Shakespeare had a deep exploratory interest in the human mind. As a playwright he provided psychological insights through his dramatic presentations that transcend their entertainment value. He centred his dramatic concerns on the emotions and thought processes of human beings, bringing to life the themes that dominate our lives, compelling us to reflect on his characters and to gain insight into ourselves. Despite the language, the time and the setting, his work depicts our shared humanity, which made his fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, famously extol, that ‘he [Shakespeare] was not of an age, but for all time’.

Shakespeare [1564-1616] had a firm grasp of the human condition, in all its complexity, long before psychology became a legitimate field of study. During his era, matters of the mind were considered a branch of philosophy. It was nearly two and a half centuries later that fundamental concepts about the way our minds work were developed, in the western world, in the psychoanalytic tradition by Sigmund Freud [1856-1939] and the post-Freudians. Their work has provided varied theoretical frameworks through which many a modern day thinker has viewed Shakespearean drama. As Philip Armstrong wrote, ‘Shakespeare has been in psychoanalysis for as long as psychoanalysis has been around’.

The great playwright ran the storylines of his plays along the thought processes of his characters and the many human situations they faced. Guided by current psychological concepts the modern day literary critics have been attracted to reviewing Shakespeare’s work from a psychological perspective – an acknowledgement of his insights into human nature. The critics have even gone further in examining the conscious and unconscious motivations of the playwright in writing some of his plays, despite the scant information available about his person!


The concern of psychoanalysis is the development of character from a historical perspective. Freud postulated that the human mind consists of two spheres that influence each other – the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unconscious’; and that the roots of an individual’s abnormal behaviour or emotional makeup [‘neurosis’], is a result of unresolved conflicts of the past, that lay buried in the unconscious. Also, he saw an individual’s character as the product of a dynamic interaction between the demands of the external world, the ‘id’ [primitive instinctual drives lacking in guiding consciousness] and the ‘superego’ [moral principle]. Freud suggested that a conflict between primitive id impulses seeking an outlet that constitute a threat to the ‘ego’ [self], contrary to one’s conscience and moral values, are repressed or distorted finding expression in abnormal patterns of mental life. The above basic postulates of psychoanalysis make us appreciate the close kinship between literature, psychoanalysis and modern day literary criticism. The psychoanalytic critic of a literary text seeks to explore the hidden motivation of a character. No wonder Freud was fascinated by the characterisation of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark.

Carl Jung [1875-1961] deviated from the developmental perspective of the individual mind adopted by Freud. His design of the human psyche, in addition to the conscious and the ‘personal unconscious’, included a much deeper level - the ‘collective unconscious’. According to him the wide array of emotions, patterns of relationships and of individual behaviour, played out in the conscious arena, are drawn from this deepest level of the unconscious which harbours a ‘universally shared experience’ that embodies the ‘psychological heritage of humanity’. The collective unconscious is a reservoir of ‘predispositions and potentialities’ to act or react in certain ways which have universal meaning; he called them ‘archetypes’. Archetypes, symbolically represented as images and themes in everyday life, are often represented on stage. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Jungian critics are drawn primarily to King Lear and Othello.

Eclectic Approach

I cannot claim to be a psychoanalyst, although I tended to use the fundamental psychoanalytic concepts in understanding the human condition during my working life; and now in literary analysis. Like the majority of my colleagues, my preference is for an eclectic approach incorporating the biological, intra-psychic, interpersonal, social and behavioural perspectives, not totally discarding psychoanalytic concepts. Some critics, as I do, regard the psychoanalytic approach to be esoteric and too narrow.

Moaning and Melancholy

No Shakespearean play has been subjected to analytical criticism to the same extent as Hamlet. Lured by his own invitation [‘pluck out the heart of my mystery’] the main focus of successive generations of critics has been the protagonist; his mental health in particular.

