Shakespeare and the Supernatural

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) used the supernatural in both his comedies and tragedies, and the way it is represented in either genre differs greatly, and it differs between his two genres in Tragedy. The supernatural in Shakespeare's tragedies acts as a catalyst to the events of the plays, while being passive, and acting as characterization. It is also used to emphasize the recurring theme of Usurpation. In this essay I will use the interpretation of the supernatural as an event, something that is not subjected to, but is above, the laws of nature and compare the role it plays between Richard II (1585), a history play, and Macbeth (1607?), a more typical tragedy.

Shakespeare's plays can be largely grouped into the two classical genres of Comedies and Tragedies. The difference between these two groups has been best described by Lord Byron, who wrote in Don Juan (1819 – 1824) 'All tragedies are finish'd by a death,' and 'All comedies are ended by a marriage'. However, within these two genres different groups should be noticed. These are: Tragedies, Comedies, and 'Problem Plays' (which have aspects of Comedy and Tragedy such as Measure for Measure (1604)). Within the Tragedies there are two more genres: the History plays, such as Richard II, King Henry IV part 1 (1597) & 2 (1599?), and the more Aristotelian tragedies of Coriolanus (1608?), Macbeth, and Othello (1603). Because the History plays are also Tragedies, I will examine the way the Supernatural is represented in a History play and a Tragic play; examining the effect of Usurpation and what causes this to happen, and how they differ because of genre.

The theme of Usurpation in Shakespeare's tragedies is linked closely to the Renaissance belief in the Great Chain of being. The Great Chain of Being was the idea that everything in society had a place and a role to play, with god at the top, then kings, clergy, common people, and then animals at the bottom. Usurpation is the idea of a seizure of power, particularly (though not exclusively a wrongful) seizure. If ever the chain were to break in some way then nature itself would react against the disturbance, and this would be a sign of Divine Intervention or Judgment.

Both Richard II and Macbeth deal with the Supernatural result of Usurpation, though in Macbeth features it more prominently, and they use the Supernatural in similar ways. For example in Richard II the best example of this is Act 3, Scene 2 lines 56 – 62. Richard is making a speech during a confrontation with Bolingbroke's supporters. Bolingbroke as usurped the throne while Richard was fighting in Ireland, and Richard has since returned. Bolingbroke has - because Richard abused his power as King - a rightful claim to the throne, and he commands a large part of England's army, though some soldiers still remain loyal to Richard. Richard, unaware of his abuse of power and his Tragic Flaw, still believes that God will support him and he is the rightful king, as evidenced in these lines:

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right. [1]

'The breath of worldly men cannot depose/the deputy elected by the Lord'. Richard refers to himself (speaking as the Body Politik) as the deputy. 'The breath of worldly men cannot depose/The deputy elected by the Lord.' Richard, in these lines, shows that he still believes he is the rightful king, and he also appears to believe God will directly intervene on his side, and send down an army of Angels to help fight Bolingbroke and his army: 'God in his Richard hath in heavenly pay/a glorious angel. Then, if angels fight/weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right'.

This shows the idea of the Great Chain of Being influencing a personality, making them believe that supernatural events will take place on their behalf. This is consistent with the beliefs from the time the play is set. It also appears to be Richard's personal delusion, he cannot separate his royal persona from his opinions, and therein lies his fatal flaw. Belief in the Great Chain is not unique to Richard however, but of all the characters in the play Richard appears to believe in it the most. It is worth noting that Bolingbroke often comments on and questions his own actions during King Henry IV part 1 and 2 in relation to the Great Chain.

Earlier in the play the idea of divine intervention and the supernatural is referenced in more active manner. In Act 2, Scene 4 a captain says to the Earl of Salsbury:

CAPTAIN

'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay.

The bay trees in our country are all wither'd,

And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;

The pale-fac'd moon looks bloody on the earth

And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change;

Rich men look sad, and ruffians dance and leap,

The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,

The other to enjoy by rage and war.

