King Lear’s Soul

One of the big changes in my thinking over the past several years has been to take symbols seriously. I have always been an enthusiastic reader of fiction, but it wasn’t until I started writing my own that I fully came to appreciate the depth of symbolism involved in stories. The Hero’s Journey, the structure that lies beneath literally every best-selling novel and movie, is a complex symbol which is fractal in nature. It is sometimes said that music is mathematics. Well, so are stories. And learning to unpack the puzzle of stories is every bit as rewarding as solving a maths problem.

The Hero’s Journey is the story of transcendence

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been using the following table of the archetypal progression each of us takes through life as a shorthand to solve the puzzle of some of the best-known Shakespeare stories. In this post, I’d like to add one more to the list and go into detail on the story of King Lear.

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

I’ve come to think of the archetypes as mini-lives that we live within the overall arc of our whole life. The transition points between the archetypes are mini-deaths. This notion is captured in the Bible by Jesus’ concept of being “born again”.

In my analysis, we are born again each time we transition between archetypes. The example that most of us would agree on is puberty. In a physical, psychological and social sense, puberty is a mini-death. Once you’ve hit puberty, you can no longer go back to childhood in a physical sense. But that’s also true psychologically and socially. Many of us probably had the experience of being scolded by our parents when we slipped back into childish behaviours as teenagers. “Act your age, mister, you’re not a kid any more!”

The physical transition of puberty is an undeniable marker of the archetypal change from Child to Orphan. The other archetypal changes in our table are less obvious, however. Especially in the modern West, the transition between Orphan and Adult has become very blurred. This is almost certainly because marriage has lost much of its meaning for us.

Marriage has been the definitive rite of passage of into adulthood for most of history and across most cultures, especially because children were expected to follow shortly thereafter. Once you have children, you have undeniably taken on Adult responsibilities.

We can think of puberty as the mini-death that separates childhood from adolescence and marriage/childbirth as the mini-death that separates adolescence from adulthood. These are the undeniable events that change our lives. In both cases, we “die” as the previous archetype and are “re-born” as the next. When we try to deny the archetypal change we cause all kinds of problems psychologically and socially, but the change happens anyway. The archetypal wheel turns in only one direction.

If the Orphan – Adult progression has become blurred in the modern West, this is even more true of the Adult – Elder transition. This transition involves the tempering of the dominant Adult faculty of Will by the incorporation of Soul. In Jungian terms, the Soul is feminine for men (anima) and masculine for women (animus). Jung noted that the confrontation with the Soul is a traumatic experience that many people will try and avoid. This fits with the notion that the Adult – Elder transition is also a mini-death.

My belief is that the death phobia of the modern West is rooted in the breakdown of the archetypal transitions. Since each mini-death is a preparation for the big one that comes later, the failure to confront those mini-deaths leaves us naked when the real thing arrives. Can it be a coincidence that we are now trying to eliminate the one final mini-death that everybody still goes through: puberty. In this way, the maniacal rolling out of puberty blockers to confused teenagers in recent years is symbolic of our more general denial of death.

I was fortunate once to catch Ian McKellen as King Lear at a theatre in London

Still, in this post we are talking about the Adult – Elder transition and there’s no better Shakespeare story to address that than King Lear.

For those who don’t know the story, King Lear is about a king who is ready to retire from his monarchical duties. At the beginning of the story, we see Lear organising the transfer of his kingdom by apportioning it to his three daughters and their husbands. Those familiar with the biblical quote “a house divided cannot stand” may see the problem with this idea immediately. But, Lear makes a bad idea worse by promising the largest share of the kingdom to whichever of his daughters can profess their love for him in most obsequious terms in front of the court.

The first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, duly make grandiose claims of love for their father. This pleases him so much that he awards them their share of the kingdom on the spot. Finally, it’s the turn of the third daughter, Cordelia, but she refuses to stroke her father’s ego at which point Lear flies into a rage and disinherits her. She is banished from the kingdom to go and live in France with her new husband. In the resulting kerfuffle, we learn that Cordelia had previously been Lear’s favourite daughter.

Lear gives Cordelia an earful

From a Jungian point of view, the three daughters as the three female characters in the story can be analysed as Lear’s Soul (anima). Cordelia represents the positive Soul as evidenced by the fact that she tells him the truth. Symbolically, she is Sophia – wisdom. Since wisdom is a quality of the Elder, Lear’s rejection of Cordelia is the rejection of his archetypal mission and the beginning of his tragedy. Hamlet is the tragedy of the Orphan who fails to become an Adult. Lear is the tragedy of the Adult who fails to become an Elder.

If all this sounds rather high falutin’, the Lear story is very relevant to our times. Many readers might know of the difficulties faced by people transitioning out of the workforce and into retirement. It is a dramatic change of lifestyle and one which, if not handled correctly, can lead to real problems. It’s not an uncommon story to hear of men (it’s almost always men) who, after retirement, deteriorate quickly and reach an early grave due to the failure to find meaning and purpose in later life.

The change from Adult to Elder maps to the rows in the table as follows:-

AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

At the Physical level of being, there is a continued decline in overall strength and health. Whether this is inevitable is an interesting question. There have been some fascinating results achieving by having the elderly do weightlifting, for example. Nevertheless, it’s simply a fact that old age brings a reduced physical condition compared to the younger years of life.

Apparently an excellent antidote to osteoporosis

In the Exoteric realm, the movement into retirement involves the stepping back from one’s Adult Exoteric roles. This is why the story of King Lear is the ideal vehicle to explore the dynamic since Lear holds the highest Exoteric role in the land: king. He must give up this role but we see that he fails to do so completely. For example, he keeps what amounts to a small personal army of 100 knights, an unnecessary expense which symbolises that he does not really want to give up power.

