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.
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.
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:-
|Adult||Maturity||Plumber (economic), citizen of Australia (political), Catholic (spiritual), married (sexual)||Will|
|Elder||Old Age (menopause)||Retired||Soul|
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.
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.
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.