Half Title
 Title Page
 Front Matter
 Table of Contents
 The major tragedies
 Bargains, defenses, and cultural...
 King Lear
 Shakespeare's personality
 Shakespeare's conflicts
 "What Fools these Mortals Be"
 Shakespeare's leap of faith: from...
 The Tempest: Shakespear's ideal...
 Works cited


Bargains with fate
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00001615/00001
 Material Information
Title: Bargains with fate psychological crises and conflicts in Shakespeare and his plays
Physical Description: xvi, 303 p. : ; 22 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Paris, Bernard J
Publisher: Insight Books
Place of Publication: New York
Publication Date: 1991
Subjects / Keywords: Dramatists, English -- Psychology -- Early modern, 1500-1700   ( lcsh )
Fate and fatalism in literature   ( lcsh )
Psychoanalysis and literature   ( lcsh )
Psychology in literature   ( lcsh )
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references and index.
Funding: Psychological study of the arts.
Bibliography: Item removed from public access on August 1, 2012 per request by the author, Bernard Paris. The book is being reissued by the publisher and so will be available through the publisher.
Statement of Responsibility: Bernard J. Paris ; with a foreword by Theodore I. Rubin.
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: Author retains all rights.
Resource Identifier: aleph - 001618769
oclc - 22983230
notis - AHP3277
lccn - 90028612
isbn - 0306437600
System ID: UF00001615:00001


This item has the following downloads:


Table of Contents
    Half Title
        Half Title 1
        Half Title 2
    Title Page
        Title Page
    Front Matter
        Front Matter
        Dedication 1
        Dedication 2
        Foreword 1
        Foreword 2
        Acknowledgement 1
        Acknowledgement 2
        Acknowledgement 3
        Acknowledgement 4
    Table of Contents
        Table of Contents 1
        Table of Contents 2
        Table of Contents 3
        Table of Contents 4
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
    The major tragedies
        Page 13
        Page 14
    Bargains, defenses, and cultural codes
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
        Page 18
        Page 19
        Page 20
        Page 21
        Page 22
        Page 23
        Page 24
        Page 25
        Page 26
        Page 27
        Page 28
        Page 29
        Page 30
        Page 31
        Page 32
        Page 33
        Page 34
        Page 35
        Page 36
        Page 37
        Page 38
        Page 39
        Page 40
        Page 41
        Page 42
        Page 43
        Page 44
        Page 45
        Page 46
        Page 47
        Page 48
        Page 49
        Page 50
        Page 51
        Page 52
        Page 53
        Page 54
        Page 55
        Page 56
        Page 57
        Page 58
        Page 59
        Page 60
        Page 61
        Page 62
        Page 63
        Page 64
        Page 65
        Page 66
        Page 67
        Page 68
        Page 69
        Page 70
        Page 71
        Page 72
        Page 73
        Page 74
        Page 75
        Page 76
        Page 77
        Page 78
        Page 79
        Page 80
        Page 81
        Page 82
        Page 83
        Page 84
        Page 85
        Page 86
        Page 87
        Page 88
        Page 89
        Page 90
        Page 91
        Page 92
        Page 93
        Page 94
        Page 95
        Page 96
        Page 97
        Page 98
        Page 99
        Page 100
        Page 101
        Page 102
        Page 103
        Page 104
        Page 105
        Page 106
    King Lear
        Page 107
        Page 108
        Page 109
        Page 110
        Page 111
        Page 112
        Page 113
        Page 114
        Page 115
        Page 116
        Page 117
        Page 118
        Page 119
        Page 120
        Page 121
        Page 122
        Page 123
        Page 124
        Page 125
        Page 126
        Page 127
        Page 128
        Page 129
        Page 130
        Page 131
        Page 132
        Page 133
        Page 134
        Page 135
        Page 136
        Page 137
        Page 138
        Page 139
        Page 140
        Page 141
        Page 142
        Page 143
        Page 144
        Page 145
        Page 146
        Page 147
        Page 148
        Page 149
        Page 150
        Page 151
        Page 152
        Page 153
        Page 154
        Page 155
        Page 156
        Page 157
        Page 158
        Page 159
        Page 160
        Page 161
        Page 162
        Page 163
        Page 164
        Page 165
        Page 166
        Page 167
        Page 168
        Page 169
        Page 170
        Page 171
        Page 172
        Page 173
        Page 174
        Page 175
        Page 176
        Page 177
        Page 178
        Page 179
        Page 180
    Shakespeare's personality
        Page 181
        Page 182
    Shakespeare's conflicts
        Page 183
        Page 184
        Page 185
        Page 186
        Page 187
        Page 188
        Page 189
        Page 190
        Page 191
        Page 192
        Page 193
        Page 194
        Page 195
        Page 196
        Page 197
        Page 198
        Page 199
        Page 200
        Page 201
        Page 202
        Page 203
        Page 204
        Page 205
        Page 206
        Page 207
        Page 208
        Page 209
        Page 210
        Page 211
        Page 212
    "What Fools these Mortals Be"
        Page 213
        Page 214
        Page 215
        Page 216
        Page 217
        Page 218
        Page 219
        Page 220
        Page 221
        Page 222
        Page 223
        Page 224
        Page 225
        Page 226
        Page 227
        Page 228
        Page 229
        Page 230
        Page 231
        Page 232
        Page 233
        Page 234
        Page 235
        Page 236
        Page 237
        Page 238
        Page 239
        Page 240
        Page 241
        Page 242
        Page 243
        Page 244
    Shakespeare's leap of faith: from tragedies to romances
        Page 245
        Page 246
        Page 247
        Page 248
        Page 249
        Page 250
        Page 251
        Page 252
        Page 253
        Page 254
        Page 255
        Page 256
        Page 257
        Page 258
        Page 259
        Page 260
    The Tempest: Shakespear's ideal solution
        Page 261
        Page 262
        Page 263
        Page 264
        Page 265
        Page 266
        Page 267
        Page 268
        Page 269
        Page 270
        Page 271
        Page 272
        Page 273
        Page 274
        Page 275
        Page 276
        Page 277
        Page 278
        Page 279
        Page 280
        Page 281
        Page 282
        Page 283
        Page 284
    Works cited
        Page 285
        Page 286
        Page 287
        Page 288
        Page 289
        Page 290
        Page 291
        Page 292
        Page 293
        Page 294
        Page 295
        Page 296
        Page 297
        Page 298
        Page 299
        Page 300
        Page 301
        Page 302
        Page 303
        Page 304
Full Text

with Fate
Psychological Crises and
Conflicts in Shakespeare
and His Plays

with Fate
Psychological Crises and
Conflicts in Shakespeare
and His Plays

Bernard J. Paris, Ph.D.
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida
With a Foreword by
Theodore I. Rubin, M.D.

Plenum Press New York and London

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Paris. Bernard J.
Bargains with fate psychological crises and conflicts In
Shakespeare and his plays / Bernard J. Paris ; with a Foreword by
Theodore I. Rubin.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-306-43760-0
1. Shakespeare. Hilliam, 1564-1616--Knowledge--Psychology.
2. Shakespeare, Wlllla., 1564-1616--Biography--Psychology.
3. Dramatists. English--Early modern, 1500-1700--Psychology.
4. Fate and fatalism in literature. 5. Psychoanalysis and
literature. 6. Psychology in literature. I. Title.
PR3065.P37 1991
822.3'3--dc20 90-28612

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following

Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization by Karen Homey,
M.D., by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1950 by W. W.
Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright renewed 1978 by Renate Patterson, Brigitte
Swarzenski, and Marianne von Eckardt.
Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis by Karen Homey, M.D.,
by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1945 by W. W. Norton
& Company, Inc. Copyright renewed 1972 by Renate Mintz, Marianne von Eckardt,
and Brigitte Homey Swarzenski.

ISBN 0-306-43760-0

1991 Plenum Press, New York
A Division of Plenum Publishing Corporation
233 Spring Street, New York, N.Y. 10013

An Insight Book

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming,
recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the Publisher

Printed in the United States of America

For Mark


Karen Homey was a psychoanalytic pioneer who freed herself and many
others from the confines of a rigid, biologically oriented orthodoxy. She
understood the enormous influence of culture on human behavior and the
fact that Homo sapiens is much more than an instinct-driven machine,
however complex. She did not believe that anatomy is destiny but rather
that one's biology can be used by a mind that far transcends instinct
commands. She believed that people can change and grow whatever their
age and condition and that they are capable of choice.
Although Homey is important for her resistance to Freud's phallo-
centric version of feminine psychology and for her emphasis on the impor-
tance of culture, she has not yet received the recognition that she deserves
as perhaps our greatest anatomist of human character structure. In reading
Homey, we learn of the influence of pride in our lives and of self-idealiza-
tion, and we gain greater insight into our inner conflicts. As an anatomist
of personality, Homey always had an intense interest in literature, and
especially in the characters created by the great literary artists, many of
whom are our most gifted natural psychologists. Seeing literature from the
perspective of her theories greatly enriches our understanding not only of
the text but also of ourselves and of others, and this enriched understand-
ing fosters human compassion.
So far there has been a paucity of serious applications of Horeyan
theory to literature, but in this work and others, Bernard Paris has done
much to remedy the situation. Indeed, Paris is remarkably qualified for the
task that he has undertaken. He is an accomplished literary critic with a
distinguished record of publications and a superb Horeyan theorist. In


fact, his skill in applying the theory easily rivals that of psychoanalysts
with years of clinical practice.
In Bargains with Fate, Paris opens our eyes to Shakespeare's plays in
a way that is possible only for those who are experts in human psychology
as well as in literature. He not only illuminates the motivations of the
leading characters in Shakespeare's great tragedies, but also makes con-
nections between Shakespeare's inner life and his monumental achieve-
ment. He demonstrates convincingly that Shakespeare's work is an exten-
sion of his personality, and by so doing he brings that work closer to our
own lives. By enabling us to identify with the author and his characters,
he helps us to see the enduring humanity of people from a culture that, on
the surface, seems quite remote, and this gives us a sense of connected-
ness not only to the past, but to the present and future as well. Reading this
book is more than a literary eye-opener; it is also a therapeutic experience.
Real art and the best literary criticism bring us into contact with the
essence of humanity-our own and that of others in all times and places;
and that is what Bernard Paris has done in this fascinating study.
If Homey were alive, I am sure that she would be grateful for the
excellence of this book, which demonstrates superbly how well her theory
works with literature, and especially with Shakespeare, the world's great-
est and perhaps most elusive author. On behalf of Karen Homey, of
myself, and of the many people who will profit from his work, I wish to
thank Bernard Paris for this superb demonstration of the fruitful interac-
tion between theory, literature, and self-understanding-an interaction
that issues in a heightened capacity for empathy with everything human.
This book should stimulate further interest in the Horneyan study of
literature and in a more humanistic approach to the study of behavior. As I
have said elsewhere, in charting the brain, we must not lose sight of the

Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D.
President Emeritus of the American
Institute for Psychoanalysis


This book has been a long time in the making, and I have incurred many
debts of gratitude. My work on Shakespeare began with an essay on
Hamlet, which was written in 1975 while I held a Guggenheim Fellowship
that had been awarded for another project. I wish to thank the foundation
again for this support. I commenced work on this project while I was at
Michigan State University and completed it at the University of Florida.
Both universities have been generous in providing me with research
leaves, clerical help, and travel support, and I am grateful to the Division
of Sponsored Research at the University of Florida for grants that have
funded research assistance. Catherine R. Lewis assisted me splendidly for
three years.
While I was at Michigan State University, Clint Goodson, Jay Lud-
wig, Philip McGuire, Douglas Peterson, Lawrence Porter, Randal Robin-
son, Robert Uphaus, and Evan Watkins gave me valuable critiques of my
work in progress; and I received not only helpful feedback but also sus-
taining friendship and encouragement from Herbert Greenberg, Alan Hol-
lingsworth, Diane Wakoski, and the late Glenn Wright. At the University
of Florida, I am indebted to Ira Clark, Alistair Duckworth, Robert Thom-
son, Gregory Ulmer, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and the late Judson Allen for
their often challenging responses to the chapters I showed them. To my
colleagues in the Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts-Robert de
Beaugrande, Andrew Gordon, Norman Holland, and Ellie Ragland-Sul-
livan-I am grateful for their comradeship and intellectual stimulation. I
owe special thanks to Norman Holland and Sidney Homan, who have read
much of my work and with whom I cochaired the Florida Conference on


Shakespeare's Personality and coedited the book that resulted (Norman N.
Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, eds., 1989 Shakespeare's
Personality). Other colleagues here and abroad have been generous in
taking the time to comment on portions of this work. These include A. A.
Ansari, Maurice Charney, Jackson Cope, Herbert Coursen, Barbara Freed-
man, G. K. Hunter, H. S. Kakar, Harry Keyishian, A. D. Nuttall, Marvin
Rosenberg, Ruth Rosenberg, Judith Rosenheim, Michael Warren, Herbert
Weisinger, and Richard Wheeler. I am grateful to all, and to my graduate
and undergraduate students at both universities who helped me to refine
my ideas by allowing me to think aloud in their presence and letting me
know when I didn't make sense.
As someone who came to Shakespeare studies in midcareer, I am
grateful to my teachers-that is, to all those scholars and critics whose
books and essays have formed the background of this study and have
defined the issues with which I engage. Since I have decided to summarize
critical debates rather than give extensive documentation, the list of works
cited at the end of this book mentions only a fraction of those writings
from which I have benefitted. I have also learned much while attending
the meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America; their seminar
format has given me many opportunities to engage co-workers in the field
and to test my mettle as a Shakespearean.
I have been given similar opportunities in the field of psychoanalysis
by the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, which has
elected me to Honorary Membership and to the editorial board of its
journal and has invited me to address its scientific meetings on several
occasions. As someone whose formal training is in the humanities, I was
particularly gratified to have my psychoanalytic interpretations well re-
ceived by those who teach and apply the theory I am using. Alexandra
Symonds, Mario Rendon, and Andrew Tershakovec stand out in my mind
as Horneyan analysts who have been especially supportive over the years.
My interpretation of Desdemona has been enriched by the contributions of
the analysts who participated in a workshop I conducted for the associa-
tion in 1979.
I have also had the benefit of trying out my ideas in a variety of other
public forums. Earlier versions of portions of this book have been present-
ed at (in chronological sequence) Michigan State University, Duke Uni-
versity, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the South
Atlantic Moder Language Association, the All-India English Conference
(Madras), the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), Fairleigh Dickinson


University, the University of Florida Department of English, the Sixth
American Imagery Conference, Simon Fraser University, the University
of Washington, the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry,
UCLA, the University of Southern California, the European-American
Conference on the Psychology of Literature (P6cs, Hungary), the Group
for the Application of Psychology (University of Florida), the Florida
Conference on Shakespeare's Personality, the University of Illinois, the
IPSA Conference on Literature and Psychology, and the Columbia Shake-
speare Seminar. I have profited greatly from the feedback I received on
these occasions.
Some of my ideas have appeared in articles also, and I have adapted
these, as well as portions of Shakespeare's Personality and Third Force
Psychology and the Study of Literature, for this volume (for a complete
listing, see p. 288). I am grateful to the University of California Press, the
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and the editors of The Aligarh Jour-
nal of English Studies, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, The
Centennial Review, and the Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire for
permission to use previously published material. I also wish to thank W.
W. Norton & Company for permission to quote from the writings of Karen
In Part II of this book, I have drawn on interpretations that are fully
developed in Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: The Histo-
ry and Roman Plays, which will be published (1991) by Fairleigh Dickin-
son University Press. One reason why this book was so long in prepara-
tion is that I had to complete my analysis of all of Shakespeare's plays
before I could conclude my discussion of his authorial personality, and
this has led me to write two books concurrently. Readers may refer to
Character as a Subversive Force not only for discussions of the history
and Roman plays but also for an expanded treatment of critical issues.
I have large debts of a more personal nature that I wish to acknowl-
edge here. My wife, Shirley, has been empathic, caring, and patient
during the many years I have been working on this project. She has
studied Shakespeare with me and has been, as always, my first reader and
critic. She and my children, Susan and Mark, have helped me with their
love through some very trying times. I have already dedicated a book to
Susan; Mark, this one is for you. In 1985, I was operated on for a brain
tumor that turned out to be benign. It was the size of a tennis ball and was
situated on the language center of my brain. Without the skill and dedica-
tion of Dr. Albert Rhoton and his neurosurgical team, I would not have


been able to finish this book. Dr. Rhoton, my next book is for you. I was
helped through this time by many other caring people, to all of whom I am
deeply grateful. I wish especially to mention my sister and brother-in-law,
Hinda and Harvey Cohen, Catherine Lewis, and Emily Maren. I am
thankful to be writing these acknowledgments.

Bernard J. Paris
Gainesville, Florida


Introduction .................................... 1
Bargains with Fate .................................... 2
The Reciprocal Relation between Psychoanalytic Theory
and Literature ..................................... 4
Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare, and Me .................... 6
The Psychoanalytic Study of Character ................... 7
Shakespeare's Personality .............................. 10


1. Bargains, Defenses, and Cultural Codes ......... 15
Historical versus Psychological Perspectives ............... 15
Karen Homey: Introduction ............................ 16
Interpersonal Strategies of Defense ...................... 19
Intrapsychic Strategies of Defense ....................... 24
Cultural Codes in Shakespeare ........................ 28
Cultural Codes and Defensive Strategies .................. 32

2. Hamlet ................................... 35
Hamlet's Problems ................................... 35
"This Too Too Solid Flesh" ............................ 40
Hamlet and the Ghost ............................. 42


Hamlet's Conflicts in Act 2 ............................ 44
Hamlet and the Players ............................... 47
"To Be or Not To Be" ................................ 49
"Get Thee to a Nunnery" .............................. 50
"Yet Have I in Me Something Dangerous" ................. 52
The Closet Scene .................................... 55
More Oscillations ................................... 56
In the Hands of Providence ............................ 59
A W ish-Fulfillment Ending ............................. 60

3. Othello ................................... 63
lago's Character ..................................... 64
Iago's Crisis ....................................... 70
The Psychological Functions of lago's Plot ................ 72
Othello Triumphant ................................... 76
Othello's Vulnerability ................................ 80
Othello's Transformation ............................... 86
An Honorable Murderer? .............................. 91
Bewitched Desdemona ............................... 95
"The Inclining Desdemona" ........................... 100
"His Scorn I Approve" ............................... 102
"Who Hath Done This Deed?" ........................ 105

4. King Lear ................................ 107
The Love Test ...................................... 109
Cordelia's Compulsiveness ............................. 112
The Collapse of Lear's Fantasy ......................... 115
"To Plainness Honour's Bound" ....................... 116
Rhetoric versus Mimesis ............................... 117
Blows and Defenses .................................. 119
"In Such a Night as This!" ............................ 122
"Unaccommodated Man": Lear and "Poor Tom" ......... 128
"Let Copulation Thrive" .............................. 131
Paradise Regained ................................... 132
Spiritual Rebirth? ................................... 134
"All's Cheerless, Dark, and Deadly" ................... 135
The Death of Cordelia ................................ 143
Conclusion ........................................ 147


5. Macbeth ................................... 151
Macbeth's Inner Conflicts-Before the Murder ............ 153
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ............................ 159
Macbeth's Inner Conflicts-After the Murder ............. 165
The Murder of Banquo ................................ 167
Macbeth's Transformation .............................. 171
The Villain as Hero ................................... 173
The Death of M acbeth ................................ 177


6. Shakespeare's Conflicts ....................... 183
"A Deeply Divided Man" ............................. 183
Shakespeare's Treatment of Cultural Codes
as Expressions of His Personality ..................... 186
Defenses and Inner Conflicts ........................... 191
Martial and Manly Honor .............................. 194
The Threat of the Machiavels ........................... 196
The Fate of Perfectionists .............................. 201
Inner Conflicts in Measure for Measure .................. 205

7. "What Fools These Mortals Be": Self-Effacement in
the Sonnets, the Comedies, Troilus and Cressida,
and Antony and Cleopatra ............. ........ 213
The Sonnets ....................................... 214
Two Gentlemen of Verona ........................... 217
The Merchant of Venice .............................. 219
Universalizing His Plight .............................. 220
Two Gentlemen Again ................................ 221
Love's Labour's Lost ................................. 222
A Midsummer-Night's Dream ........................... 224
Much Ado About Nothing ............................. 227
As You Like It ....................................... 229
TwelfthNight ....................... ............. 235
All's Well That Ends Well ............................. 238
Troilus and Cressida ................................. 239
Antony and Cleopatra ................................ 242


8. Shakespeare's Leap of Faith: From the Tragedies
to the Romances ............................. 245
Timon ofAthens .................................... 246
Pericles ........................................... 252
Cymbeline ................. ............. .......... 253
The Winter's Tale ................................. 255
Henry VIII ....................... .................. 256

9. The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution ....... 261
The Function of Prospero's Magic ....................... 263
Prospero's Cruelty to Ariel and Caliban .................. 267
The Noble Prospero? .................................. 271
No Longer Divided .................................. 276

Notes ........................................ 279

Works Cited .................................... 285

Index ......................................... 291


The enduring appeal of Shakespeare's major tragedies derives in large part
from the fact that they contain brilliantly drawn characters with whom
people of widely differing backgrounds have been able to identify.
Hamlet, lago, Othello, Desdemona, Lear, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth
belong to worlds that are very different from ours and they often speak,
think, and act in alien ways; but beneath all the differences they are so true
to the essentials of human psychology that, as Elizabeth Montagu ob-
served in 1769, we feel, "every moment, that they are of the same nature
as ourselves" (quoted in Nuttall 1983, 67). Interpretations of these charac-
ters change with changing modes of understanding, and past ways of
explaining their behavior, including Shakespeare's, no longer satisfy us;
but Shakespeare was gifted with such remarkable powers of psychological
intuition and mimetic characterization that his tragic heroes and heroines
have a life of their own and have seemed like fellow human beings to
people of subsequent ages and cultures. We can use twentieth-century
psychoanalytic theories and our knowledge of ourselves as an aid to
understanding them, and our understanding of them contributes, in turn,
to our insight into ourselves and our conception of human behavior.
In this study of Shakespeare's four major tragedies and the person-
ality that can be inferred from all his works, I shall employ a psycho-
analytic approach inspired by the theories of Karen Homey, which I have
found to be highly congruent with Shakespeare's portrayal of characters
and relationships. In Part I, I examine the major tragedies as dramas about
individuals with conflicts much like our own, who are in a state of psycho-
logical crisis as a result of the breakdown of their bargains with fate. In


Part II, I describe Shakespeare's authorial personality by reading the entire
corpus as though it were the expression of a single, developing psyche
with its own bargains, crises, and conflicts.


