Anatomy of a mythological hero

What makes a true mythological hero? 

That depends not only on how one defines ‘truth’ but also on what one considers to be the primary function of myth. In this essay, I follow the lead of philosophical pragmatist, William James, who considers something as ‘true’ if, at any given time, it functions well as a working hypothesis (Blackburn, 49). I also define myth as a story (true or false) wherein some personality (divine, human, and/or animal) is involved in making something significant happen in a way that not only exerts a powerful hold over adherents but also supports theories meant to help make meaning of our lives (Segal, 3-9).

There is little doubt that Greek mythology continues to intrigue adherents several millennia after creation. I believe this has much to do with the role played by the mythical hero, which, as the OED (n, 1) suggests, is a man of ‘superhuman strength, courage, or ability, especially such a man who is ‘regarded as semi-divine’. In this essay, I will argue that it is the special role of a true mythological hero to inform man as to the nature of his relationship with the divine as well as to provide guidance as to how he might connect with it. I will illustrate my ideas using the psychological theories of CG Jung and three well-known heroic personalities of Greek myth.

Kerenyi (Heroes, 3) suggests that it is the function of the mythological hero to teach men something essential about the ‘glory of the divine’ in their humanity. Whilst gods exist in primordial time, the mythological hero is necessarily ‘of his own time’ and so in him, we find divinity ‘strangely combined with the shadow of mortality.’ Without this strange mix, mythological heroes would no longer be heroes but simply great men. So what does it take for a man to rise to the level of a mythological hero? To answer that question, Kerenyi (Heroes, 2) suggests we look to the psychological archetype of hero. 

Although most associate the concept of archetype with CG Jung, Freud likewise acknowledged the existence of  archetypes, although he knew them as phylogenetic prototypes (Adams, 107). Likewise, both Jung and Freud acknowledged something akin to a hero archetype that itself was intimately connected with myth (Segal, 83). But whilst for Freud heroism revolves around human parental relationships, for Jung it revolves around the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious (Segal, 83). In this respect, Jung echoes Kerenyi by suggesting that the archetype of the hero finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’ and distinguishing itself through ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’. Jung (Archetypes, 167) suggests that it is through the accomplishment of such deeds that the hero connects with his divinity – ‘And God said: ‘Let there be light!’

For Jungians, the gods symbolise the father and mother archetypes, representing a man’s relationship between the masculine and feminine sides of his personality respectively (Segal, 94). The problem is, however, that all archetypes remain outside our conscious control until sufficient psychological work has been undertaken to integrate them (Segal, 95). For Jung (Archetypes, 164), this work of integration belongs to the child, the motif of which is pure potentiality. Specifically, Jung notes that sometimes the ‘child’ looks like a child god and sometimes more like a young hero; but whilst the god remains wholly supernatural, the hero archetype represents the ‘human raised to the limit of the supernatural’. In other words, for Jung (Archetypes, 166) the hero archetype represents man’s potential for synthesis of (1) his unconscious divine into (2) his consciousness. Until one has become ‘psychologically house-trained’ such that the contents of the unconscious have become conscious, men are ‘possessed’ by ‘complexes’ which express themselves as ‘hysterical’ women’, ‘true disturbers of the peace’ (Jung, Essentials, 122-123).  In this regard, hysterical suggests ‘a state of mind marked by an ‘exaggerated rapport’ with persons in the immediate environment’ (Purrington, 2020).

How might this work in practice? Consider that Homer’s Iliad starts with an angry dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon over the ownership of a woman. Indeed, the whole plot centres on a war, during which 240 gory battlefield deaths occur in a 52-day period, which was launched in anger to recover a stolen woman. When Achilles, the star ‘hero’ of the Iliad, fails to get what he wants he does not sort it for himself but instead runs for help from his divine mother, Thetis. When finally Achilles overcomes his sulky tantrum and re-joins the fighting, he frenziedly mutilates the body of Hector, the Trojan who killed his best friend, Patroclus. The gods are offended. It strikes me that if a hero is serious about connecting with his divinity, he ought to fight his own battles rather than turning for divine assistance from mummy. Likewise, he ought not to go out of his way to offend the gods. Nonetheless, Achilles is lucky. Because he is a warrior or therapõn, a ritual substitute for the god Ares, in the moment of his death, he  achieves his divinity (Nagy, 842).

Homer’s Odyssey ups the ante for bad behaviour when the ‘hero’, Odysseus, slaughters 108 young men and 12 slave girls more or less, just because he wants to do. This suggests that Homer’s Greek ‘hero’ is little more than a hyper-emotional war lord for whom others are objects to be manipulated at will. Likewise, these heroes are allowed not only to self-righteously demand whatever they want whether or not morally justifiable, but also to behave like petulant children as do their gods (Browne). ‘Hysterical’ women and ‘true disturbers of the peace’, indeed. I would argue that overall, Homer’s heroes have made little headway toward psychologically integrating their divinity into consciousness. Nonetheless they remain heroes, although Odysseus, for reasons too complex to address in this essay, may well not be representative of an ordinary mythic hero (Russo, 254). Jung (Archetypes, 167) confirms their hero status by noting that the hero archetype carries with it an unusual paradox in that although the hero triumphs great perils with ease, ‘something quite insignificant is his undoing’. Witness Achilles; killed by a poison arrow in his heel, his only vulnerability. In some versions of that  story, it was the god, Apollo, the most offended by Achilles’ outrageous behaviour regarding Hector, who guided that arrow. Likewise Odysseus, who once rejected Circe’s offer of immortality, ‘accidently’ dies at the hands of the son he fathered on her.

