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Hamlet, the First Dialogical Character in World Literature

By Rami Ibrahim


 Art has been used historically as a means of political and cultural ‘reproduction’ due to its capacity to circulate the shared experience of a certain community. Given that art is playing a role in reflecting, shaping and guiding  individual and social behavior, it is  likely to be a good source for the psychological research  concerned with relational channels between culture, society and personality, which is the domain of my research. I am deeply concerned in this article with some aspects of the relationship between art and psychology and how the different roles of art can open new areas of scholarship. To illustrate, Renaisance art has paved the way for psychology in the same way art evolved from mythology and religion.

A psychologically-interesting character

Given that literature is an artistic genre that provides more room for society, culture and personality and drama is a literary genre that is based on dialogue (one aspect of dialogicality), I have chosen a play by a Renissance playwright, Williame Shakespeare, to trace the roots of dialogicality in art. I hypothesize that the new role of art under Queen Elisabeth and her renaissance era has enabled Shakespeare to come up with a psychologically-interesting character, and hence contributing to building the literary pillars of psychology as a human science. In the body of my article I will try to answer the following research questions:

  1. How could the different role of literature produce a literary character that psychologist find interesting and reliable as a source of psychological research?

  2. How do literary themes and forms shift the focus from society to the individual and hence becoming interesting for psychology?

  3. Can we have a dialogical interpretation of Hamlet the way we have a Freudian interpretation?


Answering these questions help provide support for my hypothesis and to do this I will analyze Hamlet’s character from a psychologist and dialogical point of view and trace Shakespeare’s role in introducing, advocating and paving the way for dialogicality. I will explore the ideas of some scholars who wrote about dialogicality like Tania Zittoun and Markova and another who relied partly on Hamlet to prove his well-known theory in psychology, Freud.

Social and cultural barriers for dialogicality.

Humans have lived in separate communities and developed different languages and cultures before they had to mingle together as individuals or social groups for different reasons. The fact that people come from certain backgrounds have them develop strong identities unless they come from hybridized societies where there is more room for discursive practices. I would say that the monological view of the person is a self-defensive attitude by which individuals (or social groups) try to shield the self from competitive, disturbing, unfavorable ideologies or cultures. In other words, this monological vision of the self or the other is highly political as it aims at combating a rival (person, group, ideology, etc) by reducing them to one unfavorable dimension and avoiding other dimensions. On the other hand, the dialogical vision and approach of the person or the social world is much more plausible and authentic, though more demanding, as it requires the outright consideration of several social and cultural factors developing the psyche as can be referred from Tania Zittoun’s quotation.

A counterpoint of scientific and epistemological tendency to isolate the person from his environment, it has recently stimulated a great abundance of work (Gillespie, 2011). A dialogical approach can thus contribute to a better understanding of the relational, social and cultural nature of the person.  (Zittoun, 2013).

Clearly, dialogicality is indispensable for a better understanding of psychological phenomena, but it could be inadequate by itself as a reliable approach unless accompanied by a profound knowledge of relative contexts.

Shakespeare and dialogicality

I would trace  the recognition of dialogicality back to Shakespeare who provided the first dialogical character in history, Hamlet, in a literary genre that favors dialogue − theatre. The playwright deals with very common social issues, murder and revenge, but shifts the focus from the society to the individual by providing an unusual hero who is unable to take revenge due to his hesitation, tensions, conflicts, and thoughtfulness. These characteristics demonstrate Hamlet’s dialogical vision of the world as a multificated and multi-voiced realities.

Little had any other literary character throughout history caught the attention of scholars of different disciplines the way Hamlet did. Now we have a Nietzchean interpretation of Hamlet, a Freudian interpretation, and a Marxist one, etc.  I guess the fact that Hamlet as a character was stripped of its idealistic traits to be a multi-dimensional character, like any of us, was a rare literary representation of the psyche, and hence the reliance of several scholars on it to prove their theories. Nevertheless, whether Hamlet is a pessimist, having Oedipus complex, or a social agent, he presents a good example of the dialogical self in which he refuses to have one I-position, the revenge taker, or to associate his uncle with merely one I-position − the murderer.


This definitely gives credit to Markova who said:" human social phenomena can be nothing but dialogical and they involve multiple variations of the Ego-Alter relations." (Markova, 2003). Clearly, Shakespeare's dialogical character had beyond doubt a role in rooting and establishing dialogicality in the British society and henceforth, in the gradual deterioration of avenge as a social phenomenon.

