It is the genius of Shakespeare, or at least a part of his genius, that he is able in a few simple but poetic words to insinuate the deepest questions of human existence. To be sure he is no metaphysician, in the sense that he provides answers to those questions in expository prose. He appeals, rather, to the seeker, not that self-deluded creature, the finder.

An example of his uncanny ability to cut to the chase of our existence can be found in Hamlet’s reproachful response to Guildenstern: “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” Since then, of course, a monstrous regiment of literary (and other) Guildensterns have been trying to do precisely that, to their own if to no one else’s satisfaction. No controversy is so furious or bitter as that which can in principle never be settled.

It is no accident that Dr. Ernest Jones, the first English-speaking convert, if I may so put it, to Freudianism, used Hamlet’s retort as the epigraph to his celebrated essay on the play. Plucking the heart from mankind’s mystery was, after all, the ambition and, in its own estimation, the achievement of psychoanalysis. A few years on the couch, and mankind would come to do what it had never done before: understand itself.

Dr. Jones, whose three-volume biography of Freud is probably the longest uncoerced hagiography of the twentieth century, was a very important figure in our cultural history, for he was the first conduit of Freudianism to the non-Germanic world. He was as essential to the climate of opinion to which Auden referred in his poem on the death of Freud as Al Gore has been to our own climate of opinion about global warming. In the context, one cannot help but recall, and adapt slightly, Gibbon’s remarks, in Chapter XV of Decline and Fall, about the spread of Christianity:

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means psychoanalysis obtained so remarkable a victory over the established doctrines of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself. . . . But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the human mind frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose; we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid acceptance of psychoanalytic doctrine.

Among the secondary causes, Dr. Jones was undoubtedly one. The others are beyond the scope of this essay.

It is, of course, quite true that Dr. Jones’s current fame is not equal to his importance. Indeed, I have often thought of conducting the following experiment: to count the number of people it is necessary to accost in the various streets of New York, London, or Sydney before encountering someone who has heard of Ernest Jones. Alas, pressing commitments have prevented me from conducting this interesting experiment, but I give the idea gratis to any Ph.D. student struggling for an idea: of which type, if I have understood aright, there are more than ever before. My experiment is a rare opportunity to establish an important law in the field of cultural studies: that in an era of celebrity, fame is inversely related to importance.

For Dr. Jones, the mystery of Hamlet, whose heart is there to be plucked out, is the reason for his delay in killing his uncle Claudius who, it will be remembered, has usurped not only Hamlet senior’s throne but also his wife’s bed. Of course, there are other mysteries in the play that might have been expected to intrigue a psychiatrist—for example, why the ghost of Hamlet senior should have been invisible to Gertrude in Act III, Scene IV, when it is perfectly visible to Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio in Act I, Scene I, and again to Marcellus and Horatio in Act I, Scene IV. Why does Gertrude say to Hamlet, “This is the very coinage of your brain,” when Horatio says that the ghost is as like the late king “As thou art to thyself?”

Are Bernardo, Marcellus, Horatio, and Hamlet himself suffering from folie à plusieurs, a condition first described in the seventeenth century by Sir Kenelm Digby, in which several people intellectually, socially, or psychologically in thrall to one among them take on that person’s delusions and false perceptions as their own and lose them only when separated from him? Or are they merely suffering from mass hysteria, like those travelers in British trains at the beginning of the First World War who claimed to have seen Russian soldiers with snow on their boots? Or is Gertrude suffering from negative hallucinations: that is to say, not seeing what is there, rather than seeing what is not there?

The problem did not escape an earlier psychiatrist, John Charles Bucknill, in his book The Mad Folk of Shakespeare (2nd edition 1867). He resolved it very simply, by asserting that, in Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were supposed to be able to manifest themselves to whomever they wished, in whatever circumstances they wished. It was not, therefore, the perceivers, but the percept which supposedly varied, and, on this assumption, there was no problem to be solved. Bucknill here shows himself to be, in an important respect, at one with Hazlitt, who said of Hamlet that it was the thoughts expressed by the character that were real, not the action as a supposedly accurate representation of a slice of life.

