Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS and Modern Hermeneutics

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams
and Modern Hermeneutics

Laurence Coupe

Originally published in Sigmund Freud: Critical Approaches, ed. Laurie Spurling (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), Vol III, pp. 340-353.



The word ‘hermeneutics’ may be defined as ‘theory of interpretation’; it is usually complemented by the word ‘exegesis’, which denotes the application of that theory. Hermeneutics is at least as old as scriptural scholar¬ship: the post-exilic rabbis and the early church fathers sought to systematize their reading of the Torah and the Judaeo-Christian Bible respectively. But it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ‘hermeneutic’ signified a problematic. At that stage the other etymological elements in the term came to the fore: for the ancient Greek word from which it derived (the texts of Homer themselves had merited a systematic reading) had not one but three orientations of meaning. Apart from ‘interpretation’, hermenuein carried the suggestions of ‘expression’ and ‘translation’; and it was the questions raised by these — on the one hand authorial intentionality and on the other the later reader’s cultural distance from that moment — which came to embarrass the interpretative procedure.

The hermeneutical tension has been summarized by E.D. Hirsch as that between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. He formulates his distinction as follows:

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs repre¬sent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything else imaginable.(1)

For Hirsch a proper hermeneutics is that which does not confuse the one with the other. True interpretation always returns to the possible intention of the author, within which resides the meaning; mere evaluation tends to subsume the intended sign sequence under the critic’s own preoccupations, responses and conjectures.
In what follows I shall have occasion to draw on Hirsch’s distinction as a useful framework for outlining the development of modern hermeneutics. However, his own interest — in prioritizing ‘meaning’ over ‘significance’ — will itself be thrown into question as we come to consider the contribution of Freud to that history.

Hermeneutics before Freud

Before coming to Freud, we need a short overview of the theory of interpretation, as understood before his intervention.(2)

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), as a professional apologist for Christianity, was prompted to make, in response to the Enlightenment’s spirit of critique, a crucial distinction. He acknowledged that science was indeed a legitimate attempt to describe the external world; but he argued that it was a mistake for science to encroach upon the area of human feeling, that inner realm from which religious faith proceeded. In other words, objectivity could only take one so far; it could not account for the subjective state of, first, self-consciousness and second, following from that, dependence on God.

However, Schleiermacher’s was no simple rearguard action. He was quite prepared to open up the Bible to analysis of a scientific disposition: indeed, he was himself a major exponent of historical and critical scholarship within theology. Only, he wished to guide analysis by synthetic intuition, or what he called ‘divination’. ‘Grammatical’ interpretation — philology, textual study, comparative method — was a necessary rehearsal for faith; but faith itself was ultimately a matter of ‘psychological’ interpretation.

It is necessary to understand that Schleiermacher’s distinction is essentially continuous with that made by the early church fathers. They had assumed that the ‘literal’ meaning of the Judaeo-Christian Bible was trans¬parent in the same way as the ‘law’ had appeared to the scribes of Jesus’ day: the word of God had found perfect expression in the words of men. Where difficulties arose, and a particular text seemed inaccessible, it was to be recuperated by way of a ‘figurative’ reading. For example, the curious episode in the Book of Genesis, in which Jacob wrestles until daybreak with an unidentified opponent, was interpreted allegorically by Origen and St Jerome as an image of the need for the Christian to persevere in prayer.(3)

Within medieval Catholicism this distinction held good, now elaborated (in the light of the fathers’ hints) into a systematic exegesis authorized by ecclesiastical doctrine. Thus, though the scriptures were proclaimed to be thoroughly accessible, all interpretation was subject to the supervision of an increasingly authoritarian church. It was precisely such dogmatism that the reformers Luther and Calvin sought to resist, by returning abruptly to the ‘literal’ meaning of the sacred texts: far from needing definition by the episcopal hierarchy, the Bible interpreted itself freely to all those who had the faith.

However, once that step had been taken, and the divine word made entirely manifest once more, the scriptures became extremely vulnerable. As the historical and critical methods of the later seventeenth century were consolidated by the rational scepticism of the Enlightenment, theologians such as Schleiermacher had to defend Christianity itself from the apparently reductive drive of objective scholarship. In doing so, he could not fall back upon the kind of figurative recuperation sanctioned by the church fathers; but he effectively produced an enlightened variant upon it.

