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Freudian Slip by Hamlet?

March 28, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Ooops!

Although Hamlet is supposed to have lived some 300 years before Freud, it seems he made a Freudian slip nevertheless.

And the slip, says a leading psychoanalyst, sheds light on the darkest corner of his mind, and also shows Shakespeare’s genius in depicting a person’s inner life.

Dr. Eugene J. Mahon, training analyst at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, discusses his discovery in the annual journal Psychoanalytical Study of the Child, a publication that showcases the latest psychoanalytic thoughts and theories on a variety of subjects.


Hamlet, one of the most popular of Shakespearean heroes, makes the slip in his first soliloquy. Lamenting his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle only one month after his father’s death, the Prince of Denmark mumbles: ``But two months dead! _ nay, not so much, not two.″

Why does he say two, instead of one, and immediately correct himself? That’s because Hamlet, in his unconscious Oedipal fantasy, killed his father a month before his uncle actually did, Mahon argues.

``Children want exclusive possession of one parent and want to get rid of the other one,″ the analyst explained in an interview. ``Usually for a boy, that would be, he wants complete possession of his mother and wants to get rid of his father. But he feels guilty about it because he loves his father, too. It is a conflict, and it’s almost impossible for the child to make sense out of it. So, at about age 6, he represses it. When adolescence comes, however, his Oedipus complex is rehashed, making it possible for a new resolution to be achieved in adulthood.″

Oedipus is a hero of Greek legend who unknowingly slays his father and marries his mother. Sigmund Freud, who conceptualized this psychological process, also believed that Hamlet must have had his own unconscious wish to kill his father, Mahon said.

The founder of psychoanalysis theorized that his uncle’s carrying out the very deed Hamlet himself was pondering might have retarded Hamlet’s ability to bring him to swift justice.

In his paper, Mahon offers his own version of what Hamlet might have been unconsciously thinking when he made the slip:

``But two months dead! _ nay, not so much, not two. I mean to say one, one, one, one. I am the one now, the only one in her (my mother’s) life. But she betrayed me for another twice. First with him (my father), now with Claudius (my uncle). But two into one won’t go, the awful impossible mathematics of love. But two months dead. I killed him a month before Claudius did.″

Slips of the tongue occur when one’s unconscious thoughts break into consciousness, Mahon explained. It is part of a phenomenon Freud called ``fehlleistung,″ or faulty function. Translated into English as parapraxis, it includes such everyday mistakes as slips of the tongue, faulty memories and misplaced objects.

Intrigued by Hamlet’s slip, which he caught while watching Kenneth Branagh’s movie, ``Hamlet,″ Mahon proceeded to check the other 37 of Shakespeare’s plays and spotted as many as 20 parapraxes.

In ``Julius Caesar,″ for example, he found a case of faulty memory occurring as Brutus and Cassius squabble after they assassinated Caesar.

``Cassius is angry with Brutus and says something like, `I’m older than you. How dare you talk to me like this.′ Later, Brutus accuses him of having said, `You’re better than me.′ If indeed Brutus has misheard him, what’s Shakespeare’s aesthetic methodology here? What Shakespeare is really saying is that Brutus has killed an older, better man, namely Caesar. Maybe all smaller, younger people, namely children, kill older, better people in their own Oedipal fantasies of childhood,″ Mahon said.

``So the subtext of this battle about older-better is the notion that Brutus is guilty of killing an older, better man, Caesar or father perhaps, and it is his unconscious guilt about this that triggers the squabble with Cassius leading to the parapraxis of the faulty memory. I think you can see how the parapraxis, which is seemingly trivial, has multiple, deeper meanings if one is able to ferret them out.″

Even though Freudian parapraxes weren’t discovered until 100 years ago, Shakespeare was clearly very aware of their psychological significance 400 years ago, Mahon observed.

``What’s even more amazing to me is that he then began to use them cleverly, aesthetically in his own depiction of characters,″ Mahon concluded. ``Characters are made even more complex by virtue of these slips of the tongue that they have. When the characters make a slip, they realize it, and that deepens the audience’s sense that they are thinking unconsciously.″