Archetypes are mythologems that persist diachronically, that are embedded in the collective unconscious, and that are recurrently manifested in narrative form. They are the constituent elements of what Jung has called autochthonous revival a hypothesis that accounts for cross-cultural fantasy motifs inexplicable in the light of individual anamnesis. Jung had hypothesized these to be the latent vestiges of mental synthesis that existed long before man could verbalize his thoughts.
A Jungian analysis seeks to identify mythologems, toposes, and associated fairy-tale motifs; it also seeks to indicate the aforementioned elements’ articulation with the universals of human deportment and perception. Shakespeare’s King Lear provides four main characters ripe for a Jungian analysis Lear and his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. An extrapolation of King Lear’s instantiation as an ego-figure of the self, relative to the individuation process is at the helm of affairs; a deliberation on the recurrent literary topos of the number three proceeds, making special reference to the three sisters; and a thought exercise on the importance of Cordelia finalizes the composition. Although these topics are cogitated on a case-by-case basis, it is important to remember that they each relate to a focal subject-matter: the individuation process of King Lear, and his instantiation as an ego-figure of the self.
King Lear’s harrowing descent into madness is a fascinating tale that makes great use of the most asperous of all conflicts in the individuation process. The inchoative psychological disturbance that initiates this process is the King’s inflation of the ego-persona. Lear’s inflation of the ego-persona is evident in these lines: When I do stare, see how the subject quakes. I pardon that man’s life (Shakespeare 4.6; 108-109). This powerful complex, in accord with Jungian theory, is liable to thrust an individual into a sort of liminal journey in search of the self, mining the unconscious in the process.
A probing into the unconscious, by definition, sets one adrift on a sea of the unknown. Analogous to the external barrier that protects the ego from social reality (the persona), is an internal barrier that functions as a permeable stratum betwixt the ego and the dark recesses of the unconscious. Jung called this barrier the anima (in male psychology), and he considered it the bridge to the unconscious. When the anima, a so-called inferior function, is oriented toward the external world, as it is for King Lear, Jung would conjecture that the anima becomes a force of projection, resulting in the projection of intrapsychic archetypal images onto external objects. Identification with the anima leads to an abandonment of the unknown, a dismissal of unconscious images, and overall, a failure to adapt and transcend. The abnegation of the unknown [mytho-psychologically, the Great Mother], increases the likelihood that it will don a menacing countenance in its investable manifestation.
This all bears true for King Lear. As a consequence of his fixation on the anima, a foreboding visage manifests itself in the second scene of act three: Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow, You cataracts and hurricanos, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head. And thou all-shaking thunder, Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world, Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once That makes ingrateful man! (Shakespeare 3.2; 1-9) The nature of King Lear’s anima and psyche, as it is instantiated by his daughters, represents an intriguing paradox for a Jungian analysis.
The great Jungian analyst, Edward Edinger, notes trinities to be dynamic manifestations of the father archetype. The prominent neurologist and psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, espoused his views on the nature of trinities in both The Interpretation of Dreams and The Theme of the Three Caskets (the latter, oddly enough, focuses on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and King Lear), making special reference to the Moirai, the three Fates of Greek mythology. Jung had contributed little to archetypal identity of the trinity, but has limned Gnostic, so to speak, on its fundamental nature. Only a synergistic use of the above-stated paradigmatic frameworks produces a cogent understanding of the functions of the three daughters in King Lear. Edinger’s paradigm would suggest that Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia are all animistic incarnates of the elder, or the father archetype. Jung, as previously noted, limned Gnostic on the subject of trinities, referencing the concept of homoousion, an idea that describes the marrow of a trinity as being generated of the same substance. Edinger and Jung postulate very similar ideas by dissimilar routes of perspective, together discerning the constituents of a trinity as being representative of a distinct wholeness.
Uniting the concepts is the Freudian notion of the Moirai, the three Fates who orient the destiny of man. With the aforementioned background knowledge in mind, the three daughters can now be approached directly. The daughters are indeed dynamic representatives of a distinct wholeness, orienting the destiny of one man; the distinct wholeness can reliably be regarded as the anima, and the man as King Lear. Driving the plot and Lear’s destiny through integration, disintegration, and reintegration, the daughters are indeed orienting forces circumscribing the King, inducing certain behaviors in him and bringing him into confrontations with the unconscious. As a dichotomous model, however, they represent the psyche in either a negative or positive guise. For example, Cordelia disillusions her father’s fixation on the archetypal image of the anima by virtue of her independent will; in turn, the King disinherits her: Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this forever . . . I loved her most, and thought to set my rest On her kind nursery.
[To Cordelia] Hence and avoid my Sight! (Shakespeare 1.1; 111-114 & 121-122) Lear hereafter descended into a deep abyss as a result of the disillusionment of his anima-projection. As mentioned earlier, his identification with the anima reemerges with a foreboding visage. Following all of this, Goneril supplants her father and he is rendered destitute.
However, in the end, Cordelia returns and restores Lear’s consciousness, reflected by Lear’s nonplussed utterance: Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight? (Shakespeare 4.7; 53). What is most interesting is the differentiation of his psyche, represented by a dualistic bifurcation of his daughters, who as a trinity reflect a distinct wholeness Lear’s anima. Cordelia can be reliably denoted as the positive instantiation of archetypal imagery throughout King Lear. From a Jungian perspective, Cordelia is the most important character in the entirety of the play by virtue of her role beyond a constituent of Lear’s triune framed anima and dualistically framed psyche. Although it is truly too nuanced an apprehension to thoroughly articulate, in the four scenes which Cordelia makes an appearance, she emanates the traditional qualities of the hero.