Shakespeare and the “Supernatural”

“A sad tale, is best for Winter. I have one of sprites and goblins”
-Mamillus (A Winter’s Tale)

An overall study of Shakespeare’s plays reveals that the author had more than a casual acquaintance with the supernatural, the paranormal and a preoccupation with ghosts, apparitions, spirits and phantoms (GASP). While this merely reinforces the fact that the average Elizabethan was inclined to believe that these supernatural phenomena or agencies were part and parcel of their ordinary and extraordinary lives. The question they were more likely to ask was were these supernatural agencies “messengers from God” or “harbingers of the Devil”. Their belief in magic and witchcraft for example was merely the tip of the iceberg and naturally extended into the numinous but never fully arrived at the extra-terrestrial, unless we include the surreal character of Caliban in the “Tempest” as an act of “Magical Realism”. I have already touched upon the “Secret Alchemy of Shakespeare”, in the belief of “Astrology in Elizabethan England” and the role of Dr. John Dee as “The Queen’s Sorcerer”. Some plays stand out merely for their theatrical use of “supernatural or magical” events, for example “The Tempest” features a Renaissance Magus who conjures spirits on an island that is suspected of being “dreamily enchanted” and previously the domain of a sea-witch and her diabolic son. The character of the spirit Ariel one must assume is derived partly from occult science and the playwright’s own imagination since the name is not listed in Fred Gettings “Dictionary of Astrology” either among the numerous Archai or Secundian Beings who supposedly guide humanity’s affairs (See Trithemius). It probably derives from the Hebrew Caballa and means literally “Lion of God” (Isiah 29: 1-7) and one of seven angelic princes. The name of Ariel however was used by Thomas Heywood (“Hierarchie of Blessed Angels”, 1635) as well as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667) and later given to one of the satellites of Uranus whose existence was not known in Shakespeare’s day. The “ultra-terrestrial” and atavistic Caliban features alongside the extra terrestrial Ariel, who is relegated to a slave or servant, firstly to a witch named Sycorax and on her death he becomes a prisoner to Caliban, but is assured of freedom after completing all the tasks imposed on him by the Magician, Prospero. In the conventional religious view human beings are considered the slaves or servants of Angels, who in turn assisted and guided mankind closer to God. The Angels were considered “food” for the higher beings, the Archangels, Principalities and Dominions in the hierarchy of “sentient beings” and their “astral intelligences” or invisible powers. This inversion by Shakespeare of the natural order is pertinent and revealing; to overturn, subvert and transgress the natural order reflects what can only be described as a “Messianic Complex”, of which much has already been written about Shakespeare’s personality and psychological condition. For example, it has been asked “was Shakespeare bi-polar, did he suffer from any symptoms of schizoid, pathological or neurotic symptoms?”. Conversely, was Shakespeare’s imagination or obsession with the supernatural influenced or supported by the use of certain psychotropic or psychedelic drugs? Great natural geniuses in art or drama often do. Although this in turn is often dominated with a degree of narcissistic self-indulgence, an ego-centric attitude and “carping” when matters do not evolve to their satisfaction or advantage. The play “Hamlet” features the ghost of the leading character’s father, and “Macbeth” features several “apparitions” during the planned assassination of the Scottish King, Duncan. In “Julius Caesar”, Cassius remarks regarding unusual happenings as portents of the “shape of things to come”:

A horrific scene from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth

“Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance
Their natures and preformed faculties
To monstrous quality,–why, you shall find
That heaven hath infused them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear and warning
Unto some monstrous state.”

And in the same play Calpurnia reports of strange happenings in the streets are omens warning of bad times to come:

“A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.”

Moses Haughton II, after Henry Fuseli, The Nursery of Shakespeare, 1810 (Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Chalkley Hambleton)

In Act 5, scene 2 of “Richard IIIrd” the ghost of Prince Edward and Henry VIth as well as several other deceased characters appear as dramatic devices to the Duke of Richmond and King Richard reminding them that the souls of the dead wander the earth sometimes seeking vengeance for previous misdeeds. Gloucester is crowned Richard the Third, ostensibly the last Plantagenet King, and soon after instructs Buckingham to authorise the execution of the two princes in the Tower. He then arranges with James Tyrrel to mercilessly murder them and his wife Anne into the bargain. Richard enters the stage after a spooky scene featuring three ghostly ladies, in which clearly Queen Margaret is hungry for revenge, she rebukes him fiercely for the murders, followed by his own mother the Duchess of York.

