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Something’s Trickster in Denmark

Hamlet is known to be a play about Revenge, but I wonder if that is something rotten in Denmark might be a rampant expression of the Trickster archetype. Was Shakespeare ultimately cautioning us about the potentially disastrous effects of unbridling the Trickster in psyche or society?

The playwright presents his audience with a psychologically modern hero who struggles openly with his ego, questioning his own thoughts, perceptions, morals and spiritual beliefs. “To be, or not to be.” To trust one’s Self, or not. Therein lies the dilemma of the modern man. With a cacophony of internal archetypal, spiritual, and societal voices – to whom do we listen?

I’ve recently been observing my own Hamlet-like tendencies for self-examination and “to be or not to be” internal arguments. As I question thoughts and patterns and which archetypal voice may be speaking, I reflect on Hamlet’s doubting and note a Trickster theme throughout the Bardís masterpiece, particularly its expression in the title character. Like Hamlet, itís important to me to question my judgments and feelings seeking certainty that my intentions and actions stem from sound perception.

Like Hamlet I question, and the questioning (when turned on me) reeks of Trickster. We meet Hamlet caught in a seemingly neurotic examination of his gut perception. Within a mire of grief over the recent, sudden death of his father, he directly intuits his Uncle Claudius’ skillfully veiled deceit.

Something is rotten in Denmark.

But he questions his perception because it’s coupled with a distain of his motherís quick abandon of mourning, to marry Claudius, his sorrow, and sense of betrayal.

the funeral bak’d meats, Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables

He is trapped in a deadly version of The Emperor’s New Clothes in which no one sees what he sees. Hamlet has only his gut feeling to rely on, which he will not trust to motivate action. I might easily cast Hamlet as an ENTJ in the grip of his Inferior Fi. He is reputed to be a scholar (Te), and the great concern over his change of mood suggests he’s usually expressive and extroverted, whereas now he ruminates and judges.

Is it possible Hamlet’s questioning indecision is a function of his internal Trickster

I have read that to be emotionally challenged is to listen to the voice of our Trickster. The Trickster within is said to move us from just and clear cognition’s, to base and confounding apprehensions. Erring by doubting his Daemonic inner voice (a clear strong feeling), Hamlet gives play to his inferior inner feelings and most assuredly, his inner Trickster.

The Trickster is also defined as “existing to question,” and Hamlet in his current state fulfills this role – as interpreter of the story, and also as a pivotal force in the State of Denmark.

But, is it doubtful confusion or awful apprehension that whispers to him, and deafens him from heeding his inner truth? Hamlet senses the enormity of his heroic fate. Yet another dimension of Trickster is to fulfill the role of cultural hero. In many cultures the Trickster and the Cultural Hero are combined. (In the tale of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus comes up with the idea of building the Trojan Horse (a great trick) and becomes the Greek Cultural Hero, enabling the conquering of Troy.)

Alas, Hamlet’s plight increases when he is unable to identify the archetypal rooting of his father’s ghost. Is the specter a lamenting Good Parent (obscured and hard to trust Ni?), or a demonic Trickster come to light the fires of hell in the court of Denmark? Common beliefs of the day feed Hamlet’s conundrum. But the spirit’s report, if trustworthy, confirms Hamlet’s suspicion of his Uncle’s Trickster foundered-fratricide. The ghost proclaims the master politician (aren’t most politicians Tricksters?) and jealous brother of old Hamlet, artfully poisoned the King and then captured the throne with bribery and persuasion.

Hamlet is overjoyed the apparition confirms his suspicion, but is again left to question the source of the confirmation. Spirits are believed to be Tricksters. Is the entity that spoke to him truly his of his father’s soul, or a Devil? He questions more and needs more proof.

The Trickster is also defined as “existing to question,” and Hamlet in his current state fulfills this role – as interpreter of the story, and also as a pivotal force in the State of Denmark. But, is it doubtful confusion or awful apprehension that whispers to him, and deafens him from heeding his inner truth? Hamlet senses the enormity of his heroic fate. Yet another dimension of Trickster is to fulfill the role of cultural hero. In many cultures the Trickster and the Cultural Hero are combined. (In the tale of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus comes up with the idea of building the Trojan Horse (a great trick) and becomes the Greek Cultural Hero, enabling the conquering of Troy.)

Alas, Hamlet’s plight increases when he is unable to identify the archetypal rooting of his father’s ghost. Is the specter a lamenting Good Parent (obscured and hard to trust Ni?), or a demonic Trickster come to light the fires of hell in the court of Denmark? Common beliefs of the day feed Hamlet’s conundrum.

But the spirit’s report, if trustworthy, confirms Hamletís suspicion of his Uncle’s Trickster foundered-fratricide. The ghost proclaims the master politician (arenít most politicians Tricksters?) and jealous brother of old Hamlet, artfully poisoned the King and then captured the throne with bribery and persuasion.

