THE LION KING: Ideal-Ego to Ego-Ideal


The Lion King west end show was recently acknowledged as the most successful entertainment on the planet, exceeding all other forms of entertainment including films etc. This phenomenon clearly has some winning formulas in addition to the well known and loved tunes. Perhaps one of them could be the pivotal moment of the musical in Act II – the Pool Reveal?

You know how the Pool Reveal scene goes – the monkey Rafiki and Simba meet and talk – Rafiki says that she knows who Simba is, she knows his father too. Simba says “I’m sorry to tell you that my father died many years ago” Rafiki says “no, he’s still alive, I’ll show you. Look down in that pool.” Simba says “That’s not my father.”  Rafiki says “Look again – You see he still lives in you.”

This moment represents a turning point in the story. Simba realises that he has been hanging out and neglecting his pride. It involves what in psychoanalysis is called a shift from Ideal-Ego to Ego-Ideal.

The concept of what in psychoanalysis is called Identification would seem very simple and obvious, after all we talk a lot about it, ‘You take after your mother or you father, I can see him in you etc.’ But for Freud and later for Lacan it is more complicated and raised many problems.

Here is a quick summary of Ego Identification which Lacan divides into two stages.

The first is what he called the primary identification or the mirror stage when the infant identifies itself in the mirror and has a sense of being a complete and coherent being in the world and recognises itself with a sense of ‘jubilant assumption’. This instigates the initial part of the ego called the Ideal-Ego and is formed within what Lacan called the Imaginary Register but the inherent alienation brings with it a certain aggressivity which can become pronounced in certain cases.

The Secondary Identification takes place in the final part of the Oedipal stage, when the child identifies and assumes one of the parent’s or carer’s characteristics. The process involves a certain libidinal normalisation and Lacan locates this in the Symbolic Register. However it is still an imaginary identification, it just happens to coincide with the subject’s entry into the Symbolic Order. The characteristics of the parent become introjected and incorporated into the subject’s ego structure; into the chain of signifiers along with related aspects like rivalry.  The Ego-Ideal is also referred to as the unitary trait and becomes a major player in the analytic work.

Put simplistically, when Simba first looks into the pool he sees himself, the Primary Identification, the Ideal-Ego and then when he looks closer he sees an imago representing his father in the reflection, the Secondary Identification, the Ego-Ideal, the part of his father that he has assumed as a characteristic of himself, the good, brave, upstanding person.

In Darian Leader’s book ‘The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression’ he talks about how when a parent dies, the bereaved subject may often take on characteristics of the parent, or characteristics already inherent in the child in the form of an Ego-Ideal will become more pronounced, almost as a way of keeping the parent alive but in some cases if the characteristic isn’t mourned sufficiently it can develop into melancholia.

For Simba, with the neatness of a west end musical narrative, the switch to his Ego-Ideal reconnects him to his purpose and with his Ego-Ideal in place, Simba returns to save the Pridelands and take his rightful place as King.


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