Dramatis Personae: An introduction to archetypes and the dramatic character

In taking a closer look at myths, symbols and human experience across all human cultures one might notice identical patterns, similar narrative themes, as well as comparable symbols and experiences returning time after time. The term used to describe universal tropes of human patterning across time is, of course, archetype. An archetype binds the experience of individual character within a rich, complex collective patterning. Here the private experience of the individual’s character may also be viewed as informed by transpersonal narratives, themes and motifs; the hero, for instance, offers the prospect of success and belonging by seeking to overcome trials and adversity and in so doing holds out to us all a helpful prototype with which to bolster our character and renew our resolve in trying times. In the brief sketches that follow we will take a look at some archetypes, some dramatic characters and the patterning of myth and storying that weave common motifs and symbols into personal stories, narrativity and, ultimately, enactment.

To account for and come to better understand human experience, to explore the relation between private and public, personal and collective, a brilliant young psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung, developed further Classical concepts, such as the theory of forms, emanation, archetype and anima to create an applied psychology of his own design. C.G. Jung took each of these classical ideas and sought to reinterpret them in new ways at the beginning of the twentieth century. A younger contemporary of Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung was so greatly impressed by Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ that he set out to meet with his older colleague at his home in Vienna to discuss and compare clinical thinking, their different views of psychiatry, their frames of reference for their respective psychological views and to discuss at great length the nature of the unconscious and its role in everyday life. Their initial meeting was by any measure highly generative; both were intrigued in different ways by the possibilities held out by applying philosophical ideas to a conceptual framing of the individual and social psyche. And together over the coming seven years, these intellectual giants came to lay the foundations of what we today recognise as the basis of modern psychotherapy – through the long development, that is, of ideas directly obtained from Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytic psychology.

But C.G. Jung and Freud conceptualised the unconscious quite differently: for Freud, the unconscious had a Darwinian evolutionary foundation, a biological and instinctual base of natural selection resting squarely on the impulsion of drives (Ger. Trieb) toward ‘life’ and a flip-side drive toward ‘death’, both drives, in coincidence, energising desire into a lifelong development of ambivalent manifestations. For C.G. Jung on the other hand the unconscious was to be viewed as both phylogenetic and cultural; that is to say, a noumenal emanation from a collective (in the form of archetypal symbols) and materialising in a personal formation (in the development of character and personality traits). It was these different perspectives, on the nature of the unconscious and the nature of motivating drives, which led Jung and Freud to part company after their return from touring America. Suffice to say that theorists and intellectuals, even those of the calibre of Freud and C.G. Jung, suffer at least as much from tragic character flaws as everyone else might.

Having separated himself from the strictly Freudian view of the primacy of sexuality in human experience, C.G. Jung was free to continue his solo investigations into the scripting of human character, and human understanding more generally, to research the essential role played by human drives toward creativity and sexuality and spirituality, in coincidence.

For C.G. Jung the relation between collective and personal unconscious can be understood as like that of the Sun to the Earth, or the Earth to the Moon, in the analogous sense that the collective unconscious pre-exists and sets the stage for the personal unconscious of the individual. – And it follows from the birth of a subjective space we might call a personal unconsciousness, that an infant’s sensory post-partum experience begins to constellate to adapt; within weeks giving rise to consciousness, within one year giving rise to a self-concept, within a few more years giving rise to self-awareness, perhaps. This typology of C.G. Jung’s bears all the hallmarks of what Nietzsche had thirty or so years earlier termed eternal recurrence.  

The conceptualisation used by C.G Jung to account for the collective unconscious presupposes many millions or years of phylogenetic inheritance and the storying of that inheritance through a shared frame of reference. Take for example the two fish (yin and yang) that are drawn together in the ancient Chinese Dao symbol, and elsewhere after the fact, to denote both the dualism of one receptive principle and one active principle as well as the complementarity and intersubjective nature of the union of opposites; as one finds commonly in female and male, dark and light, chaos and order. The black fish has a white eye and the white fish has a black eye; the reason for this is that the image or symbol in question captures an idea which transcends individual experience, though, it is a part of personal experience. The idea captured in this example symbol does so by connotation not denotation. That is to say, a sign denotes an object that is part of worldly experience, a phenomenon, say, there are fish for sale in this shop. However, a symbol connotes something else, something that can be otherworldly, something that exists as a concept – symbols are therefore transformational, they are symbols of transformation, they are essential, they allow us to deal with what it is to be communicative and social. Such things “outside us” are philosophically termed a priori. For the sake of simplicity, symbols are not signs, symbols connote multiple meanings, on the other hand, signs denote a single clear meaning. 

