MGH Psychiatry

Massachusetts General

Department of Psychiatry

Residency Training Program

This elective seminar meets the third Tuesday of the month, September through June in the Hackett Room, starting at 6:30 pm. It is open to all trainees -- PGY1-4, interns, fellows, BPSI candidates, and recent training program graduates.

A pdf of each webpage is attached to its footer.


Shakespeare Reads Freud

Shakespeare is the summit of the Western literary canon and stands at the highest reaches of the human imagination. Freud mentions Hamlet dozens of times. These seminars will read the play for forerunners of psychoanalytic concepts. Hamlet is a “poem unlimited,” as Bloom says, so it ought to be useful for studying depth psychology. Psychoanalysis is often seen as the subtext of literature, but Felman says it is as much the other way around: Literature is the unconscious of psychoanalysis.

     The aim of these seminars is not so much to use Freud to understand Shakespeare as it is to uncover in Hamlet the heart of psychoanalysis. The starting point for each meeting will be to look at a Key passage from the play. This excerpt will be read for how it fits the argument and what problems it touches in interpreting Hamlet as a whole. Hopefully these “process notes” will show why listening to the deeper levels of the material mirrors Freud’s “evenly hovering attention,” how listening for the subtext of literature resembles psychoanalytic listening. Early modern English sounds strange at first but a feeling for it comes naturally if you listen to its poetry and metaphors with the heart before using the brain. Both active and passive, this listening process resembles learning the private language of a patient. Getting to know Elizabethan speech is practice for “listening with the third ear.” One could almost say, “Everything I needed to know about psychoanalysis I learned from Hamlet.”

     Each seminar touches on problems in the text, so it might be helpful to think of yourself as the director of a performance. As director or actor, there would be scores of expository possibilities and dozens of interpretive decisions to make: Why does Hamlet hesitate–or does he? Is the Ghost the spirit of his father, or is it a demon? How can a cry for revenge emanate from a Christian purgatory? Why is he so vicious to Ophelia? Each problem leads to an idea that foregrounds a psychoanalytic concept.


Almereyda M (director, screen adaptation), E Hawke. Hamlet. 113 minutes. Miramax, 2000. ISBN 0788818449

Bennett R (director) D Jacobi. Hamlet. 210 minutes. ASIN for BBC Tragedies, reissued 2002 (original 1980). B000066FXDE

Branagh K (director, title). Hamlet. 242 minutes. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996. ISBN 14198 49727

Brook P (director, adaptation) A Lester. The tragedy of Hamlet. 132 minutes. ARTE France, Facets Multi-Media, 2001. ISBN 1565804494

Doran G (director), D Tennant. Hamlet. 182 minutes. BBC/RSC, 2009. ASIN B0038RSJ0U

Gielgud J (director), R Burton. Hamlet. 191 minutes. Atlantic Programmes, 1964. ID5880PBDVD

Kline K, K Browning (directors). Hamlet. 173 minutes. MMI Image Entertainment, Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 1990. ID0876BDDDVD

Kozintsev G (director) I Smoktunovsky. Hamlet. (Score D Shostakovich, Trans B Pasternak, Russian, Engl subtitles) 140 minutes. Lenfilm, Soviet Union, 1964. ISBN 1565805755

Olivier L (director, title). Hamlet. (screenplay L Olivier, A Dent). 153 minutes. Two Cities Film Ltd, 1948. ISBN 0780021312

Richardson T (director), N Williamson. Hamlet.114 minutes. Filmways 1967/ Columbia 1997, ASIN  0800105877

Scott C, E Simonson (directors, screenplay), C Scott (title). Hamlet. 190 minutes. Hallmark, 2000. Cat No 11477

Zeffirelli F (director, screenplay) C DeVore (screenplay), M Gibson. Hamlet. 135 minutes. Warner Brothers, 1990. ISBN 0790761610


Anderson JH. The growth of a personal voice: Piers Ploughman and The Faerie Queen. New Haven, Yale University, 1976

Asimov I. Guide to Shakespeare. (originally Doubleday, two volumes, 1970) New York, Avenel, 1978, pp 77-147

Bloom H. Shakespeare: the invention of the human. New York, Riverhead Books, 1998

Bloom H. Hamlet: poem unlimited. New York, Riverhead Books, 2003

Bradley AC. Shakespearean tragedy: lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, ed 2. New York, Macmillan Co., 1919

     Why does Hamlet age ten years between Act 1 and Act 5? Why can’t Gertrude see the Ghost in her closet, yet Hamlet can? How is she able to describe Ophelia’s drowning when she wasn’t there? And what about those flowers? There are scores of such questions–some debated for centuries–spawning thousands of books and papers. 

