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Archetypes: Shakespearean Archetypes in Literature

Image: Shakespeare's First Folio

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Bard of Avon

William Shakespeare (1564 (baptism, not d..o.b) - 1616) was an English playwright and poet, and some believe him to be the greatest writer in the English language and the world's most outstanding dramatist. The title, "Bard of Avon," derives from the fact that he is considered England's national poet. Surviving works (with collaborative efforts as part of the document count) include 38 plays, 2 long-narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and several other assorted-type poems.

Shakespeare's works have been translated into every language and his plays are considered the 'most performed' of any known playwright.

For more bio information, please see the Wikipedia details on William Shakespeare:

William Shakespeare on Wikipedia

More Shakespeare information: William Shakespeare Quotes and Quotes by Theme

My favourite Shakespearean words are:

"Et tu, Brute?" (You, too, Brutus?/Even you, Brutus?)

III-i-77 view here

Julius Caesar View Online

Et tu Brute From Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (III-i-77: Act 3, Scene 1, line 77), links above.

The Bard's Hero Archetype:

Our Bard of Avon's Hero Archetype has the following qualities and disposition:

  • He's a courageous figure
  • He's self-motivated
  • He's very active, usually athletic

Now for the twist: Almost all of our Bard's heroes are 'Tragic Heroes' so they are destined to expire/die, they do something that transgresses a law or moral code - the consequences of which is death, or somehow, the Tragic Hero ends up 'sealing his fate' of death.

The actions and concept of the Tragic Hero are actually a literary device which both can both add depth to the action/storyline of a literary, theatrical or artistic work AND send a moral prescription (rule with moral content) or other significant message to the audience.

Typical concept and utility of the Tragic Hero: the tragic hero commits an ERROR in his/her actions which leads to his/her downfall. Typically, the downfall is very serious and is synonymous with "Death." Occasionally, the downfall is symbolic death and ends up being a 'death of identity' or 'fall from grace' whereby the Hero becomes 'dead' to a certain class or family - where he/she is treated as if he/she ceases to exist.

  • Sometimes this death of identity or fall from class relationships is MORE impactful than actual corporal death because the Hero is still alive but not able to/not permitted to EXIST and have the same identity value/class value or title as before. The 'utility' here is of sending a very clear a message about convention.
  • Certain rules of society must be followed. The consequences of not following societal rules and convention is often death of your title and position in society - or your physical expiration death.

Film Clips of Shakespearean Works in Cinema

Roles and Shakespeare

The Bard's Star-Crossed Lovers

Basically, the Star-Crossed Lovers are joined together in love but are parted by fate. In Shakespeare's works, if you look very deeply and allow the metaphors to resound, the star crossed lovers are usually brought together in a fate-ful way, as well. Or at least, in the behaviors you'll notice, the personas come together with an almost irrational, compulsive, bee-line toward each other that doesn't quite seem natural. This would comply very closely with the actual terminology of 'star-crossed' and the lovers not having a rational say or power in what they're doing or how they approach each other. 

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The Star-Crossed part isn't about only the very unlucky fact of the separation of the lovers. The star word implies an even more encompassing "fate," designed by and deriving from the heavens, astronomy, more so - astrology, and the cosmic powers.

Shakespeare didn't invent everything regarding his archetypes - the archetypes existed well before his day, He used archetypes in a very particular way that has become known as 'Shakespearean,' but he stuck rigidly to known achetypes like Cupid and Psyche (Shakespearean equivalents: Romeo and Juliet), made well known by the Greek and Greco-Roman poets and playwrights. What Shakespeare did was PERFECT the concepts of archetypes for audiences. His success as a playwright and poet brought much of 'the arts' to the public so that we could see, time and time again, the archetypes, the structures, metaphors, etc.

Some star-crossed lovers:

Romeo and Julet, Pyramus and Thisbe (most scholars believe Pyramus and Thisbe from Roman Mythology sources are the closest models originally used by Shakespeare to model his Romeo and Juliet after), Hermia and Lysander (Act V, Scene 1) in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Tristan and Isolde or Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere - said to have derived from Tristan and Iseult, Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer).

The Bard's Scapegoat

Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" features a character, "Shylock," who is Jewish and who is a usurer (lender - who lends funds, then charges and collects money back, sometimes by forceful means - and who charges an exorbitant rate), and ends up being universally hated by both the characters in the story and by the audience.

Shakespeare presents "Christian" themes and "Christianity" in a very positive way in "The Merchant of Venice," so this makes Shylock, the Jewish Moneylender appear even more despicable and awful to the audience.

In the storyline, Shylock lends Antonio (a Christian rival) and sets a hefty, drastic bond with him. The bond amounts to a pound of Antonio's flesh, and when Antonio defaults on the loan and ends up bankrupt, Shylock demands his pound of flesh.

During Shakespeare's times, Jews and Christians considered themselves almost as different social classes altogether and they each lived by different rules. Jews were not allowed certain employment, and neither were Christians. Christians, according to God and rules in the Old Testament, were not allowed to charge fellow Gentiles a usury charge. Jews were not permitted to own farming land, so many ended up as money lenders, a profession available to them but not to Christians. Usury was actually considered a sin by Christians, so indeed, the character Shylock, along with his demanding of a pound of Antonio's flesh created quite a derogatory and damaging effect of character damage for Shylock.

In the play, it doesn't take long for all the Christian personas to gang up on Shylock, and against his demand of a pound of Antonio's flesh. Really, the whole idea of this is unfair to Shylock and the Christians are hypocritical. Antonio isn't actually a very likeable character and is as flawed and 'sinful' as everyone says Shylock is. Antonio has treated Shylock with all manner of disrespect, spitting on him because Shylock is a Jew. Antonia undermines Shylock's business by charging zero interest in his business dealings. Then, because of miscalculations and misfortune, Antonio has donned a mask of politeness in order to speak on important money matters with Shylock.

Naturally, there are varied presentations and adaptations of this Shakespearean piece, and a lot of details in the Shylock character as a scapegoat can be altered. Some adaptations actually present Shylock as very much a victim (as this hub does - for some reason I'm always drawn to feel for scapegoats and underdogs), but some show Shylock to be unceasingly cold, calculating and cruel - an equal match for the corrupt Antonio who is his rival.

On Wikipedia: The Merchant of Venice and the character Shylock


mythbuster (author) from Utopia, Oz, You Decide on August 17, 2010:

Hi katiem2, thanks for commenting.

I had to learn a lot at high school level before I appreciated Shakespeare's works but I'm glad you started your experiences with Shakespeare much earlier on, in grade 3! I enjoy the theatrical presentations of Shakespeare that attempt to hold to an earlier time. Some of the modernization of the Shakespearean plays, I find, is not so enjoyable - although I do love the Romeo-Juliet/West Side Story presentation on film.

Katie McMurray from Ohio on August 16, 2010:

I love William Shakespeare and own the complete works of Shakespeare. I became a fan upon first reading Shakespeare in the third grade and been a huge fan since. Love the theatre of it!

mythbuster (author) from Utopia, Oz, You Decide on March 09, 2010:

Hey Enelle Lamb, Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I think in most adaptations of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," people do a good job of exposing how Antonio and Shylock actually share many of the same derogatory qualities. They are, indeed, a match in the unscrupulous things they both do.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on March 09, 2010:

I'm for the second part of that last sentence - both are an equal match!

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