“Thus Conscience Does Make Cowards of Us All:” Hamlet’s Freudian Sense of Guilt

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By Macy Quigg

(UBC Arts One, Gavin Paul seminar)

In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud imagines the origin of guilt in humans and how it evolves into a more complex conscience. He posits that guilt stems from a fear of the loss of the father’s love when a child recognizes that they have done something bad and may be found out. This sense of bad is not inherently aligned with morality, but rather with “whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love” (115–16). As the child grows up, however, “the authority is internalized through the establishment of a super-ego” (116), and a true conscience comes into play. Because “nothing can be hidden from the super-ego, not even thoughts” (117), the super-ego creates a sense of guilt in response to basic emotions and urges. It embodies the ideals of society as well, and “the place of the father […] is taken by the larger human community” (116). This replacement of the father figure and his role in the sense of guilt calls to mind Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, Hamlet’s father has been replaced, murdered, and usurped by an alternative father figure who represents the interests of the state, and whose court demands emotional suppression and surveillance of thoughts. Hamlet can be seen to represent the titular prince’s struggle with his socially-oriented super-ego, embodied by Claudius, and the conflict that arises when he contends with his more primal guilt again, in the form of his dead father who reappears to literally threaten him with the loss of love. The play dramatizes a scenario where Freud’s two stages of guilt coexist and are at odds within the same man, who must fight not to be left paralyzed trying to appease both his childish filial duties and the demands of the repressive society around him.

Claudius’ court has strict social and emotional mores that fuel Hamlet’s conscience early in the play. Freud believes societies depend on guilt to bring people together: “Since civilization obeys an internal erotic impulsion which causes human beings to unite in a closely-knit group, it can only achieve this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt” (128). This reflects how Claudius instills guilt in Hamlet in Act 1, Scene 2. Claudius wants Denmark to unite and move on from King Hamlet’s death, a goal with which Hamlet’s grief is at odds. As such, he declares Hamlet’s emotions improper, trying to guilt him into being more cheerful:

but to persever

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness, ’tis unmanly grief;

It shows a will most incorrect to heaven (I.ii.92-95)


His policing of emotions is consistent with Freud’s super-ego. The distinction between bad actions and bad thoughts has collapsed. Hamlet has no ill intentions toward Claudius in this scene beyond perhaps embarrassing him, and does not overtly suspect him of being a murderer, but he is made to feel guilty. Any aggression he does feel toward his uncle “is taken over by the super-ego and increases the latter’s aggressiveness (against the ego)” (122). As such, when Claudius leaves, Hamlet desires only to harm himself:

O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. (I.ii.129-32)


His suicidality shows his aggression turned inward, and his focus on the social and religious restrictions on suicide reveals how his societally-created super-ego dominates his baser instincts. He is left feeling as if, under the watch of Claudius and his own conscience, he must stay silent and do nothing: “It is not, not it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.158–9).

Hamlet spends the beginning of the play influenced by his conscience, but when he meets his father’s ghost, he comes face to face with the earlier form of guilt that Freud describes. This type of guilt is connected to the paternal figure, and supposedly “springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father” (125). Whether or not Hamlet — as Freud believed — actually has an Oedipus complex, the parallel is strong. The ghost is the product of the killing of Hamlet’s father, resulting in a debatably-incestuous union. The ghost also mirrors Freud’s idea of the motivation of the loss of a father’s love: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love […] Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!” (I.v.23–5). Hamlet can only receive paternal approval if he gives in to his guilt over not killing Claudius. Freud believes “remorse was the result of the primordial ambivalence of feeling towards the father” (127) in the Oedipus myth, and though Hamlet did not kill his father, he is made to feel his love and loyalty to him are lacking. The guilt instilled by the ghost serves neither Hamlet nor court society. Regicide is dangerous and the ultimate social violation, but “what is bad [to the sense of guilt] is often not at all what is injurious or dangerous to the ego” (115). Hamlet is stuck between two forms of guilt. The earlier childish kind was supposedly replaced, dead and buried along with his father, but it is forced to coexist with Claudius and his court’s strict demands on the conscience.

Hamlet’s hesitation to get revenge reveals the insidious power of the super-ego. Though his sense of authority-based guilt is strong when the ghost is present, he is soon sucked back into the repressive world of Claudius’ court, which embodies the super-ego through its constant surveillance.  Freud sees the super-ego as an ever-watching presence: “the perception which the ego has of being watched over in this way, the assessment of the tension between its own strivings and the demands of the super-ego” (135). This recalls Claudius’ spying on Hamlet, most notably in Act 3, Scene 1, a moment Freud references. Claudius watches Hamlet deliver the “to be or not to be” speech, blurring the line between thoughts and spoken words, as the soliloquy — usually a dramatic device to show what a character is thinking, not actually speaking — is overheard. Despite not acting on it, Hamlet cannot hide his longing for death, as “instinctual renunciation is not enough, for the wish persists and cannot be concealed from the super-ego” (120). Appropriately, Hamlet declares “thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]” (III.i.82) when the personification of his conscience is watching. He may or may not be aware of Claudius during the speech, but since he later asks Ophelia, “Where’s your father?” (III.i.129), he is likely thinking about the possibility that he is under surveillance. Observed, Hamlet also seems to consider giving in to Claudius. Though the surface meaning is about suicide, Hamlet implies that to live is to “bear […] th’oppessor’s wrong, […] the law’s delay, the insolence of office” (III.i.69–72), while the other choice is “to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (III.i.58–9). We can see Hamlet’s rejection of suicide as akin to suppressing his aggressive urges, accepting the wrongs done to him, and benefiting Claudius’ society as his conscience asks.