I shall explain the psychodynamics of "bargains with fate" in a
systematic way in Chapter 1, and there will be many illustrations through-
out the book, but I want to make clear from the outset how I am using this
term. What it immediately suggests to many people is the widespread
practice of promising to reform when in trouble, or to perform acts of
contrition, devotion, or restitution. Sickbed and battlefield conversions are
common occurrences, with the bargain being that if our wishes are
granted, we will behave as we think the force with which we are negotiat-
ing dictates that we should. This type of bargaining has rich psychological
implications and deserves further study, but the bargains with fate that I
am concerned with here are of a different kind. They are those in which
we believe that we can control fate by living up to its presumed dictates
not after it grants our wishes but before. If we think, feel, and behave as
we are supposed to, we will receive our just deserts, whatever we may
think they are. Fate is often conceived of as God, of course, and its
dictates as His will; but our bargain can be with other people, with
ourselves, with impersonal forces, with what we take to be the structure of
the universe. As I shall argue in Chapter 1, the terms of the bargain are
often not really determined by external forces but by the dictates of our
predominant defensive strategy. Bargaining is a magical process in which
conforming to the impossibly lofty demands of our neurotic solution
(which Homey calls "a private religion") will enable us to attain our
impossibly lofty goals.
This kind of bargain with fate is widespread and varied. Although it
is often part of a private religion, it is also a prominent feature of many
organized religions, and it figures in major works of Western literature
from the Bible to the present day. The bargain will vary according to the
defensive strategy from which it emanates. Homey has described five
defensive strategies-self-effacement, narcissism, perfectionism, ar-
rogant-vindictiveness, and resignation-each of which generates bargains
that reflect its view of the world and its value system.
One kind of self-effacing bargain is epitomized by Moses Herzog's
"childish credo" from Mother Goose:


I love little pussy, her coat is so warm
And if I don't hurt her, she'll do me no harm.
I'll sit by the fire and give her some food,
And pussy will love me because I am good.
Part of Moses's bargain is that if he does not hurt other people, they will
not hurt him and that he will gain love by being good. He feels that he has
been a wonderful husband to Madeleine and a devoted friend to Valentine
Gersbach; but instead of loving him and doing him no harm, they cuckold
him; and he feels unfairly treated by other sharpiess" as well. His benign
view of human nature and of the world order is shattered, and he is thrown
into a psychological crisis that resembles Hamlet's in many ways (see
Paris 1986, 66-78).
An arrogant-vindictive character like Raskolnikov has a different
kind of bargain from Herzog's. Raskolnikov wants power above all, and
according to the dictates of his solution, to get it he must prove himself
able to violate the traditional morality without feeling guilt, like his hero
Napoleon. He tries to live up to his end of the bargain by killing the old
moneylender, but he is so conscience-stricken afterward that he cannot use
her money as he had intended and he gives himself away. Raskolnikov's
psychological crisis is precipitated, like Macbeth's, not by the failure of
life to honor his magic bargain, but by his own inability to live up to its
terms (see Paris 1978b).
Literature does not always portray the failure of bargains; sometimes
it shows them working, though often at a great cost. The narcissistic Lord
Jim has a dream of glory in which he is as "unflinching as a hero in a
book." Again and again Jim flinches, and he seems irretrievably lost after
he jumps from the Patna; but his bargain, like Lear's, is that life is bound
to fulfill his impossible dream as long as he holds onto his exaggerated
claims for himself; and Conrad provides him with a "clean slate" in
Patusan. Jim's weaknesses lead him to fail once again, but he refuses to
believe that anything is lost, and he makes his dream come true by
meeting his death with "a proud and unflinching glance" (see Paris 1974).
Another character whose bargain succeeds through death is the perfec-
tionist Antigone, who welcomes Creon's decree because it gives her the
opportunity to gain eternal glory by proving her rectitude. By observing
the rites of burial for her slain brother, she violates the law of the state and
is condemned to death, but this is a price she gladly pays in order to
demonstrate her devotion to family and her obedience to divine law. Her
reward will come from the supernatural realm.
The kind of bargaining in which a resigned person might engage is


well illustrated by Elizabeth-Jane in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of
Casterbridge. Whereas the ambitious Henchard seeks to master life through
a sometimes ruthless aggressiveness, Elizabeth-Jane sees the world as an
absurd place in which there is no relation between what people get and what
they deserve, and in which passive acceptance is better than striving. Her
bargain is that if she expects little of life, she will not be disappointed; and
her resignation, like that of Horatio, makes her impervious to the "slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune." When she marries the man of her
dreams, at the end, she feels threatened by her happiness and must keep
reminding herself of its meaninglessness and impermanence. She turns her
"unbroken tranquility," which is one of the highest values of the resigned
person, into further evidence of the capriciousness of fate, since it is quite
out of keeping with what her unhappy youth had led her to expect.
Uncomfortable at being "forced to class herself among the fortunate," she
soothes herself by remembering that happiness is "but the occasional
episode in a general drama of pain." This attitude enables her to remain
steeled against misfortune instead of being deluded by her success. By
refusing to feel very happy, moreover, she shows a proper fear of destiny
and maintains an inconspicuousness that will not arouse the envy of either
her fellow human beings or the fickle forces of fate.
I could provide many more examples and treat each one in far greater
detail, but my purpose here is merely to suggest how widespread and
various is the practice of bargaining with fate and to give a preliminary
sense of how it works. I have found it not only in every period of Western
literature, but also in myself and my contemporaries. I trust that my
detailed analyses of the bargains of Shakespeare and his characters will
sensitize the reader to the many manifestations of this phenomenon.


This book is an interdisciplinary work that is intended as a contribu-
tion not only to the study of literature but also to the elucidation of certain
aspects of experience that have been dealt with in different ways by both
psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. It is addressed to students and lovers of
Shakespeare, including actors who seek to comprehend the motivations of
the characters they are playing and directors who want to stage Shake-
speare's plays as dramas about human beings who are in conflict with each


other and with themselves. It is addressed also to those who are interested
in literature as a source of psychological insight.
I believe that psychoanalytic theory has much to contribute to our
understanding of Shakespeare, that it permits a conceptual clarity that
cannot be derived from literature alone. But Shakespeare has a contribu-
tion of at least equal importance to make to the theories that help us to
understand him. There is a reciprocal relation, I propose, between psycho-
analytic theory and the literary presentation of the phenomena it describes.
Theory provides categories of understanding that help us to recover the
intuitions of the great writers about the workings of the human psyche;
and these intuitions, once recovered, become part of our conceptual under-
standing of life. Just as the good analyst learns something from every
patient, so the student of literature finds himself gaining greater insight
into human behavior because of the richness of artistic presentation. Even
the most sophisticated theories are thin compared to the complex por-
trayals of characters and relationships that we find in an artist like Shake-
speare. Taken together theory and literature offer a far more complex
comprehension of human experience than either provides by itself.
Literature has more to offer the student of human nature than an
enrichment of psychoanalytic theory. It is the product of a different mental
process than that which produces analytic systems, and it makes available
a different kind of knowledge. Theory gives us formulations about human
behavior, whereas literature gives us truth to experiences of life. The
analyst and the artist often deal with the same phenomena, but the artist's
grasp of psychological process is of a more concrete and intuitive nature,
deriving, as it often does, from a gift for mimesis. The artist's genius is in
embodying and structuring observations, rather than in analyzing them.
Literature is so enduring in part because it operates below the level of
changing conceptualizations, including those of the artist.
Because of its concrete, dramatic quality, literature enables us not
only to observe people other than ourselves, but also to enter into their
experience of life; to discover what it feels like to be these people and to
confront their situations. We can gain in this way a phenomenological
grasp of experience that cannot be derived from theory alone, and not
from case histories either, unless they are also works of art. Because
literature provides this kind of knowledge, it has a potentially sensitizing
effect, one that is of as much importance to the clinician as it is to the
humanist. Literature offers us an opportunity to amplify our experience in
a way that can enhance our empathic powers, and because of this it is a
valuable aid to clinical training and to personal growth.



It is my experience, then, that psychoanalytic theory illuminates
literature, that literature enriches theory, and that combining theory and
literature enhances both our intellectual and our empathic understanding of
human behavior. The process I am describing involves not just theory and
literature but also our own personalities and our insight into ourselves.
There is a triangular interaction between literature, theory, and the indi-
vidual interpreter. Our literary and theoretical interests reflect our own
character, the way in which we use theory depends upon whether we have
simply studied it or have assimilated it into our experience, and what we
are able to see in and to take away from literature depends upon our
theoretical perspective and our access to our own inner life.
I used psychoanalytic theory for self-understanding before I em-
ployed it in the study of literature. In 1958, Ted Millon, then a colleague at
Lehigh University, suggested that people in the humanities might find
such theorists as Erich Fromm, Karen Homey, and Harry Stack Sullivan to
be valuable. When I read these writers, along with Sigmund Freud, C. G.
Jung, Theodore Reik, Erick Erikson, and others, I found Homey the most
compelling, for she not only described my behavior in an immediately
recognizable way, but she seemed to have invaded my privacy and to have
understood my insecurities, my inner conflicts, and my unrealistic de-
mands upon myself.
Soon after this I entered psychotherapy, and though I often used my
readings in conjunction with my efforts at personal growth, I did not
connect them with the study of literature until one memorable day in 1964
when I was teaching Vanity Fair. While arguing that the novel is full of
contradictions and is thematically unintelligible, I suddenly remembered
Karen Homey's statement that "inconsistencies are as definite an indica-
tion of the presence of conflicts as a rise in body temperature is of physical
disturbance" (1945, p. 35), and in the next instant I realized that the
novel's contradictions become intelligible if we see them as part of a
system of inner conflicts. The novel was still confused thematically, but
its inconsistencies could be explained in psychoanalytic terms (Paris,
1974). I have been unfolding the implications of that "aha" experience
ever since.
As I began to read literature from a new perspective, I undertook to
educate myself more thoroughly in psychoanalytic thought. I audited psy-
chology courses, read systematically, and consulted experts to assure that
my expositions of theory were correct. It was in therapy, of course, that I


received my most valuable education. The knowledge that I gained there
gave me both a deeper understanding of theory and the ability to recognize
the portrayals of psychological phenomena in literature that most criticism
ignores and to which I had been blind before. After wondering for a while
if I was in the right profession, I developed an approach to literature that
permitted me to combine my literary training with my psychological in-
sight and to use the study of literature as a means to continued self-
understanding and growth (Paris 1974, 1978a, 1986).
Despite the fact that I had by now read a great deal of theory and that
my therapist was relatively orthodox, Karen Homey's ideas continued to
impress me the most. Once I began to use them in the study of literature, I
found that they were highly congruent not only with my own experience
but also with works from a wide variety of cultures and periods (including
those of Shakespeare) and this enhanced my sense of their explanatory
power and range of applicability.
I wish to stress the fact, however, that although psychoanalytic theo-
ry has helped me to arrive at an understanding of literature, my under-
standing of psychoanalytic theories in turn has also been influenced by
literature. I began my work on Shakespeare with an essay on Hamlet
(Paris 1977), whom I saw as being in a state of psychological crisis
because the desecration of his father's memory and the triumph of
Claudius meant that the world did not reward the virtues of people like
himself. His "bargain with fate" had failed. As I analyzed the other major
tragedies, I realized that lago, Othello, Desdemona, King Lear, Macbeth,
and Lady Macbeth were also in states of crisis because their bargains were
breaking down. Their bargains were different from each other and from
Hamlet's, but the psychodynamic structure was the same. I thought that
the concept of bargains was Homey's, but when I went back to see what
she had said about it, I could not find the term in her works, though she
does speak occasionally of "deals." My recognition of bargains in Shake-
speare was facilitated by my knowledge of Homey, but my study of
Shakespeare has led me to a much fuller understanding of the phe-
nomenon than can be found in her works.


Some readers may have questions about my analyzing Shakespeare's
characters in motivational terms and using modem psychoanalytic con-
cepts to do so. This is not the place for a full discussion of these issues,


which I have treated elsewhere at length (Paris 1974, 1978a, 1991), but I
should like to say a few words about them.
For more than a half-century, Shakespearean critics have attacked the
approach of A. C. Bradley, who, in Shakespearean Tragedy, talked about
the major characters as though they were real people and tried "to realise
fully and exactly the inner movement which produced these words and no
other, these deeds and no other, at each particular moment" (1963, 2). I do
not agree with all of Bradley's interpretations, though they are usually
quite astute, but I share his objectives. Shakespeare created some of the
greatest psychological portraits in all of literature, and it is highly appro-
priate to discuss them in motivational terms.
It is essential to recognize that there are different kinds of charac-
terization that require different strategies of interpretation. A useful tax-
onomy is that of Scholes and Kellogg (1966), which distinguishes between
aesthetic, illustrative, and mimetic characterization. Aesthetic characters
are stock types who may be understood primarily in terms of their tech-
nical functions and their formal and dramatic effects. Illustrative charac-
ters are "concepts in anthropoid shape or fragments of the human psyche
parading as whole human beings." We try to understand "the principle
they illustrate through their actions in a narrative framework" (p. 88).
Behind realistic literature there is a strong "psychological impulse" that
"tends toward the presentation of highly individualized figures who resist
abstraction and generalization" (p. 101). When we encounter a fully
drawn mimetic character, "we are justified in asking questions about his
motivation based on our knowledge of the ways in which real people are
motivated" (p. 87). A mimetic character usually has aesthetic and il-
lustrative functions, but numerous details have been called forth by the
author's desire to round out his psychological portrait, to make his char-
acter lifelike, complex, and inwardly intelligible, and these will go un-
noticed if we try to understand the character only in functional terms.
A frequent complaint against Bradley is that he takes characters out
of the work and tries to understand them in their own right. He did not do
this to the extent that his critics contend; but given the nature of mimetic
characterization, it is not an unreasonable procedure. Mimetic characters
are part of the fictional world in which they exist, but they are also
autonomous beings with an inner logic of their own. They are, in E. M.
Forster's phrase, "creations inside a creation" (1949, 64) who tend to go
their own way as the author becomes absorbed in imagining a human
being, motivating his behavior, and supplying his reactions to the situa-
tions in which he has been placed.


Some people object to the use of modem theories to explain Shake-
speare's characters on the grounds that Shakespeare could not possibly have
conceived of his characters in twentieth-century terms. Shakespeare had to
make sense of human behavior for himself, as we all do, and he undoubted-
ly drew upon the conceptual systems of his day. To see his characters in the
light of Renaissance psychology is to recover what may have been his
conscious understanding of them, but it does not help us do justice to his
mimetic achievement or make the characters intelligible to us.
We cannot identify Shakespeare's conceptions of his characters with
the characters he has actually created, even if we could be certain of what
his conceptions were. The great artist sees and portrays far more than he
can comprehend. One of the features of mimetic characters is that they
have a life independent of their author and that our understanding of them
will change, along with our changing conceptions of human nature. Each
age has to reinterpret these characters for itself. Any theory we use will be
culture-bound and reductive; still, we must use some theory, consciously
or not, to satisfy our need for conceptual understanding. In our age, there
are many theories available, each of which may work with corresponding
intuitions in Shakespeare.
A major weakness of psychoanalytic studies of literary characters
has been their use of a diachronic mode of analysis that explains the
present in terms of the past. Because of their reliance upon infantile
experience to account for the behavior of the adult, they must often posit
events in the character's early life that are not depicted in the text. This
results in the generation of crucial explanatory material out of the prem-
ises of the theory, with no corroborating evidence except the supposed
results of the invented experiences, which were inferred from these re-
sults to begin with. This procedure has resulted in a justifiable distrust of
the psychoanalytic study of character. Because of its emphasis upon in-
fantile origins, modem psychoanalytic theory has, ironically, made liter-
ary characters seem less accessible to motivational analysis than they did
in the days of Bradley.
The approach I shall use is not subject to this objection, since
Homey's theory focuses upon the character structure and defensive strat-
egies of the adult. It permits us to establish a causal relationship between
past and present if there is enough information, but it also enables us to
understand the present structure of the psyche as an inwardly intelligible
system and to explain behavior in terms of its function within that system.
As a result, we can account for a character's thoughts, feelings, and
actions on the basis of what has actually been given. If the childhood


material is present, it can be used; but if it is absent, it need not be
invented. Because Homey's theory describes the kinds of phenomena that
are actually portrayed in literature and explains these phenomena in a
synchronic way, it permits us to stick to the words on the page, to
explicate the text.


I shall be analyzing not only the dramatic characters in the tragedies,
but also the character structure of the author as it can be inferred from all
of his works. This procedure, too, requires a brief comment, since some
critics celebrate what John Keats has called Shakespeare's "negative ca-
pability" and argue that his personality is difficult or impossible to detect
in his works. "Shakespeare's poetry is characterless," proclaimed Samuel
Taylor Coleridge; "it does not reflect the individual Shakespeare" (quoted
in Schoenbaum 1970, 253). According to Virginia Woolf, the reason
"why we know so little of Shakespeare is that his grudges and spites and
antipathies are hidden from us. We are not held up by some 'revelation'
which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to pro-
claim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some
hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his
poetry flows from him free and unimpeded" (1957, 58-59). This is a
widely held view of Shakespeare; one can find many similar statements.
An equal (or possibly a larger) number of critics defend the idea that
Shakespeare revealed himself in his works. Writing in 1959, L. C.
Knights observed that "our whole conception of Shakespeare's relation to
his work, of what he was trying to do as an artist whilst at the same time
satisfying the demands of the Elizabethan theatre, has undergone a very
great change indeed." "The 'new' Shakespeare," he observes, "is much
less impersonal than the old . we feel the plays (in Eliot's words) 'to
be united by one significant, consistent, and developing personality': we
feel that the plays 'are somehow dramatizing [a] struggle for
harmony in the soul of the poet.' We take it for granted that Shakespeare
thought about the problems of life, and was interested in working
towards an imaginative solution ." (1965, 192). This "new" view is,
of course, an old view as well. "Is it really conceivable," asked Bradley,
that a man could portray such "an enormous amount and variety of human
nature, without betraying anything whatever of his own disposition and


preferences? I do not believe that he could even if he deliberately set
himself to the task" (1963, 214).2
I am on the side of those who maintain that Shakespeare revealed
himself in his works. I believe that his plays dramatize a "struggle for
harmony," that he is working in them "towards an imaginative solution"
of his problems, and that they betray, to some extent at least, his "disposi-
tion and preferences." In Part II, I shall attempt to make inferences about
Shakespeare from his works. I do not claim to be describing the whole
personality of the author, but only those aspects of it that lend themselves
to my approach. As in my discussions of characters, I shall employ a
synchronic mode of analysis; that is, I shall focus upon the structure of the
psyche that is expressed by the plays rather than upon the origins of that
psyche in Shakespeare's early experience.3
The personality I shall describe is not necessarily that of Shakespeare
the man. When we use the name of the author, we may be referring to the
implied author of one of his works, to the authorial personality that can be
inferred from several or all of his works, or to the historical person who,
among other things, wrote the books that bear his name. Clearly there is a
relationship between the man and the works, but we must be very careful
when we try to infer the historical person from his artistic creations. As
W. H. Auden has observed, the relation between an author's "life and his
works is at one and the same time too self-evident to require comment-
every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure-and too complicated
ever to unravel" (1964, xviii). We must recognize that the historical
person has a life independent of his works, that many of his attitudes and
attributes may never appear in his fiction, and that those that do appear
may have been disguised or transformed by the process of artistic creation.
We must allow for artistic motivations, for generic requirements, and for
the inner logic of individual works. The psychological traits of the au-
thorial personality may or may not be traits of the historical person. To
determine whether they are, we need a wealth of independent biographical
data against which to test our inferences. In the case of Shakespeare, the
biographical record is notoriously scanty. I cannot help feeling that I am
learning something about Shakespeare the man when I examine the char-
acters, the attitudes, and the strategies of defense that frequently recur in
his works, but there is no way of confirming this.
My discussion of Shakespeare's personality will have two aspects. I
shall try to describe the authorial personality that is implied by his corpus
as a whole; and I shall speculate from time to time about possible rela-


tionships between the personality I infer from his works and the inner life
and experience of Shakespeare the man. Many of us have a psychological
need to imagine the author, and most people who have read or seen much
of Shakespeare have developed, I suspect, their own version of his person-
ality. Mine has been shaped by my particular way of looking at things, and
it may offer readers ideas for their Shakespeare that they could not have
found anywhere else.


