R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Engl 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

Lecture Notes: Freud, "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913)

  1. Freud seeks to explain the presence of a peculiar motif that he finds prominently present in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: The situation in which Bassanio is forced to choose between three caskets to win Portia as his bride. He wants to understand what lies behind this situation of a choice among three things or women.
    – What does this choice mean?
    – Why is it so prominent in literature, myth, and other cultural representations?
    Freud's Method: He turns at crucial places in his argument to ideas drawn from psychoanalysis.
    His Assumption: This motif must be indicative of some universal human problem; it must be an archetypal representation of something that lies deep within the human (collective) psyche. Hence if we can understand it, we can understand something about this shared psyche.
    – Study of literature thereby becomes a significant resource for the study of the human psyche. This is of great significance for Freud, since it provides a "source" or "data base" of material that goes beyond individual pathologies (neurosis) and private, intimate material such as dreams. Literature as the expression of shared wish-fulfillments.

    Freud notes the variation on this theme in 2 works by Shakespeare, one a comedy (Merchant), and one a tragedy (King Lear): both based on the choice among 3 women.
    – What do these 2 works have in common despite their obvious differences? What lies behind their structural similarity? What is significant about this choice among 3 women? What do they, and what does this choice represent from a psychological point of view?

    How is Freud's argument structured?
    1. Freud turns to a critic who interprets this scene in the context of an astral myth.
      Prince of Morocco = sun = chooses golden casket
      Prince of Aragon = moon = chooses silver casket
      Bassanio = star youth (son of North Star) = chooses leaden casket
      * Note that in this scenario the choice reflects the character or nature of the chooser, not what is chosen; i.e. "sun" chooses "gold"; "moon" chooses "silver"; etc. Among other things, Freud wants to re-orient the choice toward the chosen object.
      * Freud not satisfied with this solution for larger reasons. Why? Because the implication of interpreting this scene in the context of an astral paradigm is that myth is of divine origin. He objects to this and seeks to show that myths (like dreams) are of a human origin: what lies behind the myth is human (psychic) experience. The universality of myth reflects the universality of the human psychic constitution.
    2. Freud proposes approaching this human context by applying insights derived from the practices of psychoanalysis. Throughout this essay he will apply psychoanalytic procedures at three crucial junctures. At every apparent interpretive dead-end, the importing of a solution derived from psychoanalytic practice provides a resolution.
    1. Leading up to this first application Freud examines the reversal of gender roles Shakespeare undertakes with regard to his sources.
      Gesta Romanorum, Shakespeare's source: a woman chooses from among three suitors, & this is true in Estonian epic as well.
      * In Merchant, the choice is among 3 caskets, not 3 women as such. But Freud appeals to dream interpretation here and asserts that in dreams caskets, boxes, baskets, cases, etc. are frequently symbolic representations of women.
      * Freud's assumption: myth also operates according to the mechanisms identified in dream interpretation, in this case, by making symbolic substitution, replacing a person with a thing. Myth follows the logic of the dream, it is another product of the human psyche. (We see here how Freud intends to approach the human element in myths.)
      * Based on this, Freud feels justified in replacing the caskets in Merchant, and hence going beyond the astral myth based on the relation of these caskets to the person who chooses them, with human figures: the theme of the scene in which Bassanio chooses among the 3 caskets is actually the choice among 3 women.
      * [Note that Freud fails to follow up on a peripheral association here: the connection of caskets to death, a theme that will become central in his subsequent analysis.]
      * Freud proceeds by looking for other examples of this theme, the choice between 3 women:
    2. King Lear: Elder daughters Goneril and Regan flatter their father to prove their love and receive part of his kingdom in return; Cordelia, younger, genuinely good and loving daughter, refuses to flatter and is disowned. Lear's choice leads to his ruin and general decline. Lear presents a kind of counter-example, representing the false, wrong choice.

      Myth of Paris: Paris needs to choose the most beautiful from among 3 goddesses; his choice falls upon the third, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This prefigures Freud's later conclusion that this motif is, on the surface, about the choice of love.

      Cinderella: In this fairy tale the youngest daughter, who is constantly punished at home, is the one of three who is preferred by the Prince.

