Supernatural elements in Shakespeare's plays
William Shakespeare is regarded to be the most influential and genius playwright in history. With his plays and sonnets incorporated in classroom curriculum worldwide, billions of copies of his works sold around the world, and movie after movie produced in adaptation of his work, the affect Shakespeare had on the literary world is simply unbeatable.
Additionally, his works have been instrumental in opening people’s perceptions of the world to new levels. His presentation of fantastic characters could be attributed to his obsession with all things mystical and mythical, but also to his business savvy. His plays took off and became incredibly popular because he understood the way people thought and stretched to the supernatural during his lifetime.
The Elizabethan period was one filled with magic and wonder, and sometimes terror. Witch trials were held during this period, and a good bit of the superstitions that carried through the Elizabethan period were based around assumptions that surrounded the trials. Pagan influence still shuddered through the “common” folk, and many of the superstitions outlasted the century and still exist today. Shakespeare wisely capitalized on these many superstitions, but also deviated from the demands of the people in that he created a full and diverse range of characters in worlds that the play-goer could envision and identify with.
Focusing on what may be considered his greatest works featuring supernatural forces, this article will explore the themes and influences in the following plays from two very opposite themes and moods:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Hamlet is a play by William Shakespeare telling the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark, where the play is set. Hamlet’s father is killed, and his father’s brother, Claudius, is the murderer. Claudius then marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is haunting the area, and after numerous sightings, Hamlet finally learns that Claudius poured poison in his brother’s ear, killing him. The ghost of his father demands revenge, to which Hamlet agrees. While the only supernatural element in the play, the ghost plays a pivotal role in the underlying story, which leads Hamlet down an emotional road between unwavering belief in the spirit of his father, to doubt, and finally to resolve.
One could argue that the ghost was a metaphor for the memory of Hamlet’s father, and a sign of the effects of loss and depression on Hamlet. One could also argue that the spirits of murder victims cling angrily and spitefully to this world, awaiting their vengeance as a method of releasing them to the afterlife.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
From beginning to end, A Midsummer Night's Dream is filled with supernatural themes. The primary plotline involves Hermia and Lysander, two lovers who have decided to elope to be married, though Hermia's father has chosen a husband for her already. Meanwhile, the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, are out in the forest, quarreling because Titania will not give over her favorite Indian boy.
As the play goes on, the fairies become involved in the love story, as well as creating their own mischief, going so far as to bespell a number of the characters in the play in humorous and endearing ways.
The play ends with all the enchantments being removed from the characters, with one exception - Demetrius, previously in love with Hermia, is still enchanted to be in love with Helena. The two couples are married in a group wedding, and the fairies come to bless the house with prosperity and good luck.
As seen in the two plays above, Shakespeare included a range of supernatural influences in his plays. Some of them are light-hearted, like the love spells from fairies, and others are not so joyful, like the ghost of Hamlet's father.
A skillful wordsmith, Shakespeare played off of the superstitions of his time, weaving epic tales remembered and revered throughout his lifetime and continuing into modern day. Even in modern times these plays are identified with, beloved and watched time and time again by millions of people.