Arguably, Heracles does better than Homer’s crew. As noted earlier, Jung believed that hero archetype finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’.  Certainly in his labours, Heracles triumphed over many monsters and, according to Kerenyi (Heroes, 141), he did so in pursuit of the darkness of death itself. Might it be that in accomplishing these tasks, Heracles was well on his way to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’ despite that hysterical incident in which in a fit of divinely inspired madness, he massacred his first wife and their children? Jung (Archetypes, 171) seems to suggest that he was. This is because Heracles represents the ‘bondsman’ or ‘thrall’, a position that ‘generally leads up to the real epiphany of the semi-divine hero’. Perhaps this is why, as Jung (Archetypes, 123) points out, Heracles is presented with the opportunity to end his human suffering and ‘step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality’? Equally, however, this opportunity may only have been the result of having been ‘unwittingly adopted by Hera’ (Jung, Archetypes, 45). Regardless, Heracles is confirmed by Jung (Archetypes, 167), as a true mythological hero because despite having triumphed great perils, like Odysseus and Achilles, he meets his mortal end through something insignificant, in this case a gift from his wife.

In conclusion, my working hypothesis of what makes a true mythological hero or heroine is based on my understanding that a primary function of myth is to help adherents make meaning of their lives. For Jungians, this boils down to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’, or successfully integrating one’s unconscious divinity into consciousness. For guidance as to how this works, we turn to the exploits of the mythological hero, who in ancient Greek mythology was forced to directly deal with the actual divine. According to Jung, the true mythological hero will have achieved the required psychological house training when he no longer behaves like a hysterical woman. Homer’s heroes, who carry on like hyper-emotional war lords throughout both the Iliad and Odyssey, demonstrate how extremely hard this is to accomplish. Other heroes, like Heracles, may do better but still do not quite get it right.  Nonetheless, they all still remain true mythological heroes because they have distinguished themselves with regards to great ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’ (Jung, Archetypes, 167). In doing so, they have imparted to adherents of the myths something essential about connecting with ‘the glory of the divine’ in their humanity: to wit, for the most part, this is nigh impossible to achieve during lifetime, may not be worth the effort, and all too often, it is left to the luck of the draw.

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Bibliography

Adams, MV (2008). The archetypal school. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 107- 124). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackburn, S (2006). Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. Penguin. 

Browne, S (2021). Ancient myths and ancient men: Homer, Virgil, and being a hero [Online lecture – ICE, University of Cambridge Virtual Summer Festival] https://www.ice.cam.ac.uk/ancient-myths-and-ancient-men-homer-virgil-and-being-hero (available through 6 September 2021).

Jung, CG (1990). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (RFC Hull, Trans). Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1959).

Jung, CG (1998). The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (A Storr, Ed.). Fontana Press. (Original work published in 1983). 

Jung, CG and Kerenyi, C (1985). The Science of Mythology (RFC Hull, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published 1941).

Kerenyi, C (1997). The Heroes of the Greeks (HL Rose, Trans.). Thames and Hudson. (Original work published 1959). 

Nagy, G (2011). Lyric and Greek Myth. In RD Woodard (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Kindle version] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Purrington, Mr. (2020, May 6). Carl Jung on ‘Hysteria’ Lexicon. Carl Jung Depth Psychology. https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/05/06/carl-jung-on-hysteria-lexicon/#.YQfkvi1Q2ek

Russo, J. (2008). A Jungian analysis of Homer’s Odysseus. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 253-268). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, R. (2015). Myth: A Very short Introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

A Feminist Reading of Jason & his Heroic Argonauts

For a course, I’ve been revisiting the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which most of us will remember as a heroic tale of adventure and courage in which the charmingly handsome Jason undertakes a dangerous quest with his fellows to recover the Golden Fleece. 

Most of us may also remember that however heroic and courageous Jason might be, he could never have succeeded without the help of the princess, Medea, who lucky for him is a powerful witch. In gratitude, Jason takes Medea home and marries her but then, tiring of this part of his adventure, seeks a new one in marrying a different princess. In a fit of anger and revenge, Medea turns against him and for all involved, things go terribly wrong.

There are many ways to look at this story and what it might mean for us today. Just for fun, I’ve chosen to take a feminist approach – let’s see how that might go, shall we?

One of the primary concerns of feminist literary critique is how socially constructed gender roles contribute to ‘self-making (i.e., what makes someone who he or she is). In this respect, it is important to remember every text brings to itself some form of sexual politics – i.e., an assumed relationship between male and female because however portrayed, ‘otherness’ is always implicit. 

The goal of feminist literary critique is not to destroy thousands of years of western literary tradition but instead, to reinterpret and rethink it especially in regarding stereotyping and the collusion between audiences in maintaining covert stereo-typed assumptions about gender roles. 

As Natalie Haynes points out in her recent book, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, if Clytemnestra is the worst wife in Greek myth, Medea lays claim to being the worst mother. From the start, Haynes reminds us, Medea, who is a barbarian, is dangerous; she’s clever, foreign, female, and magical. Haynes also reminds us that there were few things that alarmed Greek men more than a clever woman and arguably, Medea is cleverest of all. 

This lays the groundwork for Medea to be portrayed as a scheming menace to society. Arguably, she is more much more dangerous than the warrior race of women, the Amazons. At least put all their cards on the table along with their (male-inspired) weapons. As the result, doubtless hundreds of generations of readers have taken on board that women are dangerous – especially witches. For confirmation of this, you don’t need to look much further than the witch trials (and laws against witchcraft) both in Britain and New England to understand exactly how that has played out.

Imagine the negative self-image foisted upon women as the result – especially when, as did Medea, she might be considering using her ‘special gifts’ to help herself out. Talk about stereotyping; Jason says it all when he proclaims  that ‘women are so unreasonable: they cannot tell what is good for them’. The ‘otherness’ implied here is that, as a man, Jason is reasonable and knows what’s good for him but, as it turns out, he doesn’t. Nonetheless, in most versions of the story, Medea absorbs a larger share of the blame than Jason, right?

But today, we are able to ‘rethink’ the message inherent in Medea’s story. For example, as self-proclaimed witch, Laurie Cabot, made clear in her bestseller – The Witch in Every Woman – all women possess the primal courage and strength of the Witch and so can use these special talents (she provides pages of spells and recipes and rituals) not only to improve their own self-image but also get what they want – the  name of the game as Cabot puts it is the Reawakening the Magical Nature of the Feminine to Heal, Protect, Create, and Empower. But did Haynes mention that? No, she didn’t, and I challenge you to name more than a handful of authors who choose to put (Medea’s) witchcraft in equally as positive a framework as has Ms Cabot. 

Yet the reality of that story is that in the end, Jason lost, and Medea won. In all the gender politics in play, we tend to lose sight of that. One way or another, he ended up dead or clinically depressed or on skid-row as she rode off in her grandfather’s solar chariot toward a new future. Was this because she was of divine birth, and he was not? It is my view that is not made entirely clear. Most portrayals of her are as a barbarian princess, not a goddess. Let us not forget the damage that language like that does without us even realising it. Although the word ‘barbarian’ today is defined as a ‘rude’ and ‘uncivilised’ person, to the Greeks it meant only that she was not Greek.

The covert message here is clearly that whilst men can use everything in their power to get what they want, women cannot. If you think that has changed much over the centuries, consider the antics of former American president Donald Trump regarding his treatment of ‘threatening’ women. Like Jason, in Trump’s eyes Trump should be revered as a hero and Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi dismissed as ‘nasty’ (rude and uncivilised) women. He even goes so far as to suggest the American legal system is engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ when they make rulings intended to shed light on some otherwise very potentially dark shadows regarding him. If we think that people are not colluding in stereo-typed gender messages centre stage in that ancient story of Jason and Medea, consider how close Trump came to being re-elected as president.

Two Versions: which do you prefer?

For my Fantasy Writing course, I was asked to write about the circumstance during which my narrator first met up with a particular archetypal character. Two different voices were required – which do you prefer and why?

Version 1

I have never enjoyed traveling in public conveyances. It is most uncivilised to share such a cramped space with a complete stranger for hours and hours and hours on end. If one is truly unfortunate, as I was on that particular evening, one might, by necessity, even be forced to share one’s meal with another who heralds from a foreign land. The only good thing to be taken away from that entire experience was that whilst nibbling away on an egg and cress sandwich, I no longer could be expected to make polite conversation. 

Imagine my joy when at long last, my stopping train chugged into Boston’s fashionable red-brick and plate glass Back Bay Station. I breathed a welcome sigh of relief when after raising her gloved hand, that badly-dressed French woman with whom I been trading lies for six hours waved adieu. After directing my ladies maid to attend to my baggage, I alighted on the smoky station quay and was at long last, delighted to stretch my legs.

Although I had hoped to enjoy my first view of Copley Square, home to Trinity Church, America’s quaintly colonial nod to the superiority of European architecture, I was disappointed. A dreadful snowstorm originating from the very heart of Canada had in earnest, descended. It was impossible to see the nose on one’s face, much less anything beyond. Drawing my woollen cloak closer I followed the porter bearing my luggage. Poor luck, I told myself. Perhaps, with the grace of God, after I will have arrived safely at my cousin’s gracious home across the River Charles in Harvard Square, tomorrow will be brighter. 

Now, imagine my sorrow when after only a few yards, my carriage became stuck fast in the same icy white drift as the one before it.

“I am terribly sorry, Ma’am,” announced the driver, sticking his big head through the tiny window. “No further progress can be made. May I suggest that you and your travelling companion spend the night across the way at the Fairmont?”

Although I was not best pleased with the idea, there was little else that could be done. After the driver had arranged for my luggage to be conveyed across the street, I eased my cold fingers into my warm fur muff and prepared to make my exit. To this day, I cannot be certain how what happened next actually did happen.  Suffice it to say that when I turned around, I encountered not my maid but a clean-shaven, dark-skinned man, who was strangely attired in a black woollen tunic, black silk tights, and tight-fitting black leather gloves with cloth covered buttons. A black bolero hat, of the same type that I had seen the week before in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art sat squarely atop his well-shaped head. In his left hand, he clutched a pink papyrus scroll and in his right hand, a shiny silver caduceus, the kind that any well-educated gentleman or gentlewoman will instantly know is associated with Hermes, ancient messenger of the gods and psychopomp of the dead.