A young prince of high intellect, Hamlet is faced with a complex emotional challenge having to deal with the sudden death of his much idolised father and the lingering doubt about his death; and the marriage of his mother ‘in indecent haste’ to the usurper, Claudius, the king’s brother. In addition to dealing with his grief and the outrage towards his mother, Hamlet, the heir to the throne is under pressure to avenge his father’s death and to regain his honour and his lawful right to sovereignty. While mulling over the immorality of such action which may result in a political vacuum and a mass loss of life, he is in the throes of an imminent attack by the neighbouring Norwegians who were ruthlessly put down by his late father. A three-cornered battle within him begins between the external demands, primitive vengeful impulses and his moral scruple, resulting in inner turmoil. With no one to confide in [‘bounded in a nutshell’] his unresolved grief turns to melancholy [Freud: Moaning and Melancholia]. In the words of Polonius, the young prince ‘fell into a sadness, then into a fast/ Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness/ Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension/ Into the madness wherein now he raves’. [The Island: August 9, 2017: Exploring a Troubled Mind]

Hamlet remains condemned to melancholy and inaction. Robbed of the power of decision, he debates one of the most fundamental issues of human existence – life and death – to live or to endure suffering, or to overcome it by fighting it. Interestingly, by making no reference to his personal predicament Hamlet makes us see his situation in its most universal aspect. [The Island: September 20, 2017: Hamlet’s Famous Soliloquy: ‘To be or not to be – that is the question’] His natural will to act is weakened: ‘thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’.

Manic Defence

Shakespeare’s brilliance in understanding the workings of the mind is portrayed by the character of Ophelia in Hamlet. [The Island: August 30, 2017: ‘Ophelia’s Madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet’] Ophelia is mired in the political machinations of the usurper king Claudius and his scheming counsellor, Polonius, her father, who manipulated her to serve their needs. Her love for prince Hamlet was forbidden; she was obedient. Her dignity is destroyed by the very prince she loved due to his own mental collapse; she reacts with compassion. And, finally she loses her father, albeit inadvertently, killed by her lover. With no one to confide in, her mind is left with no alternative but to ‘escape reality’ and defend her fragile ego. She lapses into a state of mania – a state of fragile happiness with intense grief beneath the surface. She dies by drowning: whether it was by accident or suicide ‘remains unknown’.

Morbid Jealousy

Shakespeare takes on the theme of morbid jealousy in two of his most popular plays, Othello and The Winter’s Tale. The object of concern in jealousy is the suspicion of unfaithfulness or infidelity of the partner in a marital relationship. Jealousy may range from a transient thought amenable to reassurance to a fluctuating or persistent morbid preoccupation, sometimes delusional, not often open to reasoning. Love is equated with ownership, and the alleged unfaithfulness amounts to a loss of possession, disloyalty, betrayal and intense passion, with potentially disastrous consequences – violence and murder.

Othello was afflicted with morbid jealousy that led to the destruction of his beloved Desdemona, making the play the most personal of Shakespearean tragedies. [The Island: July 5, 2017: Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘Marital Jealousy as a Destructive Force’] ‘Oh, beware my lord, of jealousy/ Who dotes, yet doubts: suspects, yet soundly loves?’ The skilful construction of its plot depicts the psychogenesis of morbid jealousy with the sway of one mind by another. It is an insidious process in which sensitivity of personality leads to doubt resulting in suspicion and dissonance of thought. It finally crystallises into a belief that borders on delusional. ‘... my bloody thoughts, with violent pace/ shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love’...’For my heart, those charms thine eyes, are blotted:/ Thy bed lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted’.

The Winter’s Tale provides a chilly display of the devastation caused by the development of a ‘paranoid process’, characterised by delusions of infidelity. King Leontes of Sicilia becomes increasingly suspicious of his charming wife, Hermoine, suspecting her of having a secret affair with his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. The germ of suspicion is planted in Leontes’ mind following a brief stay in Sicilia by Polixenes as a guest of his friend. ‘To the infection of my brains/ and hard’ning of my brows’.

The skillful portrayal of paranoia featuring morbid jealousy with its associated feelings, judgements, and behaviours, through the character of Leontes, ‘dragging his victims down with the weight of his folly’, and drawing those around him into his ‘delusional system’, is a remarkable display of Shakespeare’s empirical understanding of the human condition. [The Island: May 2, 2018: ‘Acting Out’ a Delusion of Infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale].

The story flows into a myth of resurrection, displaying an allegory of the cycle of seasons from winter to spring in its plot movement – misery in winter turning to rejuvenation and joy in spring – showing that ‘absolute realism’ was not Shakespeare’s only intension.