The Major Tragedies


Bargains, Defenses, and

Cultural Codes


Shakespeare's tragic heroes and heroines are such compelling figures, I
think, because they are confronting situations that throw them into a state
of internal crisis. Bernard McElroy has observed this and has offered an
historical explanation. According to McElroy, what happens in these plays
is that "the world-picture" of the hero is "undermined"; and then "torn
by several equally possible concepts of reality or else plunged into a
chaotic abyss," he struggles "to reimpose upon the world" a "meaning
which it must have if it is to be endurable" (1973, 28). Stressing the fact
that "Shakespeare lived in an era of intellectual, religious, and social
transition" (p. 9), McElroy sees the tensions in the tragic heroes as prod-
ucts of cultural and ideological conflicts. The heroes are susceptible to
being undermined because of certain characteristics they all share, such as
self-awareness, a tendency to universalize, and a craving for absolutes;
but these are thematic necessities rather than traits of personality. A char-
acter's behavior is to be understood as predicated much more "upon his
world-view" (p. 20) than upon psychological "motives."
I think McElroy is right in saying that the experience of the central
characters is one in which their subjective world collapses and they must
struggle to restore meaning to their lives. This is what has given the
tragedies such immediacy to a wide variety of audiences. I see psychology
rather than ideology, however, as the fundamental cause of their crises,


and I feel that the characters' behavior is more predicated on motives than
upon their worldviews. I trace their worldviews to their personality struc-
tures and their vulnerability to their unresolved conflicts and the unre-
alistic nature of their beliefs. These characters exist within pluralistic
societies that offer a variety of worldviews, and they are receptive to the
ones that are most congruent with their dispositions. Since they have inner
conflicts, they may be receptive to several worldviews, and this will result
in the kinds of dilemmas McElroy describes. Their intellectual confusion
is not the cause, however, but the result of their psychological state; and
the tensions within their culture affect them as they do because they
correspond to, and in some cases exacerbate, their internal conflicts. An
historical perspective has its value; but if the tragedies were primarily
about conflicting worldviews in the Renaissance, they would not affect us
so powerfully or have such a capacity to illuminate the experience of those
for whom their ideological issues are no longer vital.
My thesis about the major tragedies is that they portray characters
with inner conflicts that are very much like our own who are in a state of
psychological crisis as a result of the breakdown of their bargains with
fate. The concept of "bargains" was inspired by the theories of Karen
Homey, who described the phenomenon, though she did not use the term.
To facilitate my discussion of Shakespeare, I shall begin with an exposi-
tion of Homey (see also Rubins 1978; Westkott 1986; Paris 1986), whose
theory will help us to recover his psychological intuitions and to describe
the personality implied by his works. Readers familiar with Homey will
note that my theoretical account of bargains is more complete and system-
atic than hers. Having gotten the idea from Homey, I learned much more
about it from Shakespeare and have incorporated some of the insights
derived from literature into the theory that facilitated but did not specifi-
cally contain those insights. After my exposition of Homey, I shall show
how an historical approach like McElroy's can be combined with a psy-
chological approach like mine if we correlate the defensive strategies
described by Homey with the cultural codes that we find in Shakespeare's


Karen Homey (n6e Danielsen) was born in a suburb of Hamburg
(Germany) on September 15, 1885. She attended medical school in
Freiburg and completed her studies at the Universities of G6ttingen and


Berlin. She married Oskar Homey in 1909, was in analysis with Karl
Abraham in 1910-11, received her M.D. in 1915, and became a found-
ing member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute in 1920. She came to
the United States in 1932, when Franz Alexander invited her to become
the Associate Director of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, moved to
New York in 1934, broke with the New York Psychoanalytic Society in
1941, and founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis in the same
year. She died in 1952. (See Rubins 1978 and Quinn 1987 for biograph-
Homey's early essays on feminine psychology took issue with the
then orthodox views on penis envy and feminine masochism. Between
1937 and 1950, she published a series of books-The Neurotic Person-
ality of Our Time, New Ways in Psychoanalysis, Self-Analysis, Our Inner
Conflicts, and Neurosis and Human Growth-that developed a sophisti-
cated theory of her own. Homey's thought went through three stages. In
her early essays, mostly written in Germany, she tried to revise Sigmund
Freud's phallocentric view of feminine psychology while remaining within
the framework of classical theory (see Westkott 1986 and Quinn 1987).
After she came to the United States, her quarrel with Freud became more
pervasive and serious. In The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937)
and in New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), she replaced biology with
culture and disturbed human relationships when explaining neurotic devel-
opment, and she shifted to a predominantly structural paradigm. In her last
two books, she described in a systematic way the strategies of defense that
individuals develop in order to cope with the frustration of their psycho-
logical needs.
It is Homey's structural paradigm, I think, that has made it almost
impossible for classical theorists to assimilate her contribution. Although,
like Freud, Homey sees our problems as originating in early childhood,
she does not see the adult as simply repeating earlier patterns, and she
does not explain adult behavior through analogies with childhood experi-
ence. Once children begin to adopt defensive strategies, their particular
system develops under the influence of external factors, which encourage
some strategies and discourage others, and of internal necessities, where-
by each defensive move requires others to maintain its viability. The
character structure of the adult had its origins in early childhood, but it is
also the product of a complicated evolutionary history, and it can be
understood in terms of the present constellation of defenses.
Although Homey's structural approach has generated resistance to
her theory, it is the source of much of its strength. It makes it especially


suitable, as I have said, for the analysis of literary characters. One of the
chief objections to the psychoanalytic study of character has been its
reliance upon early experiences not contained in the text to account for the
behavior of the adult; but Homey's theory enables us to analyze characters
in terms of their existing defenses, which are often quite fully portrayed.
Homey's synchronic paradigm also makes her theory very useful for self-
understanding, because the dynamics she describes are frequently avail-
able to introspection (as I have found in my own experience).
Homey is often thought of as belonging to the "cultural school" that
flourished in the 1930s. After her first book, however, her emphasis was
less on culture than on intrapsychic processes and interpersonal relations. I
find it useful to place her mature theory in the context of what Abraham
Maslow has called "Third Force" psychology (1968, vi). What dis-
tinguishes Third Force theorists from Freudians and behaviorists is their
contention that man is not simply a tension-reducing or a conditioned
animal, but that there is present in him a third force, an "evolutionary
constructive" force, that urges "him to realize his given potentialities"
(Homey 1950, 15).1 Homey believes that each person has a biologically
based inner nature, a "real self," that it is his object in life to actualize.
She would have agreed with Maslow, I believe, in holding that part of the
real self is a set of basic needs that must be met if the individual is to
achieve full psychological growth. These are, in the order of their
strength, physiological survival needs, needs for a safe and stable environ-
ment, needs for love and belonging, needs for self-esteem, and the need
for a calling or vocation in which we can use our native capacities in an
intrinsically satisfying way (Maslow 1970). Maslow also posits needs for
beauty, knowledge, and understanding that he does not integrate into his
hierarchy and a number of conditions, such as freedom and diversity of
choice, that are essential to self-actualization.
Homey sees healthy human development as a process of self-realiza-
tion and unhealthy development as a process of self-alienation. When his
needs are relatively well met, the individual will develop "the clarity and
depth of his own feelings, thoughts, wishes, interests . ; the special
capacities or gifts he may have; the faculty to express himself, and to
relate himself to others with his spontaneous feelings. All this will in time
enable him to find his set of values and his aims in life" (1950, 17). The
psychologically deprived person develops in a quite different way. Ac-
cording to Homey, self-alienation begins as a defense against "basic
anxiety," which is a "profound insecurity and vague apprehensiveness"


(1950, 18) generated by feelings of isolation, helplessness, fear, and
hostility. As a result of this anxiety, the child "cannot simply like or
dislike, trust or distrust, express his wishes or protest against those of
another, but he has automatically to devise ways to cope with people and
to manipulate them with minimum damage to himself" (1945, 219). He
copes with others by developing the interpersonal strategies of defense
that we shall examine next, and he seeks to compensate for his feelings of
worthlessness and inadequacy by an intrapsychic process of self-glorifica-
tion. These strategies constitute his effort to fulfill his frustrated, and
therefore highly intensified, needs for safety, love and belonging, and
self-esteem. They are also designed to reduce his anxiety and to provide a
safe outlet for his hostility.


There are three main ways in which children, and later adults, can
move in their efforts to overcome feelings of weakness and to establish
themselves safely in a threatening world. They can adopt a self-effacing or
compliant solution and move toward people, or they can develop an
aggressive or expansive solution and move against people, or they can
become detached or resigned and move away from people.2 Each of these
defensive strategies involves a constellation of behavior patterns and per-
sonality traits, a conception of justice, and a set of beliefs about human
nature, human values, and the human condition. Each involves also a
bargain with fate in which obedience to the dictates of that solution is
supposed to be rewarded.
In each of the defensive moves, one of the elements involved in basic
anxiety is overemphasized: helplessness in the compliant solution, hostili-
ty in the aggressive solution, and isolation in the detached solution. Since
under the conditions that produce basic anxiety all of these feelings are
bound to arise, individuals will come to make all three of the defensive
moves compulsively; and because these moves involve incompatible char-
acter structures and value systems, they will be torn by inner conflicts. To
gain some sense of wholeness, they will emphasize one move more than
the others and will become predominantly self-effacing, expansive, or
detached. The other trends will continue to exist, but will be condemned
and suppressed. When, for some reason, submerged trends are brought
closer to the surface, the individuals will experience severe inner turmoil


and may become paralyzed, unable to move in any direction at all. When
their predominant solution fails, they may embrace one of the repressed
As we discuss the interpersonal strategies of defense and the types of
personality to which they give rise, let us keep in mind the fact that we
shall find neither characters in literature nor people in life who correspond
exactly to Homey's descriptions. Her types are composites, drawn from
her experience with people who share certain dominant trends but who
differ from each other in many important ways. The Homeyan typology
helps us to see how certain traits and behaviors are related to each other
within a psychological system; but once we have identified a character's
predominant solution, we must not assume that he has all the charac-
teristics Homey ascribes to the self-effacing, expansive, or resigned con-
stellations. He has, moreover, his own personal history, cultural back-
ground, and structure of inner conflicts, and he is confronted by a unique
set of challenges. It is important to remember also, as Homey observed,
that "although people tending toward the same main solution have charac-
teristic similarities, they may differ widely with regard to the level of
human qualities, gifts, or achievements involved" (1950, 191). One of the
unavoidable dangers of psychological analysis is that it does not do justice
to a whole range of human qualities that make people with similar de-
fenses different from each other and quite variable in their attractiveness
and humanity.
The person in whom compliant trends are dominant tries to overcome
his basic anxiety by gaining affection and approval and by controlling
others through his need of them. He seeks to attach others to him by being
good, loving, self-effacing, and weak. Because of his need for surrender
and for a safe expression of his aggressive tendencies, he is frequently
attracted to his opposite, the masterful expansive person: "to love a proud
person, to merge with him, to live vicariously through him would allow
him to participate in the mastery of life without having to own it to
himself" (Homey 1950, 244). This kind of relationship often develops
into a "morbid dependency" in which a crisis can occur if the compliant
partner comes to feel that his submission is not gaining the rewards for
which he is sacrificing himself.
The values of the compliant person "lie in the direction of goodness,
sympathy, love, generosity, unselfishness, humility; while egotism, ambi-
tion, callousness, unscrupulousness, wielding of power are abhorred"
(Homey 1945, 54). Because "any wish, any striving, any reaching out for
more feels to him like a dangerous or reckless challenging of fate," he is


severely inhibited in his self-assertive and self-protective activities
(Homey 1950, 218). He embraces Christian values, but in a compulsive
way, because they are necessary to his defense system. He must believe in
turning the other cheek and must see the world as displaying a providential
order in which virtue is rewarded. His bargain is that if he is a peaceful,
loving person who shuns pride and does not seek his own gain or glory, he
will be well treated by fate and by other people. If his bargain is not
honored, he may despair of divine justice, he may conclude that he is the
guilty party, or he may have recourse to belief in a justice that transcends
human understanding. He needs to believe not only in the fairness of the
world order, but also in the goodness of human nature, and here, too, he is
vulnerable to disappointment.
In the compliant person, according to Homey, there are "a variety of
aggressive tendencies strongly repressed" (1945, 55). These tendencies
are repressed because feeling them or acting them out would clash vio-
lently with his need to be good and would radically endanger his whole
strategy for gaining love, justice, protection, and approval. His compliant
strategies tend to increase his hostility, for "self-effacement and 'good-
ness' invite being stepped on" and "dependence upon others makes for
exceptional vulnerability" (1945, 55-56). But his inner rage threatens his
self-image, his philosophy of life, and his bargain; and he must repress,
disguise, or justify his anger in order to avoid arousing self-hate and the
hostility of others.
There are many predominantly compliant (or self-effacing) charac-
ters in Shakespeare, the most striking of whom are Henry VI, Helena in A
Midsummer-Night's Dream, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (Paris
1989b), Silvius in As You Like It, Viola (Twelth Night), Hamlet, Des-
demona, Duke Vincentio (Measure for Measure), Antony (Paris 1991),
Timon of Athens, Prospero (The Tempest), and the poet of the Sonnets
(Lewis 1985). There are other characters in whom self-effacing trends are
subordinate, and in the characters I have mentioned there are usually inner
The person in whom expansive tendencies are predominant has
goals, traits, and values that are quite the opposite of those of the self-
effacing person. What appeals to him most is not love, but mastery. He
abhors helplessness, is ashamed of suffering, and needs "to achieve suc-
cess, prestige, or recognition" (Homey 1945, 65). There are three expan-
sive types: the narcissistic, the perfectionistic, and the arrogant-vindictive.
The narcissistic person seeks to master life "by self-admiration and
the exercise of charm" (Homey 1950, 212). He has an "unquestioned


belief in his greatness" and feels that "he is the anointed, the man of
destiny, the great giver, the benefactor of mankind" (1950, 194).
Often a spoiled child, he grows up feeling the world to be a fostering
mother and himself a favorite of fortune. His insecurity is manifested in
the fact that he "may speak incessantly of his exploits or of his wonderful
qualities and needs endless confirmation of his estimates of himself in the
form of admiration and devotion" (1950, 194). His bargain is that if he
holds onto his dreams and to his exaggerated claims for himself, life is
bound to give him what he wants. If it does not, he may experience a
psychological collapse, since he is ill-equipped to cope with reality. The
most fully developed narcissists in Shakespeare are King Lear and Richard
II (Paris 1991).
The person who is perfectionistic has extremely high standards, mor-
al and intellectual, on the basis of which he looks down upon others. He
takes great pride in his rectitude and aims for a "flawless excellence [in]
the whole conduct of life" (Homey 1950, 196). Because of the difficulty
of living up to his standards, he tends "to equate knowing about
moral values and being a good person" (1950, 196). While he deceives
himself in this way, he may insist that others live up to "his standards of
perfection and despise them for failing to do so. His own self-condemna-
tion is thus externalized" (1950, 196). The imposition of his standards on
others leads to admiration for a select few and a critical or condescending
attitude toward the majority of mankind. The perfectionistic person has a
legalistic bargain in which being fair, just, and dutiful entitles him "to fair
treatment by others and by life in general. This conviction of an infallible
justice operating in life gives him a feeling of mastery" (1950, 197).
Through the height of his standards, he compels fate. Ill-fortune or errors
of his own making threaten his bargain and may overwhelm him with
feelings of helplessness or self-hate.
The predominantly perfectionistic characters in Shakespeare include
Talbot in 1 Henry VI, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, Titus
Andronicus, Henry V (Paris 1991), Brutus (Paris 1991), Angelo in Mea-
sure for Measure, Othello, Cordelia, Kent, Macbeth (before the murder),
and Coriolanus (Paris 1991). Again, despite their similar defenses these
characters are quite different from each other in their human qualities and
inner conflicts.
The arrogant-vindictive person is motivated chiefly by a need for
vindictive triumphs. Whereas the narcissistic person received early admi-
ration and the perfectionistic person "grew up under the pressure of rigid
standards," the arrogant-vindictive person was "harshly treated" in child-


hood and has a need to retaliate for the injuries he has suffered (Homey
1950, 221). His philosophy tends to be that of an lago or a Nietzsche. He
feels "that the world is an arena where, in the Darwinian sense, only the
fittest survive and the strong annihilate the weak" (Homey 1945, 64). The
only moral law inherent in the order of things is that might makes right. In
his relations with others he is competitive, ruthless, and cynical. He trusts
no one, avoids emotional involvement, and seeks to exploit others in order
to enhance his feelings of mastery. Self-effacing people are fools toward
whom he is sometimes drawn, despite his contempt, because of their
submissiveness and malleability.
Just as the compliant person must repress his hostile impulses in
order to make his solution work, so for the arrogant-vindictive person
"any feeling of sympathy, or obligation to be 'good,' or attitude of com-
pliance would be incompatible with the whole structure of living he has
built up and would shake its foundations" (1945, 70). He wants to be hard
and tough and regards all manifestation of feeling as a sign of weakness.
He despises the Christian ethic and is "likely to feel nauseated at the sight
of affectionate behavior in others" (1945, 69). His reaction is so extreme
because "it is prompted by his need to fight all softer feelings in himself.
Nietzsche gives us a good illustration of these dynamics when he has his
superman see any form of sympathy as a sort of fifth column, an enemy
operating from within" (1945, 69-70). He fears the emergence of his own
compliant trends because they would make him vulnerable in a hostile
world, would confront him with self-hate, and would threaten his bargain,
which is essentially with himself. He does not count on the world to give
him anything but is convinced that he can reach his ambitious goal if he
remains true to his vision of life as a battle and does not allow himself to
be influenced by his softer feelings or the traditional morality. If his
expansive solution collapses, self-effacing trends may emerge.
Many arrogant-vindictive characters can be found in Shakespeare.
The most notable include Richard III (Paris 1991), Shylock (Paris 1989b),
Cassius (Paris 1991), lago, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan (King Lear),
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (after the murder).
The basically detached person pursues neither love nor mastery;
rather, he worships freedom, peace, and self-sufficiency. He handles a
threatening world by removing himself from its power and by shutting
others out of his inner life. To avoid being dependent on the environment,
he tries to subdue his inner cravings and to be content with little. He
believes, "consciously or unconsciously, that it is better not to wish or
expect anything. Sometimes this goes with a conscious pessimistic out-


look on life, a sense of its being futile anyhow and of nothing being
sufficiently desirable to make an effort for it" (1950, 263). He does not
usually rail against life, however, but resigns himself to things as they are
and accepts his fate with ironic humor or stoic dignity. He tries to escape
suffering by being independent of external forces, by feeling that nothing
matters, and by concerning himself only with those things that are within
his power. His bargain is that if he asks nothing of others, they will not
bother him; that if he tries for nothing, he will not fail; and that if he
expects little of life, he will not be disappointed. The detached person
withdraws from himself as well as from others. His suppression of feeling
is part of an effort not only to avoid frustration, but also to escape from the
conflict between his expansive and compliant trends.
There are only a few predominantly detached characters in Shake-
speare (Jacques in As You Like It, Horatio and Thersites in Troilus and
Cressida, and Apemantus in Timon ofAthens), but detachment is often an
important defense when other solutions collapse, as it is for Richard II
(Paris 1991) and Antony and Cleopatra (Paris 1991).


While interpersonal difficulties are creating the movements toward,
against, and away from people, and the conflicts between these trends,
concomitant intrapsychic problems are producing their own defensive
strategies. To compensate for his feelings of self-hate and inadequacy, the
individual creates, with the aid of his imagination, an "idealized image"
of himself that he "endows with unlimited powers and exalted
faculties" (Horey 1950, 22). The idealized image quickly leads, how-
ever, to increased self-hate and additional inner conflict. Although the
qualities with which the individual endows himself are dictated by his
predominant interpersonal strategy, the repressed solutions are also repre-
sented; and since each solution glorifies a different set of traits, the ide-
alized image has contradictory aspects, all of which the individual must
try to actualize. Since he can feel worthwhile only if he is his idealized
image, everything that falls short is deemed worthless, and a "despised
image" develops that becomes the focus of self-contempt. A great many
people shuttle, says Homey, "between a feeling of arrogant omnipotence
and of being the scum of the earth" (1950, 188). Whereas the idealized
image is modeled on the predominant interpersonal strategy, the despised
image reflects the strategy that is being most strenuously repressed. A


predominantly compliant person like Hamlet, for example, would despise
himself if he behaved like Claudius, whereas a predominantly arrogant-
vindictive person like lago would despise himself if he were "direct and
honest" like Cassio, Othello, or Desdemona.
The idealized image evolves into an idealized self and the despised
image into a despised self, as the individual becomes convinced he really
is the grandiose or awful being he has imagined. Homey posits four kinds
of selves: the real self; the idealized self; the despised self; and the actual
self. The real (or possible) self is not an entity but a set of biological
predispositions that require favorable conditions if they are to be actu-
alized. The real self can be actualized only through interaction with the
environment, and the degree and form of its actualization are heavily
dependent upon external conditions, including culture. Under unfavorable
conditions, the individual loses touch with his real self and his behavior is
dictated by compulsive defensive strategies rather than by spontaneous
feelings, interests, and wishes. Among these strategies is the creation of
an idealized image, which in turn generates a despised image and inten-
sifies self-hate. The idealized self is unrealistically grandiose, and the
despised self is unrealistically worthless and weak. The actual self is what
a person really is-a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, health and
neurosis. The distance between the actual and real selves will depend upon
the degree to which the person's development has been self-actualizing or
With the formation of the idealized image, the individual embarks
upon a "search for glory," as "the energies driving toward self-realization
are shifted to the aim of actualizing the idealized self" (1950, 24). The
idealized image generates a whole structure of intrapsychic defenses that
Homey calls "the pride system." These include "neurotic pride," "neu-
rotic claims," and "tyrannical shoulds" all of which ultimately intensify
Neurotic pride substitutes a pride in the attributes of the idealized self
for realistic self-confidence and self-esteem. Threats to pride produce
anxiety and hostility; its collapse results in self-contempt and despair.
There are various devices for restoring pride, including retaliation, which
reestablishes the superiority of the humiliated person, and loss of interest
in that which is threatening. Also included are various forms of distortion,
such as forgetting humiliating episodes, denying responsibility, blaming
others, and embellishing. Sometimes "humor is used to take the sting out
of an otherwise unbearable shame" (1950, 106).
On the basis of his pride the individual makes "neurotic claims"


upon the world and his fellows. The specific content of his claims will
vary with his predominant solution, but in every case he feels that his
bargain with fate should be honored and the he should get what he needs
in order to make his solution work. The claims are "pervaded by expecta-
tions of magic" (1950, 62). When they are frustrated by experience, the
individual may react with despair, with outraged indignation, or with a
denial of the realities that have broken in upon him. If things get bad
enough, he may change his solution. Another possibility is that he may
refuse to accept the implications of what has happened and may hold onto
his claims as a "guaranty for future glory" (1950, 62). His claims inten-
sify his vulnerability because their frustration threatens to confront him
with the sense of worthlessness from which he is fleeing.
The individual's search for glory subjects him to what Homey calls
"the tyranny of the should." The function of the should is to compel a
person to live up to his grandiose conception of himself. The should are
generated by the idealized image, and since the idealized image is, for the
most part, a glorification of the self-effacing, expansive, and detached
solutions, the individual's should are determined largely by the character
traits and values associated with his predominant defense. His subordinate
trends are also represented in the idealized image, however, and, as a
result, he is often caught in a "crossfire of conflicting shoulds" As he
tries to obey contradictory inner dictates, he is bound to hate himself
whatever he does, even if, paralyzed, he does nothing at all. The should
are impossible to live up to not only because they are contradictory, but
also because they are unrealistic: we should love everyone; we should
never make a mistake; we should always triumph; we should never need
other people, and so forth. A good deal of externalization is connected
with the should. The individual feels his should as the expectations of
others, his self-hate as their rejection, and his self-criticism as their unfair
judgment. He expects others to live up to his should and displaces his
rage at his own failure to do so onto them. The should develop as a
defense against self-loathing, but they aggravate the condition they are
employed to cure. The "threat of a punitive self-hate" makes them "a
regime of terror" (1950, 85).
The should are the basis of the individual's bargain with fate. No
matter what the solution, his bargain is that his claims will be honored if
he lives up to his should. He will control external reality by obeying his
inner dictates. He does not see his claims as unreasonable, of course, but
only as what he has a right to expect, given his grandiose conception of


himself, and he will feel that life is unfair if his expectations are frustrated.
His sense of justice is determined by his predominant solution and the
bargain associated with it. Whereas Hamlet feels that the world is an
unweeded garden because good people like his father are dishonored
while the vicious Claudius triumphs, lago is outraged because although he
has lived up to his code of selfishness and deceit, the virtuous Cassio has
won the lieutenancy. Each character feels that he has obeyed the should
of his solution and is in a state of psychological crisis because his claims
have not been honored. The bargains of Hamlet and Iago are diametrically
opposed and so, consequently, is their sense of what is just.
Self-hate is the end product of the intrapsychic strategies of defense,
each of which tends to magnify the individual's feelings of inadequacy
and failure. Essentially self-hate is the rage the idealized self feels toward
the self we actually are for not being what it "should" be. In large part
self-hate is an unconscious process, since it is usually too painful to be
confronted directly. The chief defense against awareness is externaliza-
tion, which takes two forms, active and passive. Active externalization
"is an attempt to direct self-hate outward, against life, fate, institutions or
people" (Homey 1950, 115). In passive externalization "the hate remains
directed against the self but is perceived or experienced as coming from
the outside." When self-hate is conscious, there is often a pride taken in it
that serves to maintain self-glorification: "The very condemnation of
imperfection confirms the godlike standards with which the person identi-
fies himself" (1950, 114-15). Homey saw self-hate as "perhaps the great-
est tragedy of the human mind. Man in reaching out for the Infinite and
Absolute also starts destroying himself. When he makes a pact with the
devil, who promises him glory, he has to go to hell-to the hell within
himself" (1950, 154).
My view of the major tragedies is that the leading characters have
embraced one or more of the defensive strategies Homey has described;
that their values, their sense of identity, and their worldviews have been
determined in large part by the strategy they have embraced; and that their
bargains with fate are bound to fail because they are part of delusional
systems that have little to do with either internal or external reality. In each
play, there is something that challenges the protagonist's bargain and
precipitates a psychological crisis. Either the character violates the dic-
tates of his predominant solution, as is the case with Macbeth, or the
world around him fails to honor his claims, as is the case with Hamlet,
lago, Othello, and Lear. When the character fails to live up to his should,


he is subject to intense self-hate and fear of retribution. When his claims
are not honored, his idealized image is threatened, his belief in justice is
shaken, and his version of reality is called into question. In either case, his
predominant solution is undermined, his subordinate trends are activated,
and he experiences intense inner conflict. In the process of trying to
restore his pride and to repair his defenses, he behaves in ways that are
terribly destructive to himself and to others.