The folly, though not perhaps the attraction to those who delight in harmless speculation, of questions raised by taking Hamlet as if it were a representation of such a slice of life, is pointed out in Morris Weitz’s book, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Criticism. For a doctor to try to examine and diagnose Hamlet as if he were a real person is for him to make a category mistake; non-existent people cannot suffer from real disorders (though the reverse is not true: real people can suffer from non-existent ones). The psychoanalytical study of Shakespeare as exemplified by Jones is, therefore, indicative of a regression rather than an advance in intellectual sophistication, for all its elaborate conceptual apparatus. But since most people, most of all literary critics, find it hard to obey the self-denying ordinances of philosophers for very long, let us return for a moment to Jones’s solution to the problem of Hamlet’s procrastination as if it were a problem of a patient on the couch. Jones’s diagnosis is simple: it is a manifestation of the severe Oedipal complex from which Hamlet so strongly suffers (as do we all—that is to say we men).

This solution is, of course, not totally unexpected from a man who was constantly vying for the title of Crown Prince of psychoanalysis, or Apostolic Successor to the founder of that religion. The argument is as follows. Hamlet, like all good dutiful sons, wants to make love to his mother, the lascivious, sensuous, and (if truth be told) slightly vulgar Gertrude. To do so, he would have to kill his father, also called Hamlet. But he cannot acknowledge his desires, so his unconscious mind censors his desire and represses it. Along comes Claudius, his uncle, who does exactly what Hamlet fils would like to have done, i.e. kill Hamlet père and bed his mother. To kill Claudius, then, would necessarily be to risk bringing his forbidden desires into consciousness. He half knows this, and so he cannot bring himself to act.

Young Hamlet disguises his wish to kill his father by expressing an exaggerated love and respect for him. This love is a mirror image of his real but repressed feeling for him, namely insensate jealous rivalry. The situation is all the more difficult because Gertrude, according to Jones, is not herself entirely free of incestuous desires towards her son, and he is not utterly without hope—to which Jones adduces as evidence the following line, uttered by Claudius, who has some kind of awareness of his wife’s true feelings: “The Queen his mother lives almost by his looks.” It hardly need be pointed out that the plausibility of this interpretation depends entirely upon the actual existence of the Oedipus Complex. And here Jones relies on the most irrefutable of all arguments, that of the Bellman in “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”

Jones’s essay is, in fact, sown with expressions such as the following, which make the average Papal bull seem like exercises in naïve empiricism:

The particular problem of Hamlet . . . is intimately related to some of the most frequently recurring problems that are presented in the course of psycho-analytic work.

The extensive experience of the psycho-analytic researches carried out by Freud has amply demonstrated that certain kinds of mental processes shew a greater tendency to be inaccessible to consciousness, to be “repressed,” than others.

It was reserved for the genetic studies of psycho-analytic research to demonstrate the lasting and profound influence that infantile jealousies may have upon later character reactions and upon the whole course of a person’s life.

It was Freud who first demonstrated, when dealing with the subject of the earliest manifestations of the sexual instinct in children, that the conflict [between son and father] rests in the last resort on sexual grounds.

The reader is battered about the head by and with authority which he, not a specialist in the matter, hardly dares contradict. Like the person who feels, because he is told, that he cannot justly comment on Islamic attitudes to women until he has read the whole of the Koran (in classical Arabic), the Hadith, and the four schools of jurisprudence, the reader of Jones feels he cannot resist his conclusions until he has trawled through the whole of Freud’s collected works in search of the evidence that establishes the existence of the Oedipus Complex as incontestably as Howard Carter established the existence of Tutenkhamun’s tomb.