Thus we may see his ‘grammatical’ as a logical extension of the earlier ‘literal’ interpretation: indeed, both usages were known to Origen; Schleiermacher simply extended the definition of ‘grammar’. More importantly, ‘psychological’, with its Kantian acknowledgement of the role of the perceiver in constructing the world, revised ‘figurative’ interpretation. Nor should we ignore how this latter move simultaneously complied with Romantic interest in the mysteries of genius and in organic form. Thus the end of interpretation was the ‘divination’ of the author’s world, thought to inform the text at every point. Such an emphasis was certainly new in theology: previously the evangelists had been considered important chiefly in so far as their texts bore witness to the truth of the Messiah. It was not that biographical conjecture was being commended: rather, the specific gospel yielded hint after hint as to the authorial ‘psychology’, or spirit. The interpreter’s task was to perform a full ‘grammatical’ analysis and, as he proceeded, to infer from the parts examined — the words, the sentences, the chapters — the totality of the evangelist’s inspiration. Schleiermacher recognized the dialectical nature of this process, but went little further than to name it: ‘the hermeneutic circle’.(4)

It was left to Wilhelm Dilthey (1883-1911) to explore this whole problematic in philosophical — more specifically, epistemological — terms. For him hermeneutics was a ‘philosophy of life’ and the interpretation of texts a model of human understanding as such. Thus in the Diltheyan perspective Schleiermacher’s ‘circle’ applied not only to the scriptures but to all cultural expressions of the past: indeed these might not be texts at all (though literature, including the Bible was expression par excellence), but might take the form of rituals, institutions, laws.

To clarify Dilthey’s advance, we need to remind ourselves of the spirit of critique which we associate with the Enlightenment and which culminated in the figure of Kant. Schleiermacher felt it necessary to placate that spirit and acknowledge that figure by addressing the claims of science and by using a Kantian strategy to defend piety (religious feeling, like perception, being creative and autonomous). But Dilthey no longer felt that critical metaphysics offered any serious challenge to the interests he had inherited from Schleiermacher. On the contrary, he set out to restore Kant’s transcendental self to the ‘lived experience’ of history. For his enemy was not the metaphysical but the merely physical, as privileged by positivism; and he felt free to draw on Kant where necessary in his own critique, quite other than Kantian, of the new orthodoxy.

Hence in response to claims that the ‘natural sciences’ were sufficient basis for describing the world, he posited the need for ‘human sciences’ which might do justice to the subtleties of mental experience. Inert ‘explanation’ was not enough: active ‘understanding’ was called for. His ‘hermeneutic circle’ was a matter of tracing connections, subtly and progressively. This, he felt, was possible because the ‘psychological’ was not merely (as with his mentor) an individual category, but collective, cultural and historical.

Dilthey deemed humanity to be characterized by its capacity to express, and so to understand, experience. Human beings inevitably sought connections, within the world and with other human beings, in the present and with the past. In this last instance, involvement in the hermeneutic circle arose as the process of empathy, or understanding, began. For in pondering any cultural object of the past – notably, a literary text — one was seeking to bridge a huge gap of cultural difference. The author may have had an individual experience which he wished to express in the objective form of the text; but informing the author’s experience was a whole culture, which also sanctioned the textual form. Thus the interpreter was seeking to infer, not only an individual author’s ‘world’, but a whole ‘life unity’. The hermeneutic circle was not a textual dialectic, or even a text¬-author dialectic, but an emergent recognition of the ‘commonality’ of life unities within and beyond the cultural and temporal discrepancies. For what linked all cultural objects was the very fact of expressivity: that human need which, having found form, demanded the human response of interpretation.

We may judge Dilthey’s importance in extending Schleiermacher’s insights by juxtaposing their respective summations of the hermeneutic enterprise. For the earlier thinker, ‘Strict interpretation begins with misunderstanding and searches out a precise meaning.’ It was left to Dilthey to demonstrate systematically the impossibility of final understanding, and to make of cultural relativism a complete epistemology:

Our understanding of life is only a constant approximation; that life reveals quite different sides to us according to the point of view from which we consider its course in time is due to the nature of both understanding and life.(5)

Thus, where Schleiermacher worked on the premise that the individual author’s intention might ultimately be inferred and ‘meaning’ (in Hirsch’s usage) known, hermeneutics was now an account of historical humanity as constantly engaged in the creative tension between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’.

It may still be possible, however, to deny Dilthey the role of guiding spirit within twentieth-century interpretation. Two reservations are worth mentioning here.

One concerns his assumption of identity. Though Dilthey emphasized the temporal point of view, he did not go so far as to advocate an affective critical position: relativism did not permit a hermeneutics of pure response. The interpreter was, he argued, constrained by the original historical moment of the author’s experience as objectified in cultural expression. ‘Significance’ was not possible without ‘meaning’, and ‘meaning’ was inseparable from expressivity; the author’s cultural identity was at one with his textual identity.

The second reservation, which follows from the first, is that Dilthey’s extension of Schleiermacher’s ‘psychological’ interest, though it evaded the problematic of direct encounter (one to one, between writer and reader), was yet informed by an assumption of integrity. In the act of textual expression, the person of the author was conceived of as a psychic unity. Just as author coincided with his text, so he coincided, as it were, with himself. No contradictions were involved.

In both these related areas — identity and integrity — Freud’s unwitting contribution to modem hermeneutics was to prove decisive.


Freud’s hermeneutics

In traditional hermeneutics, as we have seen, the fundamental distinction was between the ‘literal’ and the ‘figurative’. Schleiermacher, extending the former concern by use of historical and critical scholarship, revised the latter as ‘divination’. Though this intuitive interest was parallel to the Romantic emphasis on imaginative individuality, he himself did not go so far as to explore the mysterious activities of genius. Nor indeed did his successor Dilthey, whose distinction between ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’, though derived from that of Schleiermacher between the ‘grammatical’ and the ‘psychological’ dimensions, was meant to justify an emphasis on cultural experience and expression rather than on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s individual ‘shaping spirit of imagination’. His ‘human sciences’ privileged communication above psychic exploration; for him artefacts were signs rather than symbols, indicative rather than polysemous.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) published Die Traumdeutung, subsequently translated as The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1899 (though it was actually dated 1900). By then he had already begun to demonstrate the inadequacy of a communication model of epistemology. With his colleague Breuer he had outlined four years earlier a sketch of the human ‘unconscious’, difficult of access due to the necessary mechanism of ‘repression’. The symptoms of hysterical patients, it seemed, resulted from the over-zealous repression of a ‘traumatic’ memory. Such a symptom would involve the patient in a long, tortuous process of therapy before the moment of ‘abreaction’, when the repressed memory would be released and a cure would be possible. This was because it was in the nature of hysterical symptoms to be ‘over-determined’, to arise from more than one event (the memory being in fact many memories).(6)

Granted that the hysteric was an extreme representative of dissociation, the very psychic model Freud had employed — memory, repression, unconscious — was enough to throw into question the expressive, integrated subject which Dilthey’s hermeneutics had assumed. Freud was discovering a humanity at odds with itself, a victim of the contradictory structure of its own psyche.

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud turned from symptoms to symbols, from hysterical deviation to the universal activity of sleep narrative, thus compounding the earlier challenge to assumptions of identity and integrity. Early on in the work, he explicitly rejects any kind of analysis which takes symbols to be signs, which expects a unitary meaning to be deciphered by reference to a handbook of unvarying symbolic properties. Freud seeks, as a psychoanalyst, to go beyond mere transcoding to a delicate articulation of the psychic production of images discernible in the patient’s ‘free association’ in therapy. Thus Dilthey’s cultural relativism becomes oneiric pluralism, that is, the acknowledgement of varying dream motives: ‘I … am prepared to find that the same piece of content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts’.(7) Though in any culture there will be a body of fixed symbols — in his own Freud discovers parents frequently represented by kings and queens, the penis by a tower or umbrella, the womb by a box or ship — what is important is the use to which these are put, the way they are structured in dream form by the particular patient. Interpretation, he claims, is not an empty repetition of the universal insight that the dream represents a ‘wish-fulfilment’. Rather, it has to negotiate the implications of the complete formula — ‘a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish’ — in case after case which resists the analytical aspiration to typicality.(8) Moreover, even when the dream has been revealed as embodying a repressed wish, one is still left with the distance between the fulfilling dream and the unfulfilled dreamer.