But why, one might well ask, is the eye of the fish the opposite colour to its body in both cases? The answer is, of course, that this symbol acts as a frame of reference that freights the complex idea that nothing in nature is entirely black or white, good or bad. So our example symbol also conveys with it the meaning of limitation to be found in the more modern concepts of, say, binary opposition, splitting or Either/Or thinking. The collective unconscious is, therefore, for C.G. Jung at least, a metaphysical register said to exist outside of human conscious experience, analogous to the Kantian concept of a transcendent a priori, and is a register populated by symbols of the unconscious. The collective unconscious is a catch-all concept to hold onto the abstract idea of the absolute unknown, it is the realm of mystery, it is the primordial chaos out of which all matter — as well as human matters — come to exist and gain aliveness.

Here I shall sketch how personal psychology (to account for a character in terms of consciousness and personal unconscious) derives from the organisation of collective symbols of the unconscious in the form of symbols, myths and motifs. For C.G. Jung, personality and more specifically personality types can be represented in the form of an epistemology of character based on motivating functions (Extravert and Introvert) and types (Intuition, Thinking, Sensing and Feeling). His formulations were used as the basis of the now-famous and widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) psychometric tool developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers.

Introverts are internally resourceful characters. Extraverts are externally resourceful characters. No-one is ever entirely introverted or wholly extraverted, rather these terms refer to a continuum of human experience.

How someone takes on information about themselves or the world is referred to by C. G. Jung as a personality type. Two types use irrational perceptual capacities; the sensing type focuses on information known, does well with memory tasks and progresses methodically; the intuiter type focuses far ahead of what currently exists and do well on imagination tasks, they also do well on abstract tasks and like to multi-task. Two types use rational judging capacities: the thinker type focusses more on detached rationality and less on emotional engagement, they do well in a structured ordered environment; the feeling type focuses on emotional connection, empathy and relationship, they do well in social settings.

C.G. Jung’s personality types have been called unscientific and even pseudo-science, however, whether science or scientifistic this does not appear to have deterred growing numbers of institutions and corporations from routinely undertaking psychometric testing of their leadership candidates. Whether personality is a matter for the natural science or human sciences remains to be seen, but at this point, and for the foreseeable future, the matter of personality types rests comfortably as a human science with qualitative measurements.  

In the following section, I shall endeavour to sketch how it might be understood that we can examine the character in terms of consciousness, personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, and, the narrativity of character using the lens obtaining from an appreciation of some archetypal symbols. We will briefly examine the central role, or perhaps distorted role, of the Self-concept in organising and differentiating personal and archetypal forms of some other constant concepts (e.g. the shadow, the persona, the hero, the wise-Person, the warring siblings and the syzygy of the anima and animus). We will conclude later by briefly considering some associated techniques (e.g. amplification and active imagination).

Let’s begin with an example: let’s imagine someone, perhaps even someone we know, who might occasionally over-identify with some aspect of their job, their professional role, and as a direct consequence of that unwitting turn begin to mistake that role for which they are known professionally — a mask that they might wear, a persona (as the Roman dramatists would say) — and mistake that professional mask, that persona, with their true nature, that is to say, their Self-concept. How might we understand this confusion, that is, between an over-identification with a working persona and a misidentification of one’s self-concept? More still, how might one be so insightful when regarding the errors of others made in this regard, and yet, so lacking insight or perspicacity regarding our interior identification and differentiation between persona and self? 

For C.G. Jung the answers to these and other similar questions centre around one’s capacity for conscious accurate self-identification, reflective capacity, and perhaps the courage and determination to face one’s repressed unconscious experiences in an ongoing iterative process; what is called for is a most everyday process, yet crucial processing of psychological artefacts in the service of self-realisation. It is this self-reflexive notion that C.G. Jung termed the process of individuation.

Individuation is the act of coming to better know ourselves in totality; getting to know better what we are strong in, what we are weak in, what we are willing to confront within ourselves and what we reject about ourselves. Individuation is perhaps analogous to psychological upkeep and psychological hygiene. Individuation, then, is the process by which we can come to answer the call to interior authenticity, and perhaps, come to realise our fullest potential to become what we wish to become. Individuation has been likened to self-actualisation, the topmost strata of human need, that is, according to Maslow’s profoundly influential ‘Pyramid of Needs’ (1943).  

That said, those characters who do not attend well to the lessons of self-actualisation, reflective action, or some-such synecdoche for what we are calling here individuation, do so at their peril, as it is the mistakes and misjudgements of themselves and others that run the risk of becoming internalised as pseudo-accurate portrayals of their reality. Incorporations of this type lead to a distorted self-concept, something D.W. Winnicott famously called a False-Self. For C.G. Jung the site of a distorted and false self-identity is called the Shadow. 