[Enter the Ghost of Prince Edward, son to King Henry VIth]
Ghost of Prince Edward, (To King Richard III):

“Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
Think, how thou stab’dst me in my prime of youth
At Tewksbury: despair, therefore, and die!”

To Richmond:
“Be cheerful, Richmond; for the wronged souls
Of butcher’d princes fight in thy behalf
King Henry’s issue, Richmond, comforts thee.”

[Enter the Ghost of King Henry VIth]
(Ghost of King Henry VIth To King Richard IIIrd):
“When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me: despair, and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair, and die!”

To Richmond:
“Virtuous and holy, be thou conqueror!
Harry, that prophesied thou shouldst be king,
Doth comfort thee in thy sleep: live, and flourish!”

[Enter the Ghost of Clarence,]
Ghost of Clarence: (To King Richard IIIrd)
“Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
I, that was wash’d to death with fulsome wine,
Poor Clarence, by thy guile betrayed to death!
To-morrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!”

To Richmond:
“Thou offspring of the house of Lancaster
The wronged heirs of York do pray for thee
Good angels guard thy battle! live, and flourish!”

Enter the Ghosts of Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan.
Ghost of Rivers: (To King Richard IIIrd)
“Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow,
Rivers. that died at Pomfret! despair, and die!”

Ghost of Grey: (To King Richard IIIrd)
“Think upon Grey, and let thy soul despair!”

Ghost of Vaughan: (To King Richard IIIrd)
Think upon Vaughan, and, with guilty fear,
Let fall thy lance: despair, and die!”

All, (To Richmond)
“Awake, and think our wrongs in Richard’s bosom
Will conquer him! awake, and win the day!”

[Enter the Ghost of Hastings, Ghost of Hastings:]
(To King Richard III)
“Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake,
And in a bloody battle end thy days!
Think on Lord Hastings: despair, and die!”

To Richmond:
“Quiet untroubled soul, awake, awake!
Arm, fight, and conquer, for fair England’s sake!
Enter the Ghosts of the two young Princes.”

Ghosts of young Princes: (To King Richard IIIrd)
“Dream on thy cousins smother’d in the Tower:
Let us be led within thy bosom, Richard,
And weigh thee down to ruin, shame, and death!
Thy nephews’ souls bid thee despair and die!”

To Richmond:
“Sleep, Richmond, sleep in peace, and wake in joy;
Good angels guard thee from the boar’s annoy!
Live, and beget a happy race of kings!
Edward’s unhappy sons do bid thee flourish.”

[Enter the Ghost of Lady Anne.]
Ghost of Lady Anne (To King Richard IIIrd)
“Richard, thy wife, that wretched Anne thy wife,
That never slept a quiet hour with thee,
Now fills thy sleep with perturbations
To-morrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!”

To Richmond:
“Thou quiet soul, sleep thou a quiet sleep
Dream of success and happy victory!
Thy adversary’s wife doth pray for thee.”

[Enter the Ghost of Buckingham]
Ghost of Buckingham, (To King Richard IIIrd):
“The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!”

To Richmond:
“I died for hope ere I could lend thee aid:
But cheer thy heart, and be thou not dismay’d:
God and good angel fight on Richmond’s side;
And Richard falls in height of all his pride.”
(The Ghosts vanish)

An artist’s impression of the Two Princes

The ghosts of the dead are therefore able to predict the future outcome of any dispute or contention and moreover that they are quite capable of intervening and affecting the outcome of a dispute in the “world of the living”. But in the play the scene is made to appear as if Richard was merely having a dream and he awakes from his “nightmare premonition” only to ignore the admonition of the ghosts and prepare for the ensuing battle at Bosworth Field.

“Have mercy, Jesu!–Soft! I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?”

The Lady Anne when attending as a mourner for her husband Henry VIth cries out:

“Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood!
Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost,
To hear the lamentations of Poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughter’d son,
Stabb’d by the selfsame hand that made these wounds!”

For an actor to “play a ghost” must be a challenging experience without making an audience laugh hysterically but generally the theatre was itself so poorly lit that the imagination of the audience was able to immerse itself without too much difficulty. It has been claimed by some academics that William Shakespeare played the part of Hamlet’s Ghost, but how true that is may be the subject of another essay. Horatio is the first to perceive the ghost of Hamlet’s father in full armour wandering along the battlements at nightfall while he is at watch:

“What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!”