In the context of hermeneutics The Interpretation of Dreams might be regarded as the systematic acknowledgement of a split within interpretation. On the one hand, there persists the socially-oriented aim of mediating understanding, of clarifying that which has been obscure, and giving it discursive form. Indeed, Freud himself has to assume a unity of some kind in order to articulate the mystery: thus he refers to the process of ‘secondary revision’ by which most dreams attain their narrative shape, making them in effect dreams which have been ‘already interpreted once, before being submitted to waking interpretation’. On the other hand, the ‘dream-thoughts’ which he is seeking to elucidate do themselves bear witness to an anti-social, non-discursive realm of desire, conflict and angry frustration. The epigraph for the book from Virgil is thus well-chosen: ‘If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld.’ The repressed dream-wish ‘stirs up’ the ‘underworld’ of the unconscious and casts a shadow over the rational order of ‘heaven’.(9)

Here it may be objected that Freud was hardly the first western thinker to recognize the barbaric impulses within the apparently civilized mind. Schopenhauer had already depicted the world as ruled by a blind, insurgent ‘will’, and had advocated (with a new desperation) the traditional ideal of salvation through contemplation and art.(10) Nietzsche, resisting the hope of transcendence, had insisted that the ‘Dionysian’ remains a constant in our thinking even, or especially, when we presume to attain ‘Apollonian’ clarity and order.(11) However, Freud in the Interpretation goes further than either of these in setting out to demonstrate the workings of psychic contradiction or non-coincidence within a series of specific textual studies, and to use a specialised vocabulary to describe the textual organization.

The texts (which include not only patients’ dreams but also Freud’s own, together with works of literature), I shall consider briefly in the next section. Here it will be appropriate to explain some of the vocabulary. Most important to grasp is the distinction between the ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ contents of the dream. The wish-fulfilment, emerging or ascending into dream consciousness when the activity of sleep has weakened the forces of repression, is in the process given the surface interest of imagery, or plastic representation. The two main imaginative devices are ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’.

In the first instance, elements normally kept apart in waking life are fused in the dream: Freud cites the example of the ‘botanical monograph’ which in one of his own dreams represented many ideas, experiences and obsessions in one ‘manifest’ image. Like the symptom of the hysteric, condensation is made possible by the psychic arrangement of ‘over-determination’: the dream thereby fulfils several wishes, not just one. ‘If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space.’(12)

‘Displacement’ too is illustrative of over-determination: one dream phenomenon may appear central to the narrative, to the manifest content, but on closer inspection turns out to represent a transference from the complex of dream-thoughts onto an incidental detail. Freud cites his own dream of his uncle’s ‘fair beard’, which distracts attention from the underlying passion for promotion and status.(13) (See below.)

The account of such devices as condensation and displacement, with recurrent reference to specific dream narratives, fulfils and systematizes the interpretative promise of a Schopenhauer and a Nietzsche; it is the first attempt to spell out the consequences of the discovery of what we might call the contrary self. With Freud, notions such as identity and integrity appear to lose their force; and with them the Diltheyan sequence of expression, objective form and empathy. If the self is permanently divided between the claims of the manifest and latent contents, then hermeneutics cannot rest content with a model of communication and comprehension, but has to engage with the inaccessibly regressive drive of humanity to blind will, to the relentless energy of primitive desire. Freud’s demonstration through dream analysis that narratives do not simply say what the narrator means, but emerge from a conflict of forces, signifies a major shift in exegetical procedure.