As well as representing the disdained and rejected parts of our psyche, the ultimately unhelpful distorted attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the Shadow are also collective and archetypal. In the archetypal form the Shadow symbolises the bleak location of all that can be forbidden, all the dark contexts where anxieties emanate from obscurity to confuse us, it is, put starkly, the space of foreboding unsafeness and uncertainty. 

Such mis-knowledge of the nature of the self, in the case of the personal shadow, brings with it a steady erosion of hope, the slow destruction of trust in others and the initiation of negativity, inferiority, doubt, and at worst paranoia. The formation of the personal shadow has been explored in those projections of character and dramatic characterisations such as those tragic flaws (Gr. hamartia) seen in Hamlet’s indecisiveness and cowardice clothed as loss and grief, Victor Frankenstein’s reckless ambition and ethical disregard, or Henry Jekyll’s childlike lack of impulse control to name but a few classic examples. 

In each case, the projections made possible by the shadow personality are fed by — and made ever darker through — the individual’s retreat or refusal to better reflect, or act differently than their limited, inadequate reality-testing repertoire allows; each preferring instead to repress or deny or avoid any signal of the fear of the extent of the work of repair. And yet, counterintuitively, perhaps, it is precisely the psychological work with one’s shadow material that might best offer renewal or revitalisation, hope or reparation. How better to overcome the surprising assaults and spontaneous corollaries of the shadow personality than to get to better know its patterns and methods and habituated forms?

Why might it be so that the human mind is so utterly fascinated by the hero character? How is it that characters such as Odysseus, Achilles, Percival, King Leonidas, Spartacus, Luke Skywalker, Draupadi, Harry Potter, Paul Atreides (Muad’Dib), Neo, Wonder Woman or even Medea hold us captive for hours or days or years? Is it just boys and men that need these and so many other similar narratives to save the world or their dying fathers? Or is it also the preserve of girls and women to share in this desire to become special and be seen to embody the specialness of the hero? 

For the scholar of comparative mythology and comparative religion and advocate for Jungian-style thought, Joseph Campbell, the answer was quite clearly led by a search for personal meaning: “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949). Here Campbell is naming the imperative of a life of meaning in an otherwise abounding world suffused with suffering and malevolence; this is not a simple search for happiness, this is the search for happiness admitting from avoidance of displeasure and pain. The archetypal hero wears suffering and pain and yet endures their ordeal, s/he keeps on going when in the face of adversity because it is the adversity which holds out the prospect of a return. It is, then, the proper case that adversity is a necessary aspect that fashions the hero spirit. For Campbell, the archetypal hero follows an identical pattern of milestones every time: separation from loved ones, a descent into the darkness, trial by ordeal and the return to that which was felt lost. 

How else, one might ask, does a fine old gentleman like Capt. Tom Moore endear himself to a nation, and the wider world, alike, except through a tectonic-paced struggle to walk a mere twenty-five yards using a walking frame at his venerable age; surely it is because we identified an indomitable and spirited determination to do so one hundred times (he may be 99, I think, soon to be 100 years young) and that, alongside his status as a veteran of the second world war, marks him as worthy of the specialness associated with the term hero.

But what then of the anti-hero? How are we to understand the relish often accorded to the gun-toting cursing and moralising of, say, Tarantino’s main protagonists in his cult classic Pulp Fiction (1994)?

There is something dangerously charming about the anti-hero that requires some attentive thought. – And, again, is Euripides’ Medea not one of the elite anti-heroes for just that same reason? Medea has, it has been noted in far too many places to mention, incorporated into her individuation something of her shadow side too. Is she not a child murderer by any consideration? Yes, she is! But she is also so much more besides being a child murderer: she is a jilted woman, she is of noble royal blood, she is a powerful sorceress who gifted her lover, Jason, with every conceivable luxury and comfort, she gave her husband, Jason, two children, she gave her husband everything she possibly could, including, not least, The Golden Fleece, and for what? So that he could leave her to marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea has been tragically wronged by Jason and her suicidal despair turns to sadistic rage against this sham of a man; her rage warrants the dispensing with of all moral conventions – Medea must become a monster if she is to complete her meticulous plan to destroy all that Jason loves. Even the Greek Gods themselves are said to stand silent, though, one, the Sun-God, appears to actively assist in Medea’s death-dealing dénouement as she poisons Glauce as well as her father, King Cleon. Medea then agonises over the pain of killing her children alongside measuring the probable satisfaction of causing Jason the most intense suffering. As we know, satisfaction prevails over instinct, and so Medea, heart-broken and yet vindicated, flies off stage on her dragon chariot. Jason is left to lament his own choices as all that he had worked for and all that he had coveted lies before him, all dead. 