This brings us to the Esoteric. Adulthood is the time of maximum willpower. It is in the adult years that we reach the peak of our ability to shape the world around us. This is far more true for a king than for the average person. Lear fails to give up his ego and his Will.

Cordelia’s failure to flatter Lear is also relevant in this respect since it is presumably the first time she has refused to acquiesce to his Will. Since Cordelia symbolically represents the anima, Lear’s soul, her behaviour is the Call to Adventure for Lear to transition away from the mighty king role and into the Elder role. Lear’s rage against Cordelia is the rage of the Will which will not allow itself to be tempered.

The shadow anima

If Cordelia represents Lear’s pathway to his Soul which he denies, Goneril and Regan represent the shadow Soul. The archetypal transitions come upon us whether we like it or not. When we deny them, they do not go away but become introverted.  Goneril and Regan represent the introverted or shadow anima. One of the lines of Lear’s court jester is relevant here:

“I have us’d it, nuncle, ever since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mother; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches”

This statement may be taken literally in the sense that Lear has handed over power to his daughters. But, actually, that doesn’t make a lot of sense since both daughters have husbands and, since the story of Lear takes place in a patriarchy, it should be the men to whom Lear has given political power.

The truth is that both husbands are – to use a word that Shakespeare was fond of and which has become popular on the internet in recent years – cucks. They are almost literally cucks since there is another character, Edmund, who will later publicly have a dalliance with both men’s wives.

At this point I can’t help but throw in a reference to the Devouring Mother. Lear’s daughters become, in the fool’s words, his “mother”. But they are also the “mothers” of the kingdom ruling vicariously through their weak husbands. They have become Devouring Mothers to Lear and his kingdom.

This actually makes symbolic sense. When Lear fails to make the transition from Adult to Elder, his Soul becomes a shadow Soul as represented by his daughters. Goneril and Regan proceed to humiliate Lear, stripping him of all worldly power and leaving him out in the rain. Lear proceeds to go mad. He has lost both his Will and his Intellect. Since the Will is the dominant Esoteric faculty of the Adult and the Intellect of the Orphan, Lear has reverted back to the Child archetype in shadow form. Again, the fool sums it by telling Lear: “I am better than thou art now: I am a fool, thou art nothing.”

Lear’s fool has most of the best lines in the play

So, we have Lear the patriarch failing to temper his Will and being punished symbolically by his Soul in the form of his two daughters. At the social level, this amounts to the failure of the patriarchy in general because the two new lords, the dukes of Albany and Cornwall, husbands to Goneril and Regan, are themselves lacking in Will. Mapped onto our table it looks like this:-

AdultMaturity(Duke of Albany), (Duke Cornwall)Will
ElderOld Age  (Lear)Soul

We put the characters names in brackets to signify that they are failing their archetypal mission. Lear is failing the transition to Elder and the dukes of Albany and Cornwall are failing to exert their Will and become proper rulers.

Edmund – the hyper masculine

There is, however, one male character who has learned to exercise his Will and that is the man who is making cucks out of the two dukes. Edmund is the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester who rises through the ranks by deceit and betrayal of his father and brother. He announces his plans to us at the beginning of the play:

“A credulous father! and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit;
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”

Edmund will take by Will what is not his by birth. In the broader dynamic, however, he is filling the void of Will left by the two fops, the dukes of Albany and Cornwall. That is why he is able to steal both their wives.

Edmund’s deceitful and, eventually, murderous rise also speaks to Lear’s failure to transition to the Elder archetype. Edmund has learned how to exercise his Will. However, it is not channelled towards productive enterprises but secretive and mischievous schemes. Edmund is the Orphan archetype in need of an Elder. As there are no Elders around, Edmund must find his own way into adulthood.

Edmund represents unrestrained will-to-power. Since he ends up being responsible for the death of Cordelia later in the play, it is unrestrained will-to-power that kills Lear’s Soul. Lear’s inability to become the wise Elder and guide the Will of the Orphan, Edmund, kills his own Soul. Again, the fool sums it up by saying to Lear “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

The death of Cordelia as Lear’s Soul represents his ultimate failure to transition from the Adult archetype to the Elder. The genius of Shakespeare is to show the relationship between the socio-political and the personal character failings of the individuals involved. It’s possible to read King Lear as a tale of personal psychological failings, familial breakdown or political weakness. In fact, it’s all of these and more.

The personal failings of the king bring ruin on the society. But we can just as well read it the other way around: the failings of society bring ruin on the king. There is no definitive cause and effect relationship but rather a pattern of failure that’s like an electrical circuit with a broken connection.

Again, these abstruse musings might seem far removed from everyday life. But, I personally know of two small business owners who retired recently and were unable to sell their business or hand it over to an employee. The two men in question blame the younger generation who they say “don’t want to work”. But I have seen the attitude of these men towards their younger employees and let’s just say it was very Lear-like.

The failure is not necessarily in the individual but in the relations between individuals. It’s not a matter of the absence of archetypal Orphans or archetypal Elders but a failure of Orphans and Elders to “complete the circuit”. It takes a Lear and an Edmund to bring ruin. If one of these is missing, the Lear story has, if not a happy ending, at least a less tragic one.

Shakespeare and the Archetypes

In last week’s post, I analysed Shakespeare’s Hamlet as being the tragedy of the archetypal Orphan who fails to make the transition into adulthood. Thinking about it a little bit more afterwards, I realised that all of Shakespeare’s major tragedies can be analysed in the same way. Of course, the other tragedies don’t necessarily feature Orphans, but they do feature characters who fail a different archetypal mission.

Psychologists have been focused on childhood as the age at which arrested development can occur leading to various neuroses and psychoses. The point I made last week in relation to Hamlet is that, from adolescence onwards, purely psychological explanations do not work since the problem has at least as much to do with our interactions with society. A child’s world is psychological to a large extent. An adult’s world is economic, political and even spiritual.

Some theories recognise this and change the locus from the psychological to the sociological and political. Usually, this just extends the same powerless, infantile assumption of parental power onto society in general. We go from being the hapless victims of our parents to the hapless victims of tyrants or abstract social forces.

None of this for Shakespeare. For Shakespeare, we are the authors of our own problems. The huge advantage of literature over theory is that it can highlight the role that flaws in character play in the problems of the world.

But what Shakespeare also shows us, I think, is that arrested development occurs at all phases of life and one way to demonstrate that is via the archetypes. That’s what we’ll look at in this post.

Here is the table I used last week to map each archetype to its prototypical manifestation on each level of being:

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

In this post, we’re going to be concerned with the Esoteric column.

The first thing to clarify is that the faculty listed in the Esoteric column is the faculty that needs to be developed during that archetypal phase of life. It might be objected that we have all the faculties throughout our whole life. For example, even young children are capable of exercising their will; usually while walking through the confectionary aisle at the supermarket. Furthermore, children often come out with surprising insights that indicate the activation of the faculty of intellect.

This may be true. But what the table represents is the Esoteric faculty which dominates each phase of life and which should dominate it since it is the natural progression.

The dominance of imagination during childhood should be the least controversial of the faculties listed in the table. Any school teacher or parent knows that trying to teach children to exercise their intellect usually results in the child turning the task into a game. Children turn most things into games, which is the faculty of Imagination in action. This kind of play is perfectly natural in children. In fact, we worry if we don’t see children using their imagination in such a fashion.

There is both an extroverted and an introverted form of imagination. Children’s play, when it involves other children, is extroverted imagination. Any group of children thrown together will naturally begin to use extroverted Imagination.

Extroverted Imagination

We might give the name of fantasy to introverted imagination. There is nothing with this in children but it becomes pathological in adults. Carl Jung used the concept of puer aeternus, or the eternal child, to talk of a particular pathology involving an older person who is stuck at the Child level of development. Imagination then turns into dissociation.

Anything goes in Imagination and play and this gives childhood it’s wonderful aspect of infinite possibility. This might be ok for children and for gods, but humans live in a finite world where not everything is possible. The transition from the Child archetype to the Orphan archetype involves the trauma of giving up infinite possibility. It’s because this transition really is traumatic that some individuals seek to avoid it and get stuck in puer aeternus.

Put your hand up if the Intellect is your dominant Esoteric faculty

At the Esoteric level of being, the transition from Child to Orphan sees the receding of the Imagination and the ascension of the Intellect as the dominant faculty. Back in medieval times, this was called the age of reason and was said to begin around the age of 12.

Just like the Imagination can be introverted or extroverted, so too can the Intellect. Socrates arguing in the marketplace is an example of extroverted Intellect. Because it can make other people look silly, extroverted Intellect comes with social and political dangers. Introverted Intellect is the kind we are more familiar with since reading is a classic example; including reading blog posts!

We can make a general observation about modern society which is that we have seen a big shift towards both introverted Imagination and introverted Intellect and this shift has only become more pronounced in the last several decades. Children are now far less likely to play with other children in their own neighbourhood and far more likely to be looking into a television or computer screen. We have substituted extroverted Imagination for introverted Imagination.

Similarly, the way Intellect is trained in schools is introverted. Children are expected to work on problems by themselves, including at home. To compare notes or try and learn from others is prohibited. Essays and exams are to be done alone. The occasional group assignment is the exception that proves the rule.

We might make another generalisation. If you engage in extroverted Intellect with a person with far more experienced than you, let’s say Socrates, he’s going to make you look like a fool. If you happen to be a young upstart who thinks you’re God’s gift to philosophy, this might be exactly what you need to check your ego.

Conversely, what happens if the same young upstart engages in introverted Intellect especially in scenarios where he or she is rewarded for finding the answer to a problem as quickly as possible? They might start to think they really are God’s gift to the Intellect. It may be this which leads to a phenomenon which does seem to be very modern: the know-it-all teenager.

But this also points to a larger problem with Intellect in the hands of archetypal Orphans. As Intellectual capacity and skill increases, the Orphan may apply Intellect to all areas of life. One outcome is the over-critical attitude which we also see in teenagers. They conclude that the world is completely illogical – like, totally insane.

The flip side of this is the worship of theory which leads to blind idealism. Blind idealism is the same problem as the puer aeternus only the individual is now trapped in introverted Intellect instead of introverted Imagination. The latter is arrested development at the level of the Child and the former is arrested development at the level of the Orphan.

There’s yet another pitfall with Intellect, however, and this brings us back to Hamlet. Hamlet is the Orphan who is failing to make the transition to the Adult archetype. Using our table from above, we can translate this to say that Hamlet has become stuck in introverted Intellect by failing to develop his Will, since Will is the dominant Esoteric faculty of the Adult.

This leads to a more general observation about archetypal development. We can say that the failure to progress from one archetype to the next is the failure to develop the Esoteric faculty of the new archetype. This failure manifests as the corruption of the existing Esoteric faculty. Thus, introverted Imagination indicates the failure to develop the Intellect and introverted Intellect indicates the failure to develop the Will.

There is no doubt that Hamlet knows how to use his Intellect. He is, in fact, one of Shakespeare’s most philosophical characters. But there’s the rub, because Hamlet is also a procrastinator. The tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who cannot summon up the Will to do what needs to be done. In archetypal terms, he is the Orphan failing to become an Adult.

As Shakespeare often does, he has his hero describe his own failings. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is an exercise in introverted Intellect. Hamlet is all alone pondering the meaning of life when he should be justly avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet, the man incapable of making a decision, is meditating upon the difficulty of making decisions. Should one kill oneself or not? Hamlet concludes that the reason we don’t is not because of a fear of death itself but of the unknown which death entails.

What faculty gives us the courage to step into the unknown? The Will.

Hamlet says so himself:

“The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.” [emphases mine]

Paraphrasing into the terminology we have been using, the introverted Intellect throws the pale cast of thought on the enterprises of the Will. It turns people into cowards. Hamlet tells us this and then shows us the consequences. Had he killed Claudius when he should have, his own destruction and the destruction of the Hamlet court would never have happened. Instead of using his willpower to act, Hamlet was sitting around philosophising.

Hamlet, presented with a golden opportunity to do what needs to be done, fails to act. Later, when he does finally kill Claudius, it’s too late to prevent his downfall.

If the exercise of Will gives the courage to step into the unknown, it follows almost by default that the exercise of Will is an offense to the Intellect. The Intellect wants to formulate a perfect plan that is logical and rational while the Will to step into the unknown is the Will to act “illogically” and “irrationally”.

Since the consequences of any action of significance can never be known in advance, acting wilfully seems irrational. That is why the intellectual sees irrationality everywhere in the world, because in the real world things must be done and not just thought about.

The use of the Will invites the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But to be brought down by such slings and arrows is not failure since no action is without risk. The failure of Will is the failure not to act. One way to do that is to escape into introverted Intellect as does Hamlet.

Just as there are decadent forms of Imagination and Intellect, there are decadent forms of Will. Shakespeare provides us with numerous examples: Claudius, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Othello, Edmund, King Lear.

These characters have all transcended the Orphan archetype. They are not just Adults but highly accomplished Adults. Their transgression of Will is not the failure to use it but the misuse of it. Each is brought down by the fixation of the Will on what it should not want.

In all these cases, however, the failure of the Will is indicative of a broader failure of archetypal progression. Will rightly belongs to the Adult archetype, but these characters need to transcend from Adult to Elder. They need to allow the Soul to become dominant over Will.

Carl Jung believed that it is in the second half of life that we come to face our Soul. In men, this is the anima and in women the animus. If Will is about ego, Soul is about Self i.e. the larger integrated psyche.

It is perfectly written by Shakespeare that he has Regan say of King Lear “he hath ever but slenderly known himself”. Know thyself is about Soul. Lear’s rash actions imply a man who has learned to wield his Will but never to temper it with Soul. The same is true of Macbeth, Othello, Iago and others.

Since a man’s soul is represented by the feminine anima, it’s fitting that King Lear has no wife, Othello and Iago kill their wives, and Macbeth is led astray by his wife. All this symbolises men who have failed to come to terms with their Soul. Correspondingly, they fail to transcend from Adult to Elder since the Elder’s archetypal mission is to confront the Soul (I use the word confront here deliberately since each progression from one archetype to another is difficult and painful).

The progression from Adult to Elder requires the tempering of the Will by Soul. That is what is missing from the character of Lear, Iago, Othello and Macbeth. Let’s take Macbeth as an example.

Although there is no specific indication of his age, we can surmise that Macbeth is in his 40s or 50s. He is an accomplished general having just won a great battle for his king. Duncan duly rewards him with a thaneship.

This is the highest position to which Macbeth can legally hope to attain. He has Willed his way to the top. The catch is that once Macbeth accepts the position, there is nothing more to Will for since he is already at the pinnacle. He needs to temper his Will and accept that he has gone as far as he can in worldly affairs. He needs to discover Soul.

Since a man’s soul is represented by the feminine anima, it is no coincidence that the characters who lead Macbeth astray are female. The three witches sow cryptic messages in Macbeth’s mind that tell him he shall be king. These serve to activate Macbeth’s Will only now it is Will in introverted and decadent form.

Just like there is extroverted and introverted Imagination and Intellect, so there is extroverted and introverted Will. The former is what can be Willed for in the light of day in front of your countrymen. It is what is just and right. Winning a great battle and being awarded a thaneship is something that can be justly Willed for. Introverted Will, however, is what can only be deviously dreamed up and carried out under the cover of night; things like murdering the king and taking his throne.

Lady Macbeth as the other representative of Macbeth’s anima goes a step further than the witches and actively goads her husband into the evil deed and then covers up for him afterwards. The feminine has turned on Macbeth and this is indicative of his failure to meet his Soul directly and take on the challenge of the Elder.

Just as the failure to activate Intellect leads to the puer aeternus of dissociation from reality and the failure to activate Will leads to procrastination and blind idealism, the failure to activate the Soul leads to the decadent, introverted Will which aims at evil instead of good.

Macbeth’s failure to meet his Soul leads him to destruction the same way that Hamlet’s failure to engage his Will brings him undone. Hamlet is the failed Orphan, Macbeth the failed Adult. In both cases, it’s the failure to transcend to the next archetype in the progression.

Each transcendence to a new archetype is painful. There is a need to give up what one already has and to step forward into the unknown. Failure leads to madness (we would say mental illness, these days). King Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are all half mad due to their failure to let go of the Will and transcend into the Elder archetype.

Part of the tragedy in each case is that the Exoteric role is already there for each of them. All they have to do is accept it. Macbeth needs to step back from the role of Warrior and accept the role of Thane. Othello also needs step back from the Warrior role and accept the role of husband. Lear needs to accept his retirement. Hamlet needs to stop philosophising, kill Claudius and become king.

This touches on the key point which separates Shakespeare so clearly from the older tragedians and which is also a key belief that emerged during the Renaissance.

In Shakespeare, every character is personally responsible for their own downfall. In the stories we have been looking at, the Exoteric path is laid out for the hero. All they need to do is accept it. Their failure is in the Esoteric realm and therefore specific to each of them: Lear’s juvenile wilfulness, Macbeth and Claudius’ blind ambition, Othello’s credulity and jealousy, Iago’s hatred.

This same principle was there also in the Protestant movement. For Catholics, everybody is a sinner from the most powerful king down to the lowliest village idiot. Everybody is born into sin. There was nothing personal about it. The Protestants replaced that with a personal salvation. God rewarded some and sent the rest to hell. This is in line with the Shakespearean maxim that our faults are not in our stars, they are in our selves.

Hamlet: The Tragedy of the Orphan

Long-term readers would know that I’m currently in the process of writing my next book whose working title is the Age of the Orphan. The book combines a number of ideas I’ve been developing on this blog over the past couple of years including a long series I did on the Orphan archetype.

As part of writing the book, I came to realise that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an archetypal Orphan Story containing all the elements I outlined in a post on the subject. But whereas a typical Orphan Story has a happy ending wherein the Orphan becomes an Adult, Hamlet is an Orphan Story where the hero fails to achieve their archetypal mission. That’s why it’s a tragedy.

Since we are now living in what I am calling the Age of the Orphan where the failure to transcend the Orphan archetype has become the norm and we are collectively trapped in the clutches of the Devouring Mother, the story of Hamlet has never been more relevant. Let’s break it down using the archetypal lens.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

We’ll start with an ultra-brief outline of the basic concepts I’ve been using in my analysis.

We define four archetypes: the Child, the Orphan, the Adult and the Elder.

These archetypes map onto the stages of development that each of us will go through in life. The archetypes include the psychological perspective but I am using the concept in a much broader fashion than psychologists do and it will become clear throughout the post why I believe that is necessary. In my analysis, an archetype denotes a pattern that resonates across multiple levels of being at the same time: the Physical, the Exoteric and the Esoteric.

For our purposes, the Physical level of being refers to biology. Depending on your views, either conception or birth (or somewhere in between) marks the beginning of our life at the Physical level of being. That is when we begin to manifest the Child archetype.

Puberty marks the biological transition to the Orphan archetype while menopause marks the transition to the Elder archetype, at least in women. (We could argue that the fall in testosterone which begins in middle age is the male equivalent to menopause and represents the biological shift from Adult to Elder for men).

The Exoteric level of being refers to the social, cultural and political world. From the Exoteric point of view, you become a full adult in modern Western society when you have reached the voting age, the age of consent, the drinking and driving age. These are the Exoteric markers society confers on you to say you are now an Adult.

A rite of passage given to archetypal Orphans of the African Masai tribe to mark their transition to adulthood

The modern West is highly unusual anthropologically-speaking in that we have removed almost all Exoteric rites of passage that most cultures use to mark the transition between the archetypes. The marriage ceremony is perhaps the last one that remains for us and even that is under threat. Consider the seriousness with which most people take the marriage ceremony and you have some idea how most cultures have treated the rites of passage that mark the transitions between the archetypes, including the Orphan.

Finally, there is the Esoteric level of being which refers to emotional, psychological and spiritual states and includes the concepts of mind, psyche, soul and spirit and the faculties of will, imagination and intellect. The Esoteric is everything internal to us. It also includes collective psychology and spirituality. Civilisations, societies and pretty much any group of people are also minds, psyches and souls. They are the macrocosm to our microcosm and they also exist on the Esoteric level of being.

The key point to understand about the archetypes is that they resonate across all levels of being. Puberty is not merely a biological metamorphosis. As anybody who has been through it knows, puberty manifests just as much at the Esoteric level of being via the emotional rollercoaster of mood swings. There is also an Exoteric dimension which the anthropologist, van Gennep, called social puberty. You start being treated differently by society once you hit puberty. In this way, the Orphan archetype manifests on all levels of being.

We can represent these considerations in tabular form as follows:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityPlumber (economic), citizen of Australia (political), Catholic (spiritual), married (sexual)Will
ElderOld Age (menopause)RetiredSoul

In addition to these general patterns, there are specific correspondences across the levels of being for key events that pertain to each archetype. For the Orphan, Exoteric events like your first job interview or your first kiss will resonate Esoterically as nervous excitement and Physically with a raised pulse and heartbeat.

In this post, we are concerned with the Orphan archetype. The Orphan relates to the transition between childhood and adulthood. This transition occurs over the course of many years. The primary mission of the Orphan is to find their place in the wider world. To do that, they must gradually leave the family home and attain independence from their parents by joining the Exoteric institutions of society. When this process fails, for whatever reason, problems begin.

This brings us to Freud and Jung. Both men were mostly concerned with pathological states pertaining to the psychology of childhood. Childhood is unique in that a child has almost no Exoteric or Physical existence independent of their parents. Thus, childhood can be analysed as an almost purely psychological (Esoteric) phase with no consideration for the other levels of being.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Freud and Jung both saw puberty as synonymous with adulthood. From a psychological point of view, they did not recognise the Orphan archetype as a distinct phase of psychic development. This led to what I believe is a big weakness in their analysis when it comes to the Orphan archetype.

The key reason why we need to incorporate the other levels of being into our analysis of the Orphan is because the Orphan’s main task is to find a place in society and that implies the Exoteric. When the Orphan fails to fulfill this mission, they are thrown back into introversion. The psychological (Esoteric) problems of Orphanhood are the symptoms of a failure at the Exoteric.

It is no coincidence that the main demographic that Freud and Jung treated were young, upper-class women of the Victorian era. They diagnosed those women as having psychological illnesses. However, the root problem was not psychological but sociological (arguably it was really a spiritual battle but let’s leave out theology for now).

European culture has always been anthropologically unusual for the late average age of marriage relative to other cultures. Some historians have speculated that this was the reason why capitalism arose in northern Europe.

The late age of marriage was mostly among the working class. Young men and women almost always worked for several years before getting married in order to save enough money for a stable life. Young aristocratic men also married relatively late since they were expected to establish themselves with education and usually some military training before taking a place in society. Young aristocratic women were different, however. For them, early marriage was still the norm since aristocratic marriage was mostly an economic and political transaction.