Paul Ricouer has summarized the transition as that from ‘interpretation as recollection of meaning’ to ‘interpretation as exercise of suspicion’.(14) In terms of the tradition, it is as if the ‘literal’ or ‘grammatical’ level of meaning has been reduced to the matter of biological drives; and the ‘figurative’ has been released from the restraints of orthodox recuperation. In the terms of post-Enlightenment hermeneutics, it is as if individual ‘divination’ or the inference of ‘life unities’ is exposed as an empty rationalization of the nostalgia for integrity and identity. In Hirsch’s terms, ‘meaning’ can no longer be explained as intention; nor need ‘significance’ be constrained by the ideal of ‘what the author meant’.


Freud’s exegesis

Freud tells us in the Interpretation that his patients often resisted the idea that dreams could ultimately be seen as wish-fulfilments, but that he usually managed to persuade them that there were no simple dreams. He gives the example of the young aunt of two small boys, the elder of whom had died at the time when she was being courted by a young academic whom she very much desired to marry. Subsequently the man had broken off relations with her, however. In her dream she saw the younger boy too now lying in a coffin, his hands folded: the atmosphere and images of the dream narrative were reminiscent of the actual death of the elder brother. Freud was able to interpret the apparently straightforward anxiety dream as a disguised wish-fulfilment, in which the death of the younger boy was associated with the return of the suitor. He had been there at the time of the previous death (actually coming to pay his condolences) and so might well be there should another occur. The desire for the lover had been repressed, but the dream gave vent to the underlying wish in disguised form.(15)

Freud also recounts many of his own dreams, and interprets them similarly as resulting from the mechanism of repression. Prior to one such, he had been pleased to learn that he had been nominated for the position of assistant professor at his university. However, one evening soon after a friend had called to say that, though he too had aspirations to that rank, he had been unofficially advised that anti-semitism would ensure he, being a Jew, would not gain promotion. Freud, also a Jew, had therefore resigned himself to the failure of his own ambition. However, that night he had the following dream, in the form of a thought followed by an image:

1. My friend R. was my uncle – I had a great feeling of affection for him.

2. I saw before me his face, somewhat changed. It was as though it had been drawn out lengthways. A yellow beard that surrounded it, stood out especially clearly.(16)

Freud’s only uncle had in fact been a petty criminal at one time. If the friend was associated with the figure of the uncle by way of displacement (‘R.’ had a greying black beard, not a yellow one) then Freud is able to interpret the dream as a vindication of his own wish to be the legitimate candidate for assistant professorship: crime, not race, is now the issue. Moreover, the ‘affection’ he felt in the dream is seen to contribute to the psychic distortion: belonging to the surface narrative but not to the underlying dream-thoughts, it is designed to conceal the reality which interpretation will have to seek in retrospect. It is, in short, a means of disguise: the dream substitutes affection for contempt and so deceives the dreamer. Again, the mechanism of repression has to be uncovered, and the discrepancy between manifest and latent demonstrated.(17)

There are perhaps two ways of describing Freud’s exegesis in the above instances. On the one hand, we might say that it illustrates perfectly the hermeneutical transition which I have sketched in the last section: whatever the dream appears to be saying, analysis reveals distortion and censorship — the consequence of repression — to be at work. Division of the self is assumed, and the text of the dream is read accordingly. Freud thereby releases hermeneutics from the traditional constraints of transparency and recuperation, and in so doing renders exegesis dizzyingly open to infinite textual possibility. He himself spells out the implications for literature:

Just as all neurotic symptoms, and, for that matter, dreams, are capable of being over-interpreted and indeed need to be, if they are to be fully understood, so all genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind, and are open to more than a single interpretation.(18)

On the other hand, in his very expectation of full understanding, he is perfectly capable of making claims for his analysis which simply reproduce the excessive arrogance of positivism: ‘The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’.(19) Thus the Interpretation might itself be seen as a divided text: on the one hand, immanent exegesis; on the other, despite the protestations in the earlier part of the book, the transcendent perspective of a master-code.

