Myth and Archetypes and Their Workings in Drama

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The peculiar order of the dramatic world typically subsists in the space of myriad ‘typologies’ of characters that are critiqued along the lines of the traits they come to withhold and through which they are identified. The importance of these types suggest a conservative conventionalism which is broken down or quintessentially, deconstructed, in a carnival setting such as that in Aphra Behn’s Rover or the chaotic and destructive space of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. As Bogard said, here the characters are not important in themselves, ‘but with respect to the relationships (that they form with other characters) which are a formative part of an excoriate world’.

This article echoes the Lacanian order of signification which acquires meaning through a system of interconnecting signifiers, which operate in the dramatic space, by breaking free from their former moorings, dehierarchizing and subverting figures of domination and paving way for a space to signify solely themselves. The expansion in the space of the traditional roles of these archetypal figures as also the reversal of the assumption in gender roles, sheds light into the constitution of these archetypes and how the playwright employs them to attack the traditional order in a theatre of subversion.

An insight into psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work sheds light into the essence of archetypes- seen as ‘primordial images’ or experiences that we have inherited and that recur constantly- often in the ‘collective unconscious’ of our popular theatre and fiction. They are abstractions from our real world, harboring both very ‘real’ and fantastical elements that find expression in fictive hyperrealities, when they have no scope for doing so in the real world. The archetype, which is a “universal symbol”, may be a character, theme, symbol or even a setting but, what makes it salient are the universal patterns that they exhibit, by virtue of how they relate to their spatial, temporal and socio-cultural milieu, using which we identify them.

This makes us prepossess an unconscious sort of knowledge about them that we store, according to Jung, in our ‘collective unconscious’. The space of the collective unconscious in literature, however; is seen in the way myths take shape in the folds of drama and how characters, most of them originally appearing as archetypal figures at face value, seem to share a plethora of qualities that are not particular to any one of them. As an extension of this, Carl Jung went on to identify 12 archetypes that symbolize basic human motivations and their desires and goals.

Each type- figured in the forms of The Innocent, The Orphan, The Dreamer, The Caregiver, The Explorer, The Rebel, The Lover, The Creator, The Jester, The Sage, The Magician and The Ruler- have their own sets of values, meanings and personality traits. These universal mythic, characters fundamentally reside within the collective unconscious of the people the world over. They represent fundamental human motifs of our experience as we evolve and reflect on these tendencies. Examples of these archetypes abound in literature; elucidated in this article are some of these archetypes, such as the malcontent, the widow and the temptress, the ruler in John Webster’s tragic play, The Duchess of Malfi.

What is of profound interest is the fact that the figure of the Duchess herself, is a remarkable nexus between most of the prominent archetypes- the ruler, the widow, the temptress, the lover and the rebel, per se. Against the comic defilement of the ordinary widow of the mercenary and lower classes, the Duchess’ tragedy subverts the notion of remarriage through her actions-conventionally identified as a popular topic for 17th century city comedy. The subversive aspect to it is that the dramatic centrality accorded to the figure of the Duchess, unlike the male heroes of Shakespeare’s Othello, King Lear and Hamlet, raises questions about the nature and gendering of political authority, as well as expectations about tragedy as a genre, with its traditional centrality lying in the position of the phallic signifier(s).

The signifying system in the tragedy in The Duchess of Malfi, in contrast to other tragic plays, revolves around the female signifier. The title itself is relevant in how it precludes the presence of the Duke of Malfi- the supposed master signifier, impossible to exist in the sense that is implicated by his early demise. Although the Duchess’ quest is marked by her desire to achieve the ‘name-of-the-father’[footnoteRef:3], both in the literal sense that the father figure is absent, and cannot be substituted by what are ‘signs’ of the father- Antonio or Duke Ferdinand and in the figurative sense in that the Duchess is constantly striving to assume the position of the phallic signifier; the lacunae in the ‘paternal metaphor’3 is completed by a signifier which is an emblem of wholeness and integrity-in the new archetype seen in the figure of The Duchess; an archetype of the theater of subversion.

Dympna Callaghan, The Duchess of Malfi and Renaissance women: Contrasting the Duchess’ position with that of later tragic heroines in later 19th century novels (Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary(1856) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina(1878)) who defied social and sexual orthodoxies bringing them to tragic ends, something of inevitable consequence as a violation of prevailing ideas of female behavior in the 19th century. According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallic signifier stands for the imaginary and symbolic functions of the male genital organ-the penis, making the male character/hero/aristocrat enjoy a ‘naturally endowed’ prerogative. It is that invisible signifier that is taken to be understood as inaugurating and anchoring the chain of signification in the Symbolic.

Kumiko Yoshioka in The Aporia of Reproduction in The Duchess of Malfi opines the gravity of the implications of not identifying with the ‘natural myth’ of Renaissance England, that fashioned kingship as an institution of patrilinear kingship: a monolinear succession from the father to the son. However, he argues that in reality lineage cannot be singular, since reproduction cannot be possible without a mother and that patrilineage entails absolute repression of maternal kinship. Thus, ‘legitimate’ marriages exercised control on female fecundity in the interest of preservation of order; a social order so particular about the preservation of rank and inheritance-rendering the practicality of the coveted reproduction of a son by marriage to a twin sister impossible with the co-existence of the taboo on incest. Exogamous marriage, on the other hand, especially across differing ranks, carries the threat of diffusion of inheritance and destabilization of social order so constructed.

Yoshioka echoes Frank Whigman who claimed that there was a shift in the social mobility with James’ sale of honors and the liquidation of rank unlike up until the Elizabethan period, when rank by crowned head of state was natural, heaven-sent and unnegotiable. Thus “the nature of identity became visible as something achieved, a human product contingent on wealth, connection and labor.” (Whigman 177) Regardless of her gender and high rank, the Duchess believes that she has the power to further Antonio’s advancement- whose social position does not match his virtue. She establishes her faith in meritocracy and repudiates her ascribed position, “of those who are born great”, wherein she is “forced to woo, because none dare woo us(her)” Grounds for ambition in social mobility and discontent with displacement are established here and are broken in both cases when ecclesiastical injunctions of the Church are deferred as the Duchess-Antonio marriage is consummated in privacy-

“We are now man and wife, and ‘tis the Church / That must but echo this”

and a socially inferior Bosola assumes power in his own hands to avenge the brothers who have caused an unjustified wrong by making him commit the murder of the man and wife, who planted the seeds of the ideal order of the model of the French Court -as much inadvertently as willfully. However, the satire does not escape us when Webster attacks the position of the “judicious King” in the body of the twin brothers-Duke Ferdinand and Cardinal- who subsist on the sycophancy of flatterers and “dissolute and infamous persons”. The corruption is rooted in the people of the highest station and must be purged by people in the lower stations, idiosyncratically by Bosola, Antonio and the Duchess(on account of her unprivileged sexual agency), and yet collectively, in their attempt to subvert the larger mythic order of the institution of monolinear kinship.

The sexual politics of the Duchess of Malfi finds an extension in Aphra Behn’s play The Rover, for all the actions running through the novels take place in the absence of the father. The father’s subsequent effacement, both in the already departed figure of the Duke of Malfi in the former and the exiled King Charles I in the latter, characterizes the tensions we find in the power space now withheld by the fraternity, of the twin brothers in the Duchess of Malfi and the Cavaliers in The Rover. More so, The Rover’s actions unfold in the absence of the father of Don Pedro, Florinda and Hellena.

