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Magical thinking in Shakespeare's tragedies

Marina Christi Favila, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Put simply, magical thinking is the belief that one may affect reality by thought alone. Where Freud classifies such a concept as neurotic delusion, Winnicott embraces the idea as a memory from infancy and argues that "omnipotence of thoughts" is the origin of creativity. Both viewpoints are represented in Shakespeare's universe, their positions sometimes at war in the playing out of the hero's dilemma. This dissertation traces the idea of magical thinking through psychoanalysis, anthropology, and art, then explores the battle of thoughts in Shakespeare's tragedies. Freud's viewpoint is well-founded in Hamlet: for thoughts in Denmark are not tools with which to control reality, but a reality that cannot be controlled. The hero drowns in thoughts. He cannot escape them, particularly the thought of Gertrude's infidelity, which resurfaces in dagger words and pregnant metaphors, to the point that sometimes Hamlet forgets his revenge. His search to find a plan to kill the king thus parallels his search to find a way to kill his thoughts. Hamlet tries to bury them in the actor, who can control his thoughts long enough to "act." Both Othello and Macbeth likewise flounder in thoughts they can't control. Othello's thought echoes Hamlet's thought of a woman's infidelity. Othello cannot live with this thought, forget or disprove it. Indeed the thought is like virginity itself: once thought, he can never reclaim his ignorance or his wife's innocence. So he buries the thought in Desdemona's body--then kills it. The thoughts that plague Macbeth, however, are the result, not the cause, of his killing. He murders Duncan and Banquo only to be buried alive with "those thoughts that should indeed have died/With them they think on." Hamlet tries to escape thoughts. Othello's thoughts betray him. Macbeth defies them. Cleopatra embraces them--wholeheartedly, She is the mistress of magical thinking, Winnicott's "good-enough mother," nursing Antony on desire. Though the lovers' dream to be legends, god and goddess, may be delusional, their wish is transformed into a beautiful illusion for the audience as they birth death as Elysium, tragedy as romance, through the magic of poetry.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater

Recommended Citation

Favila, Marina Christi, "Magical thinking in Shakespeare's tragedies" (1995). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9541103.