the other and demanding of themselves that they try harder. Thus familiarity with the characteristics of perverse and psychopathic people and their effects on people who trust them or are dependent on them is important for practitioners as well as members of institutions of all types.
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Received: July 10, 2011, Published: July 11, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Judith Hamilton