By the Victorian era, that had changed. But it had only changed for aristocratic women. The other demographics continued on much as they always had. Working-class men and women still worked before getting married. Young, aristocratic men still had a well-worn pathway into society through school and university/military.

Aristocratic women, on the other hand, no longer married young. That wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except that there was no meaningful pathway for them to join the Exoteric institutions of society outside of marriage. As a result, they ended up hanging around in their parents’ houses for years waiting to be married off.

Without any path to integrate into the Exoteric, these women were forced back into introversion and the psychological problems that come with it. Using the terms of our analysis, the Victorian era aristocratic women were stuck in the Orphan archetype with no meaningful way to make progress towards adulthood. Unable to extrovert themselves into society, they introverted themselves back into infantile and pathological psychological patterns which is where Freud and Jung found them.

This brings us to the story of Hamlet.

Freud analysed Hamlet as an example of neurosis caused by excessive attachment to the parents. But, again, this puts the cart before the horse. Why is Hamlet excessively attached to his parents? For the exact same reason aristocratic women in Victorian Europe were. Hamlet is a young man in the Orphan phase of life who is failing to extrovert himself and find a place in society. He is stuck at home.

Mummy’s little boy

Since Hamlet is a prince, we all know what his life path should be. He is destined to become a king. His political, economic and religious identity is already determined. In addition, he will have to marry a queen and he will be expected to produce the next generation of royalty. That is his sexual identity. His life course is fixed.

Yet, at beginning of the play, we find Hamlet brooding at end of the table dissociated from the discussions about affairs of state that are taking place around him. He is brooding, of course, because his uncle has stolen his Exoteric role. Hamlet is old enough to be king. He should have succeeded his father to the throne. Instead, Claudius has usurped the position and taken Hamlet’s mother as his bride into the bargain. We later find that Claudius did not just usurp the role but murdered Hamlet’s father in order to get it.

Hamlet is being blocked from achieving his archetypal mission by Claudius who is preventing his ascension to the throne and therefore his rightful Exoteric role in life. In addition, Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is thwarted by her father, Polonius, who forbids her to speak to Hamlet. Finally, even the opportunity to at least escape the parental house is stifled at the beginning of the play when Claudius stops Hamlet from returning to university. Hamlet is trapped at home, lost in his introversion which threatens to become madness.

The same is true for Ophelia. In fact, she is an early exemplar of exactly the kind of women that Freud and Jung would later treat in the Victorian age. Polonius sends his young son, Laertes, off to France with the famous dictum “to thine own self be true”. Laertes, the son of the family, is given a structured transition through his Orphan phase. Ophelia is locked up at home and denied access to her suitor and her chance to become queen (let alone to fall in love).

Both Ophelia and Hamlet are archetypal Orphans whose parents are subverting their archetypal mission. Claudius and Polonius are the Tyrannical Fathers. Gertrude is the Devouring Mother.

What Hamlet and Ophelia need to do is to escape. This could have been done by eloping, a very common theme in Renaissance literature. Hamlet is offered one last chance at escape when Claudius tries to send him to England. But even this fails and Hamlet returns to Denmark for the final showdown which takes place, not coincidentally, in the family home.

That final showdown ends in destruction for all. Ophelia, like many a Victorian lady, has already gone mad and ended her life. With Claudius’ treachery finally revealed and Gertrude dead, Hamlet enacts the final act of revenge that also brings destruction on himself.

The brilliance of Shakespeare’s play is that not only does the failure of the Orphan transition bring destruction on the Hamlet family, it brings destruction on the entire nation. The microcosm matches to the macrocosm.

At the end of the play, the Norwegian, Fortinbras, takes over. Fortinbras was also the prince to a dead father but one who has clearly gone on to complete his Orphan’s journey. He is the Orphan who became an Adult and now king. He is what Hamlet should have been. Shakespeare drives home the point by having Fortinbras speak the closing lines of the play. About Hamlet, he says: “He was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.” In other words, “he would have made a good king”.

Since Denmark is now conquered, the implication is that a society which cannot initiate its Orphans is doomed to fail. The fault lies as much in the macrocosm as the microcosm. That is exactly true. The failure of the Orphan transition in Hamlet is not primarily a psychological one. It’s a socio-cultural one. It occurs on the Exoteric level of being. The society which cannot find a place for its Orphans will drive them to madness and destroy the continuity of the culture.

The Freudian analysis of Hamlet therefore misses the main point of the story. Freud’s mistake was to focus on the psychological to exclusion of all else. This raises a more general problem with psychoanalysis.

Hamlet and Ophelia’s problems are not some fundamental property of their own minds. The cause of their illness is not primarily to be found in the mechanisms of the psyche. It is the result of being trapped in an environment where they are unable to take the necessary steps into adulthood. When the Orphan cannot extrovert into the world, they introvert into themselves. There were plenty of people in the Victorian-era stuck in that exact trap who sought help from wherever they could, including psychoanalysis.

The twist in the story is that the psychoanalysts, including Freud, ended up becoming Elders to the trapped Orphans they defined as patients with an illness that needed to be cured. In the Orphan Story, I identified the archetype of the Elder whose job it is to guide the Orphan through their transition into adulthood.

The anthropological literature shows us that Elders are not just fictional, they have a real role in society. Their job is to initiate Orphans. A classic example is ancient Sparta where, at 12 years of age, a young Spartan male is connected with a warrior from the community who will be their mentor guiding them through the process into adulthood.

In cultures which still have rites of passage, the Elder is the one leading the rite. For example, the Christian rite of Communion is the Orphan transition into full adult membership of the church. The priest plays the role of Elder who initiates the Orphan. Modern Western society has almost completely gotten rid of rites of passage and, by extension, we have gotten rid of Elders too.

