Expressed in Macbeth
Myths and legends are part of our common collective unconscious; they provide us with ways to process the feelings and aspirations we have as individuals to better ourselves and be rewarded for our hard work and moral goodness. There is also a psychoanalytical portrait to this sense of myth as well, as Freudian concepts of dreams and human fantasies of the unconscious combine with Jungian archetypes to create models of human behavior that we wish to emulate and look up to. No matter the story, be it Jesus or Holden Caulfield or Luke Skywalker, myths often operate on a very similar set of universal themes that resonate within humanity due to their unconscious desires, which are often found and expressed in dreams and the unconscious. In Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the author draws upon Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and examination of dreams in order to elaborate on his thoughts on the power of myth. By looking at a work such as William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, the links between myth, dreams and psychoanalysis become clear, as the hero’s journey is fraught with ideas of the woman as temptress, and the need for aid from higher, more experienced powers in order to achieve one’s destiny.
According to Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey (also known as the monomyth) tells the same basic story no matter what it is: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Campbell 23). This story is told many times in many different iterations, and continues to this day; the formula remains a powerfully effective means of exploring the innate desire of man to be and do good, to become powerful, and exercise their virtue. In this way, the hero’s journey represents our ideal journey – our wish fulfillment of the things that we would like to accomplish. Often, hero’s journeys can act as cautionary tales, as Macbeth carries many elements of the Campbellian hero’s journey; Macbeth is a general in the army of the King of Scotland, who is told through supernatural means that he is destined for greatness, and is goaded by his wife to achieve that destiny.
Campbell, in exploring these ideas, drew heavily on Freudian theory to do so. Freud is stated as citing the symbolic and mythological figures of religion and other tales as ways to disguise the truth. This is done in order to obfuscate the harsh realities of life in favor of a dramatic, sugar-coated and moralistic view of life (Campbell xiii). Myths are created as a means to allow us to transform our surroundings by transforming ourselves, going on personal and spiritual journeys toward self-actualization. One of Freud’s most significant theories drawn upon by Campbell is the idea of the unconscious, and how we might have secret desires we are not aware of normally in anything other than the periphery. Freud believe there was a call within humanity to stop living externalized lives and dedicate themselves to higher causes of righteousness, selflessness and adventure, lest they become boring and sick of the world. Heroes in the hero’s journey follow this Freudian idea of dissatisfaction with the material world; heroes start out as ordinary people, usually living lackluster lives of mediocrity and unremarkable deeds, just like the audience sees themselves. By witnessing the hero transcending their material lives and moving toward a bigger life that is more fulfilling for the soul, the audience by extension transcends with them, projecting the hero’s victories onto themselves. In this way, the myth is used to help find the best, most true self. In the case of Macbeth, the best, most true self for Macbeth is to become king – of course, this becomes problematic due to the means by which he achieves kingdom (i.e. assassination and deceit), and his own downfall comes as an expression of this heavy desire to rule.
Another idea that Freud inspired in Campbell’s exploration is the concept of dreams as a replacement of general mythology; given that the modern times have largely eschewed the myth as a realistic representation of what individuals are capable of, this need for myth has now translated into dreams – the unconscious expression of secret desires of what they want to be, who they want to be with, etc. (Campbell 4). Every decision we make is part of an expression of the unconscious, even ones we are not totally aware of: “As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep - as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny” (Campbell 46). Macbeth, for example, blunders his way into becoming king through the help of the three witches, who give him the idea in the first place, and Lady Macbeth, who goads him into killing the king despite his reluctance. Either way, despite the disastrous outcomes he eventually experiences, these actions are a fulfillment of his destiny.
Take the story of Oedipus, which Campbell cites as an example of conflating myths with psychoanalysis; the myth of Oedipus, the man who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother, is effective in part because of its fulfillment of a subconscious desire (even on the part of the audience) to do the same. His Oedipus complex is but one example of the ways in which we use myths and dreams to live out the fantasies we would not dare explore in real life. In the unconscious, says Campbell of Freud, “There are not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives” (7). There is a dangerous drive to exploring these ideas, as we know that they are dangerous, but we are attracted to that danger. This is why myths that explore the uncomfortable fascinate us so; they signify the dreams and unconscious drives we have we do things society and civilization deems untoward. Lady Macbeth, for example, is an expression of this psychological desire in Macbeth; while she is his wife, she holds the power in the relationship, manipulating him to kill the king out of her own desire for power, echoing a very dominant power relationship reminiscent of motherhood.