It is possible to combine an historical approach like Bernard
McElroy's with a psychological approach like mine by correlating cultural
codes in Shakespeare with the defensive strategies Homey described. I
shall base my description of cultural codes mainly upon the first tetralogy
(the three Henry VI plays and Richard II1), but these codes are present
throughout Shakespeare's works and play an important role in the trag-
There are four codes that must be discriminated in the first tetralogy:
the code of martial and manly honor, the code of loyalty, duty, and
service, the code of personal ambition, and the code of Christian values.
Each of these codes has both cultural and psychological determinants, and
there are conflicts between the codes both within the culture and within
In Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept ofHonor, Curtis Brown
Watson points out that the Renaissance concept of honor is derived from
pagan humanism and is frequently in conflict with the teachings of Chris-
tianity (1960, 3).3 For example, the code of honor enjoins the taking of
private revenge, whereas Christianity opposes it; and Christianity con-
demns pride, while the code of honor regards it as sublime.
I shall divide the Renaissance concept of honor into two separate
codes: the code of martial and manly honor and the code of loyalty, duty,
and service. Both codes have pagan sources, but the second code repre-
sents a more advanced stage of social evolution than the first. The code of
martial and manly honor originated in the tribal state of social organiza-
tion and was embraced by a wide variety of cultures, from the crudely
barbaric to the highly civilized. It predated the Greek and Roman moral-
ists upon whom the Renaissance drew; and it forms a part, but by no
means the whole, of their value system. Its primary virtue is fortitude,
which is only one of the four cardinal virtues of the ancients, the others


being prudence, temperance, and justice. Within this code, honor means
fame, glory, reputation, and power, which are to be acquired by display-
ing martial courage and prowess. The code of loyalty, duty, and service
defines virtue primarily as moral rectitude, rather than as manly strength
and valor. Within this code, honor means honesty, trustworthiness, and
fidelity, and a concern for the public good-Brutus's rather than Cassius's
conception of honor. Ideally, the two codes are part of a single system of
values in which the individual displays loyalty to and martial valor in
behalf of the community; and in some of Shakespeare's most highly
approved characters, such as Talbot (1 Henry VI) and Henry V, this
combination occurs. Often, however, the code of martial and manly honor
is embraced in a way that is independent of, or even in conflict with, the
code of loyalty, duty, and service. The two codes must therefore be ex-
amined independently, as well as in terms of their interrelationship.
The basic tenets of the code of martial and manly honor are set forth
by Talbot in his description of what Knights of the Garter should be:
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars;
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes. (1 Henry VI, IV, i)4

Courage is the highest value in this code and cowardice is the greatest
source of shame. Men hope to win honor through their bravery, and in
order to do so, they must display it in battle. Warfare is welcomed,
therefore, rather than avoided or abhorred, and peace is regarded as
effeminate. A man's honor is not safe until he has proved his resoluteness
in the face of extremity; hence, the manner of his death is of the utmost
importance. The hero cannot always be triumphant, but he can always
preserve his honor by remaining undaunted no matter what befalls him.
Any threat to one's honor requires some sort of pride-restoring behavior,
the most common form of which is revenge. The death of a friend, a
comrade, and especially of a family member must be avenged by inflicting
worse suffering upon the perpetrator.
The code of martial and manly honor is essentially secular in nature.
It permits men to live in an absurd universe, full of violence and suffering,
without losing faith in the meaning of life. Believers in this code do not
indulge in self-blame or penitence, but rather attribute their defeats to
blind forces beyond their control. Men cannot control their fates, but they
can maintain their honor by demonstrating their ability to confront without
flinching all that can be done to them. "Though Fortune's malice over-


throw my state," proclaims the captured King Edward, "My mind ex-
ceeds the compass of her wheel" (3 Henry VI, IV, iii). In a sense men do
control their fates by being resolute in extremes. There is a notion of
justice in this code, but it does not depend upon any sort of Providence.
Justice is getting the honor that is your due (in life and after death) and
being avenged on those who have injured you. Men live and die for a kind
of secular immortality, which lies in being remembered for their deeds and
their fortitude.
Whereas the code of martial and manly honor is secular in nature, the
code of loyalty, duty, and service has a religious dimension. It emphasizes
the "natural" virtues of justice and prudence, but it also posits a super-
natural order within which these virtues will be rewarded. When going
into battle, the believers in this code rely upon the justice of their cause, as
well as upon their martial prowess. Indeed, battles are often seen as a form
of trial by combat in which victory goes to the righteous. A vivid example
of the belief in the power of virtue is Gloucester's confidence that his
enemies' plots against him cannot succeed:
I must offend before I be attainted;
And had I twenty times so many foes,
And each of them had twenty times their power,
All these could not procure me any scathe
So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless. (2 Henry VI, II, iv)

Richmond attributes his triumph at the battle of Bosworth not only to his
arms but to God.
In the code of loyalty, duty, and service, the emphasis is less upon
acquiring personal power and glory than upon fulfilling one's obligations
to the community and to one's superiors. The world it posits is not the
capricious one to which the code of martial and manly honor is adapted,
but a highly evolved society that is part of a universal order and that is
ruled by law. The hierarchical structure of society is seen as divinely
ordained, and the purpose of life is not to rise above one's place, but to do
the duties that belong to it. Personal ambition is an evil in this code, but
ambition for one's country is admirable. As we can see in the case of
Talbot, service to king and country often takes a military form. In Othel-
lo's phrase, the big wars make ambition virtue.
In 2 Henry VI, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, is married to a man
who fails to live up to her idea of manhood, which is derived neither from
the code of martial and manly honor nor from the code of loyalty, duty,
and service, but rather from the code of personal ambition, the cultural


source for which, in Shakespeare's time, was the Machiavellian philoso-
phy as understood by the Elizabethans. Like Lady Macbeth, she dreams of
gaining the crown and tries to infuse her husband with the same ambition:
"Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold./ What, is't too short? I'll
lengthen it with mine!" (I, ii). When Gloucester indignantly rejects her
treacherous suggestions, she scorns his "base and humble mind." In her
value system, a man is someone who fights his way to the top without
regard for duty, morality, or the lives of others.
The Shakespearean Machiavel does not (consciously) believe in any
of the traditional values of his society. Indeed, it is his freedom from such
values that establishes him in his own mind as a "realist" and permits him
to act out his aggressive impulses. He pursues the power and glory that are
celebrated by the code of martial and manly honor, but without following
the rules of conduct set forth by that code. He has no concern with
displaying an honorable courage or winning in a fair fight. He values
revenge, as does the believer in manly honor, but tends to pursue it in a
devious or treacherous way. For him, might makes right, and the end
justifies the means. There is no moral order in the universe and no founda-
tion for society's structure and values. The code of loyalty, duty, and
service is simply a means by which those in power are able to exploit their
fellows. Life is a battle of each against all in which the strongest rise to the
top and then must protect their position by ruthlessly suppressing their
competitors. The Machiavel has no compunction about the havoc he
wreaks while pursuing his personal ambition. We either exploit others or
are exploited by them. Those who believe in Christian values are, per-
haps, the most readily manipulated. We must not allow ourselves to be
weakened by "the milk of human kindness" or duped by such sentimental
notions as love, charity, mercy, and fellow feeling.
The Machiavel is proud of his ability to see through the other codes,
though for purposes of deception he often professes belief in them. Rich-
ard III, for example, frequently pretends to be meek, peaceloving, and
devoid of ambition. The Machiavel becomes his own law-giver, the source
and arbiter of values. He sees his transcendence of law as a kind of
courage, which indeed it is, since it puts him at odds with his society and
with his own cultural conditioning. He tries to tell himself that conscience
"is but a word that cowards use,/ Devis'd at first to keep the strong in
awe" (Richard III, V, iii), but he is not always successful.
In many ways, the Christian code is compatible with the code of
loyalty, duty, and service, but it is in sharp contrast to the codes of martial
and manly honor and of personal ambition. While the proud men around


him are scrambling for power, Henry VI feels that he is God's "far
unworthy deputy" (2 Henry VI, III, ii) and wishes that he were a subject
rather than a king (IV, ix). He believes that "things ill-got [have] ever bad
success" (3 Henry VI, II, ii) and attributes the troubles of his reign to the
weakness of his claim to the throne. For Henry the world is a providential
order in which evil is punished and virtue is rewarded. Vengeance belongs
not to man but to the Lord. Instead of pursuing revenge, Henry refuses to
judge, "for we are sinners all" (2 Henry VI, III, iii), and he forgives those
who trespass against him. He asks God's pardon not only for Winchester,
who is dying in torment because of his crimes, but even for Richard, his
own murderer.
In Richard III, Christian values are articulated by King Edward, who
seems to have undergone a deathbed conversion. This previously arrogant
and self-indulgent man now does "deeds of charity" and seeks to make
"peace of enmity, fair love of hate" (II, ii). When he hears of Clarence's
death, he fears divine justice. Indeed, the dramatization in the play as a
whole of the power of conscience and the inevitability of retribution
exemplifies the Christian code.


The four codes we have been examining have, as I have said, both
cultural and psychological determinants. Each code is generated in part by
the logic of social development and acts as a conditioning force upon
individual members of the culture. Each code is also an expression of
psychological needs and is embraced by its proponents not simply because
it is there, but because it is congruent with their personalities. In analyzing
influence, we must not underestimate the importance of receptivity. Un-
less individuals live in a truly monolithic culture, they are exposed to a
great variety of influences, but are deeply affected only by those to which
they are psychologically predisposed. Henry VI, Gloucester, and Richard
III are all members of the same culture, but they embrace different codes
because they have different character structures.
The four codes can be seen as embodiments of the kinds of defensive
strategies that Homey has described. The movements against, away from,
and toward other people are human elaborations of the basic defenses of
the animal kingdom-fight, flight, and submission. All the strategies are
encoded in almost every culture; but each culture has its characteristic
attitudes toward the different strategies, its own formulations of and varia-


tions upon them, and its own structure of inner conflicts (see Paris 1986,
90-94). The code of Christian values is in many ways an embodiment of
the self-effacing solution. In both there is an exaltation of humility, suffer-
ing, and sacrifice, reliance on a powerful protector, and a belief in the
power of innocence. The code of loyalty, duty, and service parallels the
perfectionistic solution in which living up to one's high moral standards
gives one a feeling of superiority and an assurance of being fairly treated
by fate and by other people. The code of personal ambition corresponds
closely to the arrogant-vindictive solution; in both, the world is perceived
as a jungle in which might makes right and the strong annihilate the weak.
The only way to succeed is to repress one's softer feelings and to ignore
the traditional morality. The code of martial and manly honor does not
correlate as closely to Homey's descriptions of defensive strategies, but it
clearly provides a socially sanctioned outlet for the pursuit of mastery and
the release of aggression. Like Homey's solutions, each code involves a
distinctive set of beliefs about human nature, human values, and the
human condition, an idealized image, and a pride system. In each code
there is also a bargain with fate in which obedience to the dictates of the
code is supposed to ensure success.
Shakespeare depicts two other codes that also correspond closely to
Horeyan defensive strategies-namely, the codes of aristocratic privilege
and of stoic detachment. The code of aristocratic privilege derives from a
social structure in which some are superior to others because of their birth.
Those at or near the top feel like favorites of fortune who are above the
laws and conditions that govern ordinary mortals. The code of aristocratic
privilege contributes to the psychological pattern that Homey describes as
narcissism, in which there are weak should but enormous claims that
have been fostered by overindulgence. The degree of narcissism tends to
vary with rank. Kings like Richard II and Lear, for whom life has been
easy and who have always been told that they are "everything," feel that
they should get what they want simply because they are who they are. In
the Henry VI plays, York is a narcissist (among other things) whose claims
to the throne are not being honored and who is full of rage as a result. The
code of aristocratic privilege is often combined with other codes in that
loyalty, duty, and service are owed to those who are above one in the
hierarchy and expected from those beneath, and any denial of one's pre-
rogatives calls for a martial response. The predominantly Christian or self-
effacing person, like Henry, does not feel entitled to his exalted position
and does not know how to use the power attached to it.
The correlations between stoicism and the defensive strategy of de-


tachment are evident. Both seek invulnerability to the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune by mastering the emotions. If one desires nothing, one
cannot be frustrated; if one is indifferent to life, one cannot be defeated by
death. In Shakespeare, stoical detachment sometimes takes the form of
withdrawal into a quiet life, but more often it is presented as a "philosoph-
ical" way of dealing with pain, adversity, or evil, as in Gaunt's advice to
Bolingbroke (Richard II, I, iii), Friar Laurence's to Romeo (III, iii),
Antonio's to Leonato (Much Ado, V, i), or the Duke's to Brabantio (Othello,
I, iii). The essence of this advice is that "What cannot be preserved when
Fortune takes,/ Patience her injury a mockery makes" (Othello, I, iii). We
triumph over fortune by not suffering. Hamlet admires Horatio because he
"is not passion's slave" but has been "As one, in suffering all, that suffers
nothing" (III, ii). Stoical detachment as a defense is most fully portrayed in
Apemantus in Timon of Athens.
The connection between social codes and personality structures is
present in Shakespeare from the very beginning. In the Henry VI plays,
for example, where characters are relatively undeveloped, those who em-
brace Christian values display self-effacing traits, the exponents of loyalty,
duty, and service are perfectionistic, and those who pursue personal ambi-
tion are arrogant-vindictive types. In his portrait of Richard III, his first
great realistic character, Shakespeare explores the psychological sources
of Machiavellian behavior and shows his understanding of inner conflict.
Although Richard scornfully rejects the codes of Christian values and of
loyalty, duty, and service, he has an unconscious allegiance to them, since
he cannot violate their dictates without experiencing anxiety and self-hate.
Fine as the portrayal of Richard is, he is, for the most part, a rather static
figures who merely repeats his strategies. He does have a psychological
crisis on the eve of the battle of Bosworth, but it comes late in the play and
passes quickly as he represses his inner conflicts and reaffirms his domi-
nant solution. Many splendid psychological portraits can be found in other
plays of the 1590s; but it is in the major tragedies, of course, that Shake-
speare has depicted most fully the interplay of culture and personality, the
crises that arise when a character's bargain is threatened, and the dynam-
ics of inner conflicts.




What are Hamlet's problems? Why does he delay? Is he uncertain about
the right course of action, unsure of the ghost, afraid of damnation,
traumatized by the disillusionment, excessively introspective, or para-
lyzed by inhibitions of which he himself is not wholly aware? Ernest Jones
argued that Hamlet's difficulties center in reality "about a sexual prob-
lem," the manifestations of which "are transferred on to more tolerable
and permissible topics, such as anxiety about immortality and the
salvation of the soul, philosophical considerations about the value of life,
the future of the world, and so on" (1954, 67). Although I do not feel
Hamlet's problems to be primarily sexual, I agree with Jones that his
philosophical concerns are psychologically determined. I agree also, how-
ever, with Paul Gottschalk's objections to the generality of Jones's expla-
nation and its failure to analyze the conscious material of the play:

After all, the play takes place largely on the conscious level, and its philo-
sophical, religious, and political content is considerable .we cannot
fully appreciate the play, even from the psychoanalytic point of view, with-
out understanding how Hamlet's inner problem .finds expression in
these ideas that body forth the deeper workings of the mind. To my
knowledge, such an interpretation has not been done. (1972, 101)

It is such an interpretation that I propose to offer here.
Hamlet's problems begin before he encounters the ghost, learns of
his father's murder, and accepts his mission of revenge. He is from the


outset an angry brooding figure, full of conflicts, who is in an obvious
state of psychological crisis.1 He is disgusted with life, longs for death,
and is seething with repressed hostility. He has been traumatized by a
devastating experience. The precipitating event, as we learn in his first
soliloquy, is his mother Gertrude's desecration of his father's memory by
her hasty and incestuous marriage to a man whom Hamlet reviles. The
central problem of the play for T. S. Eliot is why Hamlet reacts so
intensely to his mother's behavior. Shakespeare cannot make Hamlet's
emotion intelligible, says Eliot, "because it is in excess of the facts as they
appear his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but his mother is
not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her"
(1950, 125). The facts as they appear would be disturbing to almost any
man, but, as Eliot's remarks make clear, not everyone would react as
Hamlet does. To understand Hamlet's feelings we must try to enter into his
experience and comprehend his character. We can do this, I think, without
reconstructing his childhood, but we shall have to infer from evidence in
the text the attitudes, beliefs, and expectations from life that Hamlet has
held as an adult and that have been undermined by the events following
the death of his father.
Before his father's death, Hamlet is a man who strives hard to be
good, who believes in the nobility of human nature, and who expects
virtue to be rewarded, on earth and in the hereafter. He values love,
dutifulness, and constancy, shuns pride, ambition, and revenge, and has a
religious dread of sin. He admires aggressiveness in soldiers who fight to
uphold their martial and manly honor, but he abhors violence, scheming,
and duplicity within the state or in private life. He is morally fastidious
and detests cynics, drunkards, lechers, and Machiavels. He tends to
equate fair appearances with inner virtue, and he is proud of his mother's
beauty, his father's distinction, and his own good looks. He strives to be a
model prince, and he anticipates ascending the throne in due course and
being a just and valiant king. He admires his father greatly and has
modeled his idealized image upon his exalted conception of him.
In his personal relations, Hamlet is highly idealistic. He venerates his
parents, is dutiful toward them, and wants their affection and approval. He
sees them as a devoted couple and hopes to have for himself a love
relationship similar to theirs. He glorifies women and is romantic and pure
in his dealings with them. He is much maligned by Polonius and Laertes
when they warn Ophelia against him. That is why when he curses her in
act 3, scene 1, he says "be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou
shalt not escape calumny." In order to live up to his high moral standards,


he has repressed his sexuality. He is fearful of lust in himself and is
disgusted by it in others. He has warm relations with men and an exalt ,d
conception of friendship. We can see this in his dealings with Horatio and
when he conjures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "by the rights of our
fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-
preserved love" to be direct with him (II, ii).
Before his father's death Hamlet has a secure place in his parents'
affection, he is loved by the multitude, and he is "the expectancy and rose
of the fair state" (III, i).2 He has good friends, is happy at Wittenberg, and
is romantically in love with Ophelia. He has great pride in his father, a
strong sense of his own worth, and a firm confidence in the triumph of
right. His kind of people are in power, his values are being honored, and
the future looks bright.
The death of his father and the events that follow upset this situation
and threaten Hamlet in a number of ways. His father's shocking, untimely
death deprives Hamlet of a loved parent and sets him brooding on mor-
tality and the "base uses" to which even the greatest of men may return
(V, i). When Claudius becomes king, Hamlet is further alienated from the
world in which he was formerly so much at home. His own noble qualities
have been passed over, and the crown has been given to a man who is the
opposite of both his father and himself. Claudius is untrustworthy, un-
deserving, a disgrace to the state. While this man has been elevated,
Hamlet's own position has been diminished. He speaks of himself as a
"poor man" (I, v) and complains of being "most dreadfully at-
tended" (II, ii). He does not dwell upon his political frustrations because
he has taboos against ambition, but others assume he is brooding about
them, and no doubt he is in a repressed way. His whole demeanor shows
that he is feeling abused. At a more conscious level, his faith in the
political order has been profoundly disturbed, and he cannot help feeling
that life is unjust. His fair visions of the future have been mocked by
The most devastating -blow to Hamlet is, of course, his mother's
marriage to Claudius. Her disloyalty to his father's memory makes him
question the constancy of woman's love, and her attraction to Claudius
makes him feel that women are utterly capricious in their sexual choices
(see III, iv, 63-81). Hamlet had not been disturbed by his mother's sexual
attraction to his father, for it was sanctified by love and marriage, and he
looked forward to receiving such affection from his own wife. But his
mother's attraction to Claudius is unholy. He cannot believe that she loves
this vile creature, with whom she has entered into an incestuous union.


