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Review of HAMLET HIMSELF by Bronson Feldman

By Richard M. Waugaman

Hamlet Himself by Bronson Feldman
Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010.

Graham Bradshaw famously said “Hamlet can seem [to be] an actual person who somehow has been caught inside a play”(quoted by Bloom,1 401). Abraham Bronson Feldman’s book elucidates who this “actual person” is. Building on the work of Looney and other Oxfordians, Feldman (1914-1982) attempted to reconstruct in detail the events in Edward de Vere’s life that shaped this highly autobiographical play.

This book serves as a superb antidote to such toxically misleading works as Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.2 Where Greenblatt just makes it up as he goes along in telling Shakespeare’s ‘story,” Feldman persuasively linked Hamlet with a wealth of documented facts about de Vere’s life and emotional conflicts. Roughly a third of Feldman’s 108 references are to manuscripts and to archival records of State Papers, a reflection of his painstaking scholarship. The publication of Feldman’s book is an encouraging sign of the growing acceptance of Looney’s 1920 Oxfordian authorship hypothesis.

Feldman’s book comes along at a propitious time, when the Oxfordian cause he did much to advance is rapidly gaining in credibility and support. Feldman became an Oxfordian in high school. He explored the subject when he began doubting the traditional theory. His younger brother (who, like Bronson, became an analyst) recalled Bronson reading Mark Twain’s anti-Stratfordian classic, Is Shakespeare Dead? aloud to him in high school. Twain evidently carried more authority for Feldman than did the Stratfordian establishment.

Abe Feldman earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He began publishing Oxfordian articles as early as 1947. Feldman’s career as an academic suffered as a result. After he invited Charles Wisner Barrell to lecture on Oxfordian theory at Temple University, his teaching contract there was not renewed. he then completed psychoanalytic training, and practiced psychoanalysis in Philadelphia. He also taught in the history department of the Community College of Philadelphia.3

American Imago published Feldman’s 1953 Oxfordian article, “The Confessions of William Shakespeare.”4 Its appearance marked a vitally important turning point in the history of psychoanalytic studies of Shakespeare. Appearing 14 years after Freud’s death, it was the first time (to my knowledge) that another psychoanalyst endorsed in the pages of a psychoanalytic journal Freud’s position on Shakespeare’s identity.

During his lifetime, despite his prestige as the founder of the psychoanalytic movement, Freud was unable to persuade a single follower to take up his suggestion that Shakespeare’s works be explored psychoanalytically from an Oxfordian perspective.5 Freud knew this would lead to a deeper psychoanalytic understanding of the works. Freud made his psychoanalytic discoveries as a result of his willingness to withstand initial ostracism and ridicule for his unconventional ideas. Feldman emulated Freud’s courage in pursuing the truth about Shakespeare’s identity.

In fact, for nearly eighty years, Feldman was the only analyst in the U.S. of whom I am aware who endorsed Freud’s Oxfordian authorship views in the analytic literature.6 We all owe him a large debt of gratitude for withstanding enormous pressure to relinquish his “heretical” opinions. Freud’s stature lends significant credibility to the Oxfordian authorship claim. Stratfordians are well aware of this, and they have made repeated attempts to undermine the legitimacy of Freud’s opinions in this matter. Regrettably, psychoanalysts have used their professional skills not to deepen our understanding of the implications of de Vere’s authorship, but instead to “analyze” the ostensible psychopathology that led Freud astray about Shakespeare.

Feldman was the target of pressure not only from his original field of English literature, but also from his second profession of psychoanalysis. The earliest generation of psychoanalysts were self-selected as mavericks who were willing to devote themselves to a highly controversial profession. Over the years, however, greater public acceptance of psychoanalysis eroded analysts’ willingness to jeopardize their new status by challenging Shakespearean orthodoxy.

In fact, it was Freud’s translator (and former patient), James Strachey, who notoriously persuaded Freud that the acceptance of psychoanalysis in Britain might be placed at risk if Freud insisted on publicizing his Oxfordian view. Feldman assumed (probably correctly) that Ernest Jones was behind this censorship. Over the years, analysts’ fears of offending the English have morphed into undue fears of offending the English professors. Despite the lively interest among analysts in interdisciplinary studies, they seem to lack the confidence to challenge the Stratfordian hegemony.