Freud’s concepts of psychoanalysis allow Campbell (and the audience of such myths) to deconstruct dreams and myths in order to ascertain their basic frameworks, including the desires and psychological attributes that give these images power. When one sees Neo in The Matrix accept his destiny as The One, the audience, by extension, feels powerful and actualized in turn. Conversely, the tale of Don Quixote acknowledges the madness and senility of its elderly major character, but also provides the cathartic thrill of allowing the audience to fight giants who are actually windmills. By understanding “the lore and language of dreams,” the psychoanalyst becomes the gatekeeper to a person’s innermost thoughts and desires, effectively mastering the realm of myths (Campbell 8). Through this lens, myths and rituals are shown to be ways to process these unconscious dreams and life transformations from the unconscious to the conscious mind.
When discussing the monomyth, or the ‘hero’s journey’ that Campbell breaks down into a formula, it is important to understand the significance to many of these symbols on the psyche. For example, the supernatural aid provides a certain comfort or guide through the realm of the unconscious, which is what often constitutes our dreams and myths. Campbell writes of the Supernatural Aid:
“What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that it supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world” (Campbell 69).
This explanation of the Supernatural Aid falls in quite well with Freud’s focus on the mother, and our subconscious desire to return to the womb and be protected. In Macbeth, the supernatural aid comes in the form of the three witches, who explain to him the means by which he will become king. They offer to him the prospect of a grand destiny, the way to accomplish it, and the warning signs that he must be wary of in order to fulfill said destiny. By offering parental or guardian status to the hero of a journey, the Supernatural Aid allows the hero to be trained in the rites of passage and rules of the world that are necessary for survival and success. Often, over the course of the story, the hero separates himself from the Supernatural Aid in order to strike out on their own and actualize themselves as their own independent being, a transcendent stage of the hero’s journey that mimics a rite of passage into adulthood.
Myths often feature a ‘woman as temptress,’ which also plays into the Freudian ideas of sexual temptation and taboo that mirrors the (usually male) hero’s struggle with his sexuality and learning to acknowledge his subconscious desire to mate. There are also elements of the Oedipus complex in this attribute of the myth, as succumbing to the temptations of the women in myths leads to him being supremely allured by her. According to Campbell, “The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total master of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master” (101). By having this sort of encounter so prevalently in the hero’s journey, Campbell acknowledges the myth’s ability to conceptualize ideas of sexual desire and domination into a palatable and understandable format for people struggling with these ideas. This is most present, again, in Lady Macbeth’s character in Macbeth; “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” says she, conflating her status as a woman with the murder she will have played a part in orchestrating (Shakespeare, I.v.45-46). Unlike other heroes on the journey, Macbeth succumbs to this desire, instead of overcoming it and ascending to true actualization.
In conclusion, Campbell used many ideas of Sigmund Freud to conceptualize the links between myths, dreams and psychoanalysis. According to Campbell, Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis and dreams as the unconscious expression of desire are easily applicable to the common elements of myth. Works like Macbeth, with their interestingly monomythic structure and unsettling Oedipal sexual politics, help to further the link between our mythic figures and the subconscious desires they allow us to explore. Just as myth helps guide people through rites of passage and social norms adopted by a society, they can also provide fulfillment and catharsis for subconscious desires, whether they be an Oedipus desire to have sex with one’s mother or the need to escape their humdrum life and become part of something bigger. The tropes and stages of the hero’s journey commonly mirror rites of passage to adulthood and self-actualization, which often involves the fulfillment of dreams and the understanding of one’s true desires. To that end, it becomes increasingly clear that myths have a very special place in our psychology, and are necessary to allow us to live out (or learn about) our wildest and most secret desires.
Campbell, J. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University
Shakespeare, W. Macbeth. Chelsea House, 1991.