Her guilty sexuality arouses so much disgust partly because it violates his
moral standards, is a blow to his family pride, and partly because it
threatens his own repression of lustful feelings: if lust "canst mutine in a
matron's bones,/ To flaming youth let virtue be as wax" (III, iv). His
mother's guilt undermines his lofty conception of women, shatters his
confidence in fair appearances, and diminishes his hope of finding for
himself a pure, faithful, loving wife. His distrust of her increases his sense
of alienation and makes him feel all the more an outcast in the world. His
hostility makes him afraid of his own violent impulses. He would hate
himself if he acted out his rage and violated his taboos against filial impiety.
However important the preceding factors may be, the major reason
why his mother's behavior fills Hamlet with such rage and despair is that,
because of his powerful identification with his father, he feels the wrongs
Gertrude has done to the dead king as though they had been done to
himself. Hamlet is angry with his mother on his father's behalf.

That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month-
Let me not think on't-Frailty, thy name is woman!-

.-why she, even she-
O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer-married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. (I, ii)

Hamlet's grievances against Gertrude in his first soliloquy are very
similar to sentiments later expressed by the ghost:

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,


Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven
So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage. (I, v)
Both speeches stress the nobility of King Hamlet, the sexual depravity of
Gertrude, and the inferiority of Claudius to his brother. There is in both a
sense of outrage that this faithful, loving husband, this radiant angel, this
Hyperion, has been betrayed by his wife and replaced in her affections by
the bestial Claudius. Both speeches express profound disillusionment with
Gertrude, this "seeming virtuous queen" (I, v), who posts "with such
dexterity to incestuous sheets" (I, ii). The similarity of these speeches
vividly reveals the extent to which Hamlet is reacting to his mother's
behavior from his father's perspective.
Hamlet's identification with his father may be partly the effect of
mourning, but the main reason for his identification is that he has modeled
himself upon his father and glorified those qualities in himself that he
shares with him. He and his father have similar character structures. Both
strive to be noble, good, and loving, and both expect these qualities to be
rewarded. They are conscientious, dutiful, religious men who exalt wom-
en, are faithful to their oaths, and place a high value upon sexual purity.
They have lived up to their should, but their claims have not been honor-
ed, and their bargain is in ruins. Instead of receiving fair treatment, the
king is betrayed by his wife, murdered by his brother, and prematurely
forgotten by everyone except Hamlet. Claudius has committed the most
heinous of sins, but instead of being punished, he has gained through his
villainy the throne and the queen. King Hamlet's spirit cannot rest in
peace but is compelled to return from the grave, seeking vengeance.
Hamlet and the ghost of his father revile Claudius because he is the
opposite psychological type. He is a wily, lecherous, underhanded
schemer, a man whose very looks reveal his gross and cunning nature. He
is such a good actor, however, that he deceives many members of the court
(and a number of critics as well). He is not without ability, but his "gifts"
are those of a Machiavel. For the Hamlet-type of man, it is unbearable for
the Claudiuses of the world to gain the prizes that should be the reward of
virtue. If the Claudiuses are triumphant and the Hamlets are igno-
miniously treated, then the world is "an unweeded garden,/ That grows to
seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely" (I, ii). It is
striking that when Hamlet finally confronts his mother in the closet scene,
what he dwells upon most passionately is the comparison between
Claudius and his father. How could she have turned from her husband,


upon whom "every god did seem to set his seal,/ To give the world
assurance of a man"-to this "mildew'd ear," this "villain," this "king
of shreds and patches"? (III, iv). Claudius is not merely subhuman, he is
one of the more disgusting animals-"a paddock, .. a bat, a gib."
Because of his identification with his father, Hamlet feels Gertrude's
preference for Claudius as a rejection of himself. He gains evident relief
when he moves her to self-detestation and repentance and gains her prom-
ise of loyalty to him rather than to Claudius.
There is something more, I think, to the repugnance that Hamlet feels
toward Claudius. Claudius represents the sexual and aggressive drives that
Hamlet represses in himself. He is what Hamlet is afraid of becoming.
Hamlet's father is an external embodiment of his idealized image;
Claudius symbolizes his despised self. When Claudius's successes under-
mine his solution, Hamlet's repression is threatened and he becomes all
the more afraid of his forbidden impulses. He cannot help doubting the
efficacy of virtue (what has it done for his father?), and he is enraged with
Gertrude, by whom he feels betrayed. His taboos are still in operation,
however, and he is afraid of becoming a monster. His attacks on Claudius
are partly an externalization of his loathing for those parts of himself
against which he is struggling and partly a reaffirmation of his own no-
bility. They reinforce his pride in his virtue and assure him that he can
never become like the bestial creature he condemns.


The disgust with life and longings for extinction that Hamlet ex-
presses in his first soliloquy are the reactions of a man whose most
cherished beliefs have been shattered and whose strategy for dealing with
the world has proven to be ineffective. He is obsessed with the injustice of
life and is full of rage, anxiety, and despair. His father was the kind of man
that Hamlet has aspired to be, and his memory has been foully dishon-
ored. What promise does life hold for Hamlet in a world such as this? His
father's fate seems also to be his own. Claudius has already stepped
between the election and his hopes. His mother's act "calls virtue hypo-
crite," "makes marriage vows as false as dicer's oaths," and renders
"sweet religion" a mere "rhapsody of words" (III, iv). Will he, too, be
mocked by the objects of his affection, betrayed by the people to whom he
has been faithful, abandoned for base creatures by those from whom he
deserves loyalty and appreciation? Even before he learns of the murder,


the fate of his father shows that the world is not a moral order but an
unweeded garden, a jungle in which good people are abused, the vicious
triumph, and fair appearances are untrustworthy. This is not a world with
which his kind of person can cope or in which he sees much hope of
reward. He wants to escape by melting away into nothingness. Hamlet
still believes in God, but he had expected justice on earth, and he has been
cruelly disappointed.
Hamlet's oppression is the result not only of his disillusionment, but
also of his repressed hostility. He is full of bitterness and rage, but he
cannot express his feelings directly to Claudius and Gertrude. He mutters
asides, quibbles with words, and accuses them with his display of mourn-
ing and melancholy. They have secured the blessings of the court, but he
shows them through his behavior that he does not accept what they have
done. His tactics make them deeply uncomfortable, and they respond by
being defensive and placatory. They reaffirm their own sorrow, assure him
that he is next in line to the throne, and try to argue him out of his
"excessive" grief. Hamlet wants to get away from the poisonous atmo-
sphere of Elsinore, but the king and queen feel too threatened to let him
out of their sight, and Hamlet agrees to remain with every appearance of
filial respect: "I shall in all my best obey you madam" (I, ii). As soon as
he is alone, however, he pours out his accusations in his first soliloquy,
which ends, "But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" (I, ii).
Hamlet's behavior reflects his fierce inner conflicts. He is furious
with Gertrude and wants to express his outrage, to hurl accusations, to say
the things he finally does say in the closet scene. He has strong taboos
against such behavior, however, especially toward a mother, and all he can
do is to accuse her with his misery and grief. His hostility is so great that
he is afraid of losing control and of doing something for which he could
never forgive himself. He is caught, in part, between conflicting demands
of his compliant side. As a good son, he owes it to his father to honor his
memory and to protest its desecration by others; but he has to be respectful
and obedient toward his mother. Even to himself Hamlet does not com-
plain of his own injuries, but only of those inflicted upon his father.
Because of his self-effacing tendencies, Hamlet can feel anger on an-
other's behalf much more readily than on his own. To fight for others is
virtuous, but to resent the thwarting of his own desires would be a sign of
selfishness. Hamlet makes occasional references to feeling slighted; but it
is not until later, when he has become much more aggressive, that he
expresses open resentment at what has been done to him.
The wish for death with which Hamlet's first soliloquy opens has


several sources. It is in part a desire to escape from a world in which he
despairs of receiving love and justice and in part, a desire to throw off the
burden of his inner conflicts. It is also a product of turning against the self,
a frequent defense in the self-effacing solution where there is a powerful
taboo against violence, especially toward a parent. Hamlet's suicidal fan-
tasies provide both an outlet for his destructive impulses and a defense
against acting them out. He harbors murderous impulses toward his moth-
er, but he cannot permit himself even to feel them. What he is aware of is
that he wants to die. One object of suicide is to make others feel guilty,
and this is surely a motive for Hamlet. But self-murder is also a sin.
Hamlet can no longer believe that goodness will be rewarded in this
world, but he still expects evil to be punished, both here and hereafter.
The penalty for suicide is eternal damnation. If he could only melt away
without any act of his own, he would at once escape his pain, retain his
virtue, and show others how they have destroyed him.


As his death wishes indicate, Hamlet is already in an impossible
position for his kind of person. His encounter with the ghost intensifies the
pressure on him both to be aggressive and to be good. The wrongs done to
his father are far greater than Hamlet had imagined. He had been betrayed
by Claudius and Gertrude while he was alive and then murdered in his
sleep by his own brother-"Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dis-
patch'd" (I, v). Because the manner of his death denied him the oppor-
tunity to purify his soul, he must suffer the purgatorial torments whose
horror he suggests so vividly. The ghost feeds Hamlet's already seething
indignation and puts him under heavy pressure to prove his love by aveng-
ing him.
Hamlet cannot help feeling ambivalent about being an avenger. He is
prompted to his revenge by the codes of martial and manly honor and of
loyalty, duty, and service; but there is both in Christianity and in Hamlet's
self-effacing defense system a strong taboo against vindictive behavior. "I
could accuse me of such things," he tells Ophelia, "that it were better my
mother had not born me: I am very proud, revengeful, and ambitious" (III,
i). He cannot pursue his revenge openly, moreover, like a soldier on the
field of battle, but must plot like a Machiavel. It is a matter of love, duty,
and manliness for Hamlet to carry out the ghost's commission, and he


swears to do so; but he can neither obey nor disobey the ghost's commands
without incurring self-hate.
The ghost himself is not a single-minded revenger. He is protective
toward Gertrude and fearful of his son's damnation: "But, howsoever thou
pursuest this act,/ Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/ Against
thy mother aught" (I, v). Hamlet is supposed to be aggressive, but also to
be good; to avenge his father, but not to taint his mind; to stop the incest,
but not to contrive anything against his mother. The ghost's conflicting
messages correspond to Hamlet's own inner conflicts and contribute to his
The ghost's sufferings, moreover, reinforce Hamlet's fear of sin and
punishment in the afterlife. His father was a good man, but his spirit is
doomed to undergo horrible torments until the "foul crimes done in [his]
days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away" (I, iv). If these are his father's
sufferings, what might Hamlet's be if he commits a sin greater than any of
which his father has been guilty? He will not be a good son if he does not
secure revenge, but to be an avenger is to descend into the arena with the
Claudiuses of the world, to become like them, and to experience intense
self-loathing and fear of divine retaliation.
When the ghost first announces that he has been murdered, Hamlet is
most "apt" in the acceptance of his mission, and after the ghost departs, he
is still breathing fire. He soon shows signs of inner stress, however. In the
swearing scene he addresses the ghost with a strange levity that can only be
understood as a release of tension. He quickly seizes upon the device of
assuming an antic disposition. This has dubious value in his revenge
scheme (Hamlet is almost totally inept as a plotter), but it permits him to
manifest his inner turbulence and to release a good deal of aggression
without being held responsible for his behavior. Hamlet needs at once to
express and to disown his anger. As the first act ends, he is no longer "apt."
Rather, he is oppressed that he is expected to take action: "The time is out of
joint: O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!" He is once again
longing for escape. He wishes that he did not exist, that he had not been
born. Hamlet wants to be loved, recognized, taken care of, rewarded for his
goodness. He abhors the moral disorder of life and resents having to cope
with the harsh realities of the historical process. He wants to receive justice,
not to be burdened with the task of reestablishing it.
At the end of act 1, then, Hamlet is in deep psychological trouble, as
his interpersonal and his intrapsychic strategies begin to break down. He
despairs of having his claims honored and of living up to his should. As a


consequence, he is filled with the rage that is his dominant emotion in act
1 and the self-hate that becomes so prominent in act 2. He is losing faith in
justice, in other people, and in himself.
It is important to recognize that Hamlet has an idealized image that
he is trying to actualize. He wants to live without sin; that is, without the
taint of pride, revengefulness, and ambition and of coarse or illicit sexu-
ality. He wants to be an ideal son, lover, prince, and friend, and he
believes that his virtues will be appropriately rewarded. His bargain is
threatened by the fate of his father and by his disillusionment with other
people. If they are all really Claudiuses or Gertrudes, then he has no
chance of receiving the love and honor that are his due. He also needs to
have faith in the goodness of others for the sake of his idealized image. If
he is to believe in his own nobility, mankind in general must have the
capacity to be high-minded and pure, at least to curb the devil, if not to
throw him out. If all are depraved, then he must be also. His mother's guilt
and his father's purgatorial sufferings threaten his belief in himself; it is
difficult for him to maintain the possibility of his own innocence when he
seems to be surrounded by human corruption.
The greatest threat to Hamlet's sense of innocence is his own rage, of
course. He represses himself severely and turns his destructive impulses
inward to prevent them from escaping. He would rather die than do
anything that would destroy his idealized image. He dreads becoming like
Claudius, and he projects upon his uncle the self-hate that is generated by
his own forbidden feelings.
Hamlet's encounter with the ghost makes it impossible for him to
maintain his self-approval. His rage is intensified; and although it is also
to a certain extent sanctified, he can never enact the ghost's commands
without severe anxiety and guilt. Once he incorporates the ghost's demand
for revenge into his idealized image, he becomes caught in a cross fire of
conflicting inner dictates, and he is bound to hate himself no matter what
he does. No wonder he wishes that he had never been born.


Approximately two months pass between acts 1 and 2. When we
meet Hamlet again, he is distraught, demoralized, in a state of psychologi-
cal torment. Before he appears on stage, we receive a moving account of
him from Ophelia, to whom he has appeared "with a look so piteous in
purport/ As if he had been loosed out of hell/ To speak of horrors" (II, i).


In his disillusionment with Gertrude, Hamlet has turned to Ophelia for
reassurance. He desperately needs to believe in her goodness, in the purity
of his own feelings, and in the ideal nature of their love. He is cut off from
Ophelia, however, by Polonius's insistence that she deny Hamlet her
presence. Hamlet cannot be angry with Ophelia for her obedience to her
father, but he must be terribly frustrated by the whole situation. He may be
struggling with lustful impulses when he appears in Ophelia's private
chamber, but it is more likely that he is lonely and tormented and hopes to
move her through a display of his suffering. He needs sympathy. His
piteous looks, his profound sighs, his remarkable dishevelment do arouse
Ophelia's concern, but she is too submissive a daughter to respond openly
and Hamlet cannot make a more direct appeal for fear of compromising
her with her father. The deprivation of Ophelia is another injustice. It
leaves Hamlet all the more alone at a time when he desperately needs love
and comfort.
Hamlet is not yet bitter toward Ophelia, but he is toward Polonius
who is, in act 2, the chief object of his antic disposition. The antic
disposition is, as T. S. Eliot has observed, "less than madness and more
than feigned." It is "a form of emotional relief," "the buffoonery of an
emotion which can find no outlet in action" (1950, 126). Polonius is a
prime target for several reasons. Hamlet is hostile toward him not only
because he has denied him Ophelia, but also because he is a vulgar
schemer whose cynical view of human nature leads him to see Hamlet as a
seducer. This is an insult to Hamlet's pride and it threatens his idealized
image, especially since he is afraid that he may, indeed, be sinful. Another
reason for Hamlet's hostility is that Polonius serves as a surrogate onto
whom he can displace his feelings toward Gertrude and Claudius. Po-
lonius represents the kind of worldly corruption that Hamlet detests so
much in Claudius, and he is an inferior to whom Hamlet owes no special
duty or respect. It is much easier for Hamlet to behave aggressively
toward this man than toward his mother or uncle, especially when his
behavior must be excused as madness. The pattern is similar to that in act
1. Hamlet cannot contain his venom, but neither can he discharge it
directly upon its proper objects. He is full of impotent rage, but he gains
some sense of power by making a fool of the crafty old man.
Hamlet continues to be obsessed, as he was in act 1, with the
fickleness of fate and the depravity of man. His bitter remarks on these
subjects run like a refrain through the second act: "To be honest, as this
world goes," he tells Polonius, "is to be one man picked out of ten
thousand" (II, ii). If we "use every man after his desert, who should


'scape whipping?" If "the world's grown honest," as Guildenstem says,
"then is doomsday near." Hamlet wants to believe in human goodness. He
greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with great warmth ("My excellent
good friends! Good lads, how do ye both?"), pleads with them al-
most pathetically to be "even and direct" with him, but sees their hesita-
tion ("Nay, then, I have an eye of you") and is disappointed once more.
His eloquent speech on "What a piece of work is a man" then follows, in
which he contrasts his former idealistic view of human nature with his
present disillusionment. This is not the main reason, of course, why he has
"lost all [his] mirth"; but it is a very bitter experience for him to have to
give up his faith in human goodness, on which he has depended for safety
and recognition, and to accept the Claudius-Polonius-aggressive view of
human relations as a battle of each against all.
Hamlet is disenchanted not only with human nature, but also with all
things of this world. This "goodly frame, the earth," seems to him "a
sterile promotory" (II, ii). This majesticall roof fretted with golden fire"
appears to him "a foul and pestilent contagion of vapours" (II, ii). Be-
neath all fair appearances there is a sordid reality. Our earthly realm is not
a just order but is ruled by fortune.
Hamlet's attack on the capriciousness of fate is most fully articulated
in the speech he asks the player to recite describing the murder of Priam:
"Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,/ In general synod, take
away her power" (II, ii). The important distinction made here between
fortune and the gods is repeated in the description of the grief of Hecuba.
Anyone who witnessed her clamor, "'Gainst Fortune's state would treason
have pronounced"; but "if the gods themselves did see her then," they
"would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven." In effect, Hamlet is
raging against the absurdity of historical reality; but he is not an atheist.
He still believes in a higher justice, in a transcendent moral order, that will
punish evil in its own way and to which he is responsible. This seems to be
not only Hamlet's position, but also that of the play. Even Claudius knows
that though "In the corrupted currents of this world/ Offence's gilded hand
may shove by justice/ 'tis not so above;/ there the action lies/
In his true nature" (III, iii).
It may well be that Hamlet grows more religious (and hence has more
conscientious scruples) as his belief in earthly justice crumbles. Ag-
gressive people often become self-effacing when their ambitions are
thwarted. This is what happens to Claudius, for a moment, when the play
within the play threatens his security and he considers repentance. Self-


effacing people, on the other hand, may become more self-effacing when
their solution does not work. In the absence of earthly rewards, they may
seek the greater security of a divine, but invisible, justice.
The chief source of Hamlet's inner torment is that he is driven by
irreconcilable needs. He has sworn to avenge his father, but two months
have passed, and as yet he has done nothing. His failure to act makes him
feel disloyal, unloving, and cowardly. He is tortured by self-hate. To
escape his self-accusations he tries to stir up his passions to such a pitch
that he can override his scruples and take his revenge. Any approach to
action, however, heightens his fears of incurring damnation; and he delays
again, thinks up a new plan, or longs to withdraw into stoical patience or
the oblivion of death. Each retreat from action generates new self-hate,
which pushes him once more toward violence. He loathes himself for his
undutifulness and ineffectuality, but he is afraid that he will hate himself
even more, and incur divine wrath as well, if he becomes a murderer.
Hamlet is hopelessly trapped in this situation. He oscillates from one
set of should to another; but nothing will satisfy his contradictory needs
and permit him to escape his self-hate. Each side of him accuses and
inhibits the other. As he is torn by inner conflicts, he begins to doubt his
own sanity. One function of his antic disposition may be to reassure
himself that he is not mad but is only acting. We can see the dynamics I
have just described very clearly at work in his encounter with the players
and in his second and third soliloquies.


Hamlet asks the First Player to recite the description of Priam's
murder and the grief of Hecuba in order to stir, to express, and to justify
his own emotions. The monstrousness of Pyrrhus feeds his loathing of
Claudius, the horror of Priam's death revivifies his own horror at the
murder of his father, and the attack upon fortune expresses his outrage at
the cruelty of fate. Hecuba's grief assures him that his own mourning is
appropriate and reinforces his indignation at his mother's behavior. The
pity of the gods at the sight of Hecuba's despair feeds his self-pity and
assures him that Heaven understands his feelings and is on his side.
The contents of the recitation, combined with the player's passion in
reciting it, have a profound effect upon Hamlet, as we see when he is left
alone. His second soliloquy is a series of self-denunciations: he is a


"rogue," a "peasant slave," a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal," a "cow-
ard," an "ass," a "whore," a "drab," a "scullion" (II, ii). There is a
massive release of self-hate here. Hamlet's self-accusations are a form of
self-punishment, an expression of his profound sense of his own igno-
bility, and a part of his effort to become the noble Hamlet once more by
rousing himself to action.
It makes Hamlet feel "monstrous" that the player is so moved by the
woes of Hecuba while he "can say nothing for a king,/ Upon whose
property and most dear life/ A damned defeat was made" (II, ii), and he
attacks himself by imagining what the player would do if he had "the
motive and the cue for passion" that he has: "He would drown the stage
with tears/ And cleave the general air with horrid speech,/ Made mad the
guilty and appal the free." This is what Hamlet has been wanting to do
ever since his mother's remarriage, but something has forced him to hold
his tongue. He accuses himself of being "A dull and muddy-mettled
rascal," a "John-a-dreams, unpregnant of [his] cause"; but he has, of
course, been obsessed with his cause and with his inability to act. His
description of himself suggests, however, that he has tried to escape his
inner torments by a process of withdrawal, by a blunting of consciousness
that leaves him dull and stuporous.
Can it be, Hamlet wonders, that he is a coward? This is partly self-
accusation and partly a search for an explanation of his delay. Hamlet
experiences his conflicts, but he does not understand them, and he keeps
trying to make sense of his behavior. The accusation of cowardice brings
him to the pitch of passion at which he has been aiming. No one treats him
like a coward, but if they did, he "should take it," for he must be "pigeon-
liver'd" or he would have killed Claudius long before this. Hamlet's pride
is now stirred up, and he attacks himself for being content with mere
verbal violence, like the scum of the earth, instead of acting courageously,
like the son of a king.
His bloodthirsty mood quickly gives way, however, to more cerebral
activity as he reverts to the plan he had already set in motion to trap
Claudius with the play. The play is another device for being aggressive in
an indirect way, for torturing Claudius without making an overt assault,
either verbal or physical, upon him. Hamlet excuses himself for this
further delay by questioning the reliability of the ghost. As numerous
critics have pointed out, his doubts are in keeping with contemporary
doctrines concerning ghosts, but Hamlet recalls these doctrines at this
time because something within him is reacting against his earlier clamor-
ing for vengeance, and he is troubled once more by fear of damnation.