There are, of course, rather obvious objections to and lacunae in Dr. Jones’s theory. Doting mothers generally begin to dote before puberty. Are they, then, doting in anticipation of future illicit pleasures, laying up their seduction, as it were, in the future, or are they mere pedophiles? Incestuous feelings are by no means always, or often, unavailable to consciousness. In my work, I encountered everything from incestuous fantasy to incestuous rape and all points in between. It is not so much a matter of repression by some arcane mental mechanism, then, as of self-control. The achievement of this self-control requires not so much psychoanalysis as what Doctor Johnson calls “attention to the movements of one’s mind”—the very thing that psychoanalysis works in practice to prevent, with its depreciation of consciousness.

Jones does not tell us how we are to distinguish between true filial piety and the masking type displayed by Hamlet. Either he has to maintain that true filial piety does not and cannot exist, that no son ever truly loved his father, or he has to explain how the true type is to be distinguished from the false. If Hamlet expressed hatred towards his father (though his father had done him no harm), it would have been evidence of his Oedipus complex; if he had expressed indifference to him, it would have been evidence of his Oedipus Complex, just as the expression of the warmest devotion was evidence of his Oedipus Complex.

Now Jones was an intelligent and cultivated man. He could hardly have failed to notice the defects of his own argument. I would like to propose the following interpretation. When Jones was trying to promote psychoanalysis in America, Freud detected hesitancy in him, and Jones then wrote to Freud:

my resistances have sprung not from any objection to your theories, but partly from an absurd jealous egotism and partly from the influences of a strong “Father-complex.”

If we take psychoanalysis to be Freud’s wife and Jones’s mother—which in analytical terms is hardly far-fetched—it is clear from what complex Jones was actually suffering. In his essay on Hamlet, Jones was simultaneously expressing filial piety for Freud by fitting Hamlet into the procrustean bed and killing Freud by making him look ridiculous in the eyes of so many. True, the psychoanalysis of which Jones would become the leader would be much reduced in importance, but, as many a spurned lover has said after murdering the object of his love, “If I can’t have her, no one else will.”

Let us, however, suspend for the moment our metaphysical and empirical objections to Jones’s theory; let us accept it at its face value. Do we now feel that we have plucked out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and therefore of mankind? If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been armed with psychoanalytical theory à la Jones, would they have been better able to do what Hamlet accused them of wanting, and what Claudius sent them, to do, that is, pluck out the heart of his mystery?

Hamlet, you recall, asks Guildenstern to play upon the recorder, but Guildenstern says that he cannot, for “he knows no touch of it.” Hamlet insists, and Guildenstern replies again that from the “ventages and stops” of the recorder “I cannot command any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.” Hamlet then reproaches Guildenstern:

Why, look you now how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from the lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

What is true of Hamlet we know to be true of ourselves: that we are incalculable to others, as they are to us, and, that while we can be made to conform, we cannot be made to consent. That is why totalitarianism is ultimately futile and destined to fail, and why the claim of psychoanalysis to a total understanding, or even to a potentially total understanding, of man is absurd, ridiculous. All the explanations of psychoanalysis are ex post facto—they do not and cannot tell us what is the true, the beautiful, or the good, and cannot tell us how to live. There is, in fact, no plucking out the heart of life’s mystery, and Hamlet has only to utter these words for us to know it. Of course, the claim that human existence is, or is about to become, totally explicable, with no remainder of mystery, continues to be made. But even those claims that are more modest—that progress in understanding has been made—seem to me absurd.

Among my small collection of books written by doctors on Shakespeare is one called The Bard on the Brain: Understanding the Mind through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging. Books by doctors about Shakespeare tend, though not absolutely, to fall into one of two categories: either they collect and collate, in the fashion of an encyclopedia, every reference conceivably related to medicine in Shakespeare, or they compare such references with the latest medical doctrines on their subject matter. The Bard on the Brain belongs to the latter genre.

