The Rejected Woman: A Jungian Take on Hamlet

The Rejected Woman: A Jungian Take on Hamlet

The human experience is one of fragmentation. We are dichotomous creatures in a state of disintegration. We have within us both good and evil, love and hate, cruelty and compassion, temperance and excess. We have the ability to experience both pain and pleasure, depression and elation, fear and courage. As Hamlet said, ” ’tis an unweeded garden” (1.2.135), that is, the world is like an Eden overcome with weeds.  Using the model of humans as micrcocosms, one could also interpret Hamlet’s words as pointing to human experience being an unweeded garden. In all of us, there exists things of a goodly sort and things of an evil sort. There also exists within us both masculine and feminine traits.


C.G. Jung formulated theories which attempted to explain this state of disunity. One such idea was “individuation,” which refers to “the process by which a person becomes an ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or whole” (Jung 212). In the process of  individuation, fragmented elements of one’s personality are brought to consciousness. Primarily, this is accomplished by examining the dreams of the patient and attempting to interpret their symbols. Another of Jung’s ideas dealt with the concept of the human psyche as possessing both male and female components. He believed that, usually, the person’s sex determined which element dominated their psyche. The repressed female component in males he called “anima;” in females, the repressed male component is called “animus.” His goal was to integrate these into a holistic unity, thus bringing about a state of tranquility within the psyche.

Jung found that the anima/animus elements appeared in the dreams of his patients as distinct personalities. The animus in a woman is her “inner male;” the anima in a man is his “inner female.” Concentrating on the latter for purposes of this essay, this inner woman can show up in male’s dreams and fantasies as mother, beloved sister, heavenly goddess, etc. According to Jung, “Every mother and every beloved is forced to become the carrier and embodiment of this omnipresent and ageless image, which corresponds to the deepest reality in a man” (Jung 109).

Thus, if a male is not in contact with the feminine side, he is fragmented and will project both positive and negative aspects of his own personality onto those females he is in close association with. Jung said:

It belongs to him, this perilous image of Woman; she stands for the loyalty which in the interests of life he must sometimes forego; she is the much needed compensation for the risks, struggles, sacrifices that all end in disappointment; she is the solace for all the bitterness of life.

And, at the same time, she is the great illusionist, the seductress, who draws him into life with her Maya–and not only into life’s reasonable and useful aspects, but into its frightful paradoxes and ambivalences where good and evil, success and ruin, hope and despair, counterbalance one another.

Because she is his greatest danger she demands from a man his greatest, and if he has it in him she will receive it (Jung 109-110).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play about a man “crawling between earth and heaven” (3.1.128-129). The events of Hamlet’s father’s death, and the appearance of the ghost have awakened deep, unconscious forces within him, i.e. archetypes. Jung claims that archetypes can be compared to instinctual patterns of behavior (Jung 65). They are emotionally charged images that have universal meaning. The anima, as we well know, is such an archetype. In Hamlet, it seems that the anima has been stirred by the harrowing visitation of the ghost of his father and the astonishing news that he had been poisoned by the present king, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Hamlet’s mother has married Claudius within a month of his father’s death. She, who once did “hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on,” now has hastened to “incestuous sheets” (1.2.143-157). These events have suspended Hamlet between earth and heaven. He is in a position where he has the opportunity to either follow a path that leads to integration, or be dashed to pieces by the negative aspect of the anima. The anima is admonishing Hamlet to seek her out and make contact with her. But he cannot bring himself to embrace those elements within him that would save him and resolve his struggle. Interestingly, the image of Hamlet crawling between earth and heaven most likely symbolizes the conflict between the male and female within him, since earth is a common symbol for the feminine, and heaven is commonly associated with the masculine.

Even before Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his dead father, we see evidence that he already has a problem communicating with his feminine side: “frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146). This indicates that the archetype has already been roused, even before the ghostly visitation. But Hamlet is plunged into a full-blown crisis when the ghost conveys his grim news, Angry, and beset by hateful emotions, he lashes out at his mother: “O most pernicious woman” (1.5.105)! And, as a result of “Hamlet’s inability to integrate his feminine energy into his consciousness and thus to respond effectively to his specific mother,” he begins to project negative feminine qualities onto Ophelia, in the nunnery and play scenes” (Coursen 85).

Freud would interpret Hamlet’s strained relationship with women as a sign of an Oedipal complex: “Like the subconscious mind at work within the dream mechanism, Hamlet expresses his meaning through psychological substitution. Ophelia is a surrogate for his mother” (King 77). Ophelia may very well be a surrogate for his mother, but the problem runs deeper than that. Hamlet does not want to allow the female part of himself to play a role in his consciousness, so both Ophelia and Gertrude become “human screens” (Coursen 93) which capture the projections of Hamlet’s scorn toward his own inner woman. Instead of initiating communication with the anima, Hamlet rejects her. By abandoning his love for Ophelia, Hamlet symbolically abandons the anima.

Hamlet’s rejection of the anima is symbolized in Act 2, Scene 1, where Ophelia, referring to Hamlet, says:

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out o’ doors he went without their helps,
And to the last bended their light on me (2.1.94-100).

What attraction Hamlet may have once felt, for both his inner woman and Ophelia, is abandoned for the sake of revenge. The feeling that may have once coursed through his being is now replaced with vengeful hatred for Claudius. Hamlet, in rejecting this side of his personality, opens himself to disaster. Ophelia’s line, “He seemed to find his way without his eyes” (2.1.98), speaks to Hamlet’s rejection of Soul, that which would have given him eyes to see through his dark night. The tragedy is that Hamlet cannot find his way without his eyes.

Hamlet castigates himself several times during the play for exhibiting what he perceives as womanly traits. For example, Hamlet says to Horatio, “It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman” (5.2.216-217). Hamlet suppresses intuitive insight here, just before the duel with Laertes. The anima is trying to steer him away from his doom, but he sees such thoughts as effeminate, and thus cowardly. Hamlet’s misogyny is again exhibited when he speaks to Ophelia about the “brevity” of woman’s love (3.2.125-159). He even goes so far as to compare himself with a loquacious whore in Act 2, Scene 2, indicating a very negative view of his inner feminine:

Why, what an ass I am! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab . . . (2.2.594-598).

Hamlet wants to “be a man” and avenge his father’s murder, but the war being waged in his soul causes him to hesitate. He views this hesitation as effeminacy.

Hamlet’s rejection of the inner woman leads to catastrophic results. In Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet completely loses control of his emotions, killing Polonius (Hamlet thinks it is Claudius), who has been hiding behind the arras. James Kirsch comments on this scene:

The primitive lust for murder–“hell itself breathes out contagion to the world; now could I drink hot blood”–has taken Hamlet over completely. At this moment, when he tries to kill his mother with words, it does not matter who is behind the curtain; to him it is a “rat,” that is, an animal that usually lives in dark hidden places. It is symbolic for the sinister content in his unconscious. . . (Kirsch 120)

At the end of the play, we must ask ourselves, “Does Hamlet ever discover why he is being torn apart from within?” Perhaps. He seems to have some insight into the interplay of opposites: “‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites” (5.2.60-62). This sentence is usually interpreted as referring to Hamlet and Claudius, but it could also hold meaning for the opposites within, as well. On the other hand, Hamlet never ceases his quest for revenge. He does, however, ask Laertes to forgive him for killing his father. Hamlet attributes the act to “madness,” which implies that he has recognized the fact that unconscious forces are driving him (5.2.230-240). Perhaps, if Laertes would have put an end to his own quest for revenge, Hamlet would have been able to discover what he had rejected, that is, a relationship with the anima. Alas!

Coursen. Herbert R. The Compensatory Psyche: A Jungian Approach to Shakespeare.   Lanham, MD: UP, 1986.

Jung, Carl G. The Essential Jung. Ed. Anthony Storr. New York: Princeton UP, 1983.

King, Walter N. Hamlet’s Search for Meaning. Athens, University of Georgia. 1982.

Kirsch, James. Shakespeare’s Royal Self. New York: Putnam, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Edward Hubler. New York: Signet, 1963.

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