Salley Vickers on Shakespeare

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This year’s Shakespeare Birthday Lecture is honoured by the popular writer of literary fiction, Salley Vickers (her novels include Miss Garnet’s Angel, Mr Golighty’s Holiday, and The Other Side of You).

She’s talking about ‘Shakespeare the Psychologist’, and has offered this way in to her fascinating subject…

“When I was invited to speak on this auspicious birthday I knew I wanted to speak about what I as a former psychoanalyst and now a practicing full-time novelist had learned from our greatest English writer, arguably the greatest writer of all time.

For of all the many things I have learned from him as a writer – diction, metaphor, cadence, rhythm – by far the most significant for me is his intuitive grasp of the complexities of human consciousness and, maybe more pertinent, human unconsciousness.

Shakespeare himself would have had no thought of psychology or of being psychological. The word in his day had, perhaps happily, not been invented. Nor, I think, would he have considered it a subject separable from the business of his art. But ‘psyche’ comes form the Greek psuche or soul and he would perhaps have had more sympathy for the view that his work had some important observations on the workings of the human spirit or soul – that element in human beings which is said to have immortal status and consequences.

My focus, I hope not too predictably, is Hamlet, both the play and the play’s enigmatic principal. Poor Hamlet has been rather worked over by modern and not so modern ‘psychological interpretations’. Hamlet the exemplum of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, as interpreted by Freud’s own eager disciple, Ernest Jones, we know all about, as we do Hamlet the melancholic in existential crisis, Hamlet the depressive procrastinator, Hamlet the self-referential narcissist, Hamlet the borderline personality and Hamlet the delayed adolescent. He is, we have been taught to see, plagued by a particularly unruly unconscious, fraught with mother complexes, father complexes, sexual complexes and displaced sibling rivalry. Hamlet is jealous, envious, moody, passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, suspicious, suicidal. He is immature for his thirty years (if indeed, that is the age Shakespeare intends us to take him for), and behaves immaturely at times delinquently, even criminally. It is fair, then, to wonder, why on earth this mess of a man has remained so universally popular?

But, to my mind, there is something very unsatisfactory about this way of looking at Hamlet. It does violence to a quality in the character, and in the play, which Hamlet himself – with his author’s backing – refers to as a ‘mystery’.”

Hear the mystery unravel and come along to The Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at The Shakespeare Institute, Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday 20 April at 3.00pm. Tickets are £10.00 (£9.00 concs) available from The Shakespeare Bookshop, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Tel. 01789 204016.

The Shakespeare Birthday Lecture is co-presented by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Shakespeare Institute.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Will this lecture make it online for those of us separated from Stratford by the Atlantic?

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