Since the father is removed to Rome, Don Pedro attempts to represent his father in the crucial stages of his sisters’ marital affairs, though he is successfully prevented as the sisters act for themselves in seeking husbands. In effect, the “banished Cavaliers” are merely MacCannell’s “sign” of the father as they bless their sisters’ marriage as a surrogate father. Their authority is imaginary, being as the brothers and sisters are on parity, in terms of financial independence. In this light, what is remarkable is how the women in The Rover are more overt in their actions undertaken in this interest as was the Duchess, who despite being ostensibly more powerful by virtue of her status, had to keep her second marriage with Antonio a secret.

Even though economic freedom empowered the 19th century widow when it came to marriage, the Duchess is fooled into thinking that her financial independence gives her real power to determine her own behavior” Quintessentially, what causes the most anxious threats to the Jacobean world order in Webster’s stagecraft are the challenges to sexual authority and dis-ordering of traditional sex and gender relations and hence political power bases. The Duchess adheres to this challenge of sexual authority simply by legitimizing her legal claim to the throne-which is viewed as masculine by her male counterparts. Ferdinand’s obsessive endeavors to control his sister, therefore, I contend, exposes the subtle nexus between sexuality, rhetoric and politics.

In contemporary scientific discourse body functions were described by analogy to hierarchically organized bureaucratic systems of control. The primary identity of a woman in the early modern society remained that of her physical/sexual status, waiting to be controlled by the superior male- and therein lies the valorization of the chaste virgin and the denigration of the incestuous or, the adultress, or the raped woman. Interestingly, it is on this level that the two plays- The Rover and The Duchess of Malfi function; bearing dramatic worlds dominated by two principal patriarchal definitions of women-that of the whore and the virgin, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals are out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity.

It is Florinda’s rebellion against the commodification of forced marriage that destabilizes her position within patriarchy and what saves her a second time from the physical danger of rape is her possession of an emblem of the phallic signifier-the ring given by Belvile, which convinces Friedrick that she is “a Maid of Quality”- a commodity already sold in the marriage market. On the other hand, Angellica’s self-construction as Petrarchan mistress charts the attempt of a woman excluded from the marital marketplace to turn her beauty into an alternative form of power.

The Duchess in Webster’s drama is caught in a similar quandary. In the position of a widow, she is also vulnerable to severe misfortune looming around her. A widowed woman lives not easy, from time immemorial to the present, ever since monogamy becomes the dominant matrimonial form between man and woman , and things become worse when she is both powerful as well as attractive, for the number of potential pursuers in inversely proportional to her status and power.

It is of small probability for her to remarry a new one of her peer e.g. a duke, since he has a much wider and better choice than her, from a country maiden, a countess, to a princess of his peer. Besides, blood lineage, public opinion and personal honor have to be considered, before any duke has the courage to stride his first step for a widow. Rendered with but a small choice, she would undoubtedly come to favor those that are close to her, regardless of them being her social equal. As rare as it is for a dignitary lady to deign to woo an inferior, we can still find a parallel instance in the Biblical myth of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and the Egyptian Tale of The Two Brothers, thought to be the source of the Potiphar’s wife story in the Joseph legend.

In both the tales, the wives of the Potiphar and the elder brother attempt to seduce Joseph and the younger brother, respectively, and on their advances being denied falsely countercharge the innocent men. These tales serve to provide an archetype to the story in The Duchess of Malfi. However, the Duchess most exquisitely stands as an emblem worthy of remembrance and emulation when we discover that she exercises her right to choose out of love rather than lust, as against the archetypal stories. In this sense, The Duchess is widowed and free, and her wooing, not a flirtation, is earnest and justified.

The Duchess, undeterred, continues to pursue her feminine goals of remarriage and motherhood with a masculine determination that evokes classical models. In making a conscious choice to defy her brothers, she asserts her feminine independence in the language of masculine heroism and fame:

Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred

Lay in my way unto this marriage,

I’d make them my low footsteps.