In order to test this tension further, we must examine — in the light of the above pronouncement on ‘creative writings’ — Freud’s account of a specific literary text: namely, Hamlet. Having found in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex evidence that the majority of male children feel desire for the mother and antagonism towards the father, he argues that Shakespeare’s treatment of the Oedipal theme is less direct:

In the Oedipus the child’s wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and – just as in the case of a neurosis – we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.(20)

The reason for this indirectness is given as ‘the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind’.(21) Thus Hamlet, unlike Sophocles’ tragedy, is a play about hesitation, about the arrest of vital impulses through extreme repression of terrifying truths:

Hamlet is able to do anything — except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.(22)

The inner workings of the narrative are now revealed: the play is structured on the premise of an unrecognized Oedipal impulse or wish. The manifest content of the text may concern the morality of the revenge imperative, but the latent is quite other.

However, Freud does not rest content with the function of the protagonist within the plot, but moves further back to the authorial presence behind the textual form:

… it can of course only be the poet’s mind which confronts us in Hamlet. I observe in a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes (1896) a statement that Hamlet was written immediately after the death of Shakespeare’s father (in 1601), that is, under the immediate impact of his bereavement and, as we may well assume, while his childhood feelings about his father had been freshly revived.(23)

It may be that we are once again confronting a division within Freud’s hermeneutical practice. It is one thing to open up a text to new possibilities of significance; it is another to fit the text, in Procrustean manner, into the confines of theory.

The new possibilities discovered by Freud have been challenged by E.D. Hirsch Jr. According to him, the meaning of Hamlet remains what it always was, that is, what the author intended by the sign sequence produced. What is demanded is not biographical conjecture: Hirsch would not, for example, accept the use of dubious information from ‘a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes’. Rather, we are to engage with the ‘intrinsic genre’ which defined and facilitated the authorial intention. Thus if Hamlet belongs to the category of Renaissance revenge tragedy, then its meaning is inextricably bound up with generic expectations arising from Shakespeare’s decision to produce that kind of text. It is not valid, Hirsch asserts, to read the plot as if it were about an Oedipus complex, since Oedipal implications do not belong to ‘the type of meaning Shakespeare willed’. ‘He may have willed very broad implications,’ Hirsch concedes — a revenge tragedy will be about more things than revenge – ‘but he did not necessarily will all possible ones’; and we cannot interpret the text indefinitely. To do so is to subordinate ‘meaning’ to ‘significance’.(24)

The confines of Freudian theory have also been challenged, more recently, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. According to them, the very systematic nature of the ‘complex’ reading (consolidated five years after the Interpretation in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality), inevitably reduces the rich variety of not only the literary text but also the psychic life of the putative patient. Freud’s reading of Hamlet would then be as tyrranous as his analysis of dreams: in both cases, the infinite potential of narrative is translated into an entirely repressive master-code.(25) In Hirsch’s terms, if not in his strict usage, the ‘meaning’ of the Oedipus complex, deemed by Freud to be universal, gathers whatever varieties of ‘significance’ the text possesses into its omnivorous maw.

The above opposed views of Freudian exegesis do not, of course, exhaust the issue. We have still to engage with, for example, Freud’s curious use of biography. I have already indicated that this kind of procedure is proscribed in the hermeneutics of a Schleiermacher, a Dilthey or a Hirsch: the authorial presence is to be located within the text or not at all. But in his interpretation of Hamlet Freud feels no qualms about referring the play back directly to the individual subject and circumstance: it is Shakespeare, after all, to whom is attributed the Oedipal burden. Far less subtle in his handling of the generic work in Shakespeare’s art than in handling the dream-work in the patient’s psyche, he here simply repeats the language of Romantic expressivity, as articulated defiantly by Thomas Carlyle:

How could a man travel forward from rustic deer-poaching to such tragedy-writing, and not fall-in with sorrows by the way? Or, still better, how could a man delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so many suffering heroic hearts, if his own heroic heart had never suffered?(26)

In the instance of the Oedipal reading, then, Freudian hermeneutics would take us little further than nineteenth-century biographical criticism. ‘It is known, too, that Shakespeare’s own son who died at an early age bore the name of “Hamnet”, which is identical with “Hamlet”,’ Freud asserts. ‘Just as Hamlet deals with the relation of a son to his parents, so Macbeth [written at approximately the same period] is concerned with the subject of childlessness.'(27)

However, it is in the very next sentence that we are advised of the necessity to ‘over-interpret’ literary texts, since they are ‘the product of more than a single motive and more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind’. Having reduced Hamlet to autobiography, and ratified such a reduction by his own master-code, Freud once more insists on the infinite potential of ‘meaning’, to be complemented on the interpreter’s part by an infinite potential for ‘significance’. Moreover, here in one sentence the author of the Interpretation acknowledges the divided interest of his own text. On the one hand we have the ideal of full understanding, the attempt to discover ‘the poet’s mind’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘recollection’; on the other we have the capacity of texts to be ‘over-interpreted’, to attract ‘more than a single interpretation’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’.

