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THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST wants to give not only already internationally established psychoanalysts, but also still unknown psychoanalysts the opportunity to post a self-written and not yet published article on the FrontPage of our online magazine!

Our Users then can leave comments, ask questions or discuss the articles in our forum. Our aim is to provide an international platform where for the first time anyone interested in psychoanalysis can exchange ideas on certain topics.
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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

What a piece of work is a man

Author: Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)


William Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud.

 “Everywhere I go, a poet has been here before me” (Sigmund Freud)

No analysis will ever do justice to the scope and literary brilliance with which William Shakespeare illustrated the depths of the human condition. His iambic pentameter, or blank verse, is said to mimic the rhythm of the human heartbeat. The key to understanding his plays is empathy as the famous playwright had a profound and unsurpassed understanding of the human psyche - a gift that inspired both great admiration and ambivalence in Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud began reading Shakespeare’s work at the tender age of eight and never missed a chance to quote him in letters to his friends and loved ones. Thus, it comes as no surprise that William Shakespeare’s work had a far-reaching influence on Sigmund Freud that permeates his theories. It’s evident that “Hamlet” was Freud’s favourite Shakespeare play, which he referred to as one of the ten most magnificent works of world literature. In Freud’s analysis of Hamlet, he applied the story of Oedipus, which in turn helped him formulate the Oedipus Complex, and guided him through his self-analysis. In a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, he writes that he found, “in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father.” He thought that this was “a universal event in early childhood.” Freud dedicated a whole essay to “Psychopathic characters on stage” (1905-1906) and the characterization of Hamlet. He commented on and quoted Shakespeare’s plays throughout his life. 

However, before long Sigmund Freud became increasingly reluctant to admit his admiration for the playwright and his intuitive ability to capture aspects of human nature that psychoanalysts like Freud only seemed to grasp through rigorous analytical work. Frankly speaking, Freud’s attitude towards Shakespeare often bordered on outright hostility. It’s not a secret that Sigmund Freud felt a general ambivalence and uneasiness towards artists, despite referring to storytellers as valuable allies for psychoanalysts.

 In Shakespeare’s case, he entirely dismissed and frequently discredited the artist’s identity and authorship, with James Strachey’s protests falling on deaf ears. According to Ernest Jones, he first insisted that Shakespeare had been French as his face “could not be that of an Anglo-Saxon” (Ernest Jones), and that his name was a corruption of Jacques Pierre. Later, he wrote in a footnote in “An Outline of Psycho-analysis” (1938): “The name William Shakespeare is very probably a pseudonym, behind which a great unknown lies concealed." In the end, Freud attached himself to Looney’s popular notion, known as the “Oxfordian” position, that Shakespeare be in fact Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, which shaped his later interpretation of Shakespearean plays. Freud believed that Shakespeare’s genius shouldn’t be above examination, and quite obsessively – but not unnatural given his profession - that people are never what they appear to be.

What Sigmund Freud greatly admired, he often belittled. Even so, Freud never tired of rationalizing and decoding Shakespeare’s iridescent representations of the human psyche - Shakespeare’s characters embodied, Freud analyzed. Shakespeare’s plays need to be performed, to read them in silence will never suffice as their poetry is inherently musical and crafted for the stage. Shakespeare motivates his audience to empathise with the characters on stage, to live through their tragedies and blitheness. The playwright’s work resonated with people from all walks of life. To experience a Shakespearean play – as actor, as audience member or as reader reciting the sonnets, is very much a libidinous affair. Freud tended to scorn and criticize this Lustprinzip (pleasure principle) expressed by artists, whom he praised but in the same breath defined as madmen, children or unrealistic daydreamers.

But every Shakespearean verse has its purpose and the iambic structure follows a natural rhythm when read aloud, creating an instinctive emotional connection that is accessible to pretty much anyone, who is willing to explore Shakespeare’s words without prejudice. Shakespeare was here before Freud. Psychoanalysis may theorize about King Lear’s madness, Hamlet’s instability, Othello’s jealousy, Lady Macbeth’s severe depression and Ophelia’s insanity. But it was Shakespeare who equipped the human condition with a voice, rhythm, physicality and universally relatable characters. Perhaps Shakespeare would have been thrilled to hear Freud’s opinions about his works, or even written a play about one of his greatest admirers.

Holland, N. N. (1960). Freud on Shakespeare. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 163-173.

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