Blog Post

Shakespearean slips

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

I am wondering whether Shakespeare invented the Freudian slip.

Did other people before Shakespeare represent mistakes on stage? I am thinking of the way Shakespeare has people make everyday mistakes (the mistakes of everyday life), as in certain kinds of forgetfulness

Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well: something it is I would--
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (Cleopatra)

 

what was I about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave? (Polonius)


HOTSPUR    Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower,
Will you sit down?
And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.

 

KENT               I am come
To bid my king and master aye good night:
Is he not here?

ALBANY   Great thing of us forgot!
Speak, Edmund, where's the king? and where's Cordelia?
 

I don't think this is just the reality effect, though it is that. Or maybe it would be better to say that the reality effect is one in which something real is going on, something real offered and bargained for and exchanged and clarified.  It matters to Polonius that he was about to say something, and it matters that Reynaldo reminds him of what he wanted to say, show's him a kindness where Hamlet would scorn him.  It matters that Albany forgets Lear and that he has to remember him before Edmund is willing to help: recalling the fates of Lear and Cordelia makes Edmund count.

In a previous post I alluded to Grice's distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  A fever of 102 degrees F means you're sick, whether you say so or not; "I'm sick and can't come to work today" also means you're sick, whether you are or not.

Freud (we know) had trouble with theorizing repression, because the unconscious mind seemed split between the part that wanted to tell the truth (about its desires, judgments, demands, etc.) and the part that was censoring the part that wanted to tell the truth.  The result of this split was a compromise formation: the unconscious got to tell the truth slant.  Parapraxes -- Freudian slips -- were good evidence for this, he thought.  Whether this is true or not, it's certainly true in some literary contests, where a writer or performer imitates a telling and revelatory lapsus linguae.  But how do we analyze how it's telling?

Does an unconscious communication, a hysterical symptom, a slip of the tongue, mean naturalistically (it's a sympton! like a fever) or non-naturalistically (it's discursive! it knows what it's saying and wants to say it).  Some extreme Freudian formulations (I am looking at you through my -- gulp! -- myopic eyes, Otto Fenichel) saw all symptoms as non-naturalistic meaning, as expressions of unconscious intentions.  Although the intentions themselves might not have been intentions to express, so that naturalistic meaning can come back that way, this doesn't seem true of slips of the tongue: they are my unconscious talking, and my unconscious is talking to you.  So they may have naturalistic meaning on a conscious level (they mean I am repressing something) and non-naturalistic meaning on the unconscious level: they say what my unconscious mind wants to say.

I am interested in costly or honest signaling, how such signaling evolved, what happens when such signaling interacts with conscious expressive intention, what such signaling hopes to elicit (e.g. Reynaldo's aid, Antony's love, Hotspurian enthusiasm; in the Lear case, it's more like we've all forgotten, and need Edmund as he needs to be needed: Albany's forgetfulness is his as well, and only Kent remembers).  One argument in favor of Freud's view is that Freudian slips would be uncontrollable and therefore honest signals, and cooperative species, especially hypercooperative species like our own, need honest signals.  Freudian slips, and maybe the Freudian unconscious, solve a problem in cooperation for a species that has to be able to use language in an extremely skillful and fine-grained way, without being able to lie too easily and at will.  We need to be able to tell when someone is lying, and the way to tell that is both by detecting lies and by detecting truths that they might not wish to admit.  (Some of these truths can be happy ones: she's too shy to admit it but she does love me! Upon that hint I'll speak!)

Anyhow, I think Shakespeare saw this and used it.  Here are two examples of classic Freudian slips, a quick one and a more subtle and therefore more telling one (since what's telling about them is the point).  The quick one is this: when at the end of Twelfth Night Orsino realizes that his page and friend is actually a woman, Viola, he's delighted.  He can marry her.  His repressed homoerotic affection for her now finds heteronormative (sorry, seriously) legitimation.  And so he speaks, and calls her... Caesario.


Cesario, come.
For so you shall be, while you are a man...


He quickly corrects himself, but the mistake isn't one.  That she is pricked out as Cesario is not a bug but a feature.

Here’s my other, longer example, from Richard II.  Richard has gone to Ireland, his rebel cousin Bullingbrook has landed at Ravenspurgh in Yorkshire.  York is the last, despairing survivor of the previous generation.  The trouble in the play begins when his brother (Bullingbrook’s father) the Duke of Lancaster dies; now he receives news that his sister-in-law (“my sister Gloucester”), who had been the close confidante of the last two surviving brothers has just died, and he is the last surviving member of the great generation of Edward’s sons and their widows.  The Duchess of Gloucester doesn’t count as one of them in the psychology of the play because she is not a widow, but a wife and mother who will be called on to interpose between husband and son.  Shakespeare has a bit of playcraft to do here; he has to make plausible the fact that York will change sides, and that the Duchess of York isn’t reason enough to stay loyal to the old regime and its legacy, though loyalty is his natural instinct.  The whole play is about the counterpoint, divergence and convergence between public, politico-theological fidelity and obligation on the one hand and private loyalties and motives on the other.  Shakespeare must represent York as a figure who believes himself to be acting according to the dictates of political theology (as his brother Gloucester certainly had), but who nevertheless is too weak-willed and weak-minded to represent the true principle that he wishes to and thinks he does.  So Shakespeare makes him needy: what’s best is to feel that public duty and private commitment coincide.

Shakespeare has already begun this portrait of his character by showing how Richard manipulates him (in the same way but far more easily than he manipulated Lancaster into voting to banish his own son) by making him his deputy when he goes to Ireland, playing on York’s desire to show his loyalty against his own private preferences, while realizing that this desire is itself a private preference. The Queen contributes to that.  Everyone capable of loving loves her (a fact Bullingbrook capitalizes on); we do, and York does too, so that she adds a private incentive to his preference to do the right official thing.  The Freudian slip that Shakespeare writes for York shows his neediness, his loneliness, his fecklessness and confusion, all of which are necessary to his character, even while adding another touch to the portrait of the sorrow of the Queen, whose husband is later to be murdered just as the Duchess of Gloucester has been murdered.  Off York must go to prepare for Bullingbrook’s invasion, and he takes the Queen with him, calling on her (as Orsino has called on Cesario):

Come, sister,--cousin, I would say--pray, pardon me.

He wants her to be his sister, to replace the sister he has just lost who herself replaced the brother he had lost before.   But she is not his sister and won’t be Queen long, and he no longer has a friend or close relation to support him in his last attempt to support his generation’s view of the world.  He is like Polonius, flustered by a new world, whose grimness his discomfiture underlines. We see he's flustered, we see his need.  Shakespeare, at least, thought such slips worth the telling.  He may not have invented, but discovered them. 

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).