Notes on Trauma and Repetition Compulsion in Macbeth

William Shakespeare’s plays occasionally have been subjects of psychoanalytical literary criticism since the theory was first founded by Sigmund Freud. Firstly, Freud interpreted Hamlet from a psychoanalytical point of view. Later Jacques Lacan proposed a different approach on this play. Freud’s interpretation on Hamlet is based on the relation between Hamlet and his father. However, Lacan stressed Hamlet’s relation to his mother. Both theories on Hamlet stems from the basic argument which posits that Hamlet is facing an Oedipal struggle. The lack of parental relations of Macbeth in the play doesn’t prevent a critic to focus on Oedipal struggle, such that the play implicates the themes around violence, hallucinations, madness and death which make it available to be analyzed psychoanalytically. In doing so, I argue that the most important theoretical subject matter in the play is the notions of trauma and repetition compulsion which either leads to extreme emotional responses or recurrence of Oedipus complex.
The word, trauma etymologically stems from a word in Greek, meaning wound. The verb means to pierce, something that comes from outside and tear the skin. In piercing, there is something that punctures the protective shield of psyche. Thus, wound has long lasting effect on the organism on which the act of puncturing leaves a mark. It is an event with intensity and subject’s incapacity to respond adequately. In the earlier stages of Freud’s psychoanalytical theory (1895-1900), he basically considers trauma as an excessive influx of excitations. Freud’s theory of the psychic economy refers to the cyclation of energy; when there is too much excitation, there is a traumatic event. The ego functions something like a layer, a shield that protects from external stimuli, letting only the right amounts of excitations. When the shield breaks, the psyche tries to reduce and restore general level of circulation of energy so that pleasure principle may be restored. Freudian analysis of trauma suggests that the ego develops a pathological defense which is repression. Macbeth, in act 2 scene 1, imagines a dagger and talks to himself. Several discussions since revealed that the murder of Duncan has already started when Macbeth talks to the imaginary dagger. At this point of the play, Macbeth is struggling with too much excitation, and by creating an imaginary murder in his mind, he stays between the boundaries between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Meanwhile, his ego restores the excitation and bears with it with repression which comes out to express itself as a vision, a hallucination. Hence Macbeth suffers from a high level of neurosis.
In act 2 scene 2, an interesting event happens. Lady Macbeth, who encouraged and nearly provoked Macbeth to kill Duncan by humiliating his manhood, is unable to murder Duncan herself. She looks at Duncan’s face and it reminds of her father. Her inability to kill Duncan, who is a proper father figure throughout the play, indicates Lady Macbeth’s Oedipus struggle which, according to Lacan, the originary trauma of the individual’s psyche. On one hand, Lady Macbeth is hostile against Duncan. He is the symbol of power in the play. She wants to get rid of him and wants Macbeth, her object of love, to replace him. Thus, she constantly edits Macbeth’s thoughts and tells him to act like a man; a powerful father figure. On the other hand, she is in awe of Duncan’s power. As a consequence of her Oedipus complex, she cannot destroy him. She feels herself powerless against this father figure. When Duncan is destroyed, Lady Macbeth realizes that Macbeth couldn’t replace Duncan; he had enemies, he killed Banquo, saw his ghost, acted weirdly in a stage of psychosis. Consequently, in act 5 scene 1, we see her in the stage of psychosis when she sees bloody visions. Until her death, she suffers from psychosis, which was a result of her Oedipal struggle. Jacques Lacan, in his essays on Hamlet, uses the notion trauma frequently. Trauma for Lacan is something which shapes and marks the subject forever. Besides, trauma is something that the subject doesn’t experience. It is, all those which aren’t mastered by the subject but produced the subject. The mind tends to re-experience the trauma in order to master it, and this is what Lacan defines as repetition compulsion. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s continuous bloody visions in her psychotic stage signify the way trauma is experienced in the psyche of the subject. In the meantime, the subject’s ego is unable to cope with too much excitation within psychic economy and therefore death becomes a salvation for Lady Macbeth.
After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth also kills Banquo; who was his loyal friend, but a serious rival. In act 3 scene 4, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in Macbeth’s place. The ghost vanishes, and then comes again. This scene displays the way repetition compulsion works in Macbeth’s psyche, in order to master the trauma. Macbeth murdered Duncan to become more powerful, however he had more enemies that prevented him to gain more power. In accordance to his ambitions, he murdered Banquo to get rid of one more obstacle, but again he couldn’t gain more power and ended up in psychosis. The more he destroyed and murdered in the sake of his ambitions, the more he got powerless. This situation can be explained on the basis of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth revolves around the repetition compulsion. In his seminar on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, Lacan proposed the idea of analyzing a literary text on the basis of repetition compulsion. According to Lacan, the letter returns, where it started. The movement of the letter symbolizes the movement of the phallus. The basic argument of Lacan is that the letter does its job without its content and independently from its content. In a structuralist point of view, we can say that the function of the signifier stands for the signified. The letter is doing something; it enables the narrative, without even suggesting any relevance of its signified. The further complexity of Lacanian interpretation of The Purloined Letter argues that the power that one receives from the letter is the power for which not using it. If one ever uses it, s/he will lose the power. It is a power which depends on not being used. Similarly, in Macbeth, the signifier which enables the narrative is the kingship as the phallus. Unlike Duncan, Macbeth becomes a destructive tyrant when he practices his power. In the end, the kingship returns to where it started; Malcolm, the son of Duncan.


  1. I really found this essay, or summation, quite interesting and helpful.

    many thanks!


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