Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth
Witchcraft and the supernatural has been a prevalent theme throughout theatre history, having many plays involving issues of witches, wizards, magic, ghosts, and other mysticisms. The world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, who wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was definitely no stranger to otherworldly premises. The ghost of the old king in Hamlet and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth are central to the plays’ plots, they are a major force in determining the two heroes’ actions, form the plays’ opening scenes, and they are an important element in establishing the plays’ atmosphere.
For both plays, the instances of the supernatural are introduced early in the plays. In Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three “weird sisters” in Act I, scene iii. Though challenged by Banquo at first, the Witches proceed to hail Macbeth, the “Thane of Glamis,” “Thane of Cawdor,” and “king hereafter” (I.iii.46–48). These words that “sound so fair” are pondered by Macbeth, who becomes obsessed with the notion of his kingship. As we all know, this obsession sparked by the Witches’ prophecy consumes Macbeth, and his actions following his meeting with them are all made with the intent of making those prophecies come true. Had it not been for the almost ghost-like Witches to appear, Macbeth might never have pursued the throne, at least in the manner of taking it upon himself. Unlike Hamlet’s Ghost, who merely wants his death avenged, the Witches harbor seemingly unconditional ill intent for Macbeth; therefore, though sharing similarities, the two supernatural beings serve rather different roles in their respective plays.
The very first lines of Hamlet seem to be designed to prepare the audience for the ideas that will develop as the play progresses.
BARNARDO Who’s there?
FRANCISCO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself. (I.i.1-2)
This opening exchange is set upon the gloomy, gothic battlements of the castle as the watchmen stumble through the dark, afraid of meeting the ghost that the audience will discover has already appeared twice before. As an opening image, this immediately introduces an element of the supernatural in order to unnerve the audience and convey the sense of uncertainty that runs throughout the play. As well as this, the dialogue hints at the way in which the dark battlements can be read as a metaphor for the way in which Hamlet is struggling with his own sense of identity, which his father’s ghost later forces him to ‘unfold’ in order to restore a natural order to the usurped throne (Griffiths, 2).
When the ghost of King Hamlet eventually speaks to the Prince, Shakespeare seems to ensure that the feelings of uncertainty are not removed as an audience may expect. Instead, the ambiguity of the ghost’s intent and role within the play are only increased, which is again something that is reflected on stage through Hamlet’s own reactions. Despite the apparition taking his father’s form, Hamlet is cautious of the spirit’s intentions and finds himself unable to act upon his promise to avenge his father due to conflicts with his moral and religious characteristics. Arguably, Shakespeare is exploring the idea of the conflicts between morality and a greater sense of duty, something that is reflected in Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy where he contemplates the difference between life and death as an analogy for taking action or being passive. Campbell and Quinn (288) argue that:
“The soliloquies are the passages that most clearly reveal Hamlet’s struggle on the one hand to obey the Ghost’s sacred injunction and on the other to follow the dictate of his own nature… They relate what is passing through his mind to moral imperatives and religious principles. In the ‘To be or not to be’ speech Hamlet considers the implications of his undertaking the career of an avenger to which he has just dedicated himself.”
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Supernaturalism in Hamlet Supernaturalism is a manifestation of intellectual curiosity. Modernity has prohibited such curiosity with technological inquisition. But while it can be avoided phylogenetically, it cannot be avoided ontogenetically. With modern theatre, this aspect of mythology and the treatment of the supernatural elements, bear a direct inclination towards politics. But this tendency to profess political ideas is not modern but penetrates deep into the ancient world. Shakespeare’s tragedies are flagship plays of all such constitutions.