      Myth of Psyche: In this myth, Psyche, like Cinderella, is the youngest of 3 sisters of a king. Because her beauty attracts the attention of all humans, the goddess Venus becomes jealous and decides to punish her. But Cupid, Venus's son, falls in love with Psyche and ultimately rescues her.

      * Freud looks for the common denominator in these diverse stories/myths. The fact that in Lear these women are daughters instead of brides is relevant only to Lear's advanced age. Freud's question: What do the chosen women have in common besides beauty, love, etc.?

    3. Second use of psychoanalytic procedures or knowledge
      * Cordelia is inconspicuous, loves her father "silently"; Portia is "leaden," unshining, unobtrusive; Cinderella hides herself away: all these qualities relate to muteness, the refusal to speak, dumbness; that is, they point to the silent love these figures embody. Unobtrusiveness: the refusal to assert oneself, to show off, etc.
      * Freud's clinical experience shows him that in dreams and therapy, muteness = Death. He demonstrates this on the example of the dream of a patient in which a friend who is portrayed as mute turns out to have died.
      * Similarly, in dreams hiding is a symbol for death, as is pallor. Freud defends this connection with evidence from fairy tales, "The Twelve Brothers" and "The Six Swans"; in both these stories a sister's muteness is symbolic of her death, a death that brings her brothers back to life.
      * Applied to the scene in Merchant and the other tales and myths Freud has cited: the choice of the third woman = the choice of a dead woman. "Dead woman," however, is merely a displacement of Death as Woman, or the Goddess of Death. [Displacement operates by embodying the trait this Goddess bestows upon humans to the Goddess herself; the effect death has upon us is reflected back upon the purported cause; example: death represented as grim reaper, skeleton and skull. In rhetoric, this type of substitution of a trait for the bearer of that trait is known as synecdoche, where the part comes to stand for the whole.]

      Choice of Death: Atropos and the Fates
      * Goddess of death = Atropos, one of the 3 Fates, the Parcae:
      Clotho = the spinner (of the thread); Lachesis = the representation of chance, fate; Atropos = the cutter of the thread, the representative of death.
      * Freud pauses here to note the contradiction, the seeming senselessness of the result at which he has arrived: How can this scene represent the choosing of death? No one chooses death freely. On the contrary, one is the victim of death. Has Freud painted himself into an interpretive corner?
    4. To escape this dilemma, Freud intervenes for a third time by applying psychoanalytic insights to his interpretive practice: namely, the recognition that symbolic substitution often travels along the path of semantic opposition. In the unconscious, opposites, contraries, often represent one and the same content. Just as the unconscious knows no negation, it also knows no contradiction. Opposites are connected–if only by the quality of contrariety itself.
      "Reaction-Formation" is the name this reflex has in Freud's analysis of our psychic life: we master certain impulses or emotions by exaggerating their opposites. For example, we may hate someone bitterly, but we affect exaggerated love of that person. This exaggerated love is the marker of our hatred.
      * In Shakespeare, fairy tales, some myths, etc., then, the human psyche rebels against the story of the fates and the cutting of the life thread: the Goddess of Death is thus replaced by her opposite, the Goddess of Love. These stories compensate for the reality of death by substituting for it the choice of love. If our unconscious mind recognizes the necessity of death, it rebels against this recognition, represses it, by transforming it into a content that is more pleasurable.
      * This same structure of replacement by an opposite governs the turn from necessity in the myth of the 3 fates to the motif of choice in Merchant and Freud's other examples.
      * The deep-psychic message of this motif is, therefore, the necessity of death; but the tales Freud examines distort this message by presenting it as its opposite: the choice of love. This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, indeed, the greatest human wish-fulfillment = the overcoming (in the imagination) of death. For a diagram of this substitution by opposition, which transforms "necessity of death" into "choice of love," click here.
      * King Lear = Partial reduction of the distortion presented in the original myth; this explains the powerful impact this drama has on us. Why? The relaxed censorship of this drama makes the unconscious content more accessible and this has a therapeutic effect on us. See the final scene of the drama, in which Lear must renounce love and choose death: he carries the body of his dead daughter Cordelia onto stage.
      * In this instance, then, literary creativity undoes psychic censorship, and this leads, like the interpretive work of the analyst, to a therapeutic result and to pleasure. For Freud, this trait marks Lear as an especially successful (i.e. effective) literary work. Note that Freud's thoughts here about the therapeutic nature of literature have changed in the six years since the publication of "Creative Writers and Day-Dreams": what now sets literature as a narrative form apart from other narratives is the fact that it reduces psychic distortion, and thereby brings the unconscious content closer to us as readers/viewers. The literary text has an impact much like that of psychoanalysis itself: by undoing some of the distortions imposed on the repressed unconscious material (here: the necessity of death), literature brings those truths back to consciousness, but does this in an unobtrusive manner, because some of the distortions are still there.
      * Freud’s conclusion: the 3 women from among which men in this mythic scene must choose are 3 guises of the mother: the mother who gives birth to him, the mother of his children, and the mother earth who takes him in at death.
    5. Sketch of the structural development of Freud's argument:
      Merchant (3 caskets) > Astral myth (3 planets) > Merchant (3 women, on basis of symbolic substitution) > King Lear (3 daughters/sisters) > Paris Myth (choice among 3 women) > Cinderella (3 sisters) > Myth of Psyche (3 daughters/sisters) > Common Feature? = inconspicuousness, silence, "unshining", pallor, hidden. These are all symbols of Death according to dream logic. Hence choice of death = Myth of the 3 Fates (3 women). If the unconscious message is: The necessity of death, then in the manifest content of the myths this is distorted by turning both terms into their opposites. Necessity > choice; death > love: The message on the manifest level is thus: The choice of love. Wish-fulfillment has altered the "authentic" unconscious message into this more acceptable and pleasing conscious one.