Hamlet is overjoyed the apparition confirms his suspicion, but is again left to question the source of the confirmation. Spirits are believed to be Tricksters. Is the entity that spoke to him truly his of his father’s soul, or a Devil? He questions more and needs more proof.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

The young Prince’s inability to trust and command the strength of his feeling drives him to match Trickster with Trickster and begin to play the fool; feigning madness as a strategy to unearth the truth. True to type, sickened by his own uncertainty, Trickster (Si) manifests as withdrawal, obsession and playing possum. Yet, through his rumination Hamlet also begins to realize his fate as cultural hero and accept his role as sacrifice.

Weather ’tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

 

From this point forward the plot reveals the rampant contagion of Trickster behavior in the court of Denmark:

Polonius, father of Hamlet’s love – Ophelia, and counsel to the usurping King, also consistently plays the fool; eavesdrops, gossips and spies. He counsels his daughter to deceive Hamlet (and her own love), and sends spies to report on his son Laertes’ life in Paris. Polonius is motivated by gain.

Hamlet’s college chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sell-out their friendship to be spies for Claudius, and usher Hamlet to England (and, unbeknownst to them, a planned execution).

Only Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is revealed to be an innocent fool as she schemes with Claudius to discover the source of Hamlet’s strange behavior. Hamlet clearly sees through the other characters’ deceptions and meets them with intense displays of cunning foolery. He is genuinely incensed they would betray him.

The questioning Prince seizes happenstance when a troop of actors comes to the palace. He takes the opportunity to design a brilliant trick by producing a play depicting a scene portraying Old Hamlet’s ghost’s account of how Claudius murdered him. (Could this be the first evidence of his Se Puer?) The treacherous King’s fearful and horrified reaction indicates the spirit was indeed truthful. Hamlet now hardens to enact revenge. His fate is clear.

Indulging his own Trickster fully, he abandons memory of the good in those he loved, and Hamlet’s actions lead to tragic ends. You know the story: Hamlet mistakenly kills the spying Polonius, and with grief of Hamlet’s rejection and his murder of her father, Ophelia drowns herself. Hamlet counter-plays the deception of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and they are killed. Trick upon trick brings muddled justice, as the Trickster in each is punished.

Shakespeare who often pays homage to the wise, entertaining and benevolent fool (Trickster) in his plays, then briefly pauses to pay homage to that greater, constructive expression of the archetype when, Hamlet, eulogizes Yorick the jester. All mirth has gone from Denmark.

Alas, Poor Yorick… knew him well…

Meanwhile Claudius continues his Trickster wiles. When Laertes returns from Paris on the report of his father’s death (add his sister’s death), Claudius engages him in a deadly trick of double poison. Laertes is to challenge Hamlet to a fencing match, but a triumphant end is assured with poisoned rapier tip and poisoned cup of wine. Hamlet over-confidently and sportingly accepts the challenge (Se coming to play again?)and his destiny. Fate intervenes and the foolishly innocent Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine. Treachery unveiled, Hamlet is hit with the poisoned blade and then returns the hit to Laertes, before he finally, justly, executes Claudius by making him finish the cup of poison and feel the cut of the deadly sword. All are punished! Hamlet has enacted a cleansing in the court of Denmark and fulfilled his destiny as cultural hero.

The final Triumph of the story is the entrance of Prince Fortinbras whose father, King of Norway, was killed in battle by old Hamlet. Throughout the play Fortinbras has been en route to Denmark to exact a direct and just revenge. It would seem that, unlike Hamlet, this Prince, being clear in his perception, sure in his motive, and forthright in his action, is rewarded by fate. The kingdom of his foe is handed to him with the dying blessing of young Hamlet.

Of what learning might we have been deprived, had Hamlet not been predisposed to question the truth and moral basis of his own perception? Had he been able to rise above his circumstance and skillfully, powerfully bring to bear his truth without falling prey to Trickster, what instructive masterpiece might we revere instead?

I believe the Bard tricks us into taking account of the destructive power of the unmeasured use of Trickster. Though he fulfills the moral dictates of his time by assuring all debts of revenge are paid, he tests us further. I consider that although Hamlet is an attractively romantic and tragic figure, he fails miserably – unable to see and transcend his own inferior and unconscious motives. He is redeemed as heroic by acknowledging the mess he made, facing the consequences, and finally fulfilling the action required by his original perception.

As I contemplate the play I am reminded to trust the call of strong inner feeling, to directly confront real evil, to remember and call upon the “good man potential” in those I perceive to be in err, and to never descend to match the behaviors of moral inferiors. And thus, another aspect of Trickster is fulfilled – Trickster as teacher.

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Steve Whiteford

About Steve Whiteford

Steve founded Whiteford Resources in 1989 with the vision of assisting individuals and organizations to achieve their highest potential for effective, dynamic communication. Steve has fifteen years as a performer, director, and coach in the entertainment industry and has incorporated his avid study of human potential, neuroscience and transformational processes into over twenty years of practical application within business environments. He specializes in Leadership Development, Executive Presence, Emotional Intelligence EQ-i 2.0, and is Master Certified in MBTI. He has recently completed Results Coaching certification with NeuroLeadership Institute, Steve receives excellent reviews as a Speaker, Trainer, Facilitator and Coach.

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