These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Farewell: our countrymen are gone and fled,

As well assur'd Richard their king is dead. [2]

These lines describe nature and people reacting against Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne. People are acting strangely 'And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change;/Rich men look sad, and ruffians dance and leap,'. This is suggested as being a part of nature reacting as it is mentioned alongside descriptions of nature turning as meteors flying across the sky, and 'bay trees … are all wither'd', and The 'pale-faced moon' appears blood red. It is worth noting that this is said in Act 2. When Richard is still alive and just as Bolingbroke has started to seize power. The argument that nature is reacting to a brake in the Great Chain before or as it is happening seems at first temperamental, however this also happens in Macbeth. Duncan's horses appear to attack each other and go wild. In act 2, scene 4 of Macbeth:

ROSS

And Duncan's horses,—a thing most strange and certain,—

Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,

Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,

Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make

War with mankind. [3]

This is described either shortly after, or as the act of Regicide is being committed. These horses (understood here to stand for nature) appear to be reacting against the deed. The only explanation for this is it is a divine influence is reacting to the break in the Great Chain of Being. The supernatural appearing before a Usurpation has happened also occurs in Hamlet, in which the ghost of Hamlet's father appears in a foreboding role.

In Richard II a rather foreboding detail occurs in Act 1, scene 3 when Mowbray predicts Richard's downfall thus:

But what thou art, God, thou, and I, do know;

And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue. [4]

Since Richard II is a History play this prediction and other aspects of the supernatural is downplayed and it is worth noting that this is said in an emotional state (Mowbray has just been sentenced to exile) so this prediction does not at first appear supernatural, but his prediction does come true, which is worth remembering and this is similar to the Witch's prediction at the start of Macbeth, when they prophesy that Macbeth will be king.

The witches are key to the play but they are also ambiguous. From the outset of the play they are unsettling. They speak in Trochaic pentameter, rather than in Iambic pentameter found in almost every other character in Shakespeare's works. Trochaic meter relates to a stressed syllable followed two unstressed syllables. It is an unnatural rhythm of speech.

When shall we three meet again [5]

_ / _ / _ / _

This is unlike any other speech found in Shakespeare's plays. For example, take this line from Richard II:

'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay. [6]

/ _ / _ / _ / _ / _

And from a randomly chosen line from Coriolanus:

Come, leave your tears. A brief farewell. [7]

/ _ / _ / _ / _

Both of the above, and like almost every other Shakespeare character's speech, is in Iambic pentameter. Notice how short and abrupt their lines are, as opposed to the long flowing lines of Othello or Richard II, though in Act 4 scene 1 they do use

The witches also speak in contradictions and riddles, however, it is worth noting that though they speak in contradictions they also make a number of prophesies that all become true. Another thing interesting about the witches is that the contradictions in their speech demonstrate their neutral, passive role in the play. For example:

SECOND WITCH.

When the hurlyburly's done,

When the battle's lost and won. [8]

Hurlyburly is not a common word, meaning noise or confusion, and to have just after this: 'When the battle's lost and won' suggests the sisters have no political or national allegiance, and they are not normal. This opinion is strengthened in act 1, scene 3 when they prophesy to Macbeth that he will be king shortly before disappearing, seemingly into the air. A.C. Bradley in Shakespearian Tragedy (1904) comments 'All this has one effect, to excite supernatural alarm and, even more, a dread of the presence of evil' [9]

The Witches are a catalyst for the events of Macbeth, but not the cause, like Mowbray in Richard II. Mowbray is not presented as being a supernatural character, as the Witches are but the two predictions are very similar, because they are both self-fulfilling prophesies. It is important to remember that Mowbray makes his prediction in the presence of both Richard and Bolingbroke, possibly giving Bolingbroke the idea to return to England during his banishment just as the Witches give Macbeth the idea of becoming king, though he at first resists it. William Hazlet, in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), comments on the witches' effect on Macbeth: 'the communications of the weird sisters throw him, [Macbeth] is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions'. [10]

The witches are also understood to also be a symbol of Macbeth's evil ambitions, given that witches would have been taken very seriously by an Elizabethan audience, and Macbeth meeting them is a foreshadowing of his own corruption. Note Macbeth's first words in the play: 'So foul and fair a day I have not seen'. This is a lot like the contradictions of the witches, such as: 'When the battle's lost and won'.

In Macbeth it is sometimes hard to distinguish a supernatural occurrence from a delusion, and it is a much more psychological play than Richard II. Madness is a recurring motif in the play (as it is in Hamlet).

The spot appearing on Lady Macbeth's hand in act 5 scene 1 is entirely psychological, and comes from her own guilt from her part in Duncan's death. Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3 scene 4, and this comes from a similar sense of guilt. Macbeth's guilt also comes into imagery. He is imagined by Macduff as holding a 'bloody sceptre', as if Scotland itself is dying and every day brings a new wound.

