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.

19 thoughts on “Hamlet: The Tragedy of the Orphan”

  1. I think you are right.
    This is insightful to me, not only on the macro society level, but also on my micro personal level to.

    Maybe if people became mindful of it, that can lead to privet improvements regarding on how to cope living in our dysfunctional society, by actions that are free and independent from external factors.
    I mean each for his own, but if significal number of people go this way, it can also improve society.

  2. Hi Simon,

    A fascinating essay and I tend to agree with you, although I have not read Hamlet. Education these days being sadly lacking in the classics, which have a lot to say, and teach – as you rightly point out. I do recall reading Macbeth, but it was probably considered fit reading for a bunch of bloodthirsty teens! Much of what I read at school was probably considered ‘relevant’, whatever that means. And it bored the daylights out of me. Speaking of the orphan archetype and ‘relevant’ books – Holden Caulfield. Just sayin. How can one person whine so much in three dimensions? Read the book and you may just find out, to your woe.

    Most of the next generation of adults in my life, were children based on the way they were acting-out. I was very fortunate to have had some strong male role models in my life at an early age, otherwise I’m guessing I would have ended up like those next generation up of adults. Their parents differed markedly, and the grandmother on one side, and grandfather on the other side, did have a far more positive role and seemed more solid.

    What was interesting about the adults who were acting-out, was that they went to their death beds having doubled down on their choices. Hmm. You know, I suspect that once a person is stuck in that Orphan state you wrote of for long enough, they might not seek a way out of it. What do you reckon about that?



  3. Nati – I agree. For most of history the average person didn’t have any choice in their life path. Nowadays, we arguably have too much choice and it’s easy to get lost. But at least we can choose.

    Chris – yes. There’s a concept in developmental psychology about “critical periods” which seems relevant to the archetypes. For example, with human language, if you haven’t activated your language learning by a certain age (I think it’s around 8 years old) you’ll never become a fluent speaker. This was realised by various children that were either raised by wolves (eg. the wolf boy of Aveyron) or kept in isolation by their parents. It’s the same with the archetypal progression although it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We can do fine in certain areas while getting stuck in others. This is sometimes called arrested development.

    Glad to hear your enjoying the kitchen garden series. I thought you would 😉

  4. So, the Christian rites of passage don’t work anymore, the modern ones neither (e.g. military services for young men). I have read somewhere that we should create our own personal rites of passage. Since no elders would be included, I am not sure whether this would work.

  5. Secretface – that’s a really interesting question and one that I’m grappling with how to present in my book. Nietzsche came up with a similar idea but his was far too introverted. No surprises that he went mad as a result. It seems we need to create our own rites of passage not just for ourselves but for each other too. That’s actually what the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was all about. I’ve been meaning to do more research on the MMM. It fell apart but I’m not sure why. Various other groups have followed in its stead but don’t seem to have won the same recognition so far.

  6. I think this is why the two denominations that are growing most rapidly in Europe are Orthodox and Catholicism because they have the most focus upon exoteric rites and sacraments along with the esoteric ones. A full blown Catholic life has a heap of outward rites of passage, I’m less familiar with orthodox but understand it has a similar focus although from a different angle.

    I think this is the whole point of the Reformation and it’s blowback, which is what Nietzsche is really hitting on. We are free in the west since then to basically come up with whatever exoteric meaning or rites we want. On the surface it’s a liberation but the problem is that what was liberating on the exoteric was a prison esoterically because the only affirmation as part of the group became absolute adherence to axioms of thought. Puritanism and Atheism arise from here.

    I think that’s why none of the self created rites of passage work very well like the mens movement because it actually lacks esoteric depth; they never stop being Protestant at heart, in which hard work, personal development and material gain are the way to salvation (even something like ‘place in society’ is from this lineage). Until this metaphysical level is tackled the outward forms are probably meaningless. There is still no place for someone who swerves from the Protestant path ( lack of monasteries and nunneries being the most glaring example).

    The Protestant west is always happy to adopt exoteric forms of other cultures (dress, flag, colour, artefacts) etc but never the other cultures metaphysic, which is literal heresy even now.

  7. If normally some elders are involved in a rite of passage, it seems like a personal one does not work. So, I would agree that we need to create them for each other and idealy involve elders as initiators.

    Regarding the MMM, I have only encountered it via reading Iron John by Robert Bly. A few years have passed since I have read the book, so my memory is kind of clouded but I had the impression that the book was pretty feminine (or gay). I don´t know whether you have watched Beavis & Butthead (I always had a weakness for the bad stuff that is so bad that it becomes good again), but there is a side character in the show of whom I was thinking while reading the book: the harmless hippy teacher. I don´t know how this would inspire any man. I was definetely not. The Way of Men by Jack Donovan was more up to my alley but while the book was successful, it did not spawn any big men´s movement, at least I am not aware of it.