An artist’s engraving featuring the Ghost of Hamlet’s father

He appears again for Hamlet:

“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?”

[Ghost beckons Hamlet.]

But Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the ghost for fear of his safety.

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.”

The ghost finally speaks:

“My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.”

And then reveals the reason for his now ghostly appearance and why he died:

“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love”

“O God!”
“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
“Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”

“Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.”

“I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.”

“O my prophetic soul! My uncle!”
“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,–
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!–won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.
But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.”

An artist’s impression of a witch’s sabbath accompanied by dancing

In Act 2, scene 1 of the play “Macbeth” when the servants are dismissed, Macbeth is prey to an apparition of a dagger, whether this is a figment of his own unconscious mind as he prepares to murder King Duncan or something conjured up by Hecate is unclear. But the lack of clarity only heightens the tension and dramatic action. The actor has just to imagine that they are looking at a dagger and the entire audience must believe it without “special effects”.

“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.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.”

A bell rings…

“I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.”

The nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The inclusion of certain sound effects, for example bells, trumpets, flutes, whistles and drums is a dramatic device just as the persistent knocking on the door, which every Catholic recusant feared could be an invitation to the Tower and possibly torture or mutilation. This also features in Macbeth during the porter scene and builds on the tension already established in previous scenes. And Lady Macbeth in the following scene employs the incidental sound of an owl hooting mournfully as a terrifying device:

“That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;
What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.
Hark! Peace!
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it:
The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms
Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg’d
their possets,
That death and nature do contend about them,
Whether they live or die.”

The sound or appearance of an owl (the fatal bell-man) was thought to coincide with someone’s death or misfortune as if warning, mocking or condemning them. The Witches even record the physical sensations they feel: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. There follows the scene where a knocking is heard which is akin to the practice of “knocking” during a séance to summon a spirit, so the play is somehow “charged” with the anxiety often seen during the visitation of a wandering spirit into a “magic circle” and there bound over to do the bidding of a sorcerer. There were occasions in the London theatre when the audience were literally “spooked” by the mechanical devises employed on stage or behind the scenes to the extent that they fled their seats and sought the safety and security of their own homes. In Act 3 scene 2 of the “Tempest” Caliban counsels Stephano:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

Which implies the possibility of clairaudience whereby the inherent “isolated silence” creates the illusion of some strange supernatural music akin to the “Music of the Spheres”. However, Shakespeare was not the only playwright to indulge or play with the supernatural in his plays, Thomas Middleton’s “The Witch” explored the horror and witchcraft fears so predominant in Elizabeth’s and James’ reign. Christopher Marlowe tackled the fears predominant about practitioners of magic who were tempted to “Make a Deal with the Devil” in his own “Dr. Faustus”, although this is done in a somewhat satirical and comic manner in order to deride the belief in magic and the supernatural. For example, the horse which Dr. Faustus sells to the horse-dealer actually vanishes as soon as it plunges into the river. The imaginary line between what was known about as superstitious folklore, magic and necromancy of the 16th century and what was actually believed is somewhat blurred. Largely because what children believe through storytelling and what was true for the adult population was hardly distinguished in theatrical and literary terms. That line remains blurred even for Shakespeare’s plays that indulge playfully with “fairy folk”, elementals, demons and devils in for example “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which I will enlarge upon in due course. Old wives tales told to children are mentioned in the play “Richard IInd” (Act 5, scene1) when he bids his queen:

A scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream

“In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages, long ago betid;…
And send the hearers weeping to their beds.”

On the matter of superstitious beliefs, it was thought that if a woman rejected marriage to man or “marriage to God” (a nunnery) that she would thereafter be sworn to leading apes into Hell’s gate (“Much Ado About Nothing”). Similarly, if a woman owned a cat that it was presumed to be her “familiar” and that she was without doubt a witch. It was also believed certain signs and behaviours of animals would predict the outcome, for example that rats will instinctively abandon a ship which is doomed to shipwreck. The appearance of certain types of birds (augury) would also be a testament or warning of something to come in the future. A crowing cock was assumed to signal the departure or arrival of a certain type of ghost. In Ben Jonson’s “Masque of Queenes” he mentions:

“That witches all confess that nothing is so cross, or baleful to their purpose, as that the cock should crow before they are done”.