“Good evening, Madame,” he hissed. “Diaktoros at your service.”


Version 2

When first I laid eyes on Diaktoros, it was mid-winter; snow fell fast and thick and the frozen air was laden with the acrid smoke of designer fireplaces burning designer wood. I’d long been anticipating my visit to Boston’s Copley Square, home to Trinity Church. Because of its risqué Romanesque arches, pious Byzantine angels, and flying Gothic buttresses, the building has been one of America’s top ten architectural masterpieces for the last one hundred and sixty-three years. After an awe-inspiring article had appeared in a late 20th century Architectural Digest, that House of God has drawn a record one million visitors each and every day. 

That night, however, Copley Place was desolate, deserted. Little surprise. It was half-past midnight in the midst of a howling storm. Equally of little surprise was that moments after the bullet train upon which I’d just arrived had dashed onwards to Canada, I realised there were no taxis. Having never before visited this ancient city, named by the Puritans after the town in Lincolnshire from whence they’d emigrated, I was unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Under such circumstances, might I not be forgiven for failing to realise that The Westin Copley Place, the four-star hotel in which I was to take my sanctuary, was no more than a few yards off to my right?

Ruing my own foolishness for having mislaid my dagger during my journey, I turned left, and walked quickly toward the soft, pink glow of a distant streetlamp. But instead of encountering a busy hive of respectable commerce as anticipated, I found myself in what, in those days, was known as a marginal neighbourhood: one side of the street was gentrified whilst the other, was a ghetto. Since the beginning of time, marginality has been dangerous. Likewise, street crime was as rampant then as now. I needed to get out of there as soon as was possible. Leaning against that streetlamp, I consulted my old-fashioned plastic-coated map. A split second after tucking it back into my great coat pocket, I felt a gentle tug on my sleeve. With my heart leaping into my throat, I pinched my wrist, and gathered my courage. Slowly I turned to face whatever fate had chosen to deliver.

Imagine my relief when instead of finding bandits wearing Carnival masks and wielding sharp sabres, I was confronted with a clean-shaven, dark-skinned man, about my own height. He was modestly attired in a black woollen tunic, black silk tights, and black leather boots with cloth covered buttons. A black bolero hat, of the same type that had become wildly popular after last month’s Versace Autumn/Winter fashion show, sat squarely atop his well-shaped head. In his left hand, he clutched a pink papyrus scroll and in his right hand, a shiny silver caduceus, the kind that every schoolchild knows had been associated with Hermes, messenger of the gods and psychopomp of the dead. I tilted my head to one side, as was the custom upon meeting a stranger. After politely tipping his bolero in the direction from whence I’d just come, Diaktoros smiled and then vaporised, leaving a bevy of cooing white doves in his wake.

The Hermeneutics of Allegory – Homer’s Odyssey in Context

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey carry hidden meaning beyond that which is simply symbolic. Naturally, it’s important to understand what a piece of literature or poetry or art might mean (symbolically) – but then comes the next question – what am I meant to do with that? 

Over the centuries, there have been many approaches to answer this question but one that I really like is a four level of hermeneutic approach (traced back to the 3rd century as a method for Christian thinkers like Origen and Thomas Aquinas to grasp spiritual meaning from the scriptures).

Let’s assume that the Odyssey is an allegory (extended metaphor) about ‘finding one’s way back home’ – not unlike the theme of many popular stories/ films like The Wizard of Oz which, themselves may be underpinned with Biblical messages about returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden. 

Application of the four levels of hermeneutical interpretation to the allegory this allegory might go along something like this:

  1. Literal – the letter teaches you the facts – this level presents that which is an objective truth to be observed and verified. On the way home from ‘work’ (the Trojan war), Odysseus got lost and although he really wanted to get home (and ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’) this didn’t prove to be easy because the gods blocked him at every turn.
  2. Allegory – what you should believe – this level expands the literal sense by pairing observed objective truths (see above) to subjective life events. ‘Home’ is a factor in all our lives although not all cultures think of ‘home’ in the same way. But usually we consider ‘home’ as a safe place where we ‘feel’ that we are ‘wanted’ and where we ‘belong’. In this sense, the concept of ‘home’ usually carries lots of emotional baggage and so with that comes the concept of nostalgia – bittersweet memories and longing for that safe space. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek words (1) nostos or ‘return journey’ and (2) algos or ‘pain’. Lots of people get lost – it happens every day – and although more often than not they aren’t too happy about it, they do tend to remember the experience for the rest of their lives So what might we gather from that? A quote by Henry David Thoreau might shed light – “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Put Thoreau together with notions of ‘home’ as a place where we feel we belong and the idea arises that being homeless carries painful (nostalgic) feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ and that we might not have appreciated what ‘belonging’ really meant to us (‘the infinite extent of our relations’) until we experience this.
  3. Trope –  how you should act – this level reveals the context of the interpretation and allows you to interact with it. The term ‘trope’ comes from the Greek tropos, to turn, as in the tropic of the Sun’s turning at the Solstices.  Moved by the literal and allegorical ‘truths’ you’ve observed and interpreted, you now turn toward that ‘truth’ and take the necessary actions to implement it. Odysseus was in a difficult situation – ‘a fish out of water’ – he wanted to return to feelings of ‘belonging’ – but some force more powerful than him (i.e. the gods) denied this to him. What actions did he need to take to overcome the gods? I suggest that he had to become ever more cunning and crafty than ever before – and in this regard, the cunning and crafty goddess Athene helped him. In other words, he needed to learn new skills and develop certain aspects of himself that he might have otherwise ignored and/or disregarded. The idea might be that when we feel lost and alone – presented with obstacles we could never have expected – we need to turn within and with divine help take stock of our personal strengths and weaknesses, polishing up the former and shoring up the latter. 
  4. Anagoge – what to hope for – this level, signifying the symbol as something through which the turn of the trope turns, is reflected in our desire to predict.  Here we enter the world of the daemon which manifests as a power from outside rather like providence or fate. Because the Greek word anagoge suggests a “climb” or “ascent” upwards, there’s a higher spiritual meaning in play here relating directly to mankind’s destiny in the greater scheme of thing. What then, might we expect (or predict) for ourselves from the homecoming that Odysseus? Most certainly it did not manifest as he’d planned. Although he was finally ‘home’ in the sense that he could now ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’, he is still a fish out of water. At least he’d been warned by the ghost of Agamemnon (murdered by his wife and her lover when he returned home from ‘work’ – the Trojan war). But still it isn’t easy. As one commentator notes, the homecoming half of The Odyssey is the least read because it is so gruellingly painful. Whilst people love reading a tale of adventure (the first half of the The Odyssey), they don’t like reading about about mass murder and civil unrest. Yet this is exactly what happened. We might be tempted to say that Odysseus brought this on himself and, at some level, that may well be true. But remember that here we’re looking for some spiritual meaning in regards to what mankind might expect as the result of undertaking an odyssey such as did Odysseus. Returning to parallels of this story to that of returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden, we must remember that in Greek, the world ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’. Escapist illusions leading to embracing utopian ideals – i.e. there is a place called ‘home’ to which if only we might return, our lives will be shiny and bright again – usually lead to serious disillusionment. Whilst it is true that ‘there’s no place like home’, the Moody Blues made an important point in their hit song from the 1970’s – ‘You Can Never go Home’. Check out the lyrics and let me know what you think what this might mean.

Psychoanalysis and Critical Literary Theory

There are several important ways in which both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary analysis as for example looking for the subversive in women’s literature – i.e. that which is not explicitly stated (for any number of good reasons) but nonetheless is still present.images

Most certainly if Austen felt so constrained to so as not to publish her novels under her own name, she felt constrained to express some of her real concerns. If we wish to potentially identify some of these concerns, we might turn to Jungian Literary Criticism which usually begins with the question – ‘what psychological factors (whether an image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for that text. If for example we wish to identify any feminist concerns that Austen might have held, we would look for clues suggestive of recurring feminist themes. In this regard it is prudent to look to ideas of feminism in play during the period in which Austen was writing (rather than to modern constructions of feminism); one such idea would have been application of the same moral code to both sexes.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine morally flawed (the citizens of Highbury are not impressed with the way that she treats them). When Emma undertakes to morally improve herself she does not do so on her own but instead seeks instruction from Mr Knightly. This in turn leads to his estimation of her to rise so much that he wants to marry her. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also a heroine flawed and although in many respects she is portrayed in feminist terms – i.e. as speaking her own mind and refusing to marry as her guardian would like, when she seeks to improve herself. Like Emma, Fanny turns to her love interest, Edmund – who not surprisingly like Emma’s Mr Knightly decides that now Fanny, reformed in his own mould, is the girl for him. Arguably Catherine Morland in Northanger Abby is cut from a different mould – for the most part she is left on her own to develop her own ‘understanding’ of what is morally wrong and right – unfettered either by fathers, lovers, or husbands.

Jungian theory might suggest that we make the most of ‘meaningful coincidence’ in respect to these seemingly recurrent themes in Austen’s work. Even if she were not consciously replicating this theme of moral code in line with love interest = marriage, she was most likely unconsciously doing so for the Jungians would be quick to demonstrate that statistically these same motifs regarding equality amongst the sexes (especially in a society when there was almost certainly none) should not have occurred otherwise.

Jungian literary criticism has also highlighted archetypally inspired literary themes that recur across a broad cross-cultural spectrum – for example as with the process of ‘individuation’ whereby a protagonist struggles to experience the ‘triumph of consciousness over the unconscious’ and hence make his or her psyche whole. Individuation is depicted as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and hence is often associated with the Bildungsroman or classic coming of age novel which has in turn been associated with classic accounts of stifled individuation such as with Dickens’ hero, David Copperfield. Most certainly his nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone, tries very hard to mould David into his own (rotten) image and when he fails to do so sends him off to work his London-based wine-bottling business. Luckily David escapes this situation and hence commences on his process of individuation allowing him to fulfil himself in his own right – by not only getting the girl of his dreams, Agnes, but also with being a commercial success through expression of his own talents.

Freudian literary criticism also pays close attention an author’s unconscious motives and/or feelings in order to tease out ‘covert’ themes. The assumption is that these ‘covert’ themes are just as important if not more so than the ‘overt’ themes (i.e. those consciously expressed by the author) and also that they demonstrate classic psychoanalytic symptoms of blockage in the emotional /sexual development in the author and/or his/her characters.