These images are psychological, and does not appear to be just divine retribution for breaking the Great Chain, even though it might have to a Elizabethan, pre-Freudian audience, but it does show a more human side of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. These events are psychological, only Macbeth see's Banquo's ghost and only Lady Macbeth can see the spot apparently on her hand. This is unlike the witches, who are seen by both Macbeth and Banquo.

Other aspects of the play are harder to interpret, such as the ghostly knife appearing before Macbeth in act 2 scene 1:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee: -

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. [11]

In the last line 'I have the not, and yet I see thee still' Macbeth has apparently tried to grab the knife, but his hands fall through the ghostly apparition, and it leads Macbeth to Duncan. This ghostly apparition does not appears to be the work of the Witches as that would go against their otherwise passive role, and it would be wrong to simply dismiss it as a psychological creation as this happens before his decent into madness.

From these examples we can see that the supernatural, as represented in Shakespeare's tragedies, plays a passive role. In his Comedies, for example A Midsummer Night's Dream the supernatural is much more active. In the two tragedies examined, however, the role of the supernatural is ambiguous.

The most interesting thing about the passiveness of the supernatural in these tragedies is that it is a catalyst to the events of the play but not the cause of them. In Richard II Mowbray's prediction comes true, foreshadowing Richard's demise because of Bolingbroke. The Witch's prediction comes true, causing Macbeth to act, though resisting at first, he is driven by Lady Macbeth. In Hamlet the ghost of Hamlet's father telling Hamlet of his death has a similar, foreshadowing, function. Also, the line between the supernatural and the psychological is blurred in these plays; such as Lady Macbeth's spot, Macbeth seeing Banquo's Ghost, and Richard's belief in the power of kings.

In both plays animals, particularly horses, and other, unseen people are reported as acting strangely just after the act of Usurpation, but it is not, as I have demonstrated, again very active. This reaction seems aimless and wild, but not random. Nature's reaction does not serve a purpose, nor does it appear to have one. It could be argued that this is part of the Anagnorisis, or recognition of the tragic flaw, but this would not make sense, since these events are only seen by secondary characters and the protagonists are not around to hear about these events.

In Richard II the supernatural appears little more than a delusion. In Macbeth it is more prevalent, but so are psychotic delusions. Even in the endings of both plays when normalcy has been restored there is little hint of the supernatural having much effect. In the end of Richard II Richard has finally realized his tragic flaw and dies at the hands of men presumably under orders from Bolingbroke, God appears to have abandoned him. In Macbeth Macbeth is killed in battle by Macduff, and order is restored. This appears to be god's will, but since Macbeth could end with the same result, without the need for a supernatural explanation there is no real need to attribute either play's respective endings to Divine Retribution or the supernatural, even though in both plays the supernatural acts as a catalyst and re-enforcer to these same events.

Notes

1 - Shakespeare (2008) Richard II, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 208, lines 56 – 62

2 - Shakespeare (2008) Richard II, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 201, lines 7 – 17

3 - Shakespeare (2008) Macbeth, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 140, lines 14 – 17

4 - Shakespeare (2008) Richard II, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 159, lines 224 – 225

5 - Shakespeare (2008) Macbeth, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 95, line 1

6 - Shakespeare (2008) Richard II, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 201, line 7

7 - Shakespeare (2008) Coriolanus, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 284, line 1

8 - Shakespeare (2008) Macbeth, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 95, lines 3 – 4

9 - A.C. Bradley (1967) Shakespearian Tragedy, Second Edition, London, Macmillan, page 339.

10 -W. Hazlet (2009) Characters of Shakespeare, First Edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

11 - Shakespeare (2008) Macbeth, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics, p 124, lines 34 – 36

References

A.C. Bradley (1967) Shakespearian Tragedy, Second Edition, London, Macmillan.

H. Levin, (1959) The Question of Hamlet, Third Edition, New York, Oxford University Press.

W. Hazlet (2009) Characters of Shakespeare, First Edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

W. Shakespeare (2008) Macbeth, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics

W. Shakespeare (2008) Coriolanus, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics

W. Shakespeare (2008) Richard II, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics

W. Shakespeare (2008) Hamlet, Second Edition, New York, Oxford University Press, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford World's Classics

J. Strachen et R. Terry (2000) Poetry (Elements of Literature), First Edition, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Aristotle (2003) Poetics, New Edition, London, Penguin Classics