"Theme of the Three Caskets, The"

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In "The Theme of the Three Caskets," Sigmund Freud presents a wealth of extremely complex thoughts in just a few short pages. At the beginning are two scenes from Shakespeare, in which the number three plays an essential role: First, the choice of three pretenders to Portia's hand between three metal caskets in The Merchant of Venice ; and second, in King Lear the dying King's partition of his kingdom between his three daughters, according to the love they show for him. In both these two plots, the humblest thing is shown to be the most precious: plain lead on one side, the mute love of Cordelia on the other. Although Freud initially draws on Shakespeare as his source for the choice between caskets; he ends up relying on myths that deal with the choice a woman must make between three pretenders, but which is inverted (as in the case of the choice between the three caskets and in the logic of the dream) into the choice a man makes between three caskets, that is, three women.

This leads Freud to evoke other scenes that turn on the number three in myths, folklore and literature, for instance constellations of three sisters where the choice always fall upon the third one who is the most unique. Freud identifies this uniqueness of the third as her "muteness," and then recalls how muteness in psychic life is typically a representation of death. The third daughter, seen from this perspective, may be viewed as Death, the Goddess of Death. The sisters appear, consequently, as the three daughters of Fateaccording to mythological tradition, the three Moirai, Parcae, or Norns. Freud's detour through mythology makes the goddesses of fate represent the inexorable Law of Nature, and thus of the passing of time and the ineluctability of death as well.

Returning to the choice between three sisters, Freud seeks to soften any resultant contradictions between this detour through mythology and the specific choice itself by reminding us that fantasy activity typically inverts what is disagreeable into its contrary. Fatality, the inexorability of death, is transformed into a free choice. In King Lear the old man appears at the end carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. Freud refers the powerful effect this produces to the latent message transpiring behind the manifest representation of the scene: in fact it is Cordelia, Goddess of Death, who carries the dead king off the battlefield.

Although a minor work, this magisterial essay demonstrates concretely, even in its use of free association, the fecundity of the analytical method when applied to literature, myths, and folklore; while at the same time illustrating the laws of psychical functioning, such as the inversion of a wish into its opposite.

In a letter to Sàndor Ferenczi dated July 9, 1913, Freud revealed that the "subjective condition" he was in when writing this essay was occasioned by the fact that his third child, Anna, was beginning to occupy a very unique place in his life.

Ilse Grubrich-Simitis

See also: Literature and psychoanalysis; Mother goddess; Silence.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1913f). Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl. Imago 2, 257-266; GW, 10, 24-37; The theme of the three caskets. SE, 12: 291-301.


Freud, Sigmund, and Ferenczi, Sándor (1992-2000). The correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi. (Eva Brabant, Ernst Falzeder, and Patrizia Giampieri-Deutsch, Eds.; Peter T. Hoffer, Trans.).; Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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"Theme of the Three Caskets, The"