Freudian literary criticism asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator which it turn almost always relates to the Oedipal complex whereby the son wishes to murder his father because he sees him as a rival for sexual congress with his mother. There are obvious parallels in great literature with, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where when the character by the same name is called upon to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who in turn married Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet spends all day musing about ‘to be or not to be’ instead of committing what ought to be the fairly straight forward act of revenge-driven murder. Using Freudian theory, some critics have seized upon a possible explanation for such ‘irrational’ behaviour in the sense that Hamlet can not kill his uncle for doing that which he himself wanted to do.

Perhaps a less straightforward application of Freudian literary criticism may be found in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. With a women, the Oedipal complex takes a different form suggesting that once bound to her mother by homo-sexual desires, a young girl like Rossetti would then need to turn her desire toward father and the wish to have his baby. I would suggest that her signature poem – Winter: My Secret may reflect such an urge – and that naturally repressed because she was so religiously inclined – her Oedipal instincts remained her jealously guarded secret, preventing her from developing (1) other poetic themes (she predominately favours religion and the fallen women) in her work and (2) her life – in a society where women were expected to marry, she mystifyingly turned down three suitable marriage offers.

In summary, Jungian-based psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary theory by rooting out subversive feminist themes in women’s literature, as for example, moral equality as demonstrated in the works of Jane Austen. Likewise Jungian-based literary theory seeks to identify underlying archetypal themes such as the process of individuation – or the Hero’s Journey – that recurs across a cross-cultural spectrum. The Bildungsroman is perfect for this. Freudian-based psychoanalysis also can serve as a model for literary theory likewise rooting out unconscious literary themes relating to sexually repressed desires that prevent either the author or his/her characters from moving forward with their personality development.

Beginnings and Endings in Renaissance Drama

‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’ (Dr Faustus).

Are the endings of Renaissance plays implicit in their beginnings? Often this is the case, at least in those Renaissance tragedies where the classical Greek chorus was in whole or part adopted. However the audience may have to work rather harder than might be expected in order to unravel these implications as the above quote taken from the ending chorus in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus suggests.

In that play the chorus performs one of the most important roles of the Greek chorus by preparing the audience for key moments in the storyline. The chorus in Dr Faustus tells us that this play is neither about love nor war nor ‘audacious deeds’. Instead it is about a man born of parents, ‘base of stock’ – and hence signals something akin to the so-called ‘everyman’ plays wherein the protagonist will receive instruction on how as a Christian, he should lead his life and hence save his soul.Greek Chorus

But at the same time this chorus also references the classical myth of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he foolishly flew to close to the sun. In classical terms the fate or ‘fortunes’ (as the referenced by the chorus) of one such as Icarus depended more on ‘ignorance’ rather than on the ‘wickedness’ with which the Christian audience would be faced. There would appear little suggestion that the character Faustus is ignorant of his situation; although in the first scene he importantly neglects to finish his quotation from the First Letter of John regarding the effect of confessing one’s sins and hence receiving God’s forgiveness, we have the sense that such omission is more strategic (to justify his chosen position) than ill-informed. Hence quite how the reference to Icarus and his ‘melting heavens’ that ‘conspired his overthrow’ are meant infer how Faustus’ ‘wickedness’ contributed to his sad end is something that audience were perhaps meant to ponder a bit.

Further, this quote taken from conclusion of Dr Faustus seems to suggest that Faustus actually had a choice as whether his ‘branch might have grown full straight’. This raises the importance of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination; those in the audience who adhered to this view would have wondered at such a suggestion for in their view Faustus is clearly damned from the beginning and hence there was nothing he could ever have done – no choice he could ever have taken – for his branch to have ‘grown full straight’.

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, clearly influenced by the Roman dramatist Seneca, the ‘chorus’ in the form of the interchange between the ghost of Andrea and Revenge, works slightly differently. Although it does imply the ending in the general sense that justice will be done – i.e. Balthazar, the Portuguese prince who killed Andrea, will get his just-deserts at the hands of Andrea’s old girlfriend, Bel-Imperia – it does not prepare the audience for key moments in the story line. Instead it rather long-windedly sets the scene of the pagan underworld in which none of the play actually takes place. Naturally the audience is meant to hang on the final words of Revenge in that opening chorus – ‘here we sit down to see the mystery’ but they remain none the wiser as to nature of that ‘mystery’ – indeed they do not even yet know who will be the tragic protagonist. At least they can take heart in that unlike with the chorus in Dr Faustus, they are not being deliberately misled except perhaps to the extent they might expect the play to unfold in that so carefully described underworld.

The ‘Argument’ and ‘Prologue’ in Jonson’s Renaissance comedy, Volpone, likewise works similarly to the Greek chorus – the ‘Argument’ preparing the audience for key moments to come by summarising the plot and, as did the ghostly chorus in Kyd, implying that justice will be done when at the end ‘all are sold’. The Prologue adds to this by suggesting that ‘our play’ will be a ‘hit’ as the result of the dramatists’ salty ink – with which he intends to ‘rub your cheeks’ till ‘red with laughter’. This is a clear signal that the play is not tragedy but comedy and satire.