Euripides’ Medea is not at all easy reading; one could say that even the surely pathological jealousy found in Shakespeare’s Othello, courtesy of the hateful Iago, appears a little like Sunday teatime viewing by comparison to the chilling nature of Medea’s monstrous yet perfectly calibrated anger. The point to be made, perhaps, is that the hero and anti-hero have much in common. Similarly, so too do Medea and our own much-loved Capt. Tom Moore. Who would have thought?! 

Turning now to the archetype of the wise-woman or wise-man, the puer-senex possesses the playfulness of the child with all the acquired wisdom of a Sybil or Oracle, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, or a Gandalf the White, or a William of Baskerville, or an Albus Dumbledore or an Obi-Wan Kenobi. This personification of the archetype of the wise person speaks to us of the puer aeturnus, the Divine Child, the embodiment of hope for the future, and then, at the other side of the same archaic continuum stands the figure of the senex, the Lawgiver, the Judge, the grounded voice of reliable assured experience. It is here that ‘senex play’ and ‘child’s play’ take on two quite different guises. C.G. Jung spent the evening of his years fishing, sailing, carving alchemical motifs into the rocks surrounding his summer house, creatively painting mandala and writing about his psychology; these types of senex play have as their inspiration a dual requirement for creativity and productivity. Puer play, that is child’s play, has only pleasure-seeking or whimsy as its main requirement. The wise person is held up as one capable of both these types of play. And yet, the unwise old person is thrown into contrast by the archetype, also. For the unwise old person, the miser as well as the misanthrope, one might begin to discern the opposing form, the ectype of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol,1843). Scrooge’s cold hard rationality and emotionless manner mark him out as someone almost unlovable. Scrooge is the very personification of the result of a bitter confirmation bias upon lived experience; in the sense that Scrooge readily confirms his dim view of Bob Cratchit, though, the clerk works diligently in the most unpleasant conditions without complaint.

In the archetypal motif of the warring siblings/twin siblings, one begins to contemplate concepts of wholeness and the inevitability of the sidedness of wholeness, such as the philosopher/king, godhead/demiurge, and, as Jordon Peterson has pointed up so very clearly, the king and his evil brother. This archetypal motif calls our attention to the many paradoxes to be found within psychological opposites and binary oppositions, just as we saw in one of our first examples (see above) looking at the example of how dualism and the union of opposites are both in operation, coextensively, when attending to the two fish (yin and yang) of the Dao symbol. So too, in the archetypal motif of the warring brothers. In this tasty motif, one can cite delicious dramatic examples ranging from Osiris and Set, or Dionysus and Apollo, or Cain and Abel, or Karna and Arjuna, or Romulus and Remus, or Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock and Mycroft (or for that matter, interchangeably, Sherlock and Dr Watson / Prof Moriarty, though, they are of course brothers figuratively), or better yet, Dostoevsky’s literary masterpiece (The Brothers Karamazov, 1880) [Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov], or perhaps even George R.R. Martin’s (1996) Jaime and Tyrion Lannister. In each of these and similar cases, the onlooker faces moral questions and ethical dilemmas within complex unfolding enmeshments of egregious rivalries, bonds of love, forgiveness alongside seething resentment, duty with disingenuousness. Here the warring siblings demonstrate the vast array of human characteristics, the warring siblings set forth a continuum of the best and the worst and the betweenness of all-too-human character traits.

Perhaps the most profound of all psychological pairs, when viewed as either conjunction or opposition, is the syzygy of anima and animus. The unusual term syzygy (Gr. συζυγίαι, from σύζυγοι syzygoi) precisely refers to the yoked togetherness of the feminine (anima) and masculine (animus) components of personal unconscious and collective psyche; that is, the syzygy is the psychological reality of each expression of a yoked togetherness of their biological nature as well as a contrasexual component. In other words, the masculine sex contains a degree of the engendered feminine, and so too the feminine sex contains a degree of the engendered masculine.

Long before gender theory came into theoretical favour over the last five decades, Gnosticism (circa 2 AD), in most, if not all its various emanation systems, following from among others C.G. Jung’s scholarship on Valentinus, Basilides and original Nag Hammadi library materials (e.g. Jung Codex), shared a similar account for the non-essentialist expression of sexual identity (i.e. unfixed) undergirded by the archaic conceptual rubric offered by the term syzygy. It can be said, therefore, that the conceptual frame offered by the mythopoeic term syzygy – the yoked togetherness of anima and animus – considerably presupposes gender theory, social constructionist thought, feminist psychoanalytic criticism and literary theory, alike. Simply put, since ancient times, at least, it was established knowledge that masculine and feminine are permanent inseparable emanations of a union of opposites. It is reasonable that all of us are composed of both masculine (animus) and feminine (anima) elements to our taste, which together form our fit for emotion and typology, our personal equation.

