Shakespeare and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as Hamlet.  Hamlet, as well as many literary figures, portrays for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome”, the plague of many young men who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”  (And this “syndrome” usually captures only males…but not exclusively.)

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, consciousness is a phenomenon one is to be immersed in and to step outside for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness.  For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it.”  The terror of this meta-cognitive leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

By discoursing here on this matter I am giving the impression that I’m in the camp of the “conscious” ones and in some sense I do feel I am.  BUT, consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best I can personally ever hope of doing is to own my very skewed view of the world and hope that as I continue to age my “skewing” might be increasingly open to other viewpoints, leaving me always without accomplishing “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre.


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Consciousness

  1. Monte Zerger

    “Another theme of Shakespeare was *madness* and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness. For, consciousness is a phenomenon one is to be immersed in and to step outside for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to *madness*.”

    Lewis, After reading your latest blog, and particularly noting the portion above, I was drawn to wonder what Jung had to say about madness. I found the following which deals with madness and the mother complex. interesting.

    *The Mother Complex*

    The mother archetype forms the foundation of the so-called mother-complex.It is an open question whether a mother-complex can develop without the mother having taken part in its formation as a demonstrable causal factor. My own experience leads me to believe that the mother always plays an active part in the origin of the disturbance, especially in infantile neuroses or in neuroses whose aetiology undoubtedly dates back to early childhood. In any event, the child’s instincts are disturbed, and this constellates archetypes which, in their turn, produce fantasies that come between the child and its mother as an alien and often frightening element. Thus, if the children of an overanxious mother regularly dream that she is a terrifying animal or a witch, these experiences point to a split in the child’s psyche that predisposes it to a neurosis.

    *_The Mother-Complex of the Son_*

    The effects of the mother-complex differ according to whether it appears in a son or a daughter. Typical effects on the son are homosexuality and Don Juanism, and sometimes also *impotence*. *In homosexuality, the son’s entire heterosexuality is tied to the mother in an unconscious form*; in Don Juanism, *he unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets*. The effects of a mother-complex on the son may be seen in the ideology of the Cybele and Attis type: self-castration, *madness*, an early death. Because of the difference in sex, a son’s mother-complex does not appear in pure form.This is the reason why in every masculine mother-complex, side by side with the mother archetype, a significant role is played by the image of the man’s sexual counterpart, the anima. The mother is the first feminine being with whom the man-to-be comes in contact, and *she cannot help playing, overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, upon the son’s masculinity,* just as the son in his turn grows increasingly aware of his mother’s femininity, or unconsciously responds to it by instinct.In the case of the son, therefore, the simple relationships of identity or of resistance and differentiation are continually cut across by erotic attraction or repulsion, which complicates matters very considerably.I do not mean to say that for this reason the mother-complex of a son ought to be regarded as more serious than that of a daughter. The investigation of these complex psychic phenomena is still in the pioneer stage.Comparisons will not become feasible until we have some statistics at our disposal, and of these, so far, there is no sign.

    /The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious /par. 161-2

    I know that I have (or at least had) a mother complex. I once had a very disturbing dream which I may have told you about before. My mother threatened me (totally out of character for her) by telling me that if I didn’t do something she wanted (don’t remember what it was) she would take it out on my sons. She knew how vulnerable I was in that area. I became infuriated, put my hands around he neck and began choking her. Then, right before my eyes, her body began to blacken and shrivel. Then it turned upside down in my hands and I woke up.

    Something else in my life that was so absolutely devastating and humiliating was a time I was in bed with a woman and absolutely could not get an erection. It came totally out of nowhere. Of course my partner was understanding and comforting, but that didn’t help a bit. Then, over the years after that, there were times when I barely achieved an erection, but somehow managed. I think at those times my unconscious was taking me back to the experience I mentioned above, and I “called up” the memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. literarylew Post author

      Very astute. There is so much you and I must talk about. It might take me a beer or two, however! Btw, a lovely woman I knew in Arkansas, who had mother issues, often quipped, “If its not one thing, its my mother.”

      All of this is not unrelated to the Lacanian notion of the phallus.




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