Ida Bauer as a child

What Freud and Jung did was to the fill the Elder role for their patients. Consider Freud’s most famous case study, the patient he called “Dora”. Her real name was Ida Bauer. Ida was 18 years old when she saw Freud. Archetypally, she was an Orphan. Her father was cheating on her mother. Meanwhile, Ida had slapped an older man, who was a friend of her father’s, when he made sexual advances toward her. These days, we would cheer her on. But in that time this was grounds for a trip to the psychiatrist.

Ida’s story is practically identical to Hamlet and Ophelia. She is a young woman trapped at home with her parents and their creepy friends rather than out in the world forging her own identity. She is an archetypal Orphan who needs to leave the family home and join the Exoteric institutions of society.

Freud becomes her Elder; a respectable, professional scientist who can be trusted to be impartial. Freud did what no other adult in her life would do, he actually listened to her without passing judgement. He treated her as an Adult. How much of the success of psychoanalysis was the simple fact of removing Orphans from stifling familial settings, treating their problems as real and addressing them as adults?

Still, psychoanalysis ended up becoming a quasi-religion. It appears at about the same place in the civilisational cycle as Christianity. The Roman empire was struggling to initiate its own Orphans at the time as evidenced by the many social programs Octavian brought in to stop the malaise. Our society has the same problem. That’s why I call it the Age of the Orphan. It’s the time in the civilisational cycle where Orphans get stuck, unable to fulfill archetypal mission.

Of course, modern psychology has now become just another part of the medical-industrial complex. It makes its money treating the symptoms, not the disease. At the societal level, it has joined the side of the Devouring Mother who keeps her Orphans at “home” and under close supervision.

To Lawn or not to Lawn

One of the things I like most about the internet is that it often acts as a randomness generator when you stumble upon something you weren’t looking for which sends you off on a path you weren’t intending to go down. This happened to me recently when I came across a snippet of video from an old TV show here in Australia called the D-Generation. The show itself was a bit before my time, so I never saw it when it was on TV. But I knew its name due to the fact that the members of the show have gone on to become well-known fixtures in the Australian entertainment industry.

To understand the sketch, you have to know that Australia took in many immigrants from Italy and Greece in the decades after WW2. There was a lot of racism in those years due to the fact that Australia still retained, although was fast losing, a strong cultural attachment to Britain. By the 80s, the overt racism was mostly gone, but its memory was not.

The part of the sketch that caught my attention played to this background of racism. Two of the show’s stars, Jane Kennedy and Santo Cilauro, are visiting Santo’s uncle, Alberto. As the names might suggest, Santo was born to Italian immigrants and his uncle was presumably also an immigrant. Jane and Santo are touring Uncle Alberto’s house and Jane notices that Alberto has concreted over the front yard of his suburban house something she says is common for Italians to do. She asks why he did it and Alberto responds that it makes it easier to maintain.

In this very short exchange lies a whole wealth of cultural information. We’ve covered the connotation of racism, which was almost certainly intentional. But the exchange is primarily about the banal subject of front yards. In Australian suburbia in the post-war years, the front yard had to have a lawn. The reason Uncle Alberto’s front yard caught Jane Kennedy’s attention was because he didn’t have one.

A typical post-war front lawn

The Italian and Greek immigrants in the post-war years didn’t understand the rules about front yards and they broke them in two main ways. One was to concrete over the whole thing. The other was to grow vegetables in it. I have a friend who is the son of Italian immigrant parents and they still grow vegetables in their front yard to this day. The Greeks and Italians retained the old-fashioned idea that, if you had decent soil, you should use it for something productive. They didn’t understand that the whole point of the front lawn was that it was conspicuously non-productive.

Of course, when you have a front garden, including a lawn, you need to mow the lawn and weed the garden to keep in presentable. That work has to be done by someone and it’s very likely that person considers it a chore. That was Uncle Alberto’s point. Why do a chore when you don’t have to?

There’s two personal reasons why all this resonated with me. Firstly, I have lived in inner city apartments most of my adult life but, some years ago, I moved to suburbia here in Melbourne and I did so for the express purpose of growing a garden. I now have backyard chickens, grow a lot of fruit and vegetables and have recently tried to beautify the garden a little with flowering perennials. This was a deliberate lifestyle choice on my part and so I don’t resent the relatively small investment of time and energy it requires.

There are, however, many people who do resent the work of maintaining a suburban garden. One such person is a friend of mine who is always complaining about it. A couple of years ago, sick of his whining, I brusquely suggested that he should just concrete over the front yard so he didn’t have to maintain it anymore. I’d had the same idea as Uncle Alberto.

My friend looked at me like I had two heads. For him, a suburban house had to have a lawn in the front yard. It’s just the way it was. And, of course, all the houses in his area (and mine) do have front lawns.

The question is: why?

We take our surroundings for granted. Seemingly trivial matters like having a front lawn are just part of the world we grow up in and we never question them. But front lawns, and suburbia in general, didn’t just come out of nowhere. They exist for a reason. So, the real question is: what were the reasons for the rise of suburbia?

It looked like this

To answer that we have to go back to the 19th century. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution kicked into gear big time. It brought with it factories. The factories were concentrated in the inner cities alongside high density housing for the workers. They were dirty and dangerous and emitted pollution directly into the local environment.

Meanwhile, the aristocracy was living the good life out in the countryside. They had large estates and a team of gardeners whose job was the grow food for the household.

The pleasure garden

But the aristocracy also competed with each other to see who could have the most magnificent landscape gardens. This led to various fashions and styles of garden. The best gardeners became celebrities. All this was very similar to the way aristocrats supported the arts back in Renaissance Italy. Vanity through ostentatious display of wealth has been one of the main sources of funding for the arts since time immemorial. In Britain, gardening had become an art form.

One of the ostentatious markers of wealth for the aristocracy of Britain was the extensive use of lawns in their landscape gardens. Small-holding peasants throughout history would never have grown lawns since it would be a waste of fertile soil that could be used to grow crops. Thus, an estate with extensive lawns communicated to the observer “look at me, I’m so rich I can afford to waste all this land on useless grass.”

