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Shakespearean Archetypes in Storytelling

Returning character types in William Shakespeare's works.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Let’s explore the Shakespearean archetypes.

William Shakespeare, often hailed as the greatest play­wright in the English lan­guage, mas­ter­fully craf­ted char­ac­ters that con­tin­ue to res­on­ate with audi­ences cen­tur­ies after their cre­ation. 1William Shakespeare. (2024, February 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​i​l​l​i​a​m​_​S​h​a​k​e​s​p​e​are

Here we go:

Shakespearean Archetypes

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William Shakespeare by John Taylor. Image: Wikipedia.
William Shakespeare by John Taylor. Image: Wikipedia.

Shakespearean Archetypes

There isn’t a fixed num­ber of Shakespearean arche­types, as they can vary depend­ing on inter­pret­a­tion and ana­lys­is. However, sev­er­al recur­ring arche­types com­monly appear through­out Shakespeare’s works. 

Shakespeare’s char­ac­ters are not mere indi­vidu­als but archetyp­al rep­res­ent­a­tions of uni­ver­sal human traits and experiences. 

Archetypes, developed through evol­u­tion­ary dynam­ics and per­son­al exper­i­ence, serve as adapt­ive responses to social prob­lems and can be used to enhance under­stand­ing of nar­rat­ive pro­cesses and lit­er­at­ure.“
Source: Psychological Inquiry 2Green, M., Fitzgerald, K., & Moore, M. (2019). Archetypes and Narrative Processes. Psychological Inquiry, 30, 102 – 99. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​1​0​4​7​8​4​0​X​.​2​0​1​9​.​1​6​1​4​808

Some of the most prom­in­ent Shakespearean arche­types include:

  • The Big Lunk. He is a romantic hero type but lacks some­thing, so he is not entirely hero­ic – for instance, he can be inde­cis­ive, unin­tel­li­gent or eas­ily misled. He is always a young man. Examples: Romeo, Hamlet, Troilus, Claudio, Orsino, Orlando, Lysander, Demetrius, Ferdinand, and Leonatus.
  • The Innocent Babe. The babe is often a tra­gic char­ac­ter, a vic­tim of malig­nancy, wheth­er this causes — or, in com­edy, seems to cause— death. She is young — often very young. Examples: Ophelia, Desdemona, Imogen, Hero, and Cordelia.
  • The Flawed Ruler. Generally found in tragedy, this power­ful man with a flaw which causes ‑or nearly causes, in com­edy — his down­fall. He is usu­ally an older char­ac­ter. Examples: Oberon, Prospero, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Cymbeline, Anthony, and Brutus.
  • The Bright Young Thing. This girl takes mat­ters into her own hands to get what she wants — they gen­er­ally resolve com­ed­ies. They are (obvi­ously) young, though often older than the babes. Examples: Helena, Portia, Viola & Olivia, Rosalind, Kate, Beatrice, and Miranda.
  • The Malign Influence: A char­ac­ter who causes trouble out of hatred, jeal­ousy or tem­per. He act­ively wishes oth­ers ill and works toward that. He can be any age. Examples: Iago, Don John, Cloten, Claudius, Tybalt, Cassius, and Hecate.
  • The Sidekick/​The Clever Servant. The friend or ser­vant of either the Big Lunk, the Innocent Babe or the Bright Young Thing who helps them sort out their prob­lems. They are often older but are not neces­sar­ily so. Where they are friend rather than ser­vants, they often share the fate of the hero/​heroine, either dying or mar­ry­ing, depend­ing on the genre of the play. Examples: Benvolio, Maria, Benedick, Diana Capilet, Celia, and Odysseus.
  • The Imp of Mischief. A mis­lead­ing char­ac­ter, often super­nat­ur­al, who mis­leads and deceives people, makes fun of them and sets cats among pigeons for amuse­ment’s sake but is not act­ively malign. Their age is irrel­ev­ant, and they may be male or female. Examples: Puck, Ariel, Parolles, Sir Toby Belch, Mercutio, and The Witches (Macbeth).
  • The Mistreated Villain. A char­ac­ter who does things the audi­ence per­ceives as wicked, but only because he has been driv­en to them by how he has been treated. The age of these char­ac­ters is irrel­ev­ant, but they are often older and long-suf­fer­ing. Examples: Caliban, and Shylock.
  • The Powerful Woman. Often seen as malign, this woman has abso­lute power over the fate of oth­ers and her­self and is, there­fore, someone to fear. In tra­gedies, she always dies, and in com­ed­ies, she usu­ally some­how comes under the influ­ence of a male char­ac­ter. She is gen­er­ally mature. Examples: Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Cleopatra, Titania, and Cymbeline’s Queen.
  • The Figure of Fun. This char­ac­ter is pretty much present purely to be laughed at. He (and it is gen­er­ally a man) often pre­tends to be more intel­li­gent than he is and gen­er­ally gets his pom­pos­ity punc­tured. The age of this char­ac­ter does­n’t mat­ter. Examples: Dogberry, Malvolio, Polonius, and Nick Bottom.
  • The Wise Fool. In this con­text, “fool” is a pos­i­tion­al denota­tion rather than an intel­lec­tu­al one. Often quite sharp and slick, the wise fool is a char­ac­ter who is allowed to tell unpal­at­able truths to rulers without being pun­ished under their pos­i­tion. Examples: Lear’s Fool, Jaques, and Lavatch.
  • The Comic Relief. A Servant/​Friend who helps the lead(s) but is gen­er­ally not too intel­li­gent. They usu­ally have no par­tic­u­lar pre­ten­sions to intel­li­gence, and while they are often made gentle fun of, they don’t suf­fer for it. Examples: Nurse (Romeo and Juliet), Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Verges, and The Mechanicals.
  • Tragedy’s Minion. This is a char­ac­ter whom the Malign Influence manip­u­lates into act­ing in his favour and against one of the leads, though they are gen­er­ally inno­cent of any malign intent. Examples: Margaret and Emelia.
  • The Narrator/​Chorus: This char­ac­ter fills in the story and may influ­ence it sig­ni­fic­antly, but more in passing than by intent. Example: Prince (Romeo and Juliet).