The belief in “were-wolves” was also quite common as evidenced by Michael Drayton’s comments:
“By night, with a devout intent,
About the fields religiously they went,
With hollowing charmes the Warwolfe thence to fray,
That them and theirs awaited to betray.”

Shakespeare mentions this superstition in “As You Like It”, (Act 5, scene 2) the “howling of Irish wolves against the Moon”, a belief that the Irish were capable of transforming themselves into wolves around the same time every year. The Basilisk and Cockatrice, although mythical or imaginary creatures, were thought to kill a beholder merely with their gaze as mentioned in “A Winter’s Tale” (Act 1, scene 2) and “Romeo & Juliet” (Act 3, scene 2). One quite remarkable Elizabethan belief was that geese evolved from barnacles and that it was permitted to eat a goose during Lent because they were in effect “sea-food”. In the Tempest Caliban reveals this to be afeard of a metamorphose that they will all be turned into barnacles. However one particular unexplained phenomenon is mentioned, namely St. Elmo’s Fire, a luminous fire observed around the masts of ships and so-called after Erasmus although St. Elmo was the patron saint of seamen. Animal metamorphoses are simply a literary device as in “Romeo & Juliet” when Juliet says: “The lark and loathed toad change eyes” (Act 3, scene 5). A children’s nurse would naturally know all these supposed superstitious beliefs and know how to interpret dreams as well as natural and supernatural omens. In the play “Bartholomew Fair”, the character Littlewit says:

“Good Mother how shall we find a pig, if we do not look about for it?
Will it run off o’ the spit, into our mouths,
Think you as in Lubberland, and cry wee, wee?”

Lubberland is none other than the land of the goblins. Of some import was the magical and supernatural properties of certain plants which I have briefly covered in an article entitled “Shakespeare’s Apothecary” in which the magical properties of Mandrake and other plants are discussed. The elderberry or “Judas Tree” as it was known was presumed to have been used to construct the gallows for Judas Eschariot although it is not known for its thickness or strength, it merely carries a “symbolic signature” with its stinky white flowers and dark berries it seems to conjure up or project an aspect of evil. The dreamy fragrance of asphodel in contrast is mentioned in “Troillus & Cressida”:

“Give me swift transportance to those fields
Where I may wallow in the lily-beds
Proposed for the deserver.”

The Title page from Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” depicting him in a magic circle

Or the magical and invisible properties of fern-spores which are prevalent in the meanderings of Gadshill (Henry IVTh Part One, scne 2), or that of Syrian Rue (from which sack was brewed) mentioned in Hamlet, Act 4, scene 5. Not to mention Rosemary referenced as a herb of remembrance in “Romeo & Juliet”, and the medicinal properties of willow bark mentioned in “Othello” (Act 4, scene 3). Nothing conjures up a greater sense of horror and repulsion of course than creepy insects, slimy frogs and snails and slippery serpents for example in “Richard IIIrd” (Act 1, scene 2):

“Adders, spiders, toads, or any creeping venom’d thing that lives”. Where Richard himself is described as a “poisonous hunch’d back toad” or “bottled spider” or where Edmund in “Cymbeline” is compared to “a most toad-spotted traitor”. However, in Richard IInd we discover the occasional contradistinction (Act 3, scene 2):

“The toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel [the toadstone] in his head”. Or when the spider is described as an expert in weaving or hiding in a drinking vessel and could be “drunk” with impunity if one is not aware of its presence even though “the abhorred ingredient is seen, that violent fits ensue”.

A scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream

Descriptions of the use of charms, talismans or magic sigils are also quite common in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry to the extent that some researchers suggest that “Shakespeare” had more than a “second-hand” experience of the supernatural and the use of magical talismans to protect the wearer or repulse the evil agent of some witch or demonic force. Some elements of the Catholic nobility were frequently associated with “magical practice” and the supernatural, in particular “The Wizard Earl”, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Thus in the play “King Lear” (Act 2, scene 1) Edmund accuses Edgar of “Mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the Moon to stand auspicious mistress”. It was commonly assumed that if a person was infatuated with another that the object of their adoration had laid a “spell”, performed some ritual or devised some “sympathetic magic” to gain power and influence over them. The astrologer Simon Forman accused Emilia Lanier of being an “incuba” or “vampire-witch” and James 1st wrote an entire treatise on “Witchcraft & Demonology” because he was the victim of a witches’ Sabbath when his boat encountered a storm on his return from Denmark. Suffice to say he survived but both the Protestant and Catholic Church were equally responsible for casting out curses for those found guilty of magic or witchcraft with their own “bell, book and candle”. The conspirators of the “Gunpowder Treason” in 1605 for example were ritually dismembered and then thrown onto a bonfire, their heads impaled on a spike and paraded above the city gates. Following on from this gory spectacle the priests and clergy lit bonfires and candles accompanied by sermons condemning them to Hell for all eternity on an annual basis.