When we see Hamlet next, he is again subdued by his inner conflicts.
The famous third soliloquy is a rather confused meditation in which three
possible alternatives are being considered: compliance, aggression, or
detachment. Hamlet begins by asking whether it is better to be or not to
be, but he immediately shifts to the consideration of another question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (II, i)
This is the question by which he has been most deeply tormented. He
wishes above all to be noble, but does this mean submitting to fate or
attacking the evils of life in an attempt to correct them? Hamlet longs to
escape from the buffetings of fortune and the agony of his dilemma by
withdrawing into the oblivion of death, but suicide would be a sin and he
has a dread of the afterlife.
Hamlet cannot come to rest m any solution. Submission will not
work because he has sworn to avenge his father's murder and to stop the
incest. He is too full of outrage,, moreover, to accept the injustices of life,
and he has a need to live up to his culture's conception of manliness.
Aggression will not work because it exposes him to fears of sinfulness and
damnation: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the
native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"
(III, i). Hamlet is very much drawn to detachment as a defense; he would
dearly love to attain a stoical independence of fate. He envies Horatio,
who is "A man that fortune's buffets and rewards/ Hast ta'en with equal
thanks" (III, ii); but Hamlet is much too tormented by outrageous fortune
and by his own inner turbulence to achieve such philosophic calm. He
hates himself, no doubt, for being "passion's slave," "a pipe for fortune's
finger/ To sound what stop she please" (III, ii).
Since he cannot become invulnerable by self-mastery, such as
Horatio's, Hamlet's detachment takes the form of a longing for death. In
death he could escape both his inner conflicts, with their accompanying
self-hate, and the injustices of life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns


That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? (III, i)
These wrongs are very largely those that "good" people suffer at the
hands of aggressive types. Hamlet is "patient merit"; Claudius is "the
Hamlet's fantasy of dying is generated not only by his craving for
escape but also by his self-effacing trends. When the solution of a self-
effacing person fails, he may be attracted to self-destruction because it
provides an outlet for his rage, shows others what they have done to him,
and preserves his moral superiority. As Homey observed, "going to pieces
under the assault of an unfeeling world appeals to him as the ultimate
triumph ... What else can a sensitive person in an ignoble world do but
go to pieces! Should he fight and assert himself and hence stoop down to
the same level of crude vulgarity? (1950, 236).
Hamlet cannot commit suicide, however, because of his fear of the
afterlife. If death were truly an escape, it would be "a consummation
devoutly to be wish'd"; but it is no more an oblivion than sleep. Hamlet
has bad dreams, and "what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off
this mortal coil must give us pause." Hamlet fears damnation should he
either kill himself or die in the pursuit of vengeance. Conscience, which
binds him to this weary life, also prevents him from carrying out his great
enterprise; and he finds himself unable to act, to submit, or to escape.


This is the last time we see Hamlet moody and inert. His encounter
with Ophelia and the Mousetrap scene release his anger, and he becomes
capable of both verbal and physical violence. His self-effacing trends
remain in evidence, and he develops a more and more profound sense of
resignation, but his aggression is henceforth liberated, and he becomes at
times a stereotypic avenger.
Hamlet is not angry with Ophelia when he encounters her at the end
of his third soliloquy. He has been preoccupied with thoughts of con-
science and the afterlife, and he regards Ophelia as a pure, spiritual being
whose prayers he has need of ("Nymph, in thy orisons/ Be all my sins
remembered"). The situation changes, however, when Ophelia wants to
return his gifts: "their perfume lost,/ Take these again; for to the noble


mind/ Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind" (III, i). Hamlet's
response is, "Ha, ha! are you honest?" This is the turning point in
Hamlet's attitude toward Ophelia. Her withdrawal has frustrated but not
embittered him, for she has behaved as a dutiful daughter. But her present
behavior is false. Hamlet has not been unkind. It is difficult to understand
Ophelia's motivations, since the queen, earlier in the scene, had given her
blessing to the relationship. Perhaps Ophelia is hoping that Hamlet will
respond to her action by protesting his love; but, whatever her motives,
from Hamlet's point of view, she is going beyond what is required by
obedience to her father, and he is deeply upset.
Hamlet's immediate reaction is to feel that her fair appearance, too,
hides a reality of evil. All of his negative attitudes toward women, to
which she has been the sole antidote, are now projected onto Ophelia. His
sense of his own goodness is profoundly threatened by his loss of faith in
her. As long as he idealized her and their relationship, he maintained his
belief in the possibility of a pure and noble love. Now that he sees her as a
bawd, he becomes bawdy-minded himself and loses faith in his own
purity. She should not have believed him when he told her that he loved
her; "for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I
loved you not" (III, i). What he is saying is that being depraved, like all
men, he did not love, but lusted after her. With the undermining of his
idealized image, his despised self emerges, and he turns upon himself
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself
indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better
my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with
more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to
give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do
crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none
of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's your father? (III, i)
This attack is not simply upon himself, of course, but upon human nature
in general. Hamlet feels that even its best specimens, such as Ophelia and
himself, are irremediably depraved. Men are all arrant knaves, and the
only way women can remain virtuous is to go to a nunnery.
It is a traditional piece of staging that after Hamlet says "Go thy
ways to a nunnery," he catches a glimpse of the eavesdropping Polonius,
which leads him to ask, "Where's your father?" My reading of the play
supports this bit of business, which seems essential if we are to understand
what follows. Ophelia replies with a lie-"At home, my lord"-and


Hamlet's next remark is clearly intended for Polonius: "Let the doors be
shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in 's own house."
Hamlet now feels that Ophelia is totally false, and he is so enraged
that for the first time in the play he makes a direct assault upon the object
of his wrath: "If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry:
be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.
Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a
fool; for wise men know what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery,
go, and quickly too. Farewell" (III, i). This is not an act put on for the
benefit of the eavesdroppers; Hamlet is not feigning madness here. He is
expressing at last grievances that have been rankling in his bosom for
months. He has been chaste as ice, but he has not escaped calumny.
Women are light, deceptive, wanton creatures who make fools of the men
who love them.'In the self-effacing person, observes Homey, there is a
"pervasive suppression of resentment .. .. Only when he feels driven to
despair will the locked gates break open and a flood of accusations rush
out" (1950, 232). This is what is happening to Hamlet here. In his belief
in Ophelia, in her purity and love, lay his last hope that he could maintain
his own nobility and escape the fate of his father. When Hamlet says that
"We will have no more marriages," he means that he will never marry. He
will not let any woman do to him what Gertrude has done to his father. His
tirade ends with a threat against the life of Claudius so alarming to the
king that he determines immediately to send Hamlet to England.


This explosion of hostility seems to relieve Hamlet's oppression, to
lift his spirits, and to fill him with energy. He is no longer brooding,
indecisive, or sullen; and, for a while at least, his death wishes disappear.
In his dealings with others he becomes vigorous, articulate, and com-
bative. His speech to the players is brisk and authoritative, he declares his
admiration for Horatio in a very forthright manner, and he seems eager for
the play. When the court enters, he puts on his antic disposition and takes
great pleasure in jabbing at everyone. He does not obey his mother when
she bids him sit by her, and he is very bawdy with Ophelia. Hamlet is
tormenting everyone with great success; his jibes are brilliant. He has been
suffering; now it is time for them to squirm. The play is another expression
of his accusations, and he drives its points home with his sarcastic and
bellicose remarks. It is this needling, as much as the play itself, that forces


Claudius to lose his composure. When the king rises, distraught, and flees
the scene, Hamlet is gay. He has had a great vindictive triumph. He has
been oppressed with impotent rage, but now he has broken through the
defenses of this "smiling, damned villain," and it is Claudius who is
stricken. The tables are turned. He disposes of the inquiries of Rosen-
crantz and Guildenstern with great wit and energy ("though you can fret
me, yet you cannot play upon me"-III, ii); and he makes a fool of
Polonius when the latter comes to summon him to the queen.
What we see here is the energy of liberated aggression. With the final
collapse of his hopes of love and innocence, Hamlet's angry self has risen
to the fore and has swept away the constraints that have been paralyzing
him. His initial plan has worked: his doubts about the ghost have been
resolved and he has discomfited his enemies. He is no longer helplessly
trapped by fears and conflicts. He is no longer tortured by self-hate. He
feels powerful, on top of things, capable of violence. He has no developed
plan, but he longs to strike another blow: "now could I drink hot blood,/
And do such bitter business as the day/ Would quake to look on" (III, ii).
It is in this frame of mind that he encounters Claudius praying.
I believe that Hamlet is now capable of killing Claudius and that he
does not do so in the prayer scene for precisely the reasons he gives. He is
in the grip of his vindictive should which demand not only Claudius's
death, but a revenge in keeping with the nature of the offense. He is being
governed by the talion principle: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Claudius took his father "grossly, full of bread," and now "Tis heavy with
him" (III, ii). According to his present logic, it would hardly be revenge to
take Claudius "in the purging of his soul,/ When he is fit and season'd for
his passage." He wants to kill him, rather, when he is "about some act/
That has no relish of salvation in't" so that "his soul may be as damn'd
and black/ As hell whereto it goes."
"These diabolical sentiments are not Hamlet's," Kittredge hastens to
assure us; "the speech is merely a pretext for delay" (Kittredge and Ribner
1967, xviii).3 The sentiments are diabolical and they are Hamlet's. This
speech is not an isolated event. Hamlet was proclaiming his readiness
moments before "to drink hot blood"; and when he speaks of his school-
fellows at the end of act 3, he sounds very much like lago:
they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar: and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines;


And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet. (III, iv)
Hamlet sends them to their deaths, no "shriving-time allowed," and then
assures Horatio that they "are not near [his] conscience" (V, ii). He
concludes his last soliloquy by exclaiming, "My thoughts be bloody, or be
nothing worth!" (IV, iv).
It is difficult to integrate all this with the picture of Hamlet built up in
the first half of the play, to believe that the tender-minded prince has
turned into a fiendish avenger. His task no longer seems a heavy burden
but a source of malicious delight. We must remember that Hamlet has
been feeling an enormous sense of injury and a rage so intense that its
repression has been severely disturbing. The Machiavellian monster that
he has fought so hard to contain is now free. Hamlet still has inner
conflicts, as we shall see; but the aggressive side of him now seems to
operate independently at times, as though it were a separate personality.
He warns Laertes as they are grappling in Ophelia's grave:
I prithee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear. (V, i)
Under the stress of his situation, the pressure of his inner conflicts, and the
collapse of his dominant solution, Hamlet has become schizoid. Different
parts of his personality now dominate him by turns, the conflict between
them having been reduced by a process of compartmentalization.
What we see in act 3 is Hamlet becoming aware of the dangerous part
of himself. For the most part he exults in it, but he is afraid of it in relation
to his mother. Before he goes to her closet, he struggles to bring his
matricidal impulses under control: "O heart, lose not thy nature; let not
ever/ The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom" (III, iii). When he enters his
mother's chamber, he is so aggressive that the queen cries out for help,
and Hamlet strikes at the hidden Polonius in a discharge of the murderous
impulses that have been thwarted by Claudius's praying and his taboos
against harming his mother. Whether it could have been the king or not
(there is internal evidence to support both contentions), Hamlet clearly
wishes that it had been.4 He is in too fierce a state to feel concern at this
time for what he has done. He must pour out all the bitterness that has
been festering within him before he can register the implications of his
rash and bloody deed.



The closet scene is a cathartic experience for Hamlet. He unleashes at
last, in a torrent of words, the accusations upon which he has been
brooding. Gertrude has much offended his father; he wishes that she were
not his mother. Her act has destroyed his belief in virtue, in marriage, in
human constancy. Neither love, nor judgment, nor even madness can
account for her choice of Claudius. Rather, it must reflect some bestial
lust, some hellish perversion. It symbolizes for Hamlet the depravity of all
women and the fate of all good men, which is to be deserted in favor of
sleazy seducers. His loathing for Claudius is such that his mother's rela-
tions with him seem like copulation with a beast. He hammers at Gertrude
to give up her lasciviousness, to resist the advances of "the bloat king,"
and to stay out of Claudius's bed. In doing so he is carrying out the ghost's
commands to stop the incest.
But this does not account for the intensity of his disgust. He is
revolted by the sexual successes of Claudius and jealous at the same time.
Where do they leave goodness and romance? He is horrified at the ani-
mality of the woman who had always represented purity and restraint. His
disgust is also a defense against the forbidden feelings that his mother's
behavior arouses in him. These may well be incestuous, but they are also
more generally sexual. The sexuality of supposedly good women is both
demoralizing and threatening to Hamlet. If they are bawds, what is the
value of his own chastity? If they cannot curb the devil, then surely he
cannot either. His disenchantment with Ophelia released, we remember, a
good deal of sexual aggression. In the closet scene he is so much the
spokesman for virtue because he is afraid of becoming a sexual monster,
like Claudius or Gertrude. He must dwell upon the utter repulsiveness of
their behavior to reinforce his own repressions; and he needs to win
Gertrude over to sexual abstinence so as to reaffirm his own values.
Except for the murder of Polonius, the closet scene goes well for
Hamlet. He not only releases his pent-up feelings, but his words achieve
their desired effects. He wants to "be cruel," to "speak daggers to her"
(III, ii), and he is successful: "O, speak to me no more;/ These words, like
daggers, enter in mine ears;/ No more, sweet Hamlet!" (III, iv). He
catches the conscience of the Queen and makes her share his revulsion at
what she has done. After the ghost appears, he overcomes her scepticism
about his sanity and delivers a lecture in which he exhorts her to stay out
of Claudius's bed:


Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use can almost change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. (III, iv)
This speech suggests some of Hamlet's own struggles to curb the devil.
What is remarkable about it is its tone, which is that of a priest exhorting a
sinner or of a parent urging a child to give up masturbation. Sex is a bad
habit that can be broken.
The closet scene releases Hamlet from his obsession with Gertrude;
we do not see him brooding about her hereafter. He has asserted his moral
superiority, and she has accepted his rebuke. This assuages his anger,
feeds his pride in both his potency and his virtue, and gives him a sense of
having completed an important part of his mission. Henceforth his rage is
directed exclusively against Claudius. The greatest part of his triumph is
winning Gertrude's loyalty to his cause: "Be thou assured, if words be
made of breath,/ And breath of life, I have no life to breathe/ What thou
hast said to me" (III, iv). His deepest grievance against her has been her
abandonment of the good Hamlets for the bad Claudius, but now this has
been reversed.


From the end of act 3 to the conclusion of the play, the different sides
of Hamlet's personality assert themselves by turns, as well as, at times,
simultaneously. He still has inner conflicts and a need to reconcile his
various should, but his compliant, aggressive, and resigned trends seem
at times to separate out and to manifest themselves in relatively pure
Having settled his account with the Queen, Hamlet is able to react to
his killing of Polonius. He repents and promises to "answer well the death
I gave him" (III, iv). A few moments later, however, he is relishing the
thought of hoisting his enemies with their "own petar," and he treats
Polonius's corpse most unceremoniously: "I'll lug the guts into the neigh-
bor room." In act 4 we hear that "he weeps for what is done" (IV, i), but
he is fiercely aggressive in his few appearances on stage. He calls Rosen-
crantz a "sponge" (IV, ii), tells Claudius that if his messenger does not


find Polonius in heaven, he should "seek him i' the other place" himself
(IV, iii), and accuses himself, in his final soliloquy, of not having been
bloody minded enough (IV, iv).
In this soliloquy Hamlet's aggressive side is dominant. He attacks his
compliant tendencies and accuses himself, once more, of delay:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quartr'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say "This thing's to do;"
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do 't. (IV, iv)

His self-accusations are, in part, irrational. His revenge is not dull, and it
needs no spurring. Hamlet has delayed, it is true, and for very much the
reasons he gives; but he is not delaying now, though, knowing his past
record, he may be fearful of lapsing once more into paralysis. No longer
has he the "means/ To do 't," at least not immediately. The Mousetrap has
set in motion a plot against him, and the murder of Polonius has put him
on the defensive. The king is on guard, and Hamlet's energies are taken up
by his efforts to parry the moves against him.
Hamlet is a revenge play in which the obstacles are at first within the
hero and then outside of him. Once Hamlet becomes capable of action, no
suitable occasion arises, until the end. After the play and the murder of
Polonius, Hamlet is swept along by events he has little power to control.
What we see in his self-accusations is a new set of unrealistic should. It is
no longer perfect innocence, but aggressive potency that Hamlet demands
of himself, whatever the obstacles.
Hamlet is not only attacking himself for his inaction, he is also
justifying his intended violence by making it seem a matter of reason and
honor. The celebration of man's "large discourse,/ Looking before and
after" is both an assault upon his own mental paralysis (it "fusts" in him
unused) and an elevation of his bloody thoughts into a manifestation of
"god-like reason." It is not rationality that Hamlet is displaying here, of
course, but his capacity for rationalization. The example before him is
hardly one that Hamlet would find admirable in his Christian frame of
mind. Twenty thousand men are prepared "to fight for a plot/ Which is
not tomb enough and continent/ To hide the slain" (IV, iv). In his present


mood Hamlet sees this as glorious and Fortinbras as a great man. His "spirit
with divine ambition puff'd," Fortinbras is ready "To find quarrel in a
straw/ When honour's at the stake." This glorification of bellicosity and
ambition and of a readiness to die is the expression of Hamlet's aggressive
should that are punishing him for his own lack of a fiery spirit. His
dominant emotion is shame, which is what we feel when we have injured
our pride. These people are ready to fight and die for "a straw," "an egg-
shell," whereas he, whose honor is so much more at stake, has "let all
sleep." To restore his pride, he must think nothing but bloody thoughts from
now on. His situation is not really comparable to that of Fortinbras, of
course, since it requires a form of aggression that is much more spiritually
risky and morally complex than the pursuit of martial glory. If all Hamlet
had to do was to fight a battle, he would have acted long before this.
In act 5, Hamlet returns from England, after a considerable absence
from the stage. In the first scene, he proclaims his love for Ophelia, which
he can afford to feel now that she is dead, and in scene 2 he describes how
he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstem to their deaths, "Not shriving-
time allowed." He assures Horatio that they are not near his conscience,
but his next speech suggests that he may be protesting too much:
Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now upon-
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage-is 't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is 't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (V, ii)
It is evident that Hamlet still has a strong need to justify his behavior and
to assure himself that he will not incur damnation by carrying out his
revenge. He defends his past and intended violence by citing all the
wrongs that have been done to him. The plot against him, which he has
done so much to bring about, justifies his own plotting and assuages his
guilt. He may have needed to create a situation in which he is forced to act
in self-defense in order to feel that it is "perfect conscience" to kill the
king. He is still worried about damnation, but now that Claudius is an
active antagonist, he can assure himself that he will be damned if he does
not act to stop the spread of evil. His inner conflicts are still operative, but
he has found a way to reconcile his aggressive and his self-effacing
values. The only way to be good is to be aggressive.



What is most striking about Hamlet in act 5 is his sense of himself as
being in the hands of Providence. The success of his rash invasion of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin shows that "There's a divinity that
shapes our ends,/ Rough hew them how we will" (V, ii). The fact that he
had his father's signet in his purse shows once again that heaven is "ordi-
nant." He has profound misgivings about the fencing match with Laertes,
but he ignores his premonitions and resigns himself to what will be: "We
defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now,
yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is 't to leave betimes? Let be" (V, ii). This speech also shows
Hamlet's readiness to die. He expects heaven to direct him to his revenge
(he still has no plan), but he also expects to die himself and does not wish
it otherwise.
These attitudes are the expression of a defensive posture that begins
to develop at the end of act 3, when Hamlet reacts to the death of
For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind. (III, iv)
By killing Polonius, Hamlet has irrevocably destroyed his claim to inno-
cence. This liberates his aggressive impulses, which manifest themselves
powerfully, as we have seen. But Hamlet also has a need to assuage
his guilt and to reconcile the new state of affairs with his self-effacing
According to the logic of the self-effacing solution, worldly misfor-
tune is a sign of guilt, a penalty of sin. Hamlet sees his killing of Polonius
not only as a sin in itself, but also as a punishment for his basic guilt, a
sense of which emerges whenever his pride in his goodness is under-
mined. It is an act by which he pays for past transgressions and for which
he must be punished if divine justice is to be affirmed. Hamlet has a need
to die in payment for the death he has given. He is self-protective in the


interests of his mission, but he is content to die in the enactment of it, and
he behaves in ways that court his own destruction.
With the collapse of his idealized image, Hamlet defends himself
against self-hate and despair partly by switching to an aggressive value
system that glorifies toughness and violence, and partly by seeing himself
as an agent of the divine plan. These two defenses cannot be integrated
philosophically or thematically, but they can coexist quite readily in a
system of psychological conflicts. The question of whether it is nobler to
suffer life's evils or to take arms against them is no longer an issue.
Hamlet is eager now to feel himself in the hands of Providence and to
interpret events as divinely ordained. This helps him at once to disown his
actions and to assure himself of their righteousness; he must be cruel only
to be kind. His pride in his goodness having been crushed, Hamlet clings
to a posture of humble submission, of acquiescence to the demands of a
higher justice. He no longer tries to control his fate or to transcend the
limitations of human nature: he acknowledges his sinfulness, accepts the
fact that he must dirty his hands, and trusts God to bring about a just
From the closet scene onward there is a strong element of resignation
in Hamlet. He has reacted to the shattering of his dreams with terrible
cries of pain, but after he assimilates the meaning of his rash and bloody
deed, there is nothing left to hope for but the completion of his mission.
His fate is settled; he must purge the world of evil and be punished himself
for the crimes he commits in so doing. Bad has begun "and worse remains
behind." Hamlet accepts the will of heaven and readies himself to die. The
death of Ophelia produces a momentary outburst of passion, but it does
not really seem to give him much pain. He has become immune to the
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by developing not only a wish for
death, but an indifference to life-"what is't to leave betimes?"