His treatment of supernaturalism, whether in Julius Caesar or Hamlet, has both the political and personal elements. “Far from being a feudal poet”, observes Wyndham Lewis in The Lion and the Fox,1 “the Shakespeare that ‘Troilus and Cressida’, ‘The Tempest’, or even ‘Cariolanus’ shows us is much more a bolshevik (using this little word popularly) than a figure of conservative romance. ” As a dramatist, Shakespeare was bound to provide entertainment for his audience. But, in Hamlet, his hatred for mere entertainment becomes evident in one of Hamlet’s famous dialogues:
HAMLET. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the pur- pose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others (3. 2. 16-28). This, is what precisely, happens in Hamlet: a play within the play is staged, an extensive decoy, which would reveal the true nature of the king and would be a charge against the rotten state of Denmark. This being established, that a veil works through the subject of the play, where nothing is what it appears to be, we would try to look into the treatment and nature of the supernatural’ elements in the First Act of the play and the role it plays. The supernatural elements in Hamlet have become a risky boomerang from the viewpoint of productions and filmmaking. The risk is much more subjective than technical. 2 The Ghost scene in the play is almost at the precipice of being ‘comic’. “Ghost music”?? eerie, unearthly sounds, accompanied by natural wails of humans, animals, of wind and storm ? sometimes sounding so suddenly it jolts the watchers with alarm, often heralds the Ghost’s appearance. “Stertorous breathing” attended Skinner’s Ghost.
A muffled drum accompanied Wilson Barrett’s. Barrault’s silhouetted, slow-motion ghost, Goldsby observed, “was aided by a muffled drum beat which filled the theatre with the pulsation of the human heart” and a “high frequency sustained pitch as can be heard on short-wave radio. ” Olivier, in his film, also used the heartbeat, and his weird ghost-music was “painstakingly compounded … from superimposed recordings of fifty women shrieking, fifty men groaning, and twelve violinists scraping their bows across the strings on a single screeching note. Olivier wanted a sound “like the lid of hell being opened. ” Later theatres, playing Hamlet to audiences increasingly sceptical of the supernatural, have experimented with techniques for enhancing both the mystery and the menace of the ghostly figure. Most simply it has been rendered invisible: is never seen in any of its scenes by the theatre audience, but only by watchers who create its fearful image with their words and faces. It is certainly a difficult ploy for an actor to play the part of something non-existent or metaphysical.
We cannot possibly know what the first production of 1603 had, whether they employed the capacity of deus ex machina, but the mere appearance of the ghost on the Elizabethan stage was a feast for the audience. In itself the Ghost is a formidable an ominous figure ? the Elizabethans had never seen a theatre one like it. Possibly Barnardo’s pointing finger picked out the Ghost in the Globe, poised in an “above” as if suspended in air. In a Swedish staging in 1942, a ghost seemed to float over the walls: “for the first time on a Stockholm stage the technicians have succeeded in making him a ghost. (Dagens Nyheter) The concept of time, in the play, and its atrocities modifies itself through both the physical and the psychological dimensions. The stage is set for something sinister and is pushed in parallel to the furtive wordplay. Two tough veteran soldiers, and a clever, sceptical scholar, in the bitter cold, blankly appalled and mesmerized, indeed physically distill’d to jelly by a visitation from the dead. But the Ghost is a manifestation of the suggested supernatural in the play. The whole dome of the play seems open to such visits from the super-terrestrial worlds.
If the mere word ‘natural’ is taken in the sense of normality or the general code of behaviour, it defies that definition. “The Ghost will”, observes Marvin Rosenberg in THE MASKS OF HAMLET , “have a name: illusion. As long as it is mute, undefined, gesturing ambiguously, it remains darkly and dangerously unfathomable. An image of death amidst life. ”3 But time and time again, the political, and mythical nature of the Ghost and Hamlet’s supposed madness has been calculated in terms of degree and balance of the opposites. But the sense of political imagery must not override the personal.
Marcellus had told him of the king-like ghost. The Ghost carries a desperate personal need, too, Hamlet being the outlet. It appears as an indication not only of national but cosmic unrest, where the doors of the Earth and Hell are brought face to face yet stumped asunder by intellectual pursuits. The once-sceptical Horatio, haunted by this ghastly entropy of space-time, with unimpeded sophistication, resorts to Plutarchian myth familiar to Elizabethans. The once great Rome, was struck by bizarre omens, a little ere the mightiest Julius fell?
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead Did squeak an gibber in the Roman streets; As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, Disasters in the sun; and the moist star ? (1. 1. 118-121) Horatio makes to the moon ? Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands, Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse (1. 1. 122-123). The word sick defines this sinister movement further into contemplation: a universe ruled by a Rex Tyrannous ? nd this is what happens in Denmark ? And even the like precurse of fear’d events, As harbingers preceding still the fates And prologue to the omen coming on, Have heaven and earth together demonstrated Unto our climatures and countrymen (1. 1. 124 -128). At once, the play is in suspended animation ? two parallel forces of comprehension: the Ghost on one side and Horatio with Marcellus and Barnardo on the other ? lmost rub their back in the pursuit of communication. Horatio asks it several questions. But just at the moment of revelation, with a fine melodramatic twist, the cock crows and the Ghost disappear. This withdrawal is not strange, but reiterates the story of the chosen one. The Sphinx’ riddle can only be answered by Oedipus, Excalibur can only be retrieved by king Arthur (King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table), and Horatio puts it in motion through his speech that makes us look forward into Scene 2:
Break we our watch up, and by my advice Let us impart what we have seen tonight Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life This spirit dumb to us, will speak to him (1. 1. 173-176). But before we look further, we must consider the nature of this Ghost. It is, certainly, not a Holy Ghost. It is much more personal than mythological. Ghosts, in the Elizabethan times, were no more motiveless; they had an important social role to play. It appears with a purpose. To the Elizabethans they were instruments of revenge or prophecy.
The supernatural was only invoked at the point where natural remedies proved inadequate. This inadequacy is the soil of Hamlet. Throughout the play, in dialogues or in soliloquies, Hamlet harps upon the same strings of inadequacy. The Ghost’s armour is symbolic of the fact that a mere appearance is ‘inadequate’. It asks for a place in Hamlet’s memory: Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me. (1. 5. 91). Is it not persuasive enough? There is an instant doubt, whether its darker purpose affects the inner self of Hamlet, which would spring to seek justice with heroic chivalry. Eventually, it doesn’t.
Shakespeare is conscious that it is no more the age of the knights. The Wittenberg scholar in Hamlet reasons action. Chivalry, in this Elizabethan world, is replaced by diplomacy. Our Ghost appears, not with the rage of Caesar’s spirit, but with a pitiful face reverberating the loss of value from human life. Although medieval and sixteenth-century treatises on the supernatural indicate a belief in the ability of both angels and demons to walk the earth and to commune with mortals, angelic visits are barely mentioned and all is the matter of demons. Revenge me, it cries.
It argues that Hamlet would prove dull if he would not stir in revenging him. Denmark is abused because it has been lied to about “my death” (my italics). Whatever Hamlet’s beliefs and behaviour in respect to the Ghost as he concludes his first meeting with it, all must be squared with the Prince’s convictions after the mousetrap scene: “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (3. 2. 280-81). The ghost’s truthfulness does not mean necessarily that the spirit is a messenger from heaven. Shakespeare shows explicit intentions on this point, elsewhere.
Iago who is a villain himself, does not deck rhetoric’s in his comment on his own demonic nature: When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows. (Othello, 2. 3. 345-46) But if Iago cannot be granted as speaking from the demon’s lair, Banquo at least shows what humans may expect from that world: oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of Darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence. Macbeth, 1. 3. 123-26) For all this knowledge of the lower world Shakespeare found ready corroboration in his sources: The diuel sometimes vttereth the truth, that his words may haue the more credit, and that he may the more easily beguile them. He that would vtter euil wares, doth not only set them foorth in words, but doth also so trim and decke them, that they seeme excellent good. 4
So far so good. But the most significant oddness of the ghost is the direction of his disappearance. We expect an angelic substance to exit upwards. Yet it cries from under the stage. To see it in sinister illumination may also explain the commented strangeness of Hamlet’s retorts to his departed father. The terms of Hamlet’s addresses of his father are perhaps cruel, irreverent at best ? boy, truepenny, fellow, Hic et ubique? , old mole, pioner? yet when he has finished extracting the oath from the others, compassion for his father, dead and perhaps damned, overwhelms him: “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit! ” (1. 4. 183).