By way of conclusion, I would like to reflect upon, or reflect with, what has been discussed and what by necessity has not been discussed. No attempt has been made in the sketches above to claim truth, instead, there is a simple invitation to consider ‘character’ in a much wider context and the use that wider context might be put to by such an approach to both character and characterisation. No in-depth comparative analysis of other psychoanalytic narratives has been offered beyond that of brief acknowledgement of psychoanalysis as different to analytical psychology. And, most importantly perhaps, no attempt has been made to produce a formal, technical analysis of C.G. Jung’s approach or methods. Rather I have intended to provide an accessible, hopefully, clear articulation of some ideas at an introductory level of appreciation. Without knowing the composition of the audience with any degree of certainty it is, of course, impossible to adequately match ones writing to the best fit for everyone’s level of appreciation – some will find these sketches jejune, others will find them difficult to access, and for the deficits of my part, I offer my apologies. My intention here has been to place a marker in the ground, little more than a placeholder for some concepts which are by nature at once both commonly graspable and frustratingly ungraspable.

One of the tools commonly used by people seeking to integrate analytical ideas into their awareness, such as psychotherapists like myself, is termed amplification. Amplification involves using a comparison of mythic and cultural parallels — a compare and contrast type question, if you would prefer — in the service of better attending to character traits that can often present as obscure, difficult and often fleeting. As the name suggests, through turning up the volume, so to speak, making things larger than their actual scale, one becomes able to better distinguish the fine granularities of everyday life within the courser grain of patterns and processes. A vignette at this point may be helpful: the rug in my office is much like any other red rug with a pattern. When I describe the rug in detail, am I not merely describing the superficial details of, say, colour, shapes, size, texture, etc. It is only therefore by turning the rug over and looking more closely at how the rug was manufactured that I learn more about my rug: how was it knotted? How many knots are there? If there are no knots is it not the case that it was probably made on a machine? My rug here is analogous, nothing more, for how one can consider the difference between content (as a description of the furniture of the world) and process (as identification of deeper patterns that help us all to better ourselves through increased self-awareness and our awareness of our immediate surround and context). So, amplification is a useful tool (even for a humble rug) to show us things we might not have previously known (sometimes rugs!). 

Active imagination, on the other hand, is a far more creatively engaging activity. Active imagination involves accessing those elements of ourselves that sit beneath the thin surface tension of our waking lives. In other words, it is a creativity engagement using open, non-directive play with some emergent content of our imagination. Here open and non-directive refers to an approach distinct for that which seeks to judge or interpret emergent content. To best illustrate this technique, I recall one of the earliest instances where I thought it might be a good idea to write some poetry. (This is an example par excellence of how not to use active imagination.) I sat poised with my pen above the paper and asked myself: What am I going to write about? No answer was forthcoming, so I made some tea. Upon returning to the chair there I sat for some considerable time grappling with rational and entirely justified questions concerning what I thought I might write about, what I thought other people might like to read, and why it was so difficult to write poetry in the first place. The directive approach I was taking with ‘doing poetry’ was not ever going to produce anything like the poetry that I so enjoy reading. My problem was that I had set myself up to fail by directing myself to ‘do poetry’ was as detached from my emotional world, the world where poetry lives and breathes, as it possibly could be. The answer, then, would have been while writing the first draft to accept what words surfaced into my consciousness at that time and be directed by whim and imagination (the muse?) without prejudgement or some established rubric. Rationality and judgement and good taste certainly have a place and it is, perhaps, in the second draft stage of a creative piece of work that direction ought to be offered. 

One way that creatives and writers might have benefitted from this method is by an identification and greater understanding of the many uses of active imagination. In the creative work perhaps the area most deserving of improvement can be situated around timing, focus and action. By this I mean to suggest that creatives and writers do very well — and this applies more widely, I think — by developing their timing and focus of when it is best not to act, when best not to direct attention towards, and when best not to write anything. This disengagement may of course be problematic, however, it is perhaps reasonable that only then, having allowed for the imagination to fulling engage — to have wrung out the emotional and experiential content on offer through meaningful play — that the corollary concepts associated with meaningful action, meaningful direction or meaningful stylising, alike, make a little more sense and perhaps gradually produce more meaningful, more lasting work.

Paul Wadey, March 2020

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