Once Hamlet adopts an attitude of submission, his solution does
work, for the ending is like a wish-fulfillment dream conceived from
Hamlet's point of view. It satisfies his needs for punishment, revenge,
vindication, and escape. The plotters against him are hoist with their own
petard. Claudius inadvertently kills the queen and then is dispatched him-
self with the instruments he has aimed at Hamlet. Evil does not triumph
after all. Laertes is "justly killed with [his] own treachery" (V, ii). The


Queen and Hamlet are also punished. Hamlet gets his wish for his own
death and for that of his mother, but he is guilty neither of matricide nor of
suicide. Providence has arranged all. Hamlet is forgiven by Laertes for
causing his death and that of Polonius, and his own death at once justifies
and pays for the murder of Claudius. He is still concerned with his
nobility, his reputation, and his friend Horatio is there to save his
"wounded name." He chooses the next king with his dying breath and
then goes to "felicity," while Horatio lives on "in this harsh world ./
To tell [Hamlet's] story." He receives tributes from Horatio and from
Fortinbras that testify to his spirituality and to his manliness:
Hor. Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Fort. Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal. (V, ii)
Although at the cost of his life, Hamlet's conflicts are almost miraculously
resolved at the end. We mourn his death but rejoice in his triumph. We
have been struggling with his conflicts through our identification with
him, and when he gets what he wants, our needs are also satisfied.
Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who needs to be innocent but who is
thrust into a situation in which both action and inaction lead to guilt. His
existential problem is the necessity for taking harsh measures to deal with
a harsh world; his personal problem is his inability to take those measures
decisively enough because of his inner conflicts. Shakespeare wants to
show us what happens to a man who, out of his desire to maintain his
nobility, cannot cope with the evils of life, and he also wants to celebrate
that nobility. The ending does both: it shows Hamlet being destroyed by
the fruits of his inaction (along with others, in a seemingly casual slaugh-
ter), and it grants his wishes, leaving a final impression of him in the
words of Horatio and Fortinbras.



Othello is, like Hamlet, a story of revenge. There are two revenge plots in
this play. Iago revenges himself upon Othello by inducing him to believe
that his wife is unfaithful, and Othello revenges himself upon Desdemona
by murdering her in their marriage bed. Instead of having a protagonist
whose self-effacing tendencies paralyze him in a situation that calls for
aggressive action, we have in this play two characters who behave more
aggressively than is warranted by the offenses to which they are reacting.
Here the tragedy arises from the hero's taking his revenge not too slowly,
but too fast.
As in the case of Hamlet, much critical discussion has focused on the
motivations of the characters, with some critics doubting that they are
intelligible as human beings at all. The most difficult things to explain
have been lago's motives for initiating his diabolical plot, Othello's vul-
nerability to Iago's deception and the ferocity of his rage at Desdemona,
and Desdemona's passivity under Othello's abuse after her boldness ear-
lier in the play. Each of these characters has a bargain with fate that is
threatened in the course of the play, and each responds with defensive
behavior that precipitates his or her own destruction and the destruction of
others. Bradley sees the tragedy as lago's, and Leavis as Othello's char-
acter in action. Desdemona's character, too, contributes to her fate. The
tragedy is the outcome of the psychological flaws of each of the characters
and of their interaction. I shall consider the major characters in the order
in which their bargains are threatened. The play opens with lago's world-
view breaking down, and part of his response is to undermine the solutions


of Othello and Desdemona. As his poison works on Othello, Desdemona
is driven to sacrifice her life in order to preserve her love.


The precipitating events of the play are Othello's promotion of Cassio
to the lieutenancy and his marriage to Desdemona. Iago is deeply dis-
turbed by both of these events, and he reacts by plotting to displace Cassio
and to destroy Othello's marriage. The questions we must answer if we are
to understand lago's behavior are: Why do these events affect him as
profoundly as they do? Why does his revenge take the particular form that
it does? Before I try to answer these questions, I shall attempt to describe
lago's character as it was before his crisis began; for it is only by under-
standing his anxieties, his defenses, and his objectives in life that we can
appreciate the impact upon him of the precipitating events and the func-
tions of his diabolical plot.
There are two scenes with Roderigo in act 1 that give us a great deal
of insight into lago's character. Near the beginning of scene 1, in the
course of preparing Roderigo to understand his show of loyalty to Othello,
lago explains his philosophy of egoism:
O sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
For naught but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd:
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their heart attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them, and when they have lin'd their coats,
Do themselves homage: These fellows have some soul;
And such a one do I profess myself. (I, i)
lago has adopted an extreme form of the arrogant-vindictive solution; and
this speech expresses the views of human nature, human values, and the
human order that accompany that solution. He sees the world as a jungle
in which the strong exploit the weak and in which goodness does not pay.


There are two kinds of people in the world: the realists, who exploit others
lest they be exploited themselves; and the fools, who trust other people's
professions of loyalty and love and are abused as a result. lago does not
believe that everyone is like himself. He knows that there are "honest"
folk about, but he scorns them as gulls and is convinced that they are
destined to be victims. Indeed, he must victimize them himself in order to
confirm his vision of the world.
Iago feels that there is a deception at the heart of master-servant
relationships that are based on traditional notions of loyalty. The masters
promise to look after their servants in return for faithful service, but in
reality, they give them as little as possible and callously abandon them
when they are no longer useful. For a man who understands this there is
only one reasonable course of action: that is, to throw "shows of service"
on his lord so that he may line his own coat and do "homage" to himself.
Those who do this have "some soul," as opposed to the "knee-crooking
knave[s]" who dote on their "own obsequious bondage." The deception
involved here is perfectly justified as a response to the masters' deception
of their servants.
Behind lago's animus against masters lies, of course, an intense
desire for power. His real grievance is not that masters do not reward their
servants properly, but that he is not a master. An arrogant-vindictive
person like lago "cannot tolerate anybody who achieves more than
he does, wields more power, or in any way questions his superiority.
Compulsively he has to drag his rival down or defeat him. Even if he
subordinates himself for the sake of his career, he is scheming for ultimate
triumph" (Homey 1950, 198). In such a person, aggressive attitudes are
often "covered over with a veneer of suave politeness, fair-mindedness,
and good fellowship" (Horey 1945, 63). This "front" represents "a
Machiavellian concession to expediency" (Horey 1945, 63), and he is
"extremely proud of his faculty of fooling everybody" (Homey
1950, 193): "Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,/ But seeming
so, for my peculiar end" (I, i). Iago feels a deep resentment of a system in
which he has inherited a subordinate position, and he revenges himself
upon it by subverting the values on which it is based. Through his deceit
he controls his relationships with his superiors and overcomes his feelings
of weakness and insignificance. By his reputation for honesty, we can see
how successful he has been in duping his betters. They may order him
about, but he consoles himself with the knowledge that, in a very real
sense, he has them in his power.
A surprising number of critics have, like Bradley, seen lago as a


"blunt, bluff soldier, who spoke his mind freely and plainly and
... was given to making remarks somewhat disparaging to human nature"
(Bradley 1964, 214). The reason for this mistake is the assumption that Iago
speaks to everyone as he does to Roderigo, whom he treats as a fellow
conspirator and whom he despises for his stupidity. His reputation for
honesty has been gained not by bluntness, but by a strict course of hypocrisy
in which he has played the role of the absolutely devoted servant who can be
counted on for loyalty and integrity. He projects an image of himself not as a
cynic, but as an idealist.
The bargain of the compliant types whom lago scorns is with their
masters. Iago's bargain is with himself. He trusts no one and has no belief
in a moral order either in human affairs or in the universe. Just as he is
concerned only for himself, so he assumes that those above him are
equally selfish and that no one will be looking out for him: "Were I the
Moor, I would not be lago" (I, i). The speech to Roderigo makes very
clear the nature of Iago's pact with himself. If he is to succeed in this
crooked world, he must not be taken in by the traditional code of values,
which is simply an instrument by which the strong exploit the weak. He
must never be guilty of loyalty or of unselfish behavior; he must attend
constantly to his own interests; and, above all, he must always conceal his
true purposes and feelings:
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (I, i)
lago's scorn of compliant types is, like his justification of duplicity, a
constant preoccupation. He is as obsessed with his loathing for honest
people as Hamlet is with his repugnance toward aggressive types. The
intensity of his contempt indicates that he feels threatened by virtuous
people and that he has inner conflicts. In his value system they are fools,
but in theirs he is a rogue. He feels vastly superior to them, but he is also
vaguely uncomfortable about violating traditional values, and his scorn of
those who adhere to them is part of his defense against self-hate. He is
genuinely proud of his devilishness, but he also protests too much.
In his first scene with Roderigo, lago demythifies and inverts the
traditional code of loyalty. In his second scene, which occurs after Othello


and Desdemona justify their marriage to the Venetian senate, lago mocks
traditional notions of love and proclaims his belief in the supremacy of the
will. Roderigo feels hopeless about ever possessing Desdemona and says
that he will "incontinently drown" himself:
lago. O villainous! I have look'd upon the world for four times seven
years; and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I
never found man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say I
would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change
my humanity with a baboon.
Rod. What should I do? I confess it is my shame to be so fond; but it is not
in my virtue to amend it.
lago. Virtue? a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies
are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we
will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme,
supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to
have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry-why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance
of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sen-
suality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to
most preposterous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our
raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take
this that you call love to be sect or scion.
Rod. It cannot be.
lago. It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come,
be a man! (I, iii)

lago's speech has a manipulative function in his relationship with
Roderigo; but it also expresses his long-harbored and deeply felt senti-
ments on the subjects of love and will.
What men call "love" Iago sees as merely "a lust of the blood" (I,
iii). Lacking the capacity to care for anyone but himself, he believes that
the relations between men and women can only be based upon physical
appetite. This is why he can convince himself, at times at least, as well as
Roderigo, that Othello and Desdemona will soon tire of each other and
that Desdemona is attracted to Cassio: "The food that to him now is as
luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. She
must change for youth; when she is sated with his body, she will find the
error of her choice" (I, iii). Iago is right, of course, as far as his under-
standing goes. Sex without love becomes a burden, and variety is required
in order to maintain the appetite. This has apparently been his experience
with Emilia, who speaks bitterly of his loss of interest:


'Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us. (III, iv)

According to lago, the only true and constant love a man has is for
himself. To destroy himself because he longs for another, as Roderigo
proposes to do, is "villainous!"
Roderigo says that it is his "shame to be so fond," and lago agrees
completely. He urges Roderigo to "be a man," that is, not to be a victim
of his feelings. Iago scorns not only those who are loyal to their masters,
but also those who are not masters of themselves. The arrogant-vindictive
person despises in others "their compliance, their self-degrading, their
helpless hankering for love. In short, he despises in them the very self-
effacing trends he hates and despises in himself" (Homey 1950, 207).
Iago is afraid of any emotion that would undermine his self-sufficiency,
expose him to inner conflicts, or interfere with his calculated pursuit of his
own interests. Love for him means weakness and vulnerability. He dreads
the idea of being reduced to the pathetic state of a Roderigo, though he
enjoys inducing such states in others, since this feeds his sense of
An essential feature of lago's defense system is his belief in the
supremacy of the mind: 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus." He
relies upon his intellectual powers for the mastery of life, and he dreads
anything that will disturb their functioning. When we are in the grip of
passion, we are led "to most preposterous conclusions"-as he will later
demonstrate in the case of Othello. "The mind," for a person of his type,
"is the magic ruler for which, as for God, everything is possible" (Homey
1950, 183). Thus "another dualism is created. It is no longer mind and
feelings but mind versus feelings; no longer mind and body but mind
versus body" (Homey 1950, 183): "Our bodies are our gardens, to the
which our wills are gardeners." The belief in the supremacy of the mind
is, of course, unrealistic. It is part of lago's idealized image, one of the
tyrannical should that keeps him in a state of anxiety. His hostility toward
women may be the result, in part at least, of fear, since they pose a threat
to his self-control.
Iago has not only a fear of loving, but also a hopelessness of being
loved. He has abandoned love as a value, defended himself against his
frustration by scorning what he cannot have, and tried to overcome his sense
of worthlessness through the pursuit of mastery and triumph. His love


need has persisted, however, and has given rise to feelings of loneliness,
exclusion, and envy. Iago's need for love is difficult to see in the text
because it has been turned by his defenses into a variety of aggressive
behaviors. It is detectable, I think, in his role-playing, in his relationship
with Emilia, and in his reaction to the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.
Homey observed that the friendly "front" of an arrogant-vindictive
person is frequently "a composite of pretence, genuine feelings, and
neurotic needs for affection and approval, put to the service of ag-
gressive goals" (1945, 63). lago needs to be liked, trusted, and approved;
but he cannot admit these desires to himself because they conflict with his
idealized image and would expose him to rejection. By playing the role of
"honest lago," he gains the confidence of Othello, Cassio, and Des-
demona, which gratifies his need for intimacy and approval; but he de-
fends himself against self-contempt and frustration by assuring himself
that he is only fooling them to further his ambitions.
Iago treats Emilia harshly but he wants her to be devoted to him, and
he is afraid of her infidelity. His scorn and abuse are partly a defense
against the hurt that he fears she will inflict upon him. If he rejects her
first, he will be less vulnerable to her expected rejection of him. In effect,
his callous behavior and his philandering provide an excuse, as well as a
retaliation in advance, for her betrayal of him. They are a protection
against the self-hate that is aroused in him by every slight.
This defense does not work, however, for Iago is consumed by sexual
jealousy. He suspects that Othello and Cassio have "leaped into [his] seat,"
the "thought whereof/ Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw [his] inwards"
(II, iii). Both lago and Emilia are experts on jealousy. Emilia's description
of husbands who "break out in peevish jealousies" (IV, iii) gives us a good
insight into her life with lago. She speaks with authority when she explains
to Desdemona that "jealous souls are not ever jealous for the cause,/
But jealous for they are jealous. 'Tis a monster/ Begot upon itself, born on
itself" (III, iv). This passage leads me to believe that lago is not simply
manipulating Othello when he confesses that "it is my nature's plague/ To
spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy/ Shapes faults that are not" (III, iii). It
is to himself that lago observes that "Trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous
confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ"; and that "Dangerous con-
ceits are in their natures poisons" which, when they "act upon the blood/
Bur like the mines of sulfur" (III, iii).
Iago's jealousy has, of course, many sources. It is based partly upon
the feeling that no one can love him and partly upon a reasonable fear of
Emilia's retaliation. It is very important for Iago to possess his wife


completely, to feel that she is his chattel. The thought that she might
escape his control or that others might triumph over him through her is
tormenting. In addition, he needs her to be faithful as an indication that he
is worthy of love. He cannot try to win love by being lovable-that is
much too risky. He wants to be abusive and unfaithful to Emilia, but he
wants her to be faithful to him, and part of this anguish at the thought of
her infidelity comes from a feeling of personal rejection. Iago's jealousy is
quite out of keeping with his idealized image of himself as a man of will
and reason. It conducts him "to most preposterous conclusions" and fills
him with shame and self-contempt.


It is not too difficult to understand, at this point, why the precipitat-
ing events in the play affect Iago as profoundly as they do. The lieutenan-
cy was the immediate prize for which he had been scheming. Gaining it
would have verified his estimate of his own abilities, assured him of
Othello's love and admiration, and validated his bargain by proving that
selfishness and deceit are the proper paths to success in this crooked
world. It would have been a triumph not only over Othello, who would
have been duped, but over the entire system by which lago has felt himself
to be unfairly treated. The promotion of Cassio denies lago all of these
satisfactions and deals him a staggering blow.
The play opens with lago explaining to Roderigo why he hates
Othello. He is outraged because Othello has failed to give him the recog-
nition he deserves: "I know my price, I am worth no worse a place." His
indignation is increased by the fact that the man who has been promoted to
lieutenant over him is Michael Cassio, a "bookish" theorist who lacks
lago's experience in the field. He feels that Othello's choice is profoundly
unfair, that "Preferment goes by letter and affection,/ And not by old
gradation, where each second/ Stood heir to th' first" (I, i). Cassio has
been promoted because he had greater influence and because Othello
loves him more than lago. Iago's feelings of being unloved and abused are
profoundly stirred by this event; and his rage, which is always simmering
below the surface, begins to boil. The fact that there is "no remedy"
within the system gives him an intolerable feeling of helplessness.
The promotion of Cassio is a bitter defeat that threatens lago's self-
esteem, his value system, and, indeed, his whole strategy for dealing with
life. He has played the role of faithful servant to advance his own interests


and has had an immense pride in the success of his duplicity. But his
scheming has, in fact, failed. Othello has benefitted from his service but
has given the reward that he was expecting to someone else. Iago, the
exploiter, has been exploited. The blow to his pride is all the worse
because Cassio is precisely the kind of person lago scorns. He really is
loyal, he really is dutiful, and he really does love his master. In lago's
version of reality, Cassio is the kind of person who is exploited, whereas
tough-minded fellows like himself beat the system. Iago's reaction to
Cassio's success is similar in a way to Hamlet's response to the triumph of
Claudius. If those kinds of people succeed, then the world is out of joint.
Anything that threatens lago's version of the world also threatens his
sense of righteousness. Iago's self-effacing trends are deeply repressed;
but, as his obsession with compliant types indicates, they are there; and he
is not without conscientious qualms. He justifies his behavior by seeing it
as the only course of action that is adapted to a clear-sighted perception of
reality. It is essential for him to feel that his mode of operating is the only
way not simply to succeed, but even to survive. If honesty pays, as it does
for Cassio, then his rationalization is seriously jeopardized, and he is in
danger of having to confront his own villainy.
Iago hates Othello not only because he has promoted Cassio, but also
because he is bitterly envious of the success the Moor has achieved
through his marriage to Desdemona. Iago suffers from a pervasive envy of
everyone who seems to possess something that he lacks, whether it be
wealth and prestige, physical attractiveness, or the love of a devoted
woman. This aspect of lago's character is described in Homey's analysis
of the sadistic person. Because of his intense, though unadmitted, frustra-
tions, the sadistic person "hate[s] life and all that is positive in it":

But he hates it with the burning envy of one who is withheld from something
he ardently desires. It is the bitter, begrudging envy of a person who feels
that life is passing him by. "Lebensneid," Nietzsche called it ... oth-
ers sit at the table while he goes hungry; "they" love, create, enjoy,
feel healthy and at ease, belong somewhere. The happiness of oth-
ers .. irritate[s] him. If he cannot be happy and free, why should they be
so? (1945, 201-202)

Othello's marriage greatly exacerbates lago's feelings of exclusion
and failure. At the very same time that he has frustrated lago's expecta-
tions, Othello has made a brilliant match that will ensure his own position:
"he tonight hath boarded a land carrack./ If it prove lawful prize, he's
made for ever" (I, i). Even more disturbing to lago is Othello's fulfillment


in love. His jealousy is aroused by the thought of a black man possessing a
white woman (one who is inaccessible to him, moreover); and he is
envious of the affection, loyalty, and admiration that the Moor will receive
from the virtuous Desdemona. The promotion of Cassio has reminded
lago of Othello's power and of his inferior position. Othello's marriage
adds to his prestige and makes lago feel his own loveless state all the more
As the play opens, then, lago is undergoing a psychological crisis.
He has lived up to his should, but his claims have not been honored, and
the validity of his bargain has been called in question. His pride has been
hurt, his idealized image has been undermined, and he is threatened with
unbearable feelings of envy and self-hate. His predominant responses are
anxiety and rage; and these responses further threaten his pride system,
since they make him feel vulnerable and are in conflict with his needs for
mastery and self-control.


Iago responds to his crisis by plotting revenge. He has certain prac-
tical objectives, such as gaining the lieutenancy, but the primary values of
his plot are psychological. Through it he seeks to express his rage, to
restore his pride, and to assuage his inner torments. Since almost every-
thing goes his way until the very end, his plot has a fantastic quality that
has led some critics to liken it to a work of art. As we shall see, it is highly
self-expressive and is exquisitely adapted to his psychological needs.
The impulse to take revenge is such a common reaction to feeling
injured that it may not seem to require a psychological explanation. What
is clearly pathological about lago's revenge is its disproportionate nature.
Initially, he does not seek the deaths of his victims, but he does want to
ruin their lives. Iago's revenge is so monstrous partly because the injuries
he has received are so vastly magnified in his own mind. As we have seen,
the promotion of Cassio is not simply a big disappointment; it is a terrible
blow that threatens his whole system of defense. For an arrogant-vindic-
tive person like lago, moreover, it is very important to hurt his adversaries
even more than they have hurt him. Such a person feels that an offender,
"by his very power to hurt our pride, has put himself above us and has
defeated us. By our taking revenge and hurting him more than he did us,
the situation will be reversed" (Homey 1950, 103-104).
Iago's revenge must not only be disproportionate to what he feels to


be an outrageous offense; it must also be a masterpiece of ingenuity and
deception. Iago has an idealized image of himself as a consummate hypo-
crite and fiendishly clever schemer. He should be able to manipulate those
who are less intelligent, less "realistic," and less self-controlled than he.
The failure of his plan to exploit Othello by playing the role of devoted
servant undermines this idealized image and threatens him with self-
contempt. If he is to restore his confidence that he is his idealized self, he
must be able, through his cleverness, to turn humiliation and defeat into a
triumph of grandiose proportions. He will not simply revenge himself
upon Othello; he will make the Moor thank him, love him, and reward
him "For making him egregiously an ass/ And practising upon his peace
and quiet/ Even to madness" (I, ii). It gives him an exquisite pleasure to
ensure Cassio's destruction by acting as a friend and giving him good
advice: "Divinity of hell!/ When devils will the blackest sins put on,/
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/ As I do now" (II, iii).
A person's idealized image is often modeled upon a hero who em-
bodies in a glamorous or heightened form the characteristics that are
prescribed by his solution. Julien Sorel and Raskolnikov, for example,
seek to imitate Napoleon. Iago's model is the devil himself, and he takes
an enormous pride in the thought that he is as good a deceiver as his own
divinity. The joy lago experiences as his plot unfolds so beautifully de-
rives from his triumphant feeling that he is becoming his idealized self.
lago needs to validate not only his idealized image, but also his
bargain, which has been threatened by his own disappointment and by the
success of others. As we have seen, lago's preoccupation with self-effac-
ing types indicates the presence within him of inner conflicts. So also does
his remark in act 5 that Cassio has "a daily beauty in his life/ That makes
me ugly" (V, i) and his justification of his revenge on the grounds that
Othello and Cassio have slept with Emilia. At the same time that he exults
in his knavery, he has a need to make his revenge seem normal by attribut-
ing it to the time-honored motive of having been cuckolded. It is because
he has strong compliant trends that he needs to keep repressed that the
good fortune of virtuous people is so threatening to him. According to his
vision of life, we live in a "monstrous world" in which "To be direct and
honest is not safe" (III, iii). Since fate is not destroying the honest people,
he must do so himself to prove that his behavior is required by reality. If
their bargain works, and his does not, he will be exposed to severe inner
conflicts and unbearable self-hate. He must be a villain to avoid feeling
like a monster.
To satisfy his needs, lago must prove not simply that virtue does not


pay, but that the so-called good qualities of his victims make them ex-
tremely vulnerable. Cassio is an "honest fool" whom lago can easily
exploit for his own purposes. He plays upon Cassio's compliancy to make
him drunk, and upon his anxiety to be taken back to get him to plead
incessantly for Desdemona's intervention. He knows that the "inclining
Desdemona" holds it "a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is
requested" (II, iii); and he is ecstatic at the thought that by getting Othello
to misinterpret her pleading for Cassio he will "turn her virtue into pitch/
And out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all"
(II, iii). What makes the whole plot work, of course, is the fact that "The
Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to
be so" (I, iii). By using their generosity, their credulity, and their need for
love to destroy his victims, lago confirms his view of the world and proves
to himself that the only way to survive is to be ruthless, deceitful, and self-
Finally, Iago's plot serves to assuage his envy. He envies Cassio's
attractiveness to women, Othello's happiness in love, and the Moor's
confidence and self-possession. All these things intensify his feelings of
inferiority and his sense of the emptiness of his own life. He responds by
trying to prove that what he envies is really dangerous or not worth having
and by trying to make those he envies even more miserable than he is.
Cassio's attractiveness becomes "a person and a smooth dispose/ To be
suspected, framed to make women false" (I, iii); and thus it contributes to
his undoing. Love is not worth having because it turns us into sick fools,
like Roderigo, exposes us to the torments of jealousy, and conducts us to
the most preposterous conclusions, as it does with Othello and Des-
demona. One of lago's chief objects, from the outset, is to do away with
his envy of Othello by destroying Othello's marriage, his self-confidence,
and his peace of mind.
Iago's primary effort in act 1 is to "poison [Othello's] delight" (I, i)
in his marriage. He knows that Brabantio's opposition will not undo the
marriage, but he hopes, at least, to interrupt its consummation and to
throw "changes of vexation" upon Othello's "joy." The timing of the
brawl that he precipitates between Roderigo and Cassio in act 2 may have
a similar function, for Othello and Desdemona have not yet slept together
and have just retired to enjoy the fruits of their marriage. Iago's envy at the
sight of the lovers' ecstatic reunion in Cypress is evident: "O, you are well
tun'd now!/ But I'll set down the pegs that make this music,/ As honest as
I am" (II, i).
Homey's description of the sadist illuminates lago's reactions: "The


happiness of others and their 'naive' expectations of pleasure irritate
him. ... He must trample on the joy of others. If he cannot be happy and
free why should they be so? if others are as defeated and degraded as
he, his own misery is tempered in that he no longer feels himself the only
one afflicted" (1945, 201-202). This passage helps to explain also lago's
need to undermine Othello's confidence and self-possession and to inflict
upon him the torments of jealousy. Despite his pride in his self-mastery,
there are many feelings over which lago has no control. His entire plot,
which he sees as a testimony to his all-conquering reason, is motivated by
compulsive feelings of anxiety, envy, and rage. He is tormented most of
all, perhaps, by his sexual jealousy, for this feeling conflicts with his pride
in his will, violates his taboo against emotional involvement, and testifies
to his profound feeling of insecurity. His self-hate is intensified by the
sight of Othello's self-assurance and composure, which he displays not
only in military matters, but also in his behavior toward Brabantio, Des-
demona, and the senate.
It gives lago an enormous satisfaction to make Othello uncertain of
his worth, to undermine his sense of reality, and to drive him mad with
jealousy. These are lago's very own torments, which he inflicts upon
Othello to a higher degree. Perhaps his greatest triumph comes when
Othello is so overcome by emotion that he falls into a trance. His scorn of
Othello is now so great that he begins to express it openly: "Marry,
patience!/ Or I shall say you are all in all in spleen,/ And nothing of a
man" (IV, i). Othello's loss of self-control is equally evident a few mo-
ments later when he strikes Desdemona in the presence of Lodovico.

Is this the noble Moor [asks Lodovico] whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce? (IV, i)

This description of Othello-who has just exited screaming "Goats and
monkeys!"-must be exquisitely gratifying to Iago, for it provides a
measure of his achievement.
Authors often have to manipulate their plots in order to show that
virtue pays, that the self-effacing solution will be rewarded. There is much
less need to do so in order to show that expansive solutions are bound,
sooner or later, to fail. Pride does go before a fall, if only because it puts
us out of touch with reality. A person like lago has enormous pride in his
intellectual powers. One of his needs is to produce a virtuoso performance


in which he deceives Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona simul-
taneously, in a brilliantly integrated scheme, that must be improvised,
moreover, as he goes along. For four acts everything works perfectly, but
lago has overreached himself, and in act 5 his plot suddenly unravels.
When Emilia betrays him, he is so enraged by the blow to his feeling of
mastery and the denial of his claim for loyalty that he kills her on the spot.
Even if she had remained quiet, he would have been undone by Roderigo's
accusations and the survival of Cassio. Iago now holds onto his pride in
the only way left open to him. He will prove his self-control and thwart his
tormentors by never speaking a word. The rest, we can be assured, is


The great puzzle about Othello is the speed of his transformation from
the commanding figure of act 1 into a murderously jealous husband. As
soon as lago begins to question Cassio's honesty in act 3, Othello becomes
panicky, and within a very short time he is screaming for Desdemona's
blood. His change is so quick and so radical that some critics have denied
that it makes sense at all in motivational terms (e.g., Stoll 1933, 1940).
Among those who have tried to understand Othello as a person, there have
been two main ways of accounting for his transformation. Some critics have
seen Othello as essentially a noble victim who is destroyed by his grand
simplicity of nature, by his innocence of Venetian society, and, above all,
by the diabolical cleverness of lago. He does a terrible thing, but he reacts as
most men would in a similar situation, and he is more sinned against than
sinning.2 Others have held that "Othello is not the noble Moor at all but
has serious defects of character which cause his downfall" (Heilman 1956,
137). This "modem Othello" is "rootless, histrionic, self-deceiving,
S. .irritable, hasty, dependent, insecure-a pathetic image who lives in a
fantasy of himself and others, who shrinks from reality into a world of 'pipe
dreams' (Rosenberg 1961, 186-187).3
My analysis will tend to confirm the "modem" view of Othello. I
shall be less concerned with castigating our hero, however, than with
understanding him. As the play opens, lago's solution is being threatened,
but Othello's is working to perfection. Act 1 shows Othello achieving a
series of triumphs that vindicate his bargain and are like a dream come
true. At the beginning of act 2, when he is reunited with Desdemona,
Othello reaches the height of his bliss. After this, he begins his descent,
not simply because of lago's machinations, which are a necessary but not


a sufficient cause of his downfall, but also because of the instability of his
mental state and the fragility of his entire solution. His behavior in act 2
will be intelligible, I think, if we first examine his state of mind in act 1,
the significance of his triumphs, and the earlier signs of his vulnerability.
We shall then be in a position to understand not only the speed with which
his confidence collapses and the source of his murderous rage, but also his
insistence that he is an agent of justice and his behavior after he discovers
his mistake.
Othello is, above all, ambitious. He aspires to fame and glory. He
wants to be a great man, a conquering hero, a legendary figure. He
mythologizes himself and his exploits, and he needs to have his grandiose
conception of himself confirmed by the fidelity of his subordinates and the
recognition of his superiors. He strives very hard to live up to his idealized
image, and he bases his claims on the flawless performance of his duties.
His bargain is, in part at least, that of the perfectionistic person: "Because
he is fair, just, dutiful, he is entitled to fair treatment by others and by life
in general. This conviction of an infallible justice operating in life gives
him a feeling of mastery" (Homey 1950, 197).
What strikes us most forcefully about Othello in act 1 is precisely his
feeling of mastery, his confidence that he is in control of his fate. In
marrying Desdemona, he has violated the mores of Venetian society and
has outraged her father, who is a very powerful man. When Iago warns
him of Brabantio's opposition, Othello replies with magnificent assurance:
Oth. Let him do his spite.
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall outtongue his complaints. 'Tis yet to know,-
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate-I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege; and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached. For know, lago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth.
Enter CASSIO and OFFICERS with torches.
lago. Those are the raised father and his friends:
You were best go in.
Oth. Not I. I must be found.
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly. (I, ii)


Othello is not afraid of Brabantio because he feels that he deserves
the proud fortune he has reached. He deserves it, moreover, not because
of his royal birth, which he never reveals publicly, but because of his
abilities, his accomplishments, and his moral perfection. He does not
boast about his birth-though he is very conscious of it and is out to prove
himself the equal of his royal forebears-because his claims for recogni-
tion are based on his personal merit. He does boast, of course, about his
services, his adventures, and his soldierly qualities. The speech we are
examining is, in fact, a boast-of his fearlessness, his merit, and his
confidence that the signiory will endorse his marriage to Desdemona.
Indeed, he presents himself not as a fortunate suitor who has won a
socially superior woman, but as a man who out of love for her has given
up his "free condition." Othello's reactions here are those of a man who
feels that he is his idealized self and who is certain that his bargain will be
Othello's self-assurance is even more striking when he is confronted
with the direct hostility of Brabantio. He controls the potential combatants
masterfully and listens calmly to Brabantio's foul accusations:

Damn'd as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunn'd
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have (t' incur a general mock)
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou. (I, ii)

What is so impressive about Othello here is that he does not seem to be
hurt or threatened by Brabantio's insults. He shows no anger or irritation,
and he responds in an amazingly composed manner. The reasons, I think,
are his confidence in his own worth, in Desdemona's love, and in the
support of the council, which has just sent for him to deal with an emer-
gency. Moreover, he takes a certain pleasure in Brabantio's accusations.
The reasons Brabantio gives, both here and before the council, for believ-
ing that Othello must have used witchcraft upon Desdemona all contribute
to Othello's glory. They verify his triumph over Desdemona's wealthy
suitors and the power of his personal appeal, which has overcome all of
the external obstacles to Desdemona's love. It is with a great pride that
Othello delivers his "round unvarnish'd tale" of his "whole course of


love-what drugs, what charms,/ What conjuration, and what mighty
magic/ I won his daughter" (I, iii). The mighty magic is his own
history, his own merit, his own grandeur. Brabantio's words arouse no
insecurity in Othello as long as he is identified with his idealized image-
indeed, they feed his pride; but they remain in his mind and return to haunt
him in act 3, when his self-confidence begins to falter.
Othello is in such an exalted state in act 1 because all his dreams are
coming true. His search for glory has taken the form of military adventure.
War appeals to him not only because of its "pride, pomp, and circum-
stance" (III, iii) and the opportunities it affords to gain recognition for his
courage, toughness, and leadership, but also because it permits him to
pursue his aggressive goals in a way that harmonizes with his need for
moral perfection. By making "ambition virtue," "the big wars" enable
Othello to combine martial and manly honor with loyalty, duty, and ser-
vice (III, iii). By the time the play begins, he has reached the pinnacle of
his military career. He has the reputation, the honors, and the position of
trust and importance to which he has aspired. He is an indispensable man
on whom the state depends completely in its times of trouble.
His marriage to Desdemona marks a new and very precious kind of
triumph. It symbolizes his entry into the highest level of Venetian society.
As Desdemona's husband, he will no longer be a hired soldier, "an
extravagant and wheeling stranger/ Of here and everywhere" (I, i); he will
be one of them. He will be the social as well as the military equal of the
greatest men. In his mind, Desdemona is an exalted being whose accep-
tance confers upon him the status he feels is appropriate to his deserts:
"She might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks" (IV, i). It is
a testimony also to his virtue ("I saw Othello's visage in his mind") and to
his personal magnetism. When the Duke accepts the marriage, telling
Brabantio that "If virtue no delighted beauty lack,/ Your son-in-law is far
more fair than black" (I, iii), Othello's triumph is complete.
Desdemona's response is deeply gratifying to Othello in a variety of
ways. She is an avid listener who is awe-struck by his tales of adventure
and who confirms his sense of himself as a romantic figure. This is not a
new experience for Othello; Brabantio, and presumably others like him,
had shown a similar fascination with the story of his life. What Othello
discovers in his conversations with Desdemona is that his exploits can win
not simply admiration and popularity as a source of entertainment, but the
love of a highborn, beautiful woman. They give him an appeal so power-
ful that it can overcome all the differences of age, race, and position.
Winning Desdemona's love is a great social and sexual triumph; it is the


ultimate reward for all his sacrifices. The fact that she deceives her father
and defies the conventions of her society in order to marry Othello is proof
of her adoration and of his greatness. He welcomes the opportunity to
respond to Brabantio's accusations because it provides an occasion for the
tale of his courtship, for the justification of his worthiness, and for Des-
demona's public display of love, loyalty, and admiration.
Othello loves Desdemona, then, because she feeds his pride, con-
firms his idealized image, and validates his bargain with fate. She gives
him something else very precious, moreover, that he probably has not
received since he was a small boy. Othello's tales of adventure are also
tales of suffering. Desdemona finds them not only glamorous, which is the
usual response, but also "wondrous pitiful" (I, iii). Othello has received
from other men recognition for his toughness, courage, and resource-
fulness; he would not expect, or even want, them to pity his suffering.
Desdemona gives him empathy, concern, and tenderness; she rouses and
gratifies a softer side of his nature that is not in keeping with the code of
manly behavior and that he has repressed, no doubt, since he left his
mother's knee.
Othello's highest moment occurs in act 2, when he is reunited with
Desdemona at Cyprus:
If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds is unknown fate. (II, i)
Othello must feel, indeed, like a favorite of fortune, for the storm has
destroyed his enemies without harming either Desdemona or himself. His
very joy makes him vulnerable, of course, as he is aware. Since he has
realized his dream of glory, his "content" is "absolute." If he were to die
now, he would be united forever with his idealized self. Nothing better can
succeed "in unknown fate."


Othello is feeling vulnerable here because he is experiencing the
superstitious dread that accompanies supreme good fortune and because
he is afraid that the rest of his life will seem anticlimactic. The deepest
source of his vulnerability, however, lies beyond his perception, within his


own character. He responds to life with rigid defenses, and he is depen-
dent for his self-esteem upon an unrealistically grandiose conception of
himself, one that denies many of his feelings and that can easily be
threatened by reality. The self-assurance that he feels in act 1 is an intox-
icating but unstable condition. It is based upon the confirmation, through
his marriage to Desdemona and his importance to the state, of his ide-
alized image of himself. Self-idealization is almost always an indication of
insecurity; it is a compensatory process. It is impossible to recover the
beginnings of Othello's need for self-idealization, since we know little of
his early childhood; but the evidence we do have permits us to reconstruct
some of its sources.
As we have seen, Othello has made a perfectionistic bargain with
fate; he gains a sense of superiority and control by measuring up to his
high moral standards, "by fulfilling duties and obligations" (Homey
1950, 196). Othello also displays many of the characteristics of the nar-
cissistic person. The narcissist "is his idealized image and seems to adore
it. This basic attitude gives him a seeming abundance of self-confi-
dence which appears enviable to all those [like lago] chafing under self-
doubts" (Homey 1950, 194). He tends to romanticize himself and others,
endowing "his family and his friends, as well as his work and plans, with
glowing attributes." His underlying insecurity is revealed by the fact that
he speaks "incessantly of his exploits or of his wonderful qualities and
needs endless confirmation of himself in the form of admiration and
devotion." Othello's idealized image is a composite of the perfectionistic
and the narcissistic solutions; and he has made, as we shall see, a double
bargain with fate.
The narcissistic person "often is gifted beyond average, early and
easily won distinctions, and sometimes was the favored and admired
child" (Homey 1950, 194). Although we do not know how Othello was
treated within his family, we do know that he is descended "from men of
royal siege" (I, ii). He occupied a privileged position in his society and
had reason to regard himself as a special person with a special destiny. He
seems to have been a gifted warrior from an early age who was following
in the footsteps of his illustrious forebears. His royal descent, his gifts,
and his daring exploits may all have combined to give him a sense of
himself as an exceptional being. This would function not only as a source
of self-adoration, but also as a pressure to maintain his grandeur, and
hence as a source of insecurity. He seems to have a need to reinforce the
narcissistic component of his idealized image by driving himself to greater
and greater accomplishments and by gaining the admiration of others,


which he pursues, in part, by celebrations of himself. The narcissistic
person feels himself to be the favorite of fortune (as he had been of his
family or his society), and he often exposes himself to danger to demon-
strate his invulnerability. Othello's many "hairbreadth scapes" are a testi-
mony to his good luck. His calm in the midst of battle shows not only his
fortitude, but also his confidence in destiny.
Although he has no doubt inherited a strict code of conduct on the
observance of which his honor depends, Othello's strong perfectionistic
trends may also be the product of his separation from his own society.
Othello's project seems to be to achieve the status that was promised by
his abilities and his birth, despite the fact that he is living in an alien
world. Military prowess alone will not accomplish his purpose, for he is
not content to be seen merely as a gifted barbarian. He has not only a
narcissistic need for admiration and devotion, but also a perfectionistic
need for approval and respect. It is to attain the latter things that he strives
for a "flawless excellence in the whole conduct of life" (Homey 1950,
When he enters a predominantly white society, Othello exchanges his
privileged position for a disadvantageous one. The speeches of lago,
Roderigo, and Brabantio reveal with what prejudice he is viewed by the
members of Venetian society. Iago characterizes him as an "old black
ram," "the devil," and "a Barbary horse," while Roderigo calls him a
"lascivious Moor" and "an extravagant and wheeling stranger/ Of here
and everywhere." The speeches in which Othello is thus described are
addressed to his "friend," Brabantio, who is sure that the other Venetian
noblemen must "feel this wrong as 'twere their own;/ For if such actions
may have passage free,/ Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesman be"
(I, ii).
No one had spoken in this way to Othello before his marriage, of
course, but he must have realized the difficulty of gaining genuine accep-
tance into Venetian society. He must have felt threatened in his self-esteem
by these negative attitudes and have needed social acceptance all the more
as a form of reassurance. He tries to maintain his self-esteem and to win
the respect of others by being morally perfect. He must show the world
and himself that he is not a bondslave and pagan, but a man who is
thoroughly civilized and nobly Christian. He is not a lascivious Moor, but
a sexually restrained man who confesses "to heaven/ the vices of
[his] blood" (I, iii). He has married Desdemona for love, and not simply
"to please the palate of [his] appetite" (I, iii). He is not an "extravagant
and wheeling stranger/ Of here and everywhere," but a man who identi-


fies completely with the Venetian cause and who is utterly loyal and
This reconstruction of Othello's defenses will give us a better under-
standing of the significance of his triumphs and the sources of his vul-
nerability. Act 1 begins with attacks on Othello, behind his back, by Iago
and Roderigo, and to his face, by Brabantio, as his marriage brings out the
latent hostility of the Venetians toward him as a stranger, a barbarian, and
a black man. The act concludes, so far as it concerns Othello, with his
total vindication and his public acceptance by everyone except Brabantio.
His words, his demeanor, the testimony of Desdemona, and the approval
of the Duke all refute the prejudiced view of Othello and confirm both the
narcissistic and the perfectionistic components of his idealized image. His
double bargain is working. He has held onto his claims, and his dreams
have come true. He is the favorite of fortune and of the state. By marrying
a woman fit "to lie by an emperor's side" (IV, i), he has become the
equal, if not the superior, of his royal forebears. He has accomplished
this, in the face of racial prejudice, by virtue of his "parts, [his] title, and
[his] perfect soul" (I, ii). Desdemona's "heart's subdued/ Even to the very
quality of [her] lord"; she sees "Othello's visage in his mind" (I, iii). The
Duke proclaims that his virtue makes him "far more fair than black" (I,
iii). These triumphs produce in Othello a sense of having become his
idealized self, a feeling that is heightened, at the beginning of act 2, by his
supreme good fortune. He has had another of his "hairbreadth scapes."
Although the defensive strategies are designed to compensate for
anxieties about our worth or adequacy, they all make us vulnerable to an
intensified self-hate. A major source of Othello's anxiety is the combina-
tion of his need to live up to the exalted conception of himself he has
derived from his royal lineage with his uneasy feeling that his blackness
and his "primitive" origins may actually make him an inferior being. The
words of Desdemona and the Duke quoted above indicate that Othello is
worthy and attractive despite his blackness, and Othello seems to ac-
quiesce in the terms of this praise. His compensatory self-idealization
generates an additional source of anxiety, since it leads him to expect too
much from life, from others, and from himself.
Othello's vulnerability begins to appear in act 1, when the feelings
that have been aroused in him by Desdemona make him anxious about
damaging his manly image. He has a strong need to show himself and
others that being in love does not mean that he is getting soft. Thus, when
the Duke is somewhat apologetic about "slubber[ing] the gloss of [his]
new fortunes" by sending him off to Cyprus on his wedding night, Othello


replies by boasting of his toughness and embracing the assignment (I, iii).
He has a "natural and prompt alacrity" for hardship; the "flinty and steel
couch of war" is his "thrice-driven bed of down." He will not allow
himself to show any disappointment at these developments or any eager-
ness for the consummation of his marriage. Instead, he turns the occasion
into another display of his readiness to serve and seeks admiration for his
warlike qualities.
A few moments later, in supporting Desdemona's suit to accompany
him, Othello is most emphatic in assuring the council that he does not
want Desdemona with him "to comply with heat ./ But to be free and
bounteous to her mind" (I, iii). He will never be distracted from his serious
business by the allurements of love:

And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant
For she is with me. No, when light-wing'd toys
Of feather'd Cupid steel with wanton dullness
My speculative and offic'd instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation! (I, iii)

Othello presents himself here as his idealized image. He is dutiful, self-
possessed, and free both of sensuality and of selfishness. He asks that
Desdemona be allowed to accompany him for her sake rather than for his
own, suggesting that her need for him is greater than his for her. Othello is
struggling with the emergence of his self-effacing trends. All of his codes
generate strong taboos against his softer feelings, which threaten his ide-
alized image in a variety of ways. He senses how important Desdemona is
to him and is afraid of becoming a slave to love. As an antidote, he
deprecates the power of Cupid's toys, mocks the idea that such a thing
could happen to him, and reminds himself of the self-contempt he would
feel if he should violate his standards and of the punishment that would
surely follow. His protestation that Desdemona's presence could never
distract him from his duties is highly ironic in the light of what happens
later on.
The first obvious manifestation of Othello's vulnerability occurs in
his handling of the fight between Cassio and Montano, when he loses his
composure for the first time in the play. He experiences this situation as a
challenge to his authority, which must be absolute; and he has a low