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It looks like the history of psychoanalysis can be written in the form of a history of various readings of Shakespeare, and particularly Hamlet. There seems to be an implicit rule ever since Freud's earliest papers: if one wants to establish oneself as an important psychoanalytic scholar, one simply has to write a piece on the interpretation of Shakespeare. Freud himself was inspired by Shakespeare during his entire life, reading his plays in the original English as early as he was eight years old and displaying an astonishing memory especially for Shakespeare late in his life. If we open any of Freud's clinical or theoretical works, or his various correspondences, which now comprise dozens of volumes, we find references to Shakespeare everywhere. Freud has, of course, merely initiated a tradition and was followed by a vast number of those who read Shakespeare through a psychoanalytic lens: Jones, Lacan, and Kohut first come to mind among "the classics"; Norman Holland, Bennett Simon, and Meg Harris-Williams are only a few among our contemporaries.
Marvin Bennett Krims, however, managed to find a vacant place and position himself as a unique voice in the psychoanalytic Bardology. Krims is a psychoanalyst and a clinical professor of psychiatry. Devoting the first decades of his professional career to therapeutic work, he started writing essays on Shakespeare at an age when many (even among psychoanalysts) contemplate retirement: he presented the first one in 1992 at the "XII Annual Conference on Literature and Psychology." Since then, he has published almost a dozen more, comprising, finally, a full volume in 2006.
The book in question brings a sort of freshness to psychoanalytic readings of Shakespeare. Throughout the book Krims constructs an analogy between reading and clinical therapeutic work. I believe that we could discern three levels of this analogy, each of them characterized by a different level of originality and importance.
The first level is explicitly methodological. Krims proposes the thesis that "the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis has matured into one of reciprocity" (p. ix), that both disciplines, different as they are, can learn from each other and influence each other. Furthermore, Krims believes that they can perform each other's original functions: "[...] for many people, the experience of literature can be a central feature of self-discovery and emotional conflict resolution" (p. 189). In other words, Krims believes that for some people literature can be almost as therapeutic as psychoanalysis.
The second level lies in the author's efforts "[...] to show how close study of the words of the characters reveals their inner minds" (p. 189). While reading Shakespeare, he wonders "about what childhood trauma might be inferred from the characters' words, just the sort of thing I do to help real people understand themselves," and does, for instance, "a close reading of Romeo's words set in a clinical frame" (p. 78). This leads to a certain kind of "subjunctive" approach (its extent varies from chapter to chapter), whose acceptability will be judged differently by different readers.
The third level is where Krims' true originality comes forth. It is revealed in the following confession: "However, all the while I was writing about [Shakespeare's characters], I knew that what I chose to focus on was what really mattered to me" (p. 189). Therefore, the author wrote an epilogue in which he described a life-long connection with (at first also an evasion from and a misunderstanding of) Shakespeare. The epilogue is written so honestly that I cannot disagree with the author's statement that "it is unusual -- unprecedented as far as I know -- for a psychoanalyst to supply so much detailed commentary about the role of his own unconscious conflicts in a collection of his essays" (p. 178). And when the reader returns to the book after reading the epilogue, he/she discovers that such autobiographical elements can be found in almost all of the papers. The processes of reading Shakespeare's plays and, even more significantly, of writing papers about them were personally important to Krims: "The experience was therapeutic in the strictly psychoanalytic sense of the word, for I learned something new and helpful about myself, something I had not known before. The text had analyzed me! ... a process similar to psychoanalysis in effect, and yet so very different in form" (p. xv-xvi).
Finally, Krims offers some original contributions to psychoanalytic studies of Shakespeare. In his essay on Coriolanus -- which is in fact entitled after Coriolanus's mother Volumnia -- Krims offers finer nuances compared to previous interpretations. While the relationship between these two characters has been interpreted as one of a cold and ambitious mother and her cruel creation that eventually abandons her, Krims offers a reading of it as partly determined by the small child's inborn features.
In his reading of Hamlet, Krims offers an addition to the classical psychoanalytic interpretation. The key is the Oedipus complex, but this time its negative form: "[Hamlet's] fury against his mother for her desire for Claudius is a projection of his fury against himself for the same desire" (p. 68), and "if he had been his father's wife, he would be a faithful widow" (p. 67).
In the essay I enjoyed most, Krims reads Shakespeare's most tragic play as if it were centered on Lear's inability to experience and work through the pain of ageing and loss. Equally original is his effort "[...] to show that the famous 'love test' ... is arguably Shakespeare at his intuitive best, perfectly anticipating the nature of Lear's disintegration that follows" (p. 129).
This chapter, which for the author must have been of a special emotional significance, is followed by a short fiction. Namely, in the last chapter Krims offers an imaginary analysis of Beatrice from Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. In an epistolary exchange, Krims uses Shakespeare's verse to write the character's letters to which he then replies as if they represented analytic material.
Harold Bloom claimed that Shakespeare was the inventor of the human. Although this claim per se could be the topic of various further discussions, it seems without doubt that Shakespeare has invented Marvin Krims -- a person, an analyst, and an author who seems to have matured through a seemingly endless process of discovering his inner contents in the virtual minds of Shakespeare's characters.
© 2007 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia