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.

20 thoughts on “Shakespeare and the Archetypes”

  1. It seems that I need to read Hamlet. I am one of the worst procrastinators on earth. The problem is, that I got away with it until today. Nobody is realising that I am fooling around most of the time, but it is nagging at my soul that I am celebrated by everyone while I know that I only put in the minimum effort at the last possible moment. Does Shakespeare have any hints on how to get over the hump to become an adult?

  2. Secretface – I don’t think procrastination is necessarily a bad thing for complex decisions since the longer you wait the more information you have. It’s also true that in team environments you have to modulate your tempo to the tempo of the team which usually involves a lot of waiting around, so that’s a separate problem too. In Hamlet’s case, he knows what he has to do. An injustice has been committed and he needs to set it right. His procrastination is a way to avoid what he knows that he must do.

  3. This is a fascinating topic because Shakespeare really encapsulates the pure Faustian better than anyone else, and all the comparative stuff you can do is just a well spring of potential thought trains. Take the feminine, the female characters who go mad or bad in Shakespeare aren’t mothers. Then go to Homer and we find the powerful female characters are all mothers, Penelope and Andromache the shining examples but even Jocaster. Is the feminine progression through the archetypes different? Does the childlessness (implied lost child?) of Lady Macbeth the cause her madness?

    I know for me becoming a father is what well and truly kicked me out of adolescent selfish introspection into adulthood. You just don’t have time to be bored or ponder when there are screaming children demanding to be fed. But it gets confusing because I think fatherhood forces you to confront the feminine so is it actually the shift into elder?

    And Macbeth is singularly fascinating because it leaves it ambiguous if it is fate or choice that rules the world.

  4. Skip – I always thought Lady Macbeth did have a child due to this passage “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this”. That’s very reminiscent of Homer. Macbeth’s lament at his downfall is also very similar to Hector after Achilles has mortally wounded him near the end of the Iliad. I think the difference is that Macbeth brought it on himself whereas for the ancients that’s just the way life was and you could either face it directly or cowardly ignore it.

    I think the feminist reading of Lady Macbeth would be that she can’t have a will of her own but only vicariously through her husband. The same argument can be made for most of the women in Shakespeare.

  5. Isn’t the gathering of information to make a complex decision more like planing than procrastination? I would expect that a procrastinstor would avoid thinking about a complex decision until it is no longer possible.

    Regarding team work, is modulating your tempo really procrastination? I mean, I am struggling with this since as long as I remember as I always seem to be the one that has to slow down. I am very impatient with others and also with myself, but a procrastinator would also delay his part of a team effort until it is no longer possible, which I did quite often.

  6. Sorry for hijacking the discussion for personal matters but I am always trying to apply to my own life what I am reading.

    I have developed a theory today in the bathroom that this procrastination issue is something like a coping mechanism for having to wait so much. Instead of rushing to the finish line and waiting I now wait (and fool around) at the start until the others are approaching the finish line and then rush to the finish line to be there at the same time. The problem is that this is not healthy as I feel like an imposter for the whole waiting and fooling around.

  7. Secretface – yes, but for many decisions the information only comes with time and therefore you can only take it into account if you allow time to pass. There are good and bad times to make decisions. If things are changing rapidly, you want to avoid a decision since whatever you decide is likely to be wrong once new information comes to light. If you can, it’s better to wait until things calm down. That’s what I mean by a good use of procrastination. Sometimes, problems can even go away entirely and you don’t even have to make a decision 🙂

    I know what you mean by waiting around. It’s an inevitable outcome of teamwork. Some people hate it so much they go into small business. Then, you don’t have a problem waiting around but you have other problems like the fact that everything relies on you. As with everything, it’s a tradeoff. Are you able to find something else to fill the time? Usually, there’s other work-related training or something that you can do to improve yourself. Most of the companies I have worked for encourage such training and you can probably find something you are personally interested in and is somewhat relevant to your job.

  8. If I understand you correctly, good use of procrastination would be some kind of constantly analyzing a problem/situation until either a decision becomes necessary or the problem/situation is solved by itself. This to me sounds more like an action (observation of a problem/situation), while procrastination for me is non-action.

    I seem to be in some kind of vicious circle of hating teamwork due to the waiting (and often competence) problem and being too much of a coward (or lazy) to be self-employed. I could do work-related training, but since I am working in a service business which is paid per hour of work done for the customer, someone would say that I should do more work for customers if I hang around in trainings for an extensive amount of time. Now, you could argue that I should do more work for the customer, if I am so fast, but then I am back at the waiting problem and procrastination setting in.

  9. Secretface – fair enough. I think we agree but just have a different definition of “action”. Is observation action? I would say no because action requires doing something. But observation does require Will. So, there is wilful action/wilful observation and non-wilful action (“going through the motions”)/non-wilful observation (“just looking”).

    Have you thought about looking for a new job? One of the big advantages of being an employee is that you get to quit 🙂

  10. I agree that we agree 🙂

    I just changed jobs recently. The problem is that I made some questionable decisions in the past which led to a carrier in a pretty unfulfilling area. So, it is more like a change in carriers that could be necessary but that is not an easy task when you are halfway through with your life.

  11. I should not write in the middle of the night, but carrier should mean career. When I think about it, working on an aircraft carrier sounds much more exiting than working my current office job.

  12. Secretface – strangely enough, I think this is actually related to Hamlet.

    Most royal families had multiple heirs to the throne but only one or two are likely to actually become king. The rest of the princes are stuck like Hamlet with nowhere to go. The same is true in most modern corporations. There’s only a few managerial jobs relative to line level jobs. When you’ve been doing a line level job for a number of years, you become really good at it and it’s probably not going to be a challenge for you anymore. Your only real option is to go into management. But there’s a limited number of managerial jobs available. Managers know that and they try to protect their turf. Most of the ideological BS that goes on in corporations these days is due to the fight between managers and line level workers who are trying to get their jobs.

    Therefore, the managers of a modern corporation are like Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) and the line level workers are like Hamlet. Each are trying “kill” the other.

  13. The situation you are describing perfectly describes my own. I left my previous company because I lost a cold war of attrition with my manager. After endless broken promises regarding a promotion I had enough. When I started the job at my current company, I made it pretty clear that I don´t want to be a line worker anymore. They promised me the possibility of a prompt promotion. Since then, the promise of promotion is dangled like carrot before my face but the deadline for the promotion is very elusive, changing from the end of this year to maybe next summer. It also seems that I have to be onboard with the current ideological BS, which I am totally not. So, I am still stuck in a Hamlet like situation.

  14. Secretface – yes, it’s a familiar story. The good news is that, if you stop pushing for promotion, you no longer become a threat to management and they will almost entirely leave you alone.

    The reason the ideological BS is becoming more and more absurd these days is because the pressure on management is increasing (also the pressure on government). Anybody who wants to climb the ladder now needs to learn how to parrot utter nonsense. Because most people either won’t or can’t do that, they stop trying to rise through the ranks and they are no longer a problem. Of course, the people who are prepared to play the game are exactly the kinds of nutters you don’t want to rise through the ranks and so we have a bunch of semi-lunatics running things.

  15. Simon, this is fascinating. Great lens through which to view Shakespeare. A few questions. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by a child’s world being psychological to a large extent. As in fantasy & imaginative play? Because I’m thinking a child’s world is typically the family to a large extent. And the family is political. A microcosm of the macrocosm. (Personally, I think purely psychological explanations are inadequate to address all the developmental stages, ditto purely political explanations.)

    Another question – your description of substituting extroverted for introverted imagination sounds like the replacement of active engagement w/ greater passivity. Do you think technology has been & is instrumental in this shift?

    Just one more (at least for now) – here, you seem to be construing extroversion as positive & introversion as negative, which differs from the usual psychological meaning of the terms. Here, they seem to equate to active & passive. To use the terms in their usual sense, I’m thinking that the transition from orphan to adult would entail a shift from relative introversion to extroversion – the necessity of acting & building on what’s been learned from mentors etc. – while the transition from adult to elder would entail a shift from extroversion to introversion…?

  16. Shane – Taking the questions in order:-

    Question 1: Can you explain what you mean by the family being political? I don’t think the family is political from a child’s of view. For the child, most things are either imagination/play or desire/desire which parents prevent you from achieving, both of which are primarily psychological. I think childhood can further be divided in 2 parts. 0-6 is purely psychological. Children become more self-aware from about 6 onwards. In fact, you could make an argument that the Orphan phase begins around 6.

    Question 2: It seems to me that technology came after the shift. The shift itself was increasing parental obsessions with “safety” at all costs. I wonder if technology actually filled the void that was already there i.e. parents embraced technology precisely because it kept children “off the streets” while substituting a kind of (introverted) Imagination.

    Question 3: I think introversion/extroversion is not the same as active and passive. Carl Jung practiced “active imagination”, for example, but that was an exercise in introversion. I think extroversion and Exoteric go together. Thus, at the time of each archetypal transformation, we need to step into a new Exoteric role. That process implies extroversion. If the role does not exist or we fail to take it, we fall back to introversion but the introversion seems to be introversion of the archetype we are stuck in which now becomes decadent. That’s basically what Freud and Jung found for adolescents, who fall back to introverted infantile psychology when they fail to attain the Adult archetype. I think the same thing holds for Adults who fail to attain the Elder.

  17. Simon, OK – from a child’s point of view, things aren’t political but personal: wholly subjective. Was thinking that parents – or siblings – can exercise their powers despotically or democratically, & children soon learn how to lobby or suffer the consequences. Etc.

    No doubt you could argue that for a long time technology has been developed in response to, among other things, human needs for safety, starting from the first weapons cavemen used to fend off attackers & predators; the need gave rise to the technology. But it works both ways. TV & then the net have opened our eyes to all sorts of theoretical threats that never used to occur to us, while microscopes reveal deadly microbes, telescopes track asteroids that could potentially knock us out of our orbit if we don’t zap them first… 🙂

    Thanks, extroversion applied to assuming a new exoteric role makes sense. (Thought you were saying, extroversion good, introversion bad, but it’s all down to context.)

  18. Shane – yes. The point I was making was that Freud and Jung could analyse childhood as a purely psychological phenomenon because that’s the way the child experiences it. The same is not true for older age groups and therefore the purely psychological perspective misleads when applied beyond childhood.

    European civilisation (and its offshoots) is introverted and I think that’s why it is European civilisation that has found all these “invisible” things. It’s our specialty 🙂

  19. The problem is, that if I don´t push for promotion, I am stuck as a line worker. Wouldn´t that also some kind of indication that you transition from adult to elder that you accept to not get any further in the hierachy?

    A few weeks ago, my company announced with enthusiam that we now can set our pronouns in our collaboration software. I was thinking about setting something like “his majesty” or even more political incorrect “der Führer” as my pronoun but then I could also just write my own notice of termination. No wonder that dissidents are talking about creating parallel institutions. Unfortunately, due to immediate gratification in all areas of our life our society is very impatient, even the dissidents. I am not sure whether they have the staying power to build and maintain suchs institutions. I would expect most of these institutions to crumble at the first sight of state organized resistance. Maybe, they should have a hard look at how Christiany got from persecuted minority to state religion in the Roman empire

  20. Secretface – I think only you can answer what the right path is. There’s a lot of people now “quiet quitting” i.e. doing the bare minimum and focusing their energies on something outside of work. That can include the idea of parallel institutions. The difficulty of the time we live in is that most new ideas are going to fail. That’s inevitable. But it’s also a good test of will i.e. failing but still going back for another try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *