Desire has to be placed at the heart of analytic theory and practice: the title of the seminar does not indicate a mere juxtaposition of the two terms, it ties them around the essential function of language. Desire, if the libido is its psychic energy, indicates the subject's dependency on the signifiers which constitute the structure proper. This is what the cure, based on speech, must make clear beyond the analysand's demand. Lacan even asserts that "desire is its own interpretation."
In approaching this seminar one might be aided by reading the seven lessons on Hamlet (1959) published by Jacques-Alain Miller in Ornicar? in 1983. After Freud Lacan offers a new interpretation. Hamlet is the tragedy of desire: this is why "we are in the midst of clinical experience." What is this "bird-catcher net in which man's desire is articulated according to the coordinates of Freud, Oedipus and castration?" The structural analysis of the play, which orders not only the characters' positions but also the succession of events, should lead us to "situate the meaning and direction (le sens) of desire." The enigma is that of Hamlet's inability to act: he cannot kill Claudius - his father's killer, his mother's lover, and the usurper) - he cannot love Ophelia, "he cannot want." When, at the end, he discovers his desire - by fighting Laertes in the hole that has been dug out to bury Ophelia - this revelation is ineluctably linked to the death in which they all disappear. This tragedy shed light on the masculine drama of desire and on the anxiety of "To be or not to be," hopeless truth of modern man.
On the Father's side, the disappointment is beyond remedy: "There is no Other of the Other." The dead King wanders in quest of an impossible redemption. The Other, the place of truth, does not contain the signifier that could be the guarantor of such truth. The phallus is unavailable in the Other, which is rendered by the sign: - F. This would explain the almost desperate tone in Lacan's next seminar, L'éthique.... What if the masculine subject turns toward his mother to praise her woman's dignity? Then he comes up against what she manifests of her desire: "not desire, but a gluttony that is engulfing." The horror of femininity rules over the play and hits Ophelia, the virgin fiancée, in the face. Her character is fascinating because it embodies "the drama of the feminine object caught in the snare of masculine desire," but above all because she is at the same time the object and the touchstone of desire: objet a (part object) of desire and phallus (present in Ophelia). The two terms are not quite distinguished and if Ophelia can only be discovered in mourning - "I loved Ophelia" - such mourning is both that of the object and that of the phallus. Against Jones, whose definition of aphanisis was an attempt to find in the fear of being deprived of one's desire a factor common to both sexes, Lacan maintains a radical asymmetry in the rapport to the phallic signifier. Man "is not without having it" and woman "is without having it." The only object of desire, and at the same time its only signifier, seems indeed to be the phallus, which only appears "in flashes," during decisive phallophanias where death is at the rendez-vous.
Slavoj Zizek notes that for Lacan the phallus is the pure signifier that stands for its own opposite, that it functions as the signifier of castration. The transition from pre-symbolic antagonism (the Real) to the symbolic order where signifiers are related to meaning takes place by way of this pure signifier, without signified. "In order for the field of meaning to emerge, for the series of signifiers to signify something, there must be a signifier that stands for nothing, a signifying element whose very presence stands for the absence of meaning, or rather for the absence tout court." This nothing is the subject itself, "the subject qua S." This Lacanian matheme designates the subject deprived of all content.