II. Consequences to be drawn from Freud’s procedures for the study of literature:

1) The methods of psychoanalytic clinical practice are applicable to the interpretation of literary and cultural artifacts; we can plug in methodological solutions derived from psychoanalysis in order to find our way out of seeming interpretive dead ends.

2) The structure of literature, myth, fairy tales--in fact, of all narrative forms--imitates the structure of dreams, of imaginative fantasy. This means: they emerge from the unconscious and are distorted by the same censorship mechanism that produces the dream-work. The operative mechanisms are displacement, condensation, substitution, wish-fulfillment, etc.

3) The obvious significance of a literary text or of elements in a text is not necessarily the most important or the most profound significance. Freud teaches us to dig deeper and seek a latent significance that underlies the manifest meaning of the text. Metaphor of archaeology, of digging down below the surface to uncover the remnants of the more authentic, unconscious message. It is not the surface of the text that is significant (not its "plot," etc.), but its underlying mechanisms. We must oftentimes overturn the apparent face-value to find the deeper significance.

4) We can fruitfully go outside the text itself for help comprehending it: myth, fairy tales, other literary texts, psychoanalytical insights, etc., etc. The only requirement is that these outside resources share a structure, theme, or other similarity with the text under examination. This is related to the contemporary notion of intertextuality, all texts contain and allude to other texts.

5) Texts are transformations of other texts insofar as they all derive from the same source, from the human psyche and its dialectical structure. Here we find the theoretical roots of transformational structuralism, the belief that literary texts are modifications of a simple set of paradigmatic narratives, thematic clusters, etc. (See Freud Reader 515-16).

6) The effectiveness of literature, its receptive impact, is not tied solely to aesthetic form, identification with characters, themes, etc. (as Freud suggested in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming"), but also results from its cathartic, therapeutic dimension. Literature undoes repression, helps reveal and uncover the hidden, unconscious truth behind the textual façade (here: the truth of death), and hence brings us psychic relief and pleasure.
* For Freud, this also accounts for the universal impact of great literature: it "sounds chords" in the instrument of the human psyche, resonates with eternal problems of the unconscious mind; it touches and activates these unconscious themes and ideas.
* Parallel to psychoanalytic therapy: Just as relaxing the repression of the neurotic patient brings relief in the form of curing the neurotic symptoms, literature penetrates and mollifies communal, shared forms of human repression: this explains the pleasure it engenders. Poets become unwitting psychoanalysts! They intuit and artfully portray unconscious truths, much as do analysts. Artists commune with the human psyche (the unconscious) in a pre-scientific manner.