Feldman was up against analysts such as David Beres. Beres wrote an important article on the application of psychoanalysis to literary criticism that referred to Shakespeare repeatedly. He quoted Freud’s unequivocal declaration in 1930, “I have…ceased to believe that the author of Shakespeare’s works was the man from Stratford” (27).7 Beres then commented, in an astonishing non sequitur, “There is no need to enter into the controversy about the identity of Shakespeare” (27). Why not? Since Beres believed a psychoanalytic understanding of literature is based on a deeper understanding of the author, how could he justify avoiding the crucial question of who Shakespeare was?

Anticipating a central thesis of James Shapiro’s Contested Will, Beres claimed that an artist like Shakespeare, rather than living through actual experiences, may instead “have lived through them in fantasy, either consciously or unconsciously. There is a parallel here to Freud’s early assumption that psychoneurosis was based on actual seduction in childhood and his later recognition that the child’s fantasies and the ensuing conflict could be adequate aetiological factors” (29; emphasis added). If only Beres had known when he was writing in 1959 that many analysts now think Freud got the “seduction hypothesis” right the first time!

Beres cited the analyst Ernst Kris’s crucial discovery that biographies of artists are often dominated by an implicit wish in the biographer to create a legend of “the social ascent from humble origins” (28). Literary scholars have mistakenly downplayed the significance of the artist’s life, because of their misguided assumptions about Shakespeare’s identity. Since de Vere was born into one of the most noble families in England and then suffered a severe decline in his fortune and personal reputation, he lends himself much more poorly to the legend of ascent from humble beginnings that Kris recurrently found in biographies of great artists.

Stratfordians rely heavily on projection in their feeble attempts to counter the now overwhelming evidence that de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s works. That is, during those rare “ad rerum” moments when they are addressing the evidence at all, and not resorting to their usual ad hominem evasions of the facts. Notoriously, they claim de Vere’s dates rule him out as the author. This claim ignores the fact that Shaksper of Stratford was born 14 years too late to have written the earlier versions of the plays. Some Stratfordian scholars (such as Harold Bloom and Eric Sams) have endorsed the theory that the so called Ur-Hamlet was written by Shakespeare. Some even conclude that the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet may have originated in that earlier draft.

Feldman worked under the assumption that de Vere was in fact the author of each successive draft of Hamlet, beginning in the 1580s. Feldman read Hamlet as a roman à clef, and he offered many keys to unlock the secrets of the actual people who are depicted (and often lambasted) in it. For example, he viewed Claudius as a composite figure who alludes not only to de Vere’s stepfather, but also to Robert Dudley, who won control of de Vere’s inheritance when his father died.8 “It would not have been unreasonable for de Vere to have entertained the suspicion of foul play in the death of his father …nor to have written a play about his suspicions, casting Dudley in the role of the usurper, King Claudius” (65). Such a formulation is consistent with Feldman’s emphasis on de Vere having “converted the death of Hamlet’s father from butchery done in the open at a feast [in his sources] to a crafty assassination in solitude” (67).

Feldman believed Charles Tyrrell lies behind some of de Vere’s other characters. Tyrrell was de Vere’s mother’s second husband. De Vere “once remarked to a drinking companion that his mother’s second husband had visited him in the figure of a ghost” (12). Feldman speculated that, in addition to contributing to Claudius, Tyrrell shows up as well in the character of Sir James Tyrrel, who murdered the boy prince Edward in Richard III. Feldman naturally agreed with the many 19th century Shakespeare scholars who identified Polonius as Lord Burghley—and he further postulated that less conscious hostility toward de Vere’s father also contributed to this characterization.

What did Feldman bring from psychoanalysis to his reading of Hamlet? Most significantly, he believed that knowing the identity of its author matters, in contrast with traditional Stratfordians who, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence against their man, ask “What difference does it make who the author was?” The identity of the author matters a great deal, because psychoanalysts’ cumulative clinical experience fully vindicates Freud’s theory of psychic determinism. That is, every human action, thought, feeling, and creative endeavor is influenced by a range of conscious and unconscious psychological conflicts, based on that individual’s unique life experiences, fantasies, and ways of coping with core neurotic conflicts.

Feldman decisively rejected the usual Stratfordian claim that Shakespeare’s native genius alone was the wellspring of his creativity. Sadly, this set him apart from nearly every analyst who has written on Shakespeare since Freud. Even the most brilliant analysts share the Stratfordian blind spot when it comes to thinking about the author of Shakespeare’s works, as they fall victim to the false dichotomy that claims those who want to correlate an author’s work with his life experiences are thereby denying the role of the imagination. Feldman plausibly characterized de Vere as exhibiting a high degree of narcissism. For example, in his 1953 exploration of the Sonnets, he posited that de Vere was narcissistically identified with Southampton, the Fair Youth. The magnitude of de Vere’s narcissism is also implicit in his identifying his alter ego Hamlet with Christ (see below).

Feldman analyzed Hamlet’s “play within the play” just as Freud analyzed the dream within a dream—as belying an unconscious wish to disavow the realistic nature of the content that is thus doubly framed. I am skeptical, however, about Feldman’s further contention that “It does not matter, the author seems to protest… I am innocent of the wickedness which the whole play appears to disclose” (109). Wanting to one-up de Vere with our depth psychological theories is an occupational hazard for all psychoanalysts. But here I feel sympathetic with Harold Bloom’s retort that Shakespeare himself discovered the unconscious first, long before Freud. Feldman admitted himself to be “puzzled by the name Hamlet gives his play” (110).

But in 1974, John Doebler pointed out that the “Mousetrap” alludes in its whimsical title to St. Augustine’s sermon that describes Christ on the cross as a “mousetrap” to catch the Devil.9 This trope suggests that human souls are the provender the mouse-devil is after, before getting diverted into God’s trap. Hamlet’s use of St. Augustine’s metaphor places Hamlet in a God-like role, using the “Mousetrap” play to ensnare the devilish Claudius before he can do further damage to Hamlet, Gertrude, and the state of Denmark. Further, Hamlet is thereby externalizing onto Claudius his own vexed relationship with the Ghost. That is, if Protestants are correct and there is no Purgatory, then the Ghost was likely to be not the soul of Hamlet’s father, but instead a devil in disguise, trying to “trap” Hamlet into committing the sin of murdering the possibly innocent Claudius.

For all that is timeless in Freud’s discoveries about the dynamic unconscious, some psychoanalytic theories (like some literary theories) are vulnerable to faddish trends that have the timelessness of a Roman candle. Reading Feldman’s book reminded me of a past era of analytic writing, when libido theory became a hammer that turned much of human experience into so many nails to be beaten down decisively by the overly confident analyst. There is certainly an element of truth in many of these formulations, but analysts are at risk of losing credibility with scholars in other fields with conclusions such as Feldman’s “More urethral than genital, [de Vere’s] maleness could delight in its reveries and day-delusions only for brief intervals” (127).

Feldman devoted so much attention to de Vere’s many alleged character flaws that he was aware some of his readers might conclude he was focused more on de Vere’s psychopathology than on his genius. He implied that there is no real dichotomy between these two endeavors, because de Vere wrote his final version of Hamlet “as if with the deliberate intention to portray the malady of his soul, to understand himself” (132), meaning that Feldman respected de Vere’s unparalleled self-scrutiny in exploring the depths of his tortured mind. One of de Vere’s strengths of character on which Feldman placed special emphasis was his gift for using wit to cope with life’s most profound challenges — “To my view, the humor of Hamlet, more than his passion or intellect or anything else, is the factor that turns his tragedy into the author’s autobiography” (68).

Feldman took on the controversial topic of de Vere’s sexuality. On this issue, many Oxfordians agree with Stratfordians in assuming the author, whoever he was, was purely heterosexual. So the Sonnets are read as non-autobiographical, unless they are interpreted according to the Tudor-son theory as addressed to de Vere’s ostensible son, the Earl of Southampton. As I explain in detail elsewhere,10 my reading of the Sonnets leads me to assume that de Vere was bisexual. Feldman accepted B.M. Ward’s conjecture that Barnabe Rich’s 1581 description of a certain “very womanly” London “gentlewoman” was a caricature of de Vere. Feldman speculated of de Vere’s effeminate clothing, “Evidently it did not occur to [de Vere] that one purpose of all this display might be the allurement of handsome men” (122).