In those Renaissance plays without a chorus or prologue, the ending is sometimes suggested with the opening lines – as for example, in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. Here Alsemero hints at the play will be a tragedy with words like ‘omen’ and ‘fate’. But at the same time he suggests that it may be a comedy with words of love and matrimony. Clearly the audience will need to work to unravel that. However with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, there is neither chorus nor prologue nor argument and rather like a 21st century novel, the opening lines jump straight into the action as the (soon-to-be) husband of the Duchess chats amiably with his friend, Delio, implying very little of what is to follow except perhaps that it is meant to ‘instruct princes what they ought to do’.

In summary, in those Renaissance plays that adopt a Greek-style chorus, the ending is more or less implicit in the beginning in the sense that the audience is being prepared for key moments in the storyline. Often however the audience will need to work hard to unravel the various clues given because often enough they are (deliberately or not) misleading. Renaissance plays with prologues and arguments work in a similar fashion often summarising the plot as with Volpone and making clear whether what is to come is meant to be tragedy or comedy. However in those plays with neither a chorus nor prologue nor argument, the opening lines may still give a hint what is to come although not nearly in so much detail.

The Institution of Marriage in English Renaissance Drama

‘Marriage is a merri-age, and this world’s Paradise’ (Rachel Speght).

Catherine Richards notes in her essay, ‘Tragedy, family and household’(Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy), there were two rulers to every household – the husband and wife – and although they were not equal (women always subservient to men) both parties were expected not only to work together for the benefit of the household but also to show mutual respect for each other.

As Richards also points out, the household was seen as the microcosm of the nation-state – the assumption being that to the extent individual households succeed, the nation-state does too. However the closeness of human relationships constrained by the physical shape of the household – a private yet familiar space – can and did lead to rather bizarre results especially when household loyalties break down.

Understanding the institution of marriage in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the romantic love that we in the 21st century so favour in relationships was not a key factor in the Renaissance equation. Hence it would appear that Ms Speght’s definition of marriage as ‘merri-age’ and ‘this world’s Paradise’ requires a wider interpretation than simply romance as no doubt she, herself a product of the Renaissance, would have understood.

At least in regards to tragedies of the period, romantic ‘love’ seems to have been a drawback. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the marriage of Bel-Imperia is very much a political game. When she decides to love Horatio, the son of the tragic protagonist, Hieronimo, rather than Balthazar, the choice of her brother, Lorenzo, and presumably also her father, the King of Spain, everrenaissance marriageything goes wrong; the result is that all the lovers must die. Likewise in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, a young widow is second-guessed by her jealous (and likely incestuous) twin brother, the choleric Ferdinand, on her choice of her household steward, Antonio, as a husband; again all lovers must die.

In The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley, there is some compromise in regards to romantic love. When Beatrice’s fiancée, Alonzo, chosen by her father, dies (murdered by Beatrice and her servant, Deflores), her choice of Alsemero (who took every opportunity to butter up Beatrice’s father) is accepted. Yet in this play ‘romance’ is still not straightforward, at least in the eyes of the tragic protagonist, Beatrice. Although she would say with her rational brain that she loves Alsemero, with her irrational unconscious she choses to become both emotionally and sexually entwined with her accomplice in murder, Deflores.

Yet because both women and slaves are considered exempt from (or incapable of) rational behaviour, the apparent requirement that both Beatrice and her lover must die here, remains to me, a bit of a mystery. I can only conclude that the breakdown of a household such as this was seen as such a political threat that it required death to bring such threat to an end.

In Renaissance comedy, the treatment of marriage is quite different. Usually one of the key ingredients of a comedy is that the play ends either in marriage (as does Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) or the promise of marriage. Unlike with tragedy, romance in our 21st century sense is more in evidence in comedy and it usually is rewarded as with Midsummer’s Night Dream where all the warring couples are at the end, happily united in matrimony. However unlike with the tragedies, the comedies do not usually probe the personal dynamics of a marriage as deeply as do the tragedies.

For example, in Jonson’s Volpone, the character Corvino is shown to be as unjustifiably jealous of his pretty wife, Celia, as is Leontes over his wife, Hermione, in Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Indeed the jealous husband is often a motif in Renaissance drama – perhaps reminding us again that all is not right when in a marriage, there is no mutual respect. The outcome of these comedies differ dramatically however with how the jealous husband reacts. With Corvino the slightest provocation (Celia only tossed her handkerchief out her window – she was hardly caught in bed with another man) sets him to berate his wife most unbecomingly – taking his sword he threatens to ‘strike this steel into thee’ and then promises to ‘lock’ her up and ‘keep thee backwards’ which has rather seedy implications of its own.

Whilst Corvino later appears to try to patch things up with his wife, it is only to lure her to Volpone’s house – where (unbeknownst to her) he has arranged lease her out as a whore. With this, Corvino has now gone much too far and we are not surprised when later the four magistrates punish him by taking away his wife and sending her home to her father. Like Corvino, Leontes also loses his wife – at least for a time – but he does finally see the error of his ways (in a way that we can imagine Corvino never could) and when he has suffered enough for his bad behaviour, his wife is (more or less magically) restored to him.

In summary, during the English Renaissance, the institution of marriage was viewed as a partnership whereby both husband and wife had responsibilities to the household as a whole. Because the household was seen as a microcosm for the nation-state, the success/failure of the individual household had important political implications and hence romance, as we might understand it in the 21st century, was not usually a key ingredient. In the tragedies, romance was usually an impediment and always gave way to more important political goals. However in the comedies, romance was not necessarily seen as a problem and indeed many comedies end with a happy marriage, as with Midsummer’s Night Dream. However this was not always the case and in some comedies such as Volpone or tragi-comedies such as The Winter’s Tale, a marriage partnership that had become sufficiently unbalanced was either terminated or (painfully) repaired.

