Berlin Psychoanalytic Reading Group: Freud and Shakespeare
The Death-Drive in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
In June of 1912, Freud was working on proof for an upcoming book, when he was suddenly overcome by the need to analyse a scene from Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice. He set to work on it, and within a couple of weeks had inverted all traditional scholarship about this problem comedy. In his reading, Bassanio is not looking for love from Portia, but for death.
He wrote his findings in an essay called Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, incorrectly translated as The Theme of the Three Caskets. What is fascinating about this essay is that it contains an early version of Freud's death-drive theory, which he would not complete until 8 years later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It allows us as readers to glimpse how Shakespeare's plays formatively influenced the development of psychoanalysis.
The Merchant of Venice was translated by A. W. Schlegel and Caroline Schlegel while they were in Berlin at the start of the 19th century, and acted out by the actor and director of the Court in Berlin, August Iffland.
For this meeting, we will read Freud's 1913 essay Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl - translated as The Theme of the Three Caskets in Vol XII of the Standard Edition p291 (11 pages of reading). You should also know at least the plot of The Merchant of Venice. The reading in English and the plot will be posted below.
At the meeting, following our close reading of Freud's essay in which we can discover his early thinking about how the death-drive develops in people, we will proceed forward from Freud, and, using Marx's theory of exchange value and Erich Fromm's theory of necrophilia, propose a basis for the destructive death-drive that we face today on a global scale.
Why are we killing each other? Freud, reading Shakespeare, offers us some clues.
N.B. no knowledge of psychoanalysis is needed for this meeting. Freud's text is straightforward. No knowledge of Marx's or Fromm's theory is needed - I will present that part.
For those who want to go further in this topic: you will find good reading for it in the first few chapters of Marx's Capital Vol 1, where he derives exchange value, and in the 12th chapter of Erich Fromm's book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
Theme of the Three Caskets, Freud:
Plot of the 'Merchant of Venice', from the RSC Shakespeare edition, edited by Jonathan Bate:
Picture: Ashraf Amra / AFP