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The Effects of Archetypes & Motifs on Dramatic Works

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

This lesson will explain how archetypes and motifs affect dramatic texts. We will focus on the elements of archetypes and motifs, and why they are so important to dramatic literature.

Literary Elements in Dramatic Works

This lesson will focus on two literary elements, archetypes and motifs, as they relate to dramatic pieces of literature. The first literary element we will focus on is the archetype. An archetype is a character, symbol, or situation that is often copied throughout many forms of literature. Motifs are the next literary element we will focus on. A motif is a narrative element that provides purposeful and symbolic meaning, such as imagery, story structure, language, music, etc., and is repeated throughout the piece of literary work. Let's take a closer look at each of these elements to see what type of affect they have on dramatic works.

Archetypes in Dramatic Works

Archetypes are those characters, symbols, or situations that we see over and over again in many pieces of dramatic literature. An archetype is copied because it is considered a typical example of what is normal and universal, for example, a charming prince, a quest for vengeance, or a clash of good versus evil.

Archetypes first appeared back in the day with Sophocles and Plato; however, they were really put on the literary map by Carl Jung when he realized there were universal patterns in all stories, regardless of culture or time period. Jung believed we all have a collective unconscious, a part of memory that is universal to all humankind, that holds archetypes. This allows us to recognize characters and situations within literature, even if we have never read it before. In this way, archetypes allow us to feel instantly connected to stories, which is why writers continue to use them. Some popular examples would be:

  1. The Hero- a character who epitomizes goodness and often fights to overcome evil (ex: Beowulf in Beowulf).
  2. The Villain- a character who is opposite of the hero, and works against the hero at all costs. The villain's aim is to stop the hero from succeeding (ex: Iago in Othello).
  3. A Downfall- a character faces a great downfall as a result of his or her own misdeeds or wrongdoings (ex: Oedipus' tragic downfall upon realizing his true identity in Oedipus Rex).
  4. A Journey- a character begins a quest (for identity, love, vengeance, knowledge) in order to find some sort of fulfillment (ex: Hamlet, when trying to prove Claudius murdered his father, in Hamlet).

Motifs in Dramatic Works

In dramatic plays, especially, motifs often show up as repeated visual elements, physical movements, or even music, in order to spark the audiences' senses. Motifs are not hidden; they are very obvious, as they help build meaning and symbolic significance to the piece of literature. Think about some dramatic pieces of literature you have read or seen, and you can probably recall some reoccurring actions, ideas, or words that kept popping up.

  1. Oedipus Rex- Sight vs. Blindness
  2. Macbeth- Sleep vs. Sleeplessness
  3. Hamlet- Action vs. Inaction
  4. Beowulf- Monsters and Evil

The Effects on Dramatic Works

How do these archetypes and motifs affect the dramatic works we study? They have the ability to shape the entire function and structure of the literary text. Archetypes can determine what kind, and how much, of a connection the audience/reader will have with the work; therefore, their presence can greatly affect the characters, themes, and plot. By using traditional archetypes we are all familiar with, writers allow audiences to identify with, and connect to, the characters, themes, and plots that are being presented. Since audiences are familiar with the archetypes, they will know what to expect (damsel in distress, hero saves the day, star-crossed lovers, good vs. evil) from the plot, characters, and situations. If archetypes were not used, it would take a lot longer for audiences to feel a connection, thus a lot harder for writer's to engage the audience.

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