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.
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.
|Economic, political, spiritual, sexual
|Old Age (menopause)
|Mentor, Elder, (Retired)
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.
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.
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:-
|Economic, political, spiritual, sexual
|Old Age (menopause)
|Mentor, Elder, (Retired)
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.
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.
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.”
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:-
|(Duke of Albany), (Duke Cornwall)
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.
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.