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Shakespeare

GHOSTS, WITCHES, FAIRIES AND SUPERSTITION


Do you know exactly why thirteen is an unlucky number?
Or why it's a bad omen for a black cat to cross your path? Or
why knocking on wood is supposed to protect you? If you
stop to think about it, you might conclude that you don't
have any explanation for these superstitions.
And yet they exert a mysteriously powerful influence on the
way we behave. You'd have to look long and hard to find a
skyscraper that has a floor numbered thirteen. Many people
go to great lengths to avoid walking under ladders.

The Elizabethans were no different, in fact, in an age before


computers had been invented, before medical science
understood disease, before astronomy, meteorology, and
geology had learned much about the heavens and the earth,

magical beliefs played an even larger role in daily life than


they do today. Most Elizabethan households were well
stocked with peculiar superstitions and strange practices:
there might be a horseshoe over the door to ward off evil
spirits; an astrological almanac on the table, a bowl of cream
set out for the fairies every night, and a stockpile of charms
to ward off ghosts and witches should they come aknocking.
The use of the Supernatural in Shakespeares work is
generally well-known and widely discussed. He
incorporated various supernatural elements into many of his
plays, with varying extent and with different intentions. He
gained popularity for his masterful use of a ghost in
Macbeth and Hamlet as well as for his portrayal of fairies in
the Midsummer Nights Dream and the supernatural
atmosphere in the Tempest. Shakespeares manner of using
the Supernatural, the function he attributes to it as well as
the implying effect thereof has been subject of many
discussions.

Supernatural by Shakespeare and the other authors makes it


possible to thoroughly analyze the use of the supernatural
features as dramatic devices on behalf of Shakespeare, as
opposed to rather mere references reflecting the popular
beliefs of that periods audience on behalf of the other three
authors.
Romeo and Juliet may be the most famous pair of "starcrossed lovers" but other Shakespearean characters also
reflect the influence of the stars and magic.

If worries about ghosts weren't enough to guarantee


sleepless nights, there were the fairies to think about, too.
Those to be feared weren't the tiny sweet playful fairies that
Shakespeare invented for A Midsummer Night's Dream
that mischief-making but good-hearted fairy tribe led by
Oberon and Titania; nor were they the cute little animated
figures who flit around Walt Disney Studios on their
shimmering wings. No, these Elizabethan fairies were lifesized creatures, fiendish and malicious, who made the milk
go sour and the livestock sick. This is the kind of fairy that

Dromio of Syracuse means when he calls his churlish master


in The Comedy of Errors "A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and
rough."

Fairies came in several models: there were hostile river


spirits and wily mermaids who lured unsuspecting sailors to
their deaths; giants and hags; fairy aristocrats who, like their
human counterparts, spent their time dancing, hunting, and
feasting; and the ordinary everyday goblins. But not all
fairies were malevolent. Best-known of all was the native
English fairy Robin Good-fellow, or Puck, a "shrewd and
knavish sprite," as Shakespeare calls him, who was the
special guardian of home and hearth.

In Shakespeares time, many superstitions and supernatural


beliefs were current. Faiths in magical power were very
widespread. Two kinds of magicians were supposed to exist
during the Elizabethan England those who commanded the
services of certain superior supernatural beings; and those
who were believed to have entered into a contact with the
devil.
The Supernatural, in the form of fairies, ghosts, witches or
visionary phenomena, play a crucial role in defining the
thematic materials, plot, the characters and the general
philosophical suggestions articulated in the play.
Shakespeare wanted to introduce the socio-cultural
background of the 16th and 17th centuries from the
perspective of popular belief of the people regarding the
Supernatural. Initially, it is necessary to mention that the
popular beliefs of the Elizabethan audience were not
fundamentally different from those of people in other
centuries. Although each period has its beliefs and
superstitions as well as specific attitudes to these aspects,

people have always believed in ghosts, spirits and witches as


well as in individuals with abnormal powers and abilities.
However, each period has also its specifics characteristics in
relations to these beliefs and attributes them different
importance and values, and as such the attitude towards the
Supernatural develops and changes throughout the centuries.
Nevertheless, owing to the popularity cross-cutting the
scheme of social stratification in the 16th and 17th centuries,
supernatural features are a recurring aspect of many plays of
that times dramatists.
From 1580s onwards, many scientific or pseudo-scientific
pamphlets and works on various topics dealing with the
Supernatural were published. Although not all of them were
decided in the question if the Supernatural exists or not, they
nevertheless drew attention to this field.

Shakespeare uses various forms of the Supernatural. His


dramas present us with ghosts, fairies, nymphs, spirits and
witches. Some of them are of a high importance and
influence to his plays, while some of them are only
marginal. The appearance or references are sometimes more
influential in the overall context of the play, sometimes these
are only mere references. Mostly, the apparitions are
shocking and striking, aimed at attracting the attention of the
audience and shifting the drama forward and streamlining its
course, either by direct or indirect interactions, or through
commentary. However, the supernatural aspect does not
have to concern only the visible and clearly manifested
presence and appearances of supernatural beings. The drama
can also involve something unpredictable, some additional
aspect to the drama that cannot be grasped rationally.
The most important fact is that he does not let his audience
become accustomed to such elements in his plays, but rather
thoughtfully paces the influence and the impact of these
features on his audience. Thus, the audience does not
become overwhelmed by the constant presence and
influence of the Supernatural, but rather reacts to every
supernatural apparition, if it does not appear in every scene.

Shakespeares ghosts highlight anxieties brought about by


the Reformation concerning the fate of the soul after death.
In the case of Hamlet, the ghosts parting command to
Remember me! appears to have been forgotten by the time
Hamlet famously calls death the undiscovered country from
whose bourn / No traveler returns. By Shakespeares day
the Reformation had done away with Purgatory, where souls
could be purged of their sins, as well as prayers for the dead
intended to ease a souls passage through Purgatory. With
these forms of access to the dead cut off, questions arose
about the nature of such apparitions. Were they a figment of
the imagination? A devilish trick? Or could the dead still
walk the earth?
The execution of witches was still widely accepted in
Elizabethan times and fear and superstition controlled much
of society. Having converted the country back to
Protestantism, Elizabeth I was a strong monarch,
even having her Jewish doctor executed for apparently
trying to poison her.
Trust was a huge issue and medical conditions which today
can be treated were often believed to be devil possession.
Macbeth has superstition at its very core and Lady Macbeth
reveals her madness as "more needs she the divine than the
physician."

Macbeth takes courage from the witches words. He sees the


ghost of Banquo and continues his quest to remain
undiscovered whilst committing more murders. Ghosts were
often used in Elizabethan drama to drive the plot forward
and even provoked action from susceptible characters. The
ghost in Hamlet serves as a warning of the consequences
still to be faced after death.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE IS THE PREEMINENT
English playwright that history remembers. Scholars
continue to dissect his posthumous Folio nearly 400 years
after his death, reading the disciplines into his works.
Shakespeare is illuminated by philologists, philosophers,
historians. Like any great author, he synthesized his culture
and its ideas into meaningful commentary that remains his
legacy.
Shakespeare lived and authored at a median period of the
Scientific Revolution. Birthed by fate between Copernicus

and Newton, Shakespeare shares his birth year 1564 with


Galileo Galilei. By coincidence, 1564 was also the death of
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, hierarch of
the Italian Renaissanceonly three days after Galileos
birth. The end of Michelangelo and the Catholic Old World
is fittingly replaced with the Great Spectator, Galileo.
Similarly, Shakespeare, in his understanding of Myth and
traditions, was able to synthesize this knowledge into
existential discourse into culture and the sciences.