Thus, in the 19th century you had two different lifestyle paradigms. On the one hand, the inner cities were high-density, heavily-polluted incubators for disease with a side helping of crime, squalor and filth. That’s where the workers lived. On the other hand, the aristocracy were using the proceeds of empire to live lives of ostentatious luxury signified partly by the cultivation of huge gardens with extensive lawns.

A third demographic then arrived on the scene: the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of industrialisation. They were office workers, engineers and small business owners. This nouveau riche demographic wanted to escape the squalor of the inner city but didn’t have access to ancestral land like the aristocracy. What to do?

The answer was: suburbia.

Suburbia was modelled on the estates of the aristocracy and sold to the emerging bourgeoisie as a way to escape the city and “get back to nature”. The ubiquitous “nature strip” in front of suburban houses was placed there for this purpose. In Australia, the quarter acre block eventually became the default size of a suburban allocation. In the early days, this was enough to grow a fairly substantial amount of food on, which many people did. Once again, this was an imitation of the aristocracy who also grew food on their land; albeit with a team of servants to do it for them.

In short, suburbia arose as a miniature form of the lifestyle of the English aristocracy of the 19th century. That’s also why the suburbs invariably had lawns. The aristocrats had extensive lawns on their estates. So, too, would the bourgeoisie. The front lawn became your own little marker of ostentatious wealth. “Look at me, I’m so rich I can waste this perfectly good soil on useless grass”.

Now that we have this cultural background in place, we can better understand what was behind the comedy sketch mentioned at the beginning of the post. The Italian and Greek immigrants arrived in Australia and moved into the suburbs. What they saw was perfectly good soil that could be used to grow food and that’s what many of them did. In doing so, they transgressed the whole point of the front lawn. It was there as a marker of wealth. To grow vegetables on it was the signal that you were poor and thereby to bring down the whole neighbourhood. On the other hand, to do what Santo Cilauro’s uncle did and pour concrete over it was also against the rules.

Of course, by the time the D-Generation was made in the late 80s, nobody remembered what the original point of these rules was. The front lawn was ubiquitous but had lost its meaning. For the people who had grown up in the suburbs, the lawn no longer represented a display of wealth but a tiresome chore. Nobody grew their own food anymore. And nobody saw the old British aristocracy as anything other than an anachronism.

It’s no coincidence that it was exactly at this time that a new aristocracy arrived on the scene (in truth, it had been forming for decades beforehand). The 80s was the age of the Wall St shark. Once again, the common person took their lead from the aristocracy only now the aristocracy was not a landed gentleman with top hat and monocle but a besuited banking bro with a cocaine addiction and penchant for high-price call girls.

…and cigars.

(In fairness, many an English “gentleman” had similar tastes although, in accordance with the fashions of the time, it was less coke and hookers and more opium and hookers).

Taking the lead from our banking overlords, what has happened from the 90s onward has been rampant speculation in Australian real estate. One of the ways this has occurred is through subdivision. The middle class found themselves sitting on quarter acre blocks that had lost their purpose. They proceeded to subdivide in order to build units or townhouses which could be sold for a tidy profit. The same mentality extended into investment properties. At time of writing, the MPs that sit in the Australian parliament own 1.34 investment properties on average. For Australians on a similar salary, the number is slightly higher at 1.4. 15% of Australians now own at least one investment property.

There’s a particularly surreal example of the subdivision trend right at the end of the street where I live. The block was the old-fashioned quarter acre and, as was common back in the day, had a number of fruit trees in the backyard including a beautiful big peach tree whose branches reached over the fence and onto the footpath. I used to take the opportunity to pick a peach or two when I walked past and I can testify that they were very tasty.

A few years ago the block was subdivided and a new house built on the 1/8 acre that used to be the backyard. The fruit trees were ripped up and a new weatherboard house put down. All things considered, it’s an attractive house but it takes up pretty much the entire block.

The front yard in particular caught my attention. The block is now very narrow and so the driveway and garage take up about half the width. The other half is perhaps 4 metres wide by 3 metres deep. Technically, this is the front yard, although it’s too small to be called that. What did the designers of the house decide to with this “front yard”? They put down a lawn. But it’s not a real lawn. It’s made of artificial grass.

It struck me that the house is a simulacrum. It’s a simulacrum of suburbia which is itself a simulacrum of the English aristocratic estates of the 19th century. Still, since the grass is artificial, at least the new residents won’t have to do much work to maintain it.

This little story is the microcosm to the macrocosm that has been Western civilisation over the last few decades. The ascent of the bankers has created a simulacrum of a civilisation. Again, it’s seems far too coincidental that the internet should appear at exactly the same time. Social media, in particular, is a simulacrum of reality. Images and videos flick past at such a rapid pace that the human mind cannot make sense of them.

This world created by the bankers looks to be falling apart in real time, although with the simulacrum in place it’s very hard to know what is actually going on. Nevertheless, the raw economics may finally win out. People are waking up to the fact that all we got from the last few decades was asset bubbles; good for bankers; not so good for anybody else. Increasingly, the system looks set to implode from its own momentum.

There’s much that could and has been said about this but one aspect I don’t see talked about much is the one we’ve seen a couple of times in this post. Although it’s impolite to say it these days with our egalitarian ethic, human societies run on mimicry. The masses copy the behaviour they see from the “elites”. That was what led to the creation of suburbia in the first place. It was the mimicry of the English aristocracy. It’s what is currently causing the dismantling of suburbia: the mimicry of bankers.

Mimic me and I’ll mimic you

This leads to another question: when the next GFC hits and, assuming the bankers don’t get bailed out this time, who will emerge as the new leadership class of Western civilisation?

Any ideas?