The Plusses and Minuses of New Criticism

The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham).

new criticismNew Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

However there is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’ , we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

The Birth of Tragedy and other Cultural Lies

‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).

It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.images

If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.

For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.

Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.

This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).

In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.

Structuralism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Literature

StructuralismStructuralism holds that a culture can be understood by means of the structure upon which its language, or structural linguistics, is modelled. This is because according to Saussure, the meanings assigned to words as well as the relationship between words (i.e. sentence structure) are maintained solely by convention. I have found this ‘new perspective’ of structuralism valuable in my study of literature because it provides enriched understanding about various cultural values and beliefs underlying the texts. It does however have its drawbacks which should be acknowledged if such value is not to be severely diminished.

For example, in 1.2 of Shakespeare’s play I Henry IV, when Hal proposes that when he becomes king, Falstaff should serve as his hangman, Falstaff responds that this ‘jumps with my humour’. Without placing the word ‘humour’ in its correct cultural context, I might be tempted to interpret this as an expression of Falstaff’s present mood. This would make it much more difficult to make meaningful connections with the lines that follow whereby Falstaff suggests he is as ‘melancholy’ as a ‘gib cat’ or ‘lugg’d bear’. However when I consider such comparisons to be signs of early modern cultural convention, values, and beliefs, I find myself addressing the complexities of Galenic humoralism which incorporates ideas about inborn temperaments relating to scarcity or excesses of bodily fluids – in the case of melancholy that of black bile. Hence Falstaff is not just feeling melancholy– he is melancholic. This has implications for his future because by nature of his humours, regardless of what he might wish to be otherwise, he is non-energetic, serious, solitary, suspicious, and mistrustful. Now the associations with animals (all mammals with blood were considered to be effect by the humours) start to make sense; the ‘gib cat’ or gelded (castrated) cat signals Falstaff is always ineffectual and the ‘lugg’d bear’ suggests that he realises he is being baited by Hal but is unable to do anything about it.

As a feminist looking at texts through structuralist eyes, I am also able to hone in on sex-inflected signifiers pointing to specific patriarchal cultural values I am keen to eliminate. For example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet prematurely presumes his mother behind the death of his father – ‘frailty, thy name is woman’ – taking this as a signal of key cultural attitudes I am able to identify it as insidiously dangerous for women as is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Milton’s bogey’ (the depiction of Eve as inferior, alone responsible for mans’ eviction from the Garden or Eden in Paradise Lost). According to Gilbert and Gubar, such attitudes inherent in some of the most important works comprising the literary ‘canon’, cuts women from the ‘spaciousness of possibility’. Once such ‘signs’ of cultural attitudes as this are identified, they can be openly discussed and hopefully dispersed. But whilst they remain buried in the unconscious minds of readers, they continue to give weight to damaging cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Not only that but the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded the tenets of structuralism to the interpretation of myths and stories and the identification of various motifs and themes repeating through cultures and history. Armed with such understanding, I come to Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, ready to rely on, for example, the myths and legends surrounding the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian fame regarding the unfavourable consequences of a society’s sterility to help me understand the consequences of section about the bored typist and her equally disempowered clerk as they have sex without consequence or pleasure in The Fire Sermon of that poem.

However valuable structuralism are in focusing on valuable insight on other cultural believes, it has its drawbacks: for example it is impossible for me to neutralise the effect of my own cultural values and beliefs when I read about Falstaff and his melancholy. Although I can intellectually understand the significance of his humours for his future in terms of early modern ideals, I still cannot stop thinking if only he could get some psychological help (such as we are accustomed to request today), things would have turned out differently for him and such thoughts distract me from the realities of the story that Shakespeare wrote. Not only that, but in reaching so far into the cultural underpinnings of a text, I take my eyes further and further away from the text in its own right.

Also, it is through structuralism that Roland Barthes developed his position regarding the relationship between author, text, and meaning. While I agree in some respects that the reader is at least a co-author of a text in the sense that he or she will necessarily interpret text in line with his or her own cultural beliefs (as I did with Falstaff and his melancholy), I cannot agree with Barthes that the ‘birth of the reader’ spells the ‘death of the author’. Although we can never be certain what Shakespeare was trying to achieve by having Hamlet make such an affront to women in his speech regarding frailty, we do know that he meant them there for some purpose and (given the 16th century culture of which he was a product) that such purpose is more than likely at odds at least in some respects with any meaning that I coming from a 21st century mind-set might make of them. Just realising this makes us aware of the implications of any meaning that we might chose to assign.

In summary, whilst considering a text through the framework of structuralism (in the sense that I acknowledge that each word or sentence on the page is a signal pointing toward some deeper underlying cultural perspectives), my reading and understanding of literature is expanded and enriched. Further, I am able to articulate certain words and phrases that signal cultural perspectives with which I wish to take issue – for example as a feminist I am interested in covert patriarchal textual jibes at women. However the structrualist approach does have drawbacks, not the least in respect to at least as a co-author of textual meaning, I am unable to neutralise the effect of my own cultural perspectives on a text and whilst trying to undercover all that underlies any text, I take my focus further away from that text.