Review of Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays

ed. by Murray N. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980

The Cambridge Review, 29 January 1982, pp. 124-127


   The jacket design of this volume, by Alan Carter, shows a photographic enlargement of the central and upper part of the Droeshout 'portrait' of Shakespeare, on which Ben Jonson expatiated in the First Folio. The enlarge­ment shows rather clearly the uncomfortable fact that the Droeshout simulacrum has two left eyes. This has been commented upon, perhaps most authoritatively by the neurologist Lord Brain. The meaning of the singularity is a problem that has never been solved. On the cover of this volume it must have a metaphoric and symbolic signif­icance. Perhaps it relates to the viewpoint of the contrib­utors. As Freudians, they are at one in regarding the subject of their researches with something less than bin­ocular vision.

   It is an anomaly of our time that Freudian psycho­analysis, which everywhere else is in retreat,[1] has ad­vanced into the field of literary scholarship. It is a pincer movement with two claws. The more aggressive one owes its vigour to the teachings of Jacques Lacan, a disciple of Freud who plunged far deeper than his master into the world of unreason that the Unconscious offers to the in­trepid explorer; the weaker one, growing directly from the main body of Freudian theory, has also penetrated along several lines. The Johns Hopkins University Press, along with the volume now under review, announces companion works on Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text and Towards a Freudian Theory of Literature. If literary criticism is not to become the prey of the depth psychologies, scholars must examine the standing and the methods of the invaders.

   Psychoanalysts are still prone to speak of their science. Freud hoped to create a science of the mind. He came to believe that he had succeeded. But he also believed that this science was his personal property. Only he, and none but he, could say what psychoanalysis affirmed and what it denied. However, science knows no authority and Freud was mistaken. He adopted the principle of psychic determinism. Unfortunately he came to believe that psychic events are not only caused but psychically caused. Organic and physical causes for psychic events were ignored; and the relationship between psycho­analysis and the sciences, physiology, neurology and medicine, failed to develop. Freud had the idea that scientific method could not lead to error (when, as Karl Popper has shown, the possibility of error is what it must ever seek). Freud lost almost all interest in behaviour, which is the public aspect of mental events; instead, he concerned himself with the endopsychic world, which meant subjective experience. In this way he liberated his theories from any obligatory connection with objective phenomena. Nothing could happen that his theories could not explain. Nothing could happen that could prove them wrong. Therefore they must be true.

   What Freud had done was not to discover a new science but to invent a new language. A language has to be a logically closed system. It must be capable of embodying any statement, true or untrue, any thought, any feeling. This language was a work of genius. It proved extremely flexible, and a convenient medium for communication‑e.g., between analyst and analysand. It provided the means of expressing, perhaps through images and metaphors, even the vaguest or most irrational or self‑contradictory ideas. 'The Unconscious contains no contradictions'. The description of subjec­tive experience is refractory material for any two‑valued logical system. But if we cast off the shackles of self­consistency, we are set free to enter the endopsychic world. Here we can find a multiplicity of meanings, a multiplicity of interpretations. But language is only a language. No interpretation is obligatory. Without a foundation of empirical data, no consequence can be predicted. No explanation can be either established or rebutted.

   Freud did go outside his irrefutable self‑consistent language of discourse to make constructions which could be checked. Some of them were examined by Stoller [2] in 1973. Freud's biological thinking‑life instinct v. death instinct, libido theory, Lamarckian inheritance‑ should all be purged. He was mistaken about the infant's devel­opment of a sexual identity and the primacy of the penis. As we now know, the basic human template is female. It needs a revolutionary change in early embryonic life, triggered by the male Y chromosome, to switch develop­ment to the male alternative. In fact, the human male is an altered female. If anything goes amiss in the process of alteration, he may be stranded only part‑way over the divide. Moreover later influences affect the psyche. Close association with the mother feminizes, but with the father masculinizes. So the boy does not have the straightforward heterosexual development that Freud supposed. He must rid himself of whatever femininity may come to him from the mother‑infant symbiosis. Little girls are shaped in the direction of femininity right from the start. Clear‑cut femininity, says Stoller, is routinely seen by a year or so of age.

   The point is taken up by one of the contributors to the symposium under review. Madelon Gohlke points out that our common language is liable to send us astray. The use of the male pronoun is often generic, as denoting the common gender that includes both men and women. This may lead to a shift of consideration from the develop­ment of the infant, male or female, to the exclusive development of the male infant. We have the cultural assumption by which the male of the species is taken as a norm, of which the female then becomes a variant. Pro­fessor Gohlke continues:

Although Freud approaches the subject of femininity from different angles in his three major discussions of it, there is no question that he links the process of feminine development indissolubly to the recognition on the part of the little girl that she is castrated. It would seem at least reasonable to argue, however, that the presence or absence of a penis is of greater significance to the boy or man, who feels himself subject to the threat of its removal, than it could ever be to the girl or woman, for whom such a threat can have little anatomical meaning.

    One might perhaps wonder why it is that Freudian analysts in the USA have recently come to take such an interest in Shakespeare. But the question really is, why have American students of Shakespeare recently turned for help to Freud? Shakespearean studies are a field of scholarship so dug over in the course of years that it has become difficult to find a new approach. In their introduction to Representing Shakespeare Professor Schwartz and Professor Kahn claim that the contributors provide 'critical re‑readings of Shakespeare's personal and artistic representations'. What we are to discover in the 'resonant complexities of Shakespeare's art' are new meanings. Orthodox distinctions among art, criticism and biography are to vary into freer relationships. The critic will present himself as well as his view of Shakespeare; and the reader can discover for himself how well he can fit these presentations into his own 'dialogue' with Shakespeare. The editors claim that the essayists will bring into view Shakespeare the writer: 'What we see in the design of Shakespeare's works that seems to point beyond them to the personal existence of their originator'. We are led to expect that psychoanalysis, reaching the dead writer through his works, will reveal profundities in his mind which those unskilled in the Freudian discipline could not discover for themselves. However, what emerges is either a commonplace (e.g., that Shakespeare had an idiosyn­cratic attitude to the relations between the sexes) or conjecture of an imprecise kind, one would think beyond the reach of possible check or test. Much of the effort to make Freud illuminate Shakespeare blurs out in banalities or jargon; the greater part is directed towards making Shakespeare illustrate Freud.

   Shakespeare, the editors say, imagined the world in extreme form. He was fascinated by the way extremes meet. He 'made his identity of the question of identity, and so, paradoxically, he seems an absent author him­self'. 'His plays and poems do not merely illustrate his identity but are in each instance a dynamic expression of the struggle to re‑create and explore its origins and consequences'. The simple‑minded idea that Shakes­peare was a professional playwright, taking his material, and his plots, almost wholly from public sources and then shaping it ‑that idea can be silently disregarded. The psychoanalyst looks deeper. The truth of it is that Shakespeare was a tortured spirit, reflecting on himself, seeking for his own identity, working out his own com­plexes. They come up in the themes he handles: separ­ation from or betrayal by the mother, the affirmative representation of fatherhood, the way bonds with women conflict with bonds between men, fratricidal rivalry, the driving need of Shakespearean men to repud­iate femininity outside and within themselves.

   How seriously should one take this? Psychoanalytic expertise suffers from crippling incapacities when attempts are made to apply it in a rational enquiry. Perhaps especially when applied to literary material. Those who have been psychoanalysed have gone through a mind‑changing process. In the confrontation with their analyst they have been trained to bring out thoughts, images, ideas in free association. Logic, together with the inhibitions of the censor, must be set aside. The analys­and is taught to accept unreason as valid communication. The trained mind, once it enters on its familiar dialectic, becomes incapable of a merely logical step‑by‑step progress. The goal is no longer argument but the discov­ery of meanings, the more the better, and none of them any the worse for being self‑contradictory.

   Consider the opening essay by Norman Holland. It is concerned with Hermia's dream (Midsummer Night's Dream, 11.2.145‑56), 'a dream of a dream of a dream'. The snake is symbolic of the penis. There are also 'anal and oral significances to her own oedipal and phallic sexuality'. She exclaims 'Ay me, for pity!'. This includes 'Eye me', and also 'I‑me', 'a blurting out of her dual self'. She dreams of the doubleness of lovers, of her lover, therefore of duplicity shown in his name 'Lie­sander'. Professor Holland gives his own associations to Hermia's dream, proceeding as if the reader were the analyst and he, Holland, the analysand. The elements of the dream are related to our times, our culture, our sexual permissiveness, our predicaments. Shakespeare disap­pears. He is dismissed as providing a resolution of conflicts in Renaissance terms, not ours. But is Holland's inner life of any consequence to us? He seems to have no troubles or doubts in exposing himself; and seems to con­form to the general run of contemporary academics sub­mitted to contemporary stresses.

   We may take as another example Janet Adelman's dis­section of feeding imagery in Coriolanus. The play was written during a period of rising corn prices, reaching a climax in 1608, and of the accompanying fear of famine. Shakespeare shapes his material to exacerbate those fears. The threat of starvation and the consequent attempt to level enclosures are reflected also in the endo­psychic world. Political levelling takes on overtones of sexual threat early in Shakespeare's play. 'The rising of the people becomes suggestively phallic; and the fear of levelling becomes ultimately a fear of losing one's potency in all spheres'. Volumnia is not a nourishing mother. She rejects Menenius's invitation to a consol­atory dinner after the banishment of Coriolanus: 'Anger's my meat: I sup upon myself / And so shall starve with feeding' (IV.2.50‑l). We suspect her, says Professor Adelman, of making her son too feed only on his own anger: 'The valiantness was mine, thou suck'st it from me' (111.2.129). He did not receive the milk of human kindness. Menenius tells us 'there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger' (V.4.28‑9). Volumnia imagines herself mother to twelve sons, and then kills off all but one of them: 'I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country, than one volup­tuously surfeit out of action' (1.3.24‑5). Volumnia's attitude to feeding is even more disturbingly revealed when she encourages Virgilia to share her own glee in the thought of Coriolanus's wounds: 'The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector, look 'd not lovelier / Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning' (1.3.40‑3). Blood is more beautiful than milk, the wound than the breast. In this image, to feed is to be wounded; the mouth becomes the wound, the breast the sword.

   In Professor Adelman's argument, Volumnia's attitudes towards feeding and dependence are echoed in her son. Coriolanus persistently regards food as poison­ous. He imagines starving himself honourably to death before asking for food, or anything else, from the pleb­eians. 'His whole life becomes a kind of phallic exhib­itionism, devoted to disproving the possibility that he is vulnerable'. Fighting is a poorly concealed substitute for feeding (see, for example, 1.9.10‑Il, IV. 5.191‑4, 222‑4). 'The image allows us to understand the ease with which Coriolanus turns his rage towards his own feeding mother, Rome'. 'Thrust prematurely from dependendence on his mother, forced to feed himself on his own anger, Coriolanus refuses to acknowledge any neediness or dependency'. He has to see himself as self‑sufficient. In order not to be dependent he must be rigid as soldier’s steel. 'Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve' (11.3.112‑13).

   Professor Adelman's interpretation is well founded on the text; it is subtle, and superficially plausible. But wh or what, is being interpreted? Coriolanus is only a character in a play. The images and tropes in which he has his being are of Shakespeare's invention; but we are invited to treat this artefact as a real living man. Plutarch assur us that there was such a historical being. But Plutarch’s Coriolanus, itself an abstraction, is very different from Shakespeare's. What, then, can we learn from Adelman's picture? In fact, nothing. But we can derive some real pleasure from contemplating it, presented, as it is, with a perspective that gives it three‑dimensionality. Equally pleasing, in this kind of way, is Adelman's refiguration of the conquest of Corioli:

It is here that Coriolanus most nearly realizes his fantasy of standing as if a man were author of himself. For the scene Corioli represents a glorious transformation of the nightmare of oral vulnerability ("to th'pot" 1.4.47, one of his soldiers says as he is swallowed up by the gates), into a phallic adventure that both assures and demonstrates his independence. Coriolanus' battlecry as he storms the gates sexualizes the scene: "Come on; / If you'll stand fast, we'll beat them to their wives" (1.4.40‑41). But the dramatic action itself presents the conquest of Corioli as an image not of rape but of triumphant rebirth: after Coriolanus enters the gates of the city, he is proclaimed dead; one of his comrades delivers a eulogy firmly in the past tense; . . . then Coriolanus miraculously re-emerges, covered with blood (1.5.22), and is given a new name. For the assault on Corioli is both a rape and a rebirth; the underlying fantasy is that intercourse is a literal return to the womb, from which one is reborn, one's own author. The fantasy of self‑authorship is complete when Coriolanus given his new name, earned by his own action.

This is very ingenious indeed. It is an example of Freudian thinking at its most elegant. However it is neither cogent nor valid. It is not valid, because there is not a line or a word in the text to show that the man who came out through the gates of Corioli had been in an sense reborn, or was other than identically the same as the man who stormed in. It is not cogent because one can go along with it, or dismiss it as so much table‑talk. It has no relevance to Coriolanus the great warrior. It is only relevant to what Shakespeare chose to make of the stage role. It is, in fact, only cogent if it can be shown to be relevant to Shakespeare, the man who wrote the part.

   An interesting essay is contributed by Madelo Gohlke. Her concern is with Freud rather than with Shakespeare, and she uses Shakespearean material to promote a reconstruction of Freudian theory. Shakespearean heroes, she says, share fictions about femininity, their own vulnerability in relation to women, fictions interwoven with violence.

The structures of male dominance, involving various strategies of control expressed in the language of prostitution, rape and murder, conceal deeper structures of fear, in which women are perceived as powerful and the heterosexual relation is seen as either mutually violent or at least deeply threatening to the man.

The man betrayed by a woman is a man weakened, fem­inized. A woman he suspects of sexuality (Hero, Ophelia, Desdemona) in his eyes then becomes a whore. To re­cover his honour he must destroy the man and/or woman responsible. Throughout Shakespeare's tragedies, the imagery of heterosexual union involves the threat of mutual or self‑inflicted violence. The 'macho' stance becomes a demonstration of phallic power in the face of threatened castration. 'It is for the male hero, however, that femininity signifies weakness, while actual women are perceived by him as enormously powerful, specific­ally in their maternal functions'. Professor Gohlke pro­tests against Freud's theory of femininity (in which the little girl perceives herself as castrated) as incapable of resolving such problems. Images of sexual intercourse as an act of violence committed against a women run deep in our culture. The depth and persistence of these images tell us more about our culture than about the actual relations of the sexes. Psychoanalytic theory must be read in a historical dimension.

While Freud's elaboration of the Oedipus complex may have served to assuage the neurotic dilemmas of his society, it does not serve the needs of contemporary feminism. In a society like ours.. . the interpretative myths offered by Freud for women are increasingly pathological.

Contemporary psychoanalysis must redefine femininity, must rewrite Freud. Shakespeare's attitude to human sexuality was certainly infected by morbid elements. Indeed his personal sexual orientation may well have been anomalous throughout his writing career. Perhaps, then, the lessons that Professor Gohike derives from her reading of his text could be developed on a wider basis. One is given the hope that one day the very foundations of psychoanalysis will be grubbed out and rebuilt.

   There is not the space here to refer to other contrib­utions to the symposium. They are of very varying inter­est, but in every case have the merit of directing one's attention with quickened perceptions once again to the text. The viewpoint of the authors, unfamiliar to the great majority of students of Shakespeare, offers the refreshments of its perversity. The book would have been made much more useful if it had been given a subject index.

[1] The critique of Freudian theory outlined here is in large part abstracted from my article 'The psychiatrist in search of a science: III. The depth psychologies', British Journal of Psychiatry, 126 (1975), 205‑24.

[2] Robert J. Stoller, 'The impact of new advances in sex research on psychoanalytic theory', American Journal of Psychiatry, 130 (1973), 241‑51.