Unnatural occurrences that accompany the fall or death of kings in Shakespeare’s plays are commonly credited to the great theme of correspondences between the microcosm and the macrocosm which the history of ideas traces from pagan culture to the present. 5 The ghost who prompts Horatio’s observations ushers in a topsy-turvy world. Through usurpation a false king reigns; one from down-under has forced above the legitimate superior, creating an upside-down chain of relations. Through the agency of the ghost ? be it good or evil ? Hamlet is apprised of the serpent “that did sting [his] father’s life” and “wears his crown” (1. . 40-41). Although the false king, too, destroys Hamlet, his death results primarily from the Prince’s submission to the end that God, not Claudius, has charted for him. He recognizes this premonition: The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to se it right. (1. 5. 196-197) His preparation for the doomsday is reflected in his readiness: but until he is ready, Hamlet, in order to survive in the topsy-turvy world, must make adjustments. 6 Among them is Shakespeare’s most trusted device: disguise.
His disguise is negativity of self-expressions, which is rather psychological than physical. This is negating the order of the mind, through his “antic disposition”7 a mask: a rhetoric. “To be” is to be in being; “not to be” is also to be in being. With this stroke of mastery, Shakespeare has placed the ghost in the correct unity and with proper limit to his function. Hamlet is not driven through the alleys of revenge, blindfolded, which would have marred the potentiality of his character. The ghost is there as an explanatory stimulant to his already reproachful mind. If Claudius is a false king, then there should be a true king.
As Dover Wilson demonstrated convincingly, the operative political science in Hamlet is sixteenth-century English monarchical succession. 8 Hamlet is the son of the former king. By law of primogeniture9, the prince is heir to the father’s throne. All begins with Hamlet’s felt but uncertain thought that his uncle has done him wrong: A little more kin, and less than kind. … I am too much in the sun. (1. 2. 65-67) The sheer density of supernaturalism that resorts in Shakespeare’s quill, is apodictic. But as Hamlet proves, supernatural sides with the dramatic modus operandi to utmost precision.
Shakespeare may reflect, in Hamlet’s philosophical mood, something beyond the resistance of the scholar to action, to assassinate, to involve in the words, under the well-portrayed supernatural enterprise. It is a psychic inhibition, fallibilism, despair and suffering that he cannot comprehend. He is torn asunder between his knowledge of perceptual judgement and that of a ghost and its narrative. But all knowledge derives by hypothetical reasoning from knowledge of external facts and previous knowledge. Such is with Hamlet. His mind broods over such knowledge as to philosophise action.
This incessant struggle between reason and action is reflective of Kant’s theory of practical reason. 10 Within the pathologically affected will of the rational Hamlet we find a conflict of maxims with the practical laws cognised by himself. His rational reasoning is overshadowed by the ambition of a duty, which create its own laws and the process of adjustment is hindered thus. The influence of the supernatural on Hamlet’s maxims and hitherto indecisive mind create imperatives of action, unsupported by his emotions, sobered by rational learning. The depth of Supernatural concepts is abysmal.
The elements of psychic and metaphysics, in this play, are too broad to fit into an essay. But having determined the dramatic function and the nature of the treatment in Hamlet, it is time to question it, test its resistances, grasp its openings and its hints, which are never too explicit. The rest is conjecture. Work Cited Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeare, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest”. 1991. Aldus, P. S. Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in “Hamlet”. 1977. Altick, Richard. “Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality. ” Shakespeare Quarterly 5 . (1954): 167-176.
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Supernatural in Hamlet
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