     In addition to analyzing a passage from the play, each meeting will look at how Shakespeare “foregrounds” Freud, in Bloom’s terms. (He calls Hamlet “Freud’s mentor.”) By looking at the precursors of depth psychology, this course will rediscover psychoanalytic ideas anticipated in Hamlet:  How does transference work? What is narcissism, and is it all bad? Does Hamlet “have an Oedipus complex”? Did Gertrude neglect the infant Hamlet? What does Yorick teach about attachment? What do Hamlet’s free associations tell us? How does Freud’s repetition compulsion” obey Shakespeare’s dictum “what’s past is prologue”? Our enabling fiction is that Shakespeare read psychoanalysis before Freud wrote it.

     How it works is that each seminar has three tasks–deconstructing the text fragment, untangling relevant interpretive problems for the play as a whole (text and context), and mapping these precursors onto a related psychoanalytic concept. This triangular exercise should also synthesize playable readings from the three original texts of Hamlet.

     The play embodies two contrasting models of personal identity: the medieval self, as seen in speeches of Polonius, and early modern concepts of selfhood, as seen in Hamlet’s soliloquies. Both notions of self have distinctive voices and each has its own rules. Bloom says that Shakespeare invented the modern personality by creating characters that grow and change, not just with respect to God and their fellows, but also with respect to themselves. By careful textual analysis, Bloom claims to show that some of Shakespeare’s people become human by listening to what they themselves say. Such characters become human by eavesdropping on their own speeches. They become human by dint of  overhearing” themselves, by psychoanalyzing themselves. Hamlet is testimony to the power of the imagination to narrate the self into existence.

—J Groves, 2011


Cantor PA. Shakespeare, Hamlet. Cambridge, University of Cambridge, 1989
Dahl H. Teller V, Moss D, Trujillo M. Countertransference examples of the syntactic expression of warded-off contents. Psychoanal Q. 1978;47: 339-363

Felman S. The case of Poe:  applications/implications of psychoanalysis. With section introduction by editor. In Essential papers on psychoanalysis and literature, E Berman ed. New York, New York University 1987/1993: 300-322, 263-269
Freud S. Hamlet indexed. Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, J Strachey, ed & trans, vols 1, 4, 5, 7-11, 13-17, 20, 21, 23. 1886-1938
Garber M. Hamlet. In, Shakespeare after all. New York, Pantheon Books, 2004, pp 466-505
Greenblatt S. Hamlet in purgatory. Princeton, Princeton University, 2001
Jones E. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York, WW Norton & Company, 1949
Kinney CR. Shakespeare's tragedies. Chantilly VA, The Teaching Company, 2007

Kliman BW. The enfolded Hamlet, at

Malcolm J. Six roses ou cirrhose? Review of D Sp
ence, 1982. In The purloined clinic. Vintage Books, 1992, pp 31-47

Marcus S. Freud and Dora: story, history, case history. In E Berman, ed. Essential papers on literature and psychoanalysis. New York, New York University Press, 1993, pp 36-80 (original 1974)

Paglia C. The Ghost's speech. In Break, blow, burn. New York, Vintage Books, 2005, pp vii-xvii, 3-19, 30-33

Sharpe RA. Psychoanalysis and narrative: a structural approach. Int J Psycho-Anal 1987;14: 335-342

Shaw GB. Hamlet. In Writings on plays and productions of Shakespeare, E Wilson, ed. New York, EP Dutton, 1961, pp 79-100

Wilson JD. What happens in Hamlet. Cambridge, Cambridge University, (original 1935, 1951) 1962 
James Groves,
Mar 31, 2010 12:59 PM
James Groves,
May 28, 2011 4:18 PM
James Groves,
May 28, 2011 4:19 PM
James Groves,
May 28, 2011 6:03 PM
James Groves,
May 28, 2011 6:03 PM