Feldman admitted that the only direct evidence we have of de Vere’s homosexual behavior came from his enemies. Feldman was writing at a time when most psychoanalysts considered homosexuality to be prima facie evidence of psychopathology. So Feldman implied that de Vere’s “experiments with homosexuality” (123; or bisexuality, more accurately) were yet another symptom of his “derangement” (129). Feldman cogently imagined that de Vere’s childhood “love and dread” (129) of his impulse-ridden father led him to defend against oedipal wishes for his mother by identifying with his mother as his father’s sexual object, only to encounter his father’s disapproval of any open effeminacy.

Although analysts no longer regard homosexuality as an illness, many of Feldman’s comments about de Vere’s conflicts over his homosexual wishes strike me as plausible. Feldman speculated, for example, that in de Vere’s sexual encounters with males, “he probably confined himself to play the dominant male” (123).11 This hypothesis (although impossible to prove) is consistent with a line in Sonnet 20, asserting that Nature defeated the poet, “By adding one thing to my purpose nothing,” namely, the Fair Youth’s “prick.” Defenders of Shakespeare’s heterosexual bona fides always seize on this passage to argue that it proves conclusively that Shakespeare was not gay or bisexual.12 Feldman’s more specific formulation, however, leaves open the possibility that de Vere was saying he would only be a “top,” not a “bottom” (or “pathic”13) in a homosexual encounter with the Fair Youth. His unwillingness to be a recipient of homosexual intercourse might have reflected the dynamic Feldman described—a fear of his father’s condemnation of excessive femininity.

Hamlet’s famous final words are “the rest is silence” (V.ii.358). Is there any hint of conflicts about gender orientation here? This question might appear odd, but a proverbial expression in the early modern era was “The ornament of a woman is silence.”14 Consistent with some of Feldman’s ideas, we might speculate that Hamlet’s struggle against suicide includes his unconsciously equating life with his capacity to ward off his feminine identifications; and death with his surrender to them. Earlier in the final scene, Hamlet dismisses his doubts about having agreed to the fencing match with Laertes by saying those doubts are merely such misgivings “as would perhaps trouble a woman” (V.ii.216). That is, he bolsters his resolve to fight Laertes by repudiating fears that he regards as shamefully feminine.

Feldman joined the many scholars who emphasize religious imagery in Hamlet. Hamlet “adores prayer.” ‘shakespeare identified [Hamlet] with Jesus Christ,” and “Hamlet conceives of himself as a born savior” (all on 116). Feldman cited the description by one of de Vere’s servants that he was “indued with special piety” (117). Feldman sees in de Vere’s identification with God a reflection of his fantasy of fusion with his parents, based on the mechanism of oral incorporation. However, I am skeptical of Feldman’s assertion that, in de Vere’s final revision of Hamlet, de Vere “relinquished his former religious explanations,” becoming instead “a disciple of the Greek skeptics” (93). The assumption that de Vere settled on any final definitive view of life’s most profound questions may project onto him our intolerance of ambiguity, which de Vere was uniquely capable of tolerating.

As evidence that de Vere was still struggling with (if not resolving) religious questions, the final lines of Hamlet may contain some allusions to John Calvin’s conception of the sacrament of the Lord’s ‘supper” (or Holy Communion). After Horatio promises to answer Fortinbras’s question about death’s “feast” that requires so many dead bodies, Horatio adds, somewhat gratuitously, “all this can I/ Truly deliver” (V.ii.385-86). Five of the earliest six uses of “truly deliver” included in EEBO are in one book—a 1561 translation of Calvin’s The Institution of Christian Religion.15 Calvin wrote, for example, “in the mysterie of the Supper… Christ is truely delivered to us: namely that first we should growe together into one body with hym” (123). Similarly, Calvin wrote of the mystery of eating Christ’s flesh in the Lord’s Supper, “I nothing dout that bothe he [Christ] dothe truely deliver them” [i.e., his body and blood] (134).

De Vere’s extraordinarily associative mind seemed to retain virtually everything he had ever read. His writings are therefore brimming with literary allusions, whether deliberate or inadvertent. De Vere may not have intended it consciously, but there is an apparent allusion in Horatio’s words to the gist of the above passages from Calvin. Fortinbras himself seems to allude to the Holy Communion in his reference to the preparation of a “feast” with the several corpses lying before him. He thus reinforces the similar allusion in Horatio’s “truly delivered.”

In yet another passage in Calvin’s book, he wrote that “God….dothe not therfore shew himselfe mercyfull unto them, for that he havyng truely delivered them from death, dothe recyve them to his savegarde, but onely he discloseth to them a present mercie. But he vouchesaveth to graunt to the only electe the lively roote of fayth” (114). The previous paragraph includes the word “election” once, and “the electe” four times. Recall that the dying Hamlet said “But I do prophesy th” election lights/ On Fortinbras” (V.ii.355-56). In the context of the subsequent references to death’s “feast” and “truly deliver,” one can construe Hamlet’s words as implying that he is taking a God-like role in determining who will be among the “elect,” and not just favoring Fortinbras as the next king of Denmark.

Feldman’s book on Hamlet deserves a wide readership. His friends who had it re-published deserve our deepest thanks. I hope it will encourage the many people who love Hamlet to investigate the Oxfordian authorship hypothesis. And if Feldman’s example spurs other psychoanalysts to become “Oxfreudians,” so much the better.


1 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).

2 (New York: Norton, 2005.)

3 I am grateful to Dr. Anita Schmukler for providing information on Feldman’s life and career.

4 American Imago 10:113-165, 1953.

5 Feldman stated that the early analyst Ruth Mack Brunswick was an Oxfordian, but she did not commit herself to these views in print (2).

6 Or who received a friendly reception from analytic journals. From personal experience, I know this is no simple matter.  One analytic editor wrote to me just after he received my Oxfordian manuscript, “I have to tell you as a scholar that I consider the “anti-Stratfordian” argument to be comparable to a belief in UFOs…” He was just getting warmed up. A week later, he wrote, “It is out of the question that I could accept your flight of fancy… I have to tell you in all sincerity that you are in the grip of a delusional belief…I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough for you to see where I am coming from.  I am sorry if I seem harsh, and I would treat all this very differently if I were responding as a clinician and not as a scholar.  But you are asking me to take this seriously, and I have to tell you it’s hogwash.” (My article was enthusiastically accepted a month later by another psychoanalytic journal.)

7 “The Contribution of Psychoanalysis to the Biography of the Artist.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 40(1959):26-37.

8 Nina Green, “The Fall of the house of Oxford.” Brief Chronicles 1(2009):49-122.

9 Shakespeare’s Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery. (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1974).

10 “The Bisexuality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Implications for de Vere’s Authorship.” Psychoanalytic Review 97(2010):857-879. As I wrote there, of de Vere’s likely bisexuality, “A striking factor in scholarly debate about the Sonnets is a widespread assumption, based on …either/or thinking, that the poet was either heterosexual or homosexual… Many critics then use this evidence of his heterosexuality as prima facie evidence that he therefore could not possibly have been homosexual. A frequent example of this highly questionable line of reasoning is the argument that no homosexual poet would have urged his lover to marry, as Sonnets 1-17 urge… [W.H.] Auden is among those Sonnet critics who privately admitted what they publicly repudiated: that the first 126 Sonnets were about a consummated homosexual love affair.”
11 Only a few decades ago, the United States military took an analogous view, regarding passive homosexuality as severely pathological, while condoning men who took the active role sexually with other men.

12 In fact, Feldman himself, in his 1953 article, claimed that Sonnet 20 ‘should suffice to end all speculation concerning [de Vere’s] homosexuality” (131). However, he went on to admit two sentences later that “It is possible that Shakespeare [i.e., de Vere] experimented with male-love.”

13 According to the OED, a word first used by Ben Jonson in his 1605 Sejanus to denote “a man or boy who is the passive partner in homosexual anal intercourse.”

14 Attributed to Sophocles in the 1559 Chronicles of Thomas Lanquet. Also included in Henry Smith’s 1591 book, A Preparative to Marriage: Whereunto is Annexed a Treatise of the Lord’s Supper. EEBO has very few other similar early instances of the phrase “is silence” (other than in the phrase “there is silence”).

15 (London: Reinolde Wolfe and Richarde Harison). Although Stuart Gillespie’s comprehensive collection of Shakespeare’s literary allusions omits Calvin, Arthur Golding dedicated his translation of Calvin’s Psalm commentaries to de Vere. See Charles K. Cannon, “‘As in a Theater’: Hamlet in the Light of Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination.” Studies in English Literature 11 (1971): 203-222.

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