  8. Skip – agreed. It’s been fascinating to watch the last several weeks with the various pro-Palestine protests. Quite a lot of people seem to think that it’s the “end of the West” just because a bunch of people aren’t following the officially sanctioned narrative. Of course, we saw the same thing during corona only with a different group of people.

    It’s still incredible to think back to the religious wars in Europe and how some king in a tiny little protectorate would convert to Protestantism or Catholicism and it was just taken for granted that every single person in that area then had to convert to that same religion or upend their whole life and go and live somewhere else. Ironically, the empires of Europe were far more tolerant and heterogenous than the nation-states. That was a big part of the reason why Napoleon had the grassroots support that he had.

    Secretface – some elements in the Pick Up Artist movement are doing an interesting form of initiation that goes beyond just hook-up sex.

    As the saying goes, the teacher learns as much as the student. So, I wonder whether we need a new definition of Elder as someone who is not an absolute authority but also an active participant in the learning process. The Elder is not an absolute authority but somebody with more experience as justified by the results they can show rather than some abstract credentials.

  9. I also stumbled on the PUA scene looking around the internet for male role models (that sounds crazy). Can you specify what you mean by the initiation beyond hook-up sex? I thought that this was their main goal.

  10. Secretface – for most of them, that is the only goal. But there’s a couple of more philosophical schools of PUA thought which are actually a kind of training of the Will and even go into things like meditation and whatnot. This makes sense because pick up is about activating the will (to pick up a woman). Once you learn how to do that, it’s natural to wonder what else you could do with the will.

  11. Sounds interesting. Do you have any PUA thought leaders that you could recommend which go in this direction?

  12. Addendum:

    I was thinking of different men´s movements that are currently more or less active as the theme of rites of passage seems to be more relevant for males. At least that is my impression. Although, the example of Victorian females going insane puts a dent into my theorie.

    I would say that there are currently three important men´s movements:
    1. The PUA scene which I would extend to the MGTOW movement as they seem to share a similar view that you should exploit women without getting exploited by them. It seems like this movement has lost a lot of steam as the thought leaders were harrassed by the mainstream until they quit (RooshV) or went to jail (Andrew Tate)
    2. The right-wing bodybuilders (e.g. Raw Egg National, etc.) which pray the time proven mantra “Men sana in corpore sanum”and Nietzsche´s will to power. As he is one of their gurus, maybe they will also end up insane.
    3. Christian men trying to combine Christian thought with our modern world (e.g. Aaron Renn, Brett McKay of Art of Manliness). They are trying not to appear too religious to get to a wider audience but their Christian thought comes through often. Personally, they are my favourites as they are much more reasonable than the other two movements. They only have the problem that we live in a negative world regarding Christianity (that is also the theorie of Aaron Renn). To be held accountable before God for what you did in life is just not fassionable anymore.

  13. Secretface – sounds like you’ve researched this more than me 😉 The only one I can recommend is called the Natural Lifestyles. The guy who runs it is originally from Melbourne. He wouldn’t remember me, but I once auditioned for a band he played in which was one of the best bands on the Melbourne indie scene at that time. I didn’t get in the band but, years later while I was browsing the internet, I recognised his face and followed the link which ended being the Natural Lifestyles material. I quite like their approach. There seems to me to be an undercurrent of misogyny in a lot of the PUA scene which they avoid and the approach is focused on principles which are actually more broadly applicable in life.

  14. Thanks for the recommendation, I will have a look into Natural Lifestyles. The world is often appearing as a small place. You encounter people from the past at places where you would never expect them.

    I have found a mistake in my previous post: “Men sana in corpore sanum” should be “Mens sana in corpose sanum” but in this context it also works as a mixture of English and Latin…

  15. I have looked into Natural Lifestyles. It seems to be heavily focused on picking up women but offers some courses with an extended scope (Natural Warrior something). Unfortunately, the articles all lead to videos, which I loath to watch to get advice/information. In addition, the courses are mentioned in nearly every article. It reeks too much like a business instead of a real interest in bettering the life of men. The leader also appears to be a guru in the mold of Osho. I think, I will stick with the Christian advisors, but thanks anyway.

    No follows my third try to write the latin sentence correctly: “Mens sana in corpore sanum”.

  16. Just because it’s a business doesn’t mean it can’t be of help. Businesses are just a way of exchanging value. In one sense, religions function the same way. I suspect a big reason why movements fail is because they are trying to invent a new way to exchange value and it fails.

  17. You´re right. Maybe I did not see the value that they are offering and therefore was thinking of a shady business that wants to rip you off.

    The CEO from Natural Lifestyles also tells the typical self help guru story from being a loser in the past and then turning everything around, while looking like the twin brother of Viggo Mortensen (which means that he probably was always successful with women).

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