Given that this article is more concerned with psychology, I will focus my attention on the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet (Freud, 1900).  Freud ascribes Hamlet's hesitation and refraining from taking revenge on his uncle to having Oedipus complex. Oedipus complex according to Freud is someone's unconscious desire to kill their father and taking his place by sleeping with their mother. Therefore, Hamlet refrains from killing his uncle, despite several opportunities to do it, because he sees in his uncle the successful Hamlet who killed his father and married his mother. What is interesting for me in this respect is that reliance on literary heritage (Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet) to prove his theory_ Oedipus complex. If Freud had been a literary critic he might have mentioned more support for his theory because the role of literature in the time of Sophocles was different from the one in the time of Shakespeare. Literature played a great role at the time of Sophocles to control people and Catharsis (purging emotions by bringing excitement and terror together) was an essential element of any good piece of Art according to Aristotle. These kinds of norms in literature can only produce characters like Oedipus who can never escape the prophecy which says he is going to kill his father and marry his mother. The only choice left for Oedipus in Sophocles' work was to punish himself for committing the most dreadful crimes in society_ incest and patricide. In other words, the norms of good literature at Sophocles' time could not help produce a dialogical character with several I-positions.

Unlike the time of Sophocles, the role of literature at the time of Queen Elisabeth was to emancipate people from the dominance of the Roman church and hence a revolution against Aristotl's old rules was welcome and a process of ‘reproduction’ entailed rereading the old Greek and Roman masterpieces. Shakespeare witnessed a transitional era in which tension and conflicts were natural characteristics of that period, and that could have played a role in presenting dialogical characters.

In addition to the dialogical heroes, the controversial theme (individualistic and unconventional response to a social phenomenon), Shakespeare employed the form in his play to shift the focus from society to the individual. For example, Hamlet is rich in soliloquies, scenes in which the actors talk to themselves revealing psychological tensions and presenting inner-dialogues. Moreover, Shakespeare’s introduction of the play inside the play ( Hamlet had actors play in front of his uncle a scene showing how the murder was committed as one of his verifications to make sure the murderer was his uncle). This might have been used by Shakespeare to further emphasize shifting the focus from the society which employs art to strengthen its values, to the individual who can equally use art to pass on his/her own values. Shifting the focus of interest from the society to the individual is beyond doubt one step towards building Psychology as a science interested in society and culture only as long as they shape the psyche of an individual.

A dialogical interpretation of Hamlet

Even though neither psychology as a science nor dialogicality as a psychological term were yet discovered or established at the time of Shakespeare, but considering the epistomological school which deems knowledge as the result of intellectual observations of 'natural' or already existing facts, we can have even an dialogical interpretation of Hamlet. This is to say that Hamlet's hesitation had a dialogical foundation. To prove, I will refer to the fact that Hamlet's father was presented in retrospect (as well as his appearance as a ghost) as a one-dimentional man. He is honest, loyal, and brave, scrupulous and his words go directly to the point and hard to be dubious or misunderstood. Unlike hamlet's father, his uncle is the opposite at least in being a multi-dimensional man. He is shrewd, tricky, knowledgeable and an action planner. The way in which he enacted his crime (pouring the poison into his brother's ear) demonstrates these characteristics. He shows love without having love and respect without having it. Moreover his language differs depending on the person with whom he is talking and he implies more than what he says and says less than what he implies. However, the character of Hamlet is dramatic in the sense that it develops from a one-dimentional character to a multi-dimentional character. We see how the character of Hamlet develops from a simple obscured student and how his character develops in the course of time starting at the visit of his father's ghost. Later on he goes through a process of verifications to make sure that his uncle was the killer and ends up with planned killing (he sends the two courtiers to a death that had been planned for himself). This identification with his uncle and the recognition of his uncle's role to change his own personality into an action player and a multi-dimentional personality could give a plausible ground for the mysterious hesitation in the play.

Clearly, the shock that Hamlet received after the death of his father and knowing that it was a crime enacted by his uncle had him go into a process of thinking and verification which helped him recognize and develop his muti-dimentional personality and his ability to be different according to which I-position he takes. Identification with his uncle who has also several I-positions towards him, prevent him from taking revenge on his uncle.


The new role of literature in Britain during Renaissance helped the emergence of a playwright like Shakespeare who played a role himself in shifting the attention to the individual rather than the society and hence providing a ground for Psychology as a human science concerned with the individual. Moreover, By presenting a dialogical hero who has a dialogical vision of the world as a multificated and multi-voiced realities, Shakespeare was consciously or unconsciously opening the doors for dialogicality as psychologist know it now after much development of this term. Finally, my dialogical interpretation of Hamlet does converge with Freud's interpretation except that Freud deems Hamlet kind of hysterical person while dialogicality sees in Hamlet a normal person just like anyone else.

Rami Ibrahim


Fieser, J., Dowden, B.(1995). Tragic Catharsis In: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.USA.       Retrieved from:

Freud, S. (1997). The Interpretation of Dreams. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth

Markova, I. (2003). Dialogicality and Social Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ('Dialogicality and dialectic' In: Chapter 4 Thinking through the mouth; p.93-97)

Zittoun, T. (2013). Three dimensions of dialogical movement. In: Bickhard, M, Campbell, R. L.    (ed.), New Ideas in Psychology, (Vol. 32, pp: 99 –106). Elsevier

#Hamlet, #dialogicality, #Dialogical character, #RamiIbrahim

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