We will look in vain through Freud’s book for a thorough dialectic of ‘recollection’ and  ‘suspicion’, or of ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. This is because Freud cannot at this stage articulate the full hermeneutical implications of his discoveries, being himself locked into the ‘problematic of the individual subject’.(28) But his symptomatic reading of Hamlet remains crucial for literary criticism in the twentieth century, not because of what it surmises about Shakespeare but because of its readiness to disrupt the text’s reception. ‘Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation.’(29) Crudely mimetic in itself, this revision of critical opinion yet opens up infinite possibilities, not necessarily to be confined by the individual problematic. Six years after the Interpretation, it is Freud himself who gestures towards a truly radical exegesis: in Psychopathic Characters on the Stage he includes Hamlet in that group of plays which rely for their effect on the neurotic in the spectator.(30) The play can then be seen as inducing in the audience the neurosis watched on stage and so, according to a recent account of Freud’s reading, ‘crossing over the boundaries between onstage and offstage and breaking down the habitual barriers of the mind. A particular type of drama, this form is none the less effective only through its capacity to implicate us all …'(31) In his essay Freud quotes Lessing: ‘A person who does not lose his reason under certain conditions can have no reason to lose’.(32) The literary text thus ceases to be an individual case-study and becomes a trans-individual, a cultural, challenge; it does not simply reveal its author but interrogates its readership.

It may be, paradoxically, that a thoroughly Freudian hermeneutics would be one that regained the Diltheyan sense of collective experience, expression and empathy: conscious, of course, that a ‘life unity’ is never stable; nor is it ever what it seems.



1. E.D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967) p. 8.

2. The following account partly derives from these secondary sources: Roy J. Howard, Three Faces of Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Rene Marle, Introduction to Hermeneutics (London: Burnes Bates, 1967); Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

3. See The Jerusalem Bible (London: Dayton, Longman and Todd, 1966) p. 53, note d.

4. Fr. D.E. Schleiermacher, ‘The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures’, trans. Jan Wojcik and Roland Haas, New Literary History X, 1 (Autumn 1978) p. 8.

5. Meaning in History: W. Dilthey’s Thoughts on History and Society, ed. H.P. Rickman (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) p. 109.

6. See Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893-95): as in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. II (London: Hogarth Press, 1955). Subsequent references will be abbreviated as SE.

7. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): as in SE, Vol. IV, p. 105.

8. SE IV, p. 160.

9. SE V, p. 490. (The Interpretation of Dreams takes up one and a half volumes in the Standard Edition.)

10. See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.J. Payne (New York: Dover Press, 1967).

11. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).

12. SE, IV, p. 279.

13. SE, IV, p. 305.

14. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970) pp. 28, 36.

15. SE IV, pp. 152-4.

16. SE IV, p. 137.

17. SE IV, pp. 191-3.

18. SE IV, p. 266. 19. SE V, p. 608. 20. SE IV, p. 264. 21. SE IV, p. 264. 22. SE IV, p. 265. 23. SE IV, p. 265.

24. E.D. Hirsch Jr, op. cit., pp. 78-126.

25. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, The Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert
Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977).

26. Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Hero as Poet’, Heroes and Hero-Worship, 1841: as in Christopher Butler and Alistair Fowler (ed.), Topics in Criticism (London: Longman, 1971), quotation 521.

27. SE IV, pp. 265-6.

28. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Methuen, 1981)
p. 66.

29. SE IV, p. 265.

30. SE VI, pp. 303-10.

31. Jacqueline Rose, ‘Hamlet — the Mona Lisa of Literature’, Critical Quarterly Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1986) p. 43.

32. SE VII, p. 309.