It was published in 2003, and so no doubt neuroscience has much advanced in its understanding of human existence in the meantime. The book is by Paul M. Matthews, a professor of neuroimaging at Oxford, and by the literary scholar Jeffrey McQuain. The central conceit of the book is the following:

While [Shakespeare’s] experiments were not designed and executed as are those of modern brain scientists, the underlying goals had intriguing similarities.

The authors then assure us that “we stand poised at the dawn of a new Age of Enlightenment that is in part led by our growing ability to observe brain processes directly.” Where psychoanalysis has failed, brain-
imaging will succeed.

The subsequent chapters—forty of them— quote lines from Shakespeare and juxtapose neuroimaging research with them. As an example, let me take the chapter “Treating Depression.” Here is quoted the most famous soliloquy in all of world literature—“To be or not to be,” etc. We read that “the soliloquy . . . provides a remarkable example of a form of personal psychological therapy”—cognitive behavioral therapy avant la lettre, in fact, Shakespeare being a well-known forerunner of Dr. Aaron Beck.

Alas for poor young Hamlet—or is it poor old Hamlet, for as Dr. Bucknill noticed in 1867, Hamlet seems to be about eighteen at the beginning of the play and thirty by the end of it—cbt can’t quite deal with his level of depression. He is, therefore, in need of antidepressants, especially those that increase serotonin levels. This is because “many studies have suggested that responses to endogenous serotonin levels are reduced in the brains of patients with depression or a tendency to depression” (many other studies, however, suggest that antidepressants don’t work very well).

So, if Hamlet had been lucky enough to live today instead of then, there would be no need for a play called Hamlet. A packet of Prozac, both for the actors and for the audience, would have done the trick. If this is an Age of Enlightenment, goodness knows what a dark age would be like.

Messrs. Matthews’s and McQuain’s argument is clinched, however, by some rather nice pictures of a monkey brain, after the monkey has swallowed radioactively labeled molecules of Prozac. The red, green, and yellow patches in a deep blue background show where in the brain the Prozac molecules go; these are the areas where Prozac exerts its effects (if it does exert them). I hope I shall not be regarded as Luddite when I say that this all seems to me to be a rather superior kind of phrenology. We are hardly any further forward than the time when the German materialists—Moleschott and Buchner, for example—claimed that the brain secreted thought as the liver secreted bile. That definite and locally useful results have sometimes been attained is certainly true, but to present neuroscience as if it were on the verge of plucking the heart out of our mystery seems absurd and even dishonest. Do we conduct our lives one whit the better for it? Does the person on the bus or train psychobabbling about his serotonin levels or the dysfunction of his amygdala understand the problems of human existence better than one who quotes Richard II?

For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

I cannot speak for others, but these words go straight to my cortex via my limbic system—indeed, almost via my solar plexus—and there raise questions that whole libraries of books have been insufficient to answer. To reduce Richard II to a man who needs Prozac for a few weeks seems to me to represent not an advance, but a retrogression, in understanding.

I once had an amiable discussion with an eminent professor on the question of human self-understanding. He believed that neuroscience would one day achieve it, and I thought the opposite. We disagreed, too, as to whether it would be desirable; he thought it would, I thought it would not. “Suppose,” I said, “that our understanding had advanced so much that we had a thought scanner—an instrument that translated a person’s brain activity into his thoughts. We had only to point a hand-held scanner at him to know what he was thinking. Would not this signal the end of the human race, because of the killing of each by all, and all by each?”

In these circumstances, lust alone would be quite sufficient do the trick, if the lusts of all were known to all. For myself, I prefer the level of self-knowledge, and knowledge of the human race, displayed by Shakespeare in Sonnet 129: “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action . . .”

Has anyone ever captured better than Shakespeare, will anyone ever again capture remotely as well, the eternal oscillation of mankind between delight and disgust, hope and despair, that is his insoluble mystery?

                                            . . . till action, lust

Is perjured, murd’rous, boody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
>All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Nothing that a bit of hormone treatment couldn’t sort out, then.

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 2, on page 4
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now