Any marks on the body of a man or woman was presumed to indicate some inherent evil disposition and I have already reviewed this superstition in an article entitled “Shakespeare On Deformity”, but worth mentioning that in “Henry VIth, Part 3” (Act 2, scene 2) Queen Margaret emphasises what she describes as “divine judgment” on Richard’s deformity as “But a foul misshapen stigmatic” and that he is “elvish-mark’d, foul-featured like a a changeling” although in the poem Lucrece Shakespeare writes:

“Marks descried in men’s nativity
Are nature’s faults, not their infamy”.
And in Hamlet due to “nature’s livery or fortune’s star”.

The incident whereby a statue suddenly comes to life in “A Winter’s Tale” owes more to “Magical Realism” than it does to any supernatural occurrence but is worth noting particularly for its dramatic effect on stage. Leontes is amazed at the naturalness of the statue carved by Julio Romano that he is tempted to kiss her marbled hand although Paulina warns him:

“Either forbear,
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think–
Which I protest against–I am assisted
By wicked powers.”

However, when music is played the statue miraculously comes to life:

“‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:”

“Hermione comes down
Start not; her actions shall be holy as
You hear my spell is lawful: do not shun her
Until you see her die again; for then
You kill her double. Nay, present your hand:
When she was young you woo’d her; now in age
Is she become the suitor?”

“O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.”

“That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale: but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.”

In the play “King Lear” the Earl of Gloucester refers to the malefic influence of solar and lunar eclipses on the affairs of humankind;

The mythical Black Annis of English folklore

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.”

In “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” more supernatural events take place that owe more to the inherent magical coincidences imbued in our personal fates and destinies than any form of astronomical conjunctions, or human conjuring, the magic occurs because people follow their destiny and act according to their conscience. And Pericles protests against those “invisible forces” set in motion that unravel in some miraculous manner as to convince us that as Hamlet reminds Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Finally, what magical and folkloric motifs can be found in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” a play that is most notably “peppered” with magical transformations, magical elixirs and solemn invocations, and ritual recitations. Much of the magical events take place in a forest environment, a site that is naturally imbued with magic and supernatural occurrences. The play artfully accepts the notion of “fairy folk” and their influence on mortal’s circumstances, in particular Puck or Robin Goodfellow:

“I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
But, room, fairy! here comes Oberon.”

Oberon instructs Puck to use the juice of a certain flower to induce Titania to fall in love with the first person she sees after waking from her sleep:

“Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love”.

But Puck makes an error of who to enchant and of course the person she meets is none other than Bottom who has been miraculously transformed into an ass, although this incident owes much to Apuleius“Golden Ass” as a literary source. Nevertheless, Shakespeare conjures the scene with a “Fairy Song”:

The fairy scene from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Fairies sing…
“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
Philomel, with melody.“

The play closes with Puck’s soliloquy which suggests that actors (“shadows”) are themselves “theatrical conjurors” playing with the human imagination for good or ill.

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”

The Shakespeare academic, C. Clark appears to focus on the historical rather than interpretive nature of Shakespeare’s supernatural plays:

“Studying Shakespeare’s history from the supernatural plays alone, we surmise that he embarked upon life with all the easy optimism of youth (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); that he soon came face to face with obstacles, temptations, and difficulties which sobered his light heartedness;(Hamlet) that, as he battled with all the disillusionment and disappointment which seemed to be the inevitable concomitants of human life he found himself the prey of cynicism and despair(Macbeth) and finally, that he passed through the valley, and came once more to the peace and calm of a new faith and a new confidence in a benign providence (The Tempest)”

While in sonnet #144 Shakespeare seems to suggest that human beings have both a “good and bad angelic spirit” with whom they converse internally:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,