Freud on Shakespeare

I named “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre” after my painter great-uncle, but his brother Richard was equally artistic. He was a playwright and the foremost translator of Shakespeare who on returning to Vienna from London after World War Two gained renewed recognition for his work.

He conducted a pre-war correspondence with Sigmund Freud when he was at the peak of his creative career.

in the evenings after finishing his work as a lawyer, a profession he had entered to please his Schnapps bar owner father, he would devote himself to his true passion, the theatre.

In 1930, he had sent Freud a copy of his new translation of ‘King Lear‘, and asked the great man a pointed question: Should Lear be considered hysterical or mad?

In his reply, Freud said he had first reread the play, and that of course one could not ask of a poet that he should describe the symptoms of a particular mental illness. The audience’s expectation should be the plausibility of the character’s behaviour.

“This is the case with Lear,” Freud added. “We do not take offence when we see that in his mortification he loses touch with reality. Nor when he revels in fantasies of revenge. Nor when in the outpouring of his grief he raves and rages – although such behaviour does not conform to the character of psychosis.

“Besides, I wonder if such mixed cases do not occur in reality often enough, cases where an affective persistence of the trauma goes with a psychotic aversion to it. The fact that he calms down and shows normal reactions as soon as he feels secure with Cordelia does not seem to me ground enough to diagnose a case of hysteria.”

Later during his London exile, Freud replied to another letter from Richard, to say that he found his own earlier remarks to be “neither very profound nor absolutely correct”. He added that he assumed “there are in Lear’s mind personal associations of a more deeply rooted nature. I have not formulated them, nor do I wish to deal with them just at present.”

In 1930s Vienna, Freud had also thanked Richard for his German edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. “Many thanks for your translation of the sonnets. I must confess to being astonished that anyone has been able to translate them in such a way. I know how great the difficulties are that stand in the path of rendering this sort of poetry.”

“In front of me,” wrote Freud, “lies a book, ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Edward de Vere‘, by Gerald H Rendall. The author maintains that these poems are addressed to the Earl of Southampton and written by de Vere, who was the 17th Earl of Oxford. Actually I am almost convinced that none other than this aristocrat was our Shakespeare. In the light of this theory the Sonnets obtain much greater comprehensibility.”

Richard, with all due reverence to Professor Freud, was later to comment in his memoir: “If I am called to believe that the plays were in fact written by somebody who was not a practical theatre man, then I believe that the moon is a round piece of cheese.”