Michael K vs Hamlet

I digress.

JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is not my personal favourite of the South African-born Man Booker Prize winner and Nobel Laureate. Rather, it is The Life and Times of Michael K for which he was awarded his first Booker Prize.

I used Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex to perform a literary review of Coetzee’s text.

I also selected William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to see whether I could draw any comparisons with Michael K and the Prince of Denmark.

I took a brief look at Freud’s proposals of mechanisms of displacement, condensation and symbolism.

In order to demonstrate effectively how a Freudian interpretation of Life and Times of Michael K is successfully carried out, a brief outline of the origins of the Greek tragedy, the Oedipus Myth, and Freud’s use of it was given. The other Freudian proposals were inserted in my analysis where I felt a need to do so.

The Oedipus complex is concerned with emotions and ideas that the subconscious mind represses.

Freud declares that it is concerned with a boy’s desire to sexually possess his mother and kill his father.

The Shakespearean text of Hamlet comes close to emulating this myth when Hamlet seeks to avenge his father’s murder by killing the usurper to his father’s throne.  This Freudian complex originates from the Greek mythological play Oedipus Rex where Oedipus kills his father and unwittingly marries his mother. It is affirmed as an incestuous wish for the mother, jealousy for and a desire to kill the father who bars access to the mother.

Freud concluded that certain mechanisms or processes are in force in the human subconscious by means of which the unconscious deals with repressed material. These mechanisms are known as displacement, condensation, symbolisation and sublimation. Is it not necessary then to understand what these psychoanalytic terms, as devised by Freud, mean?

By displacement it is meant that a “ dream-wish “ is distorted as a result of censorship which steers psychic interest away from a source of psychic conflict, such as in the desire to murder one’s father. It is further stated that repression takes place without the will, decision, or knowledge of the subject.

Both Shakespeare and Coetzee’s texts counter these proposals to a degree. In Hamlet, the protagonist is encouraged to kill his step-father, not his biological father, by a ghost of his deceased father, and not within a dream.

In Life and Times of Michael K, the protagonist does not know of his father and does not desire to seek out his father, but is an unwilling rebel against a patriarchal, militarist regime.

We learn that in a conscious world there is censorship and that we are faced with moral choices. These moral choices plague Hamlet, epitomised in the famous “to be or not to be“ speech.  It would appear that on the surface Michael K does not wrestle with any moral dilemmas and only has a desire to live in peaceful solitude, nurturing and planting. In this process K misses his deceased mother (and not an absent father).

Through condensation, meanings in several chains of association come together in a single idea. We learn that symbols are figures of speech and that what is symbolised is unconscious. Dreams make use of symbols to disguise hidden thought, but in both Hamlet and Life and Times of Michael K, the sources of the protagonists’ perceived hidden ideas, thoughts and dreams are an entirely different matter.

Hamlet does not dream of his father’s death. It is replayed vividly to him by his father’s ghost. Hamlet’s private thoughts of avenging his father’s death is given public effect through the  performance of a play within a play in The Mouse Trap where a pantomime of his father’s death is conducted before the guilty Claudius, the deceased king’s brother.

Michael K spends much of his time sleeping and the narrative of Life and Times of Michael K does not recall any dreams, giving the impression that Michael, as a simpleton, is incapable of having dreams.  He does, however, dream of his “mother with flaming hair“.

coloured woman

To conclude that Shakespeare’s version of the Oedipus myth is a counterfoil to Freud’s analogy, I believe that Hamlet has no incestuous desires towards his mother and is rather intent on avenging his father’s death by Claudius. He in no way detests his father and is rather appalled by his mother’s incestuous marriage to Claudius.

There is a stronger possibility, however, of the Oedipus complex being evident in the few thoughts of Michael K whose first desire is to care for his ailing mother. When she dies, it is K’s mission to see that she is laid to rest, as it were, in her childhood town of Prince Albert. Unlike Hamlet and Oedipus, Michael does not commit suicide. He does, however, neglect his already distorted physical appearance, preferring to be isolated and dead to the real world. Like Oedipus, K is an ill-begotten child;

“She shivered to think of what had been growing in her all these months“

A key part of Coetzee’s text, to my mind, summarises the allusion to the Oedipus myth and idea of the Oedipus complex;

“So there is a place for burning, K thought. He imagined the old women from the ward fed one after another, eyes pirched against the heat, lips pinched, hands at their sides, into the fiery furnace. First the hair, in a hale of flame, then after a while everything else, to the last things, burning and crumbling. And it was happening all the time.“

Derek Attwell, writing in Father and Mother – Writing in the Cauldron of History, suggests that there is a binary opposition between the principles of the father and mother.  I have already mentioned that K did not know his biological father. Attwell suggests that “the father here is the political father, with its roots in psychoanalysis. As the mother (not the son) opposes the father, gardening is the opposite of this corrosive notion of power. “

In Hamlet there is no direct threat of castration from the father, while in Life and Times of Michael K, the protagonist is always under threat, both figuratively and literally.

By banishing him to England to subvert his efforts of avenging his father’s death, it is clear that Claudius is Hamlet’s immediate threat in the place of his biological father.

In Life and Times of Michael K, the protagonist’s mother, Anna K, and later after her death, the military and medical officers, take the place of K’s absent father, always conflicting with his desire to be left alone.

Freud suggests that through education, the young adolescent is taught to inhibit, forbid and suppress subconscious desires and emotions.

For Hamlet, this is certainly true as he wrestles with the emotive issue of murdering his uncle, Claudius. He certainly recognises that even if he acts justifiably, his act is still murderous.

Michael K has no formal education which can match that given to Hamlet, and is thus ill-equipped and inadequate in dealing with the human conflict that he is faced with. In fact, while Hamlet is portrayed as a virile, intellectual, royal-blooded male, capable of fulfilling his father’s wish of successfully ascending to the throne of King of Denmark, Michael K can be characterised as an underdeveloped male, malnourished by choice, it would seem, with androgynous, bisexual tendencies which Freud suggests is prevalent in a small child of, say eight years of age.

Indeed, K has no sexual desires towards others as is seen when he is unresponsive to a vagrant who fellates him. I argue that while K lacks an interest in sex, the development mentioned here should be more accurately categorised as asexual. The bisexual tendency is only evident at a much later, pubescent stage of development.

Here, we come dangerously close to suspecting a homosexual tendency in Hamlet’s character as he forbids any love relationship with Ophelia, the daughter of Claudius’ ally and confidant, Polonius. We are also reminded that during the Elizabethan age during which Hamlet and most of Shakespeare’s other plays were staged, all characters, both male and female, were peculiarly played by men.

Finally, neither Shakespeare nor JM Coetzee has deliberately intertextualised the Oedipus myth.  Freud’s psychoanalytical formulations may be correct as shown in the play and literary text where both characters are remarkably close to their mothers and both literally and figuratively seek to quell the threat posed by their father figures.


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