While Hamlet’s super-ego is strong and internalized, the earlier sense of guilt fades when the ghost is gone, becoming less influential when loss of love is not an immediate threat. Freud speculates that people in possession of this early form of guilt “allow themselves to do any bad thing which promises them enjoyment, so long as they are sure the authority will not know anything about it” (116). This explains why Hamlet’s primal guilt is not enough to overcome the pressures of society, since the ghost is not always observing. However, Hamlet eventually has a moment of firmly defying his super-ego by committing an act of aggression — killing Polonius — thus inviting the ghost back into his life. His actions are impulsive, id-based, and Hamlet himself is not even aware of them initially, replying to his mother’s question of what he has done with “Nay, I know not” (III.iv.24). This rejection of societal expectations weakens his super-ego, because it “arises through the suppression of an aggressive impulse, and […] is subsequently reinforced by fresh suppressions of the same kind” (123). For authority-based guilt, however, “if one has carried out this renunciation […] no sense of guilt should remain” (120). Thus, Hamlet’s aggression weakens his super-ego and re-invites paternal judgement. The ghost returns and Hamlet again fears his disapproval: “Do you not come your tardy son to chide?” (III.iv.103). In releasing his aggression, he enters a childish state where fulfilling his father’s orders is of the utmost importance. Killing Polonius also gets him away from the society that embodies his super-ego and sets him on the path to further aggression.

Away from Denmark, Hamlet is somewhat freed from conscience and becomes unflinchingly set on revenge. Though Freud’s idea of the super-ego is internalized, Hamlet’s super-ego is embodied by Claudius and his court, so escaping them helps him escape their psychological impact. The killing of Polonius, done while he was spying on Hamlet, can also be seen to represent destroying the ever-watching eye of the super-ego. From Freud’s perspective, Hamlet’s turn away from conscience results from the fact that he has stopped suppressing his aggression. As he has no opportunity to kill Claudius while away from Denmark, he does not have to suppress the urge to kill him. Freud believes “every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter’s severity and intolerance” (121). No longer renouncing his instincts, Hamlet’s conscience grows weaker, while his drive for revenge grows stronger: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (IV.iv.64–5). Back at court, Hamlet does not restrain his aggression, so he is free from Claudius’ influence and his own paralyzing conscience. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to die, stating “they are not near my conscience” (V.ii.57) and starts a brawl at Ophelia’s funeral in utter disregard of social rules. By unleashing his aggression and briefly escaping from the watch of the court, Hamlet has pushed his super-ego aside enough to indulge in his instincts and act.

In getting away from Claudius and the court, Hamlet also gets away from his father’s ghost, and the ghost does not return. However, he is still subconsciously governed by his father’s wishes, not due to a direct threat of loss of love but because of his newfound faith in providence. Freud believes that “fate is regarded as a substitute for the parental agency. If a man is unfortunate it means that he is no longer loved by this highest power; and, threatened by a loss of love, he once more bows to the parental representative in his super-ego” (118–119). It follows, then, that when a man is fortunate he will again turn away from the super-ego, feeling loved and protected by fate. It is after Hamlet has experienced perhaps his first stroke of truly good luck in the play — his encounter with the pirates — that he declares “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii.97–8) and decides to face the duel, despite the risk to him. To Freud, the connection with the ghost is obvious: “The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father” (39). Free from his super-ego, Hamlet fully regresses into a more childish conception of guilt and protection. He places his trust in the fatherly idea of fate and, at last, fulfills the demands of his father’s ghost and his fear of loss of love. He is free from his conscience and the paralysis and pain that come with it, but he remains subservient to the figure of his father, even when it costs him his life.

Hamlet can be read as the prince’s struggle between Freud’s two imagined stages of the sense of guilt. The ghost of Hamlet’s father embodies the more primal guilt, motivated by the fear of the father’s love, while Claudius and his court represent the ever-watching super-ego that requires subservience to social rules and the internalization of aggression. The two have conflicting demands on Hamlet, and at first, the constant presence of the super-ego seems to be more powerful, but when Hamlet releases his aggression and leaves Denmark, he turns away from conscience and back toward his sense of paternal authority. He ends the play having regressed into a childlike sense of guilt, trusting in providence and obeying his father’s orders.



Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. Bloomsbury-

Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. W. W.

Norton & Company, 2010.