It is interesting to note that the ‘aetiology’ of morbid jealousy in Leontes is different from that of Othello. The jealousy in Leontes is ‘endogenous’ [generated from within], compared to that of Othello, which is ‘exogenous’ [as viciously activated by an outside source: Iago]


Macbeth is a gruesome tale about man’s inhumanity towards man. It is a tale of bloodshed and treachery of a man in pursuit of power, destroying anyone who stands in his way. The drama presents a range of psychological, moral and socio-political issues for the audience to reflect on. Played out in the inner stage of the mind, it is a fine portrayal of a plethora of emotions.

A seed of ambition is planted in the mind of Macbeth, a valiant soldier in the reign of King Duncan of Scotland, when three witches cryptically predicted that he is destined to become king. After much vacillation – his moral nature in combat with his evil desire – he succumbs to the ‘valour of his wife’s tongue’, as she had ‘an unquenchable desire to bear the name queen’. He murders the king. Fear and guilt grip the usurper and his queen as they hold on to power, being aware of the forces opposing their heinous act. They tried to wash the blood off their hands but not the suspicion that fell upon them. He is driven on a path of destruction to maintain his position. Power does not bring in peace but inner turmoil. He tries to suppress his feelings; repentance [conscience] knocks at the door but pride would not allow entry. His wife succumbs to a ‘disease of the mind’ with loss of touch with reality. He becomes increasingly alienated from his court and lapses into a state of despair. He condemns himself. Damnation directs him to his destiny. [The Island: December 20, 2017: Murder and ‘Madness’ in Pursuit of Power]

Integrity, Dignity and Identity in Old Age

Shakespeare’s King Lear is an intricate and multifaceted story that runs in two parallel plots that merge intermittently featuring diverse characters. It is a timeless tale with universal significance and with an allegorical meaning - the plight of old age – embedded in it, that speaks to us directly in the 21st century. It is a tale about the descent of a onetime man of integrity into an abyss of suffering with the loss of his dignity occurring as a result of fallibility, cruelty and family disharmony – not an uncommon scenario in human existence. Stripped of his sovereignty, Lear, a figure of man, is faced with the challenges of senility. Having made a flawed judgement in transferring his endowment to his progeny, contingent upon the expressiveness of their love towards him, Lear seeks dependence from his daughters apparently with no intension of relinquishing his royal authority. Outraged by ‘filial ingratitude’, he lapses into a transient state of insanity with the loss of his identity. [The Island: June 21, 2017: Loss of Integrity, Dignity and Identity in Senility in Shakespeare’s King Lear] The play provides a lesson in the psychology of old age. As Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist postulated in his ‘Stages of Psychosocial Development’, the ‘task’ of late life is to negotiate between the polarities of maintaining one’s ‘integrity’ in the face of ‘diminishment and despair’ leading towards ‘dependence and death’. Lear failed to do so with disastrous consequences to him and his family.

Love and Courtship

Shakespeare uses the enchanting theme of love and courtship in his popular play, Much Ado about Nothing. [The Island: March 3, 2018: ‘Much Ado about Nothing is all to do with Love’] Its overall design is composed of two parallel plots both centred on love. They track the progress of courtship of two young couples – one pair openly acknowledging their romantic experience and the other with a hesitant recognition of their mutual affection while engaged in a battle of wit. The drive towards marriage of the former is thwarted by villainy precipitating a crisis. Moral intervention brings about a resolution to the crisis ending in the ‘rebirth’ of love and concord in marriage. The final outcome demonstrates the need for love to ascend to a higher plain in moral judgement in order to be enshrined in marriage; adversity, at times, creating an opportunity for learning. Courtship entails a process of transformation – a metamorphosis – that requires not only an affectional but also an intellectual exchange that enables the relationship to be cemented.

Emotional Trauma

The ire of the community is raised by the heinous crime of rape which often overshadows the emotional turmoil of the victim who may opt to suffer in silence – in shame or with self blame. Shakespeare gains access to the mind of such a victim and gives lyrical expression to her agony in his renowned narrative poem, Lucrece. Based in ancient Rome, it rings pathos from the hapless exposure of Lucrece, a chaste wife of a nobleman, to the savagery of Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the brutal king Lucius Tarquinius of Rome. She feels intruded, sullied and soiled ‘Her sacred temple spotted and spoil’d’. She is grief stricken, robbed of her self esteem: ‘my honey lost, and I, a drone like bee’. Left with a lasting ‘crest wounding private scar’, she ends her life. The death of this ‘incomparable woman of chaste’ is avenged by her community with the reign of the brutal Tarquins rooted out. [The Island: June6, 2018: Lucrece, The Agony of a Victim of Rape]

Love and Lust

In his other popular narrative poem, Venus and Adonis [The Island: January 2, 2019: ‘Shakespeare’s Erotic Verses’], the Bard differentiates between love and lust. It is a poem that decodes the crudity of sexual desire into a language of aesthetic beauty, drawing heavily from nature in his use of metaphor and simile. Venus, the powerful goddess of love, with a voracious appetite for love, makes a relentless attempt at seducing Adonis, a young man in his post-pubescence. He is on his steed ready for his chase of wild boar. ‘Hunting he lov’d, but love he laughed to scorn’. He challenges her that what she expresses is not love, but lust: ‘Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,/ but lust’s effect is tempest after sun/ Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain:/ Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done’. ‘Love surfeits not: Lust like a glutton dies. / Love is all truth: lust full of forged lies’. The narrative reaches a tragic end when Adonis is gored to death by a wild boar. Having failed in her attempt at loving, the grief stricken goddess of love returns to her celestial domain, conveying to us that romantic love in its lustful form is prone to end in grief.

Wisdom, Compassion, Forgiveness and Harmony

The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s valedictory, his parting song and his last solo-authored play. The complex allegory of the play is open to a range of interpretations. Its theme is predominantly moral, psychological and metaphysical, not ignoring its aesthetic and political dimensions. Shakespeare transforms the stage into a ‘desolate island’ and places his leading character, Prospero to utilise his ‘magical art’ to combat his ‘demons’ with a creative design of a single focus of time, place and action.

Prospero, the Duke of Milan, a learned man constantly in pursuit of further study of the ‘liberal arts’ with the purpose of ‘bettering his mind’ is deposed by his brother, Antonio. The Duke, with his three year old daughter, Miranda, is set adrift on the open sea in a boat, with neither sail nor mast, with a few provisions and some of his prized books, finally to be deposited on the shores of an island. Living in a cave in the island, the father and daughter are assisted by two mystical figures that inhabit the island – Caliban, the source of primordial energy that provides sustenance, and Ariel, the guardian of sensibility and moral strivings. The two figures could be thought of as residing in Prospero’s own self, the polarities that Shakespeare wished to set up in his characters; the sources that battle to neutralise each other within the soul, which Freud postulated as the id and the superego. [The Island: May 24, 2017: Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A Battle within the Soul] Prospero utilises his ‘magic’ [magia in Persian meaning wisdom] to resolve his grievance. He mobilises the services of Ariel to conjure up a severe storm that wrecks a passing ship and disperse its distraught passengers around the island, but ensuring their safety. On board the ship were Antonio, the usurper, along with the king of Naples who conspired with him, and the King’s son Ferdinand. The play enters its final stage when Prospero’s project comes to a head when all the players are brought under his control and reconciled. After having passed the test of his love for Miranda, through endurance of harsh treatment, Ferdinand receives the blessings of Prospero to marry his daughter.

Prospero draws the wicked to repentance, chooses compassion and forgiveness over vengeance, letting go of power and possession reminding us of the fragility and transience of life. ‘These, our actors/ .....were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air/ And the baseless fabric of this vision/ The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself/ Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve......We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep’.

There is very little known about the life of Shakespeare; even less so about how he developed his in-depth understanding of the human mind. His parents were supposedly illiterate and he received his early learning at the local free grammar school with no further formal education. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the classical imagery of some of his work was influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the 15 books of Roman mythological tales, and other myths [buried in our collective unconscious!] and that some of their characters have struck home in his own personal life. Also, he would have drawn on the thoughts and feelings of people in his immediate social environment. However, when one considers the profundity of his understanding of human nature conveyed through the extraordinary gift of his words, one could only imagine that its main source is his supreme natural endowment fostered by the love of his native language.

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