Shakespeare employed these arche­types as found­a­tion­al char­ac­ter types to explore vari­ous themes and con­flicts with­in his plays. While these are some of the more recog­nis­able arche­types, Shakespeare’s char­ac­ters are rich and com­plex, often embody­ing mul­tiple archetyp­al traits simultaneously.

Learn more: Shakespearean Archetypes in Storytelling

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About William Shakespeare

Shakespeare had three chil­dren with his wife Anne Hathaway: Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at the age of 11. Shakespeare mar­ried Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26. The age dif­fer­ence between them has been a sub­ject of curi­os­ity among his­tor­i­ans. 3William Shakespeare. (2024, February 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​i​l​l​i​a​m​_​S​h​a​k​e​s​p​e​are

In 1596, Shakespeare’s fath­er, John Shakespeare, applied for a coat of arms for the fam­ily, which William Shakespeare later inher­ited. This grant of arms solid­i­fied his fam­ily’s status as gentry.

While there is no defin­it­ive evid­ence of Shakespeare’s form­al edu­ca­tion, it is believed that he atten­ded the King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he would have received a clas­sic­al edu­ca­tion focused on Latin and rhetoric.

There is a gap in Shakespeare’s bio­graphy, known as the “Lost Years,” from approx­im­ately 1585 to 1592, where there is little to no inform­a­tion about his life. This peri­od has sparked much spec­u­la­tion and debate among scholars.

Shakespeare is best known for his solo-authored plays, but he col­lab­or­ated with oth­er play­wrights on sev­er­al works. These col­lab­or­a­tions include “Henry VIII” with John Fletcher and “Titus Andronicus” with George Peele. Besides being a play­wright, Shakespeare was also an act­or and likely per­formed in many of his plays. Evidence sug­gests that he played roles such as the Ghost in “Hamlet” and Adam in “As You Like It.”

Shakespeare was not only suc­cess­ful as a play­wright but also as a busi­ness­man. He inves­ted in real estate in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, con­trib­ut­ing to his wealth. Shakespeare was a share­hold­er in the Globe Theatre, one of the most fam­ous theatres of his time. The Globe was des­troyed by fire in 1613 dur­ing a “Henry VIII” per­form­ance but was later rebuilt.

Shakespeare’s influ­ence extends bey­ond lit­er­at­ure to lan­guage, with many words and phrases he coined still in use today. Examples include “eye­ball,” “bed­room,” and “wild-goose chase.”

Only six known examples of Shakespeare’s sig­na­ture exist, and they all vary in spelling and style, sug­gest­ing that he may have been incon­sist­ent in sign­ing his name. 4William Shakespeare’s name appears in vari­ous spellings, includ­ing “Shakespere,” “Shaksper,” and “Shaxberd.” His time had stand­ard­ised spelling, so his name was spelt dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent … Continue read­ing

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at 52, in his homet­own of Stratford-upon-Avon. The cause of his death remains unknown, and there are vari­ous the­or­ies, includ­ing ill­ness or fever. He was bur­ied in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where his grave remains a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age site for lit­er­ary enthusiasts.

Shakespeare’s epi­taph, carved on his grave­stone, is said to con­tain a curse warn­ing against mov­ing his bones. It reads, “Good friend for Jesus’ sake for­bear, /​ To dig the dust enclosed here. /​ Blessed be the man that spares these stones, /​ And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

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Thanks for read­ing. Please con­sider shar­ing my pub­lic rela­tions blog with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. If you have ques­tions (or want to retain my PR ser­vices), please con­tact me at jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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1, 3 William Shakespeare. (2024, February 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​i​l​l​i​a​m​_​S​h​a​k​e​s​p​e​are
2 Green, M., Fitzgerald, K., & Moore, M. (2019). Archetypes and Narrative Processes. Psychological Inquiry, 30, 102 – 99. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​1​0​4​7​8​4​0​X​.​2​0​1​9​.​1​6​1​4​808
4 William Shakespeare’s name appears in vari­ous spellings, includ­ing “Shakespere,” “Shaksper,” and “Shaxberd.” His time had stand­ard­ised spelling, so his name was spelt dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent documents.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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