Psychoanalytic Parallels between Literary Tragedies & Abnormal Psychological Theory”

Classical image depicting The Rape of Lucrece

“History is far too criminal to be a fit subject of study for the young.” ~W.H. Auden

Psychoanalysis employs not only the analysis of thought processes but the analysis, interpretation, and the imaginary of classic tragedies and myths to help aid in decoding the human psyche. These phenomenon, after all, are man made. The literary Shakesperean Tragedies, or Histories, which focus on kingly players are less about actual historical events and more about the creative interpretation of fatal interactions between intimates and their human failures and inequities which have played a part in shaping historical, as well as modern, political events.  In a 1968 publication “The Player King” an interpretation of  Shakespeare’s Histories, James Winny writes, “Shakespeare’s imaginative activity consists of connecting and relating together, not of singling out. We begin to understand his plays only when we have traced out the design which integrates so many scattered images and events: elements which take their meaning from their poetic environment, and lose it when isolated.” Throughout the ages people have attempted to follow the imaginative design of some of Shakespeare’s history plays and there are many opinions about the meaning of these Histories.

In one of Shakespeare’s early works, The Rape of Lucrece; an early work rich in what might now be called pre-echoes of Shakespeare’s mature interests. A passage describes a picture in which Lucrece seeks and finds an image of her own grief and despair. This ambitious work, depicts various characters and incidents of the Trojan War, culminating in the fall of the city. Themes of violence, bloodshed, and downfall run parallel with Lucrece’s rape. The images that are formed when reading The Rape of Lucrece are crowded with action, made lurid by physical violence and hectic emotion. Blood reeks and dying eyes gleam; pioneers labour, begrimed with sweat; Trojan mothers watch their sons leave the city, torn between pride and anxiety; besieged men peer wanly through loopholes at a daunting enemy, and a crowd hanging on Nestor’s words seethes angrily as men fight for a view of the speaker. Nothing is still, and every detail of the huge work suggests a state of vigorous happening, as the artist imparts an impression of movement and sensation to all his figures. Take a moment to recall, if you can, the primitive rage of a screaming infant wanting to suckle the breast.

Comparing this work with Aeschylus’ Orestreia psychoanalytic theory have tied the parallels to pre-oedipal fantasies in which the innate destructiveness is the first experience of the infant child who must resort to all kinds of complex mechanisms to defend against his or her own instinct for death. Human development consists of building defenses against this raging primitive hate. Thus death becomes central in the primitive ego of the child. Melanie Klein found, in her extensive work with children, that guilt, anxiety, and ambivalence, three concepts Freud believed were absent before the oedipal period, were present far earlier than Freud originally thought.

Amber Jacobs in her academic work, On Matricide, states that primitive sadism reaches it height during the oral and anal phases of early childhood development. It is during these phases the breast is both gratifying and frustrating, comforting and feared, loved and hated. The breast and the body of the mother is the sole source of dependency for the child. The mother’s body, specifically the breast, is the site of ambivalence for the infant child, and thus, primitive sadism leads the infant to fantasies of projecting their hate on to the mother’s breast. The infant, overcome with hatred and envy, attacks the mother’s body by stealing all the riches the infant believes it to contain. Unable to cope with his or her own destructiveness toward the thing it loves most, the projected sadism onto the mother’s body, the mother now becomes the most terrifying figure, creating most of the monstrous anxiety in the child.

To ward off anxiety, the earliest defense mechanism splits the object into a good part and a bad part. It is this defensive splitting into “good” and “bad” parts that provides the infant with the basis for the primitive superego. Amber Jacobs theory believes that at the heart of abnormal psychology, that is the navel, is the condition that Melanie Klein calls “the paranoid schizoid position: paranoid fear of the devouring attacks of the mother and schizoid (splitting) defense mechanisms to cope with the anxiety generated” from this feared relationship. From this central position it is possible to follow a trajectory towards other diagnosis and mental illnesses, like anorexia to the many forms of psychopathy and including the anti-social behavior of serial rapists and murders.

In Aeschylus’ Orestreia the central symbol and motif that connects Amber Jacobs theory are, the devouring bleeding breast of Clytemnestra’s, who is Orestreia’s mother and whom Orestreia has been commissioned to kill by his sister Electra for Clytemnestra’s part in the murder of their father. The female counterpart play tragedy for Oedipus Rex. The breast takes the place of the penis. Amber Jacobs states:

“Although Klein gestures toward the real, external mother, her central focus is on the phantasized mother. Further, the mother is always the object: the mother as subject with her own desire appears nowhere in Klein’s work. While Klein gave us a mother-centered psychoanalysis, what we shall see is the her loyalty to Clytemnestra is precarious. Although we witness a shift from the father to the mother, matricide, it seems, is still a vital necessity.”

These tragedies help psychoanalysts focus on identity of the players. In the various Shakespearean Tragedies the king is an archetypal image invested with powerful associations which owe nothing to the chronicles. All sovereignty gives form: the majesty of absolute power, and the personal splendour of a crowned monarch. In King Lear, King Lear’s question, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” for an indication between Shakespeare’s king and an indication of a particular link between some other crucial imaginative concern.  The answer, “You are your mother’s child and, as such, may be filled with all the human inequities and imperfect qualities of humanity.”

King did I call thee? No, thou art not king;
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes.

King is not merely a title but an identity. In each of the later Histories the king is forced to come to terms with the nature of the royal identity which he has tried to assume, and to recognize a disparity between his ideal of majesty and his personal ability to fill the role assigned to him. The costume is laid out and the part rehearsed, but the performance falls short in respects which both actor and audience acknowledge. Therein lies the dance of life. The player is not king. However alluring in prospect, and however confidently the part is accepted, the task of realizing this major role proves destructively taxing. The unachieved magnificence of the king finally appears to lie beyond human reach. These plays tell the secret of primitive narcissism that is so central to the paranoid schizoid position and man’s vanity. Erik Erikson has wrote extensively on the subject of childhood development and the formation of identity and what that means to early young adults struggling for position.

The plays concerned are not treated simply as Histories, but as imaginative works whose interests run much deeper than the political issues which their action involves. The three kings in particular; Richard III, Henry IV, and Henry V, are not approached as kings whose royal conduct invites judgment within a context of Elizabethan political ideas, but as men grappling with an identity bigger than their own; a form of human greatness which they try eagerly to substitute for the limitations of private name, which represents the known self. In like manner regarding abnormal psychology, you may be dealing with a person who possess a disordered personality or a mental disease or defect of some type. One who is grappling with a monstrous fantasy (anxiety) bigger than him or herself, of which he or she is unable to contain. The primitive guilt and anxiety, which by all means, will be the root of his or her ultimate destruction.


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