This self-aware bravado recalls Medea’s association with the overthrow of patriarchal powers. Her interlocutors, however, contest the Duchess’ attempt to construct herself as a heroic emblem of feminine autarchy. They point out the troubling associations of appropriating such a role. The Duchess continues to align herself with more positive examples of independence and reaches across gender lines to frame herself as a ‘prince’. In her climactic confrontation with Ferdinand in Act 3, Scene 2, she vows “whether I am doomed to live, or die,/ I can do both like a prince”. Articulating her complaint in the rational and universal terms of gender parity, she says, “why should only I, /Of all other the princes in the world/ be cased up like a holy relic? I have youth, and a little beauty”.

Testimony to this is provided in the scene where Ferdinand subjects her to the cruelest of torchers, but she is able to forbear the ordeals laid before her calmly; standing in contradistinction to her brother’s yielding to a ‘fearful madnes’, a madness which turns him into a lycanthrope- the bestiality of which makes him lie outside the bounds of reason and Websterian logic of categorical imperative(s) in rulership. Euripedes’ Medea articulates women’s experience of marriage in terms of masculine heroism, saying that she would rather stand three times in battle than give birth once (230-51). Though Seneca’s Medea makes no similarly radical declaration of female bravery, she too uses masculine language and is driven by a heroic concern for glory and reputation.

Additionally, what I want to lay profound attention to, is the paradoxical idea about how the dominant order produces subversions in order to contain them. Subversiveness is not a notion divorced of order but rather, it tends to construct the forces of ‘order’, whose ‘affirmations’ are thus cast in the role of negations. The containment of subversion, thus, becoming a form of counter-subversion. In this light, we see the birth of all kinds of generic categories, gender identites and archetypes. For instance, we see how the trickster figure features in the Duchess of Malfi- in how Bosola deceives the Duchess to have the apricots and betray the truth of her motherhood and in his shrewd appreciation of Antonio’s merits, only to unearth the real intentions of the good-hearted Duchess who is to be deceived later, wretchedly.

Being one of the central figures of the drama, Bosola becomes his own worst enemy by incorporating within himself the trickster’s disruptive jealousy, madness, heroic fury, only to be metamorphosed into one of the more morally refined figure(s), by avenging the death of the Duchess. In the end, it is the trickster in the protagonist who gets stigmatized as the “other” and is excised from society. An example of this can also be seen in the witches in Macbeth and in the outside/inside psychological fluidity of Macbeth’s psyche which we acquaint ourselves with. The trickster figures in The Rover are no less to be seen in the protagonist Willmore, than in the prostitute figure which dupes a friend of his-Blunt, out of money.

Hellena, compelled to live a life invested in nunnery, cannot rid herself of the urge of having “a mad Companion that can spoil my(her) devotion” as Willmore cannot part with his fickle temper of courting more than one woman at a time; giving in to his rover-like tendencies. The Temptress is an archetype working on the same plane as of The trickster which can blossom in a liminal space that doesn’t conventionally see one or more male protagonist(s) fall from stature; a space that makes it permissible for the Duchess of Malfi and Angellica Bianca to withhold subversive power.


Cite this paper

Myth and Archetypes and Their Workings in Drama. (2021, Mar 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/myth-and-archetypes-and-their-workings-in-drama/



What are archetypes in drama?
Archetypes in drama are universal symbols or characters that represent a recurring pattern of human experiences and behaviors. They help to convey a deeper meaning and understanding of the story and its themes.
What are the 12 common archetypes?
The twelve common archetypes are symbols or motifs that recur throughout literature and storytelling. They are often used to represent universal themes and ideas that resonate with the human experience.
What is myth and archetype?
A myth is a story that is based on tradition and that explains the beliefs of a culture. An archetype is a typical character, scene, or symbol that appears in many myths.
What is the function of an archetype in a story?
What Is an Archetype? An archetype is an emotion, character type, or event that is notably recurrent across the human experience. In the arts, an archetype creates an immediate sense of familiarity, allowing an audience member to relate to an event or character without having to necessarily ponder why they relate .
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