There is a time in history in which literature has been greatly influenced by the popular beliefs of the time. This is during the age of the living Shakespeare, the Renaissance, where practically every type of written word deals with the supernatural. Of the many writers who use such supernatural themes, Shakespeare stands out from them all because of his profound contributions to literature which embody and illustrate the current beliefs of the era. His work helps to free the imagination by introducing the mythological as having the elements and qualities of humans. The supernatural is used abundantly because of popular belief and demand from the people. And these superstitions are not confined to merely the lower class, ignorant, or common folk. Wealthy and better educated Elizabethans also entertain beliefs in the supernatural (Schelling 158).
Shakespeare draws from these superstitions to create a vast number of entertaining works which not only encompass current beliefs, but also inevitably changes how his audience perceives their current superstitions of the supernatural and its mysterious powers. Shakespeare masterfully molds his works while at the same time molding his audience as he aspires to amuse and entertain. Some such entertaining works include, but are not limited to, Hamlet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. These entertaining plays are timeless and within these works alone, Shakespeare manages to include both allusions and actual characters that refer to such supernatural beliefs as the existence of ghosts, witches, and fairies (Campbell 116, 833).
One of the most mysterious superstitions of the supernatural, is the definite belief in apparitions or ghosts. There is no doubt that Elizabethans truly believe in the existence of these spirits for they even have somewhat of a list as to the characteristics of ghosts. These characteristics are embedded within Shakespeare’s writings and are followed to exactness. The first and foremost characteristic is that ghosts are considered evil spirits that impersonate the deceased. This characteristic helps to provide a plot such as in Hamlet where when the father’s ghost first appears, Hamlet does not know whether he is good or evil. Therefore, when the ghost seeks out Hamlet to do his bidding, Hamlet does not know if he should follow the apparition’s bidding. This dilemma begins the plot of the story while intriguing the audience with the theme (Campbell 834).
Shakespeare’s audience helps to distinguish his plays by accepting that they themselves are subservient to the supernatural influences of ghosts. This substantiates the plot and story line and gives no cause for disbelief. The audience is fearful of what they do not know because the Elizabethans accept a world filled with what they perceive as realistic, frightening omens (Elton 147).
Shakespeare weaves these omens and dark threats throughout plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth playing on the audience’s beliefs while at the same time entertaining their imaginations. The viewers understand what the characters are experiencing, because of their limited knowledge of the supernatural, and can sympathize with those characters who are affected by the apparition(s). Another traditionally believed characteristic of ghosts is that they are but shadowy forms that cannot be seen too well when they elect to appear. And because of the other characteristic of an apparition being evil, the audience has a feeling of dread while they try to determine whether the ghost is there for good reason or if it is a damned spirit. This also introduces the belief that because the ghost has appeared, there must be something missing or undone (Garber 129-131).
Even though the context of the Elizabethan plays on the supernatural and magic are varied, there are an abundance of those who truly believe in the supernatural and embrace the occult (Mebane 73). Shakespeare constantly reflects these views, though he may not believe them himself, and incorporates them into his plays. Hamlet, especially, provides the common perception of a ghost. This apparition is seen as a tormented figure who suffers purgatory because of his murder and wife’s adultery. And to reiterate the common beliefs, Hamlet is torn between thinking of the ghost as his father in life and experiencing and seeing the actual disturbing apparition. When ghosts are not actually seen, such as in Macbeth when it involves the imagination of the character, the audience still perceives the effects of the apparition as it seeks to persuade a human to enact revenge. This is due to the widely accepted belief that a ghost does not have its own powers but must use the power of persuasion to exact revenge. Shakespeare uses this perception to develop a sense of doubt and eventually forces a revelation upon the audience (Campbell 833). This pagan element is accepted in its entirety by the audience as a true possibility. The use of ghosts within Shakespeare’s works is both entertaining and believable since its actual conception is derived from society’s beliefs (Schofield 114-141).
Another aspect of the supernatural that Shakespeare utilizes effectively is the use of witches. This belief is the most frightening superstition believed by the Elizabethans. The belief in witches and witchcraft runs rampant during the Renaissance where there is such a strong belief in the existence of witches, that persecution is out of hand. And it is not just the common folk who are swept up in this superstition. King James has a very strong view and belief in the supernatural with specific viewpoints about witches.
Even the appearance of apparitions is directly linked to witches and witchcraft. As with Shakespeare’s plays, James identifies different motives that make people give in to the temptation of these ‘agents of the devil’. One such motive is the desire for revenge, which weakens a man. This weakness in the victims, strongly influences their actions, as with the actions of the characters and responses in Hamlet and Macbeth (Ward 261-262).
Witches are also believed to be old hags who are “thought to be in league with Satan” and who possess strange powers of darkness given by the dark lord. They can inflict terrible things upon regular folk and can cause storms, diseases in animals, self-invisibility, and fly through the air (Campbell 833). Many allusions are made of witches in all of Shakespeare’s works (Wills 35).
The use of witches in Shakespearean plays is a reflection of old society’s beliefs in these evil, supernatural beings who practice spells and evil rites to successfully affect certain characters. In part, society has naturally accepted the portrayal of witches being the cause of many a character’s downfall. Therefore, the language that Shakespeare uses to allude to witches and witchcraft is accepted as a possible fact. Not only does Shakespeare’s plays mirror these beliefs, but they also help to culminate and nurture the current perceptions by using the attributes of witches abundantly. By using witches, Shakespeare is capable of giving evil, and the cause of evil actions, an actual physical form for the audience to focus on (Wills 35-39).
Mysticism and goodness is also used in Shakespeare’s writing in the form of fairies. During the time of Shakespeare, the belief of fairies is persistent and widespread. Although Shakespeare may not believe in these mythological creatures himself, he does believe in using them for dramatic purposes (Mendle 56).
The first one such work used for these purposes, that has profoundly shaped fairies and the imaginations of the audience, is A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This “crown and glory” of the English fairy world has immensely influenced modern literature by being the first work of its kind in a time when society wholeheartedly believes in the existence of these creatures. This creation of fantasy continues to receive open-armed reception because it is good literature from which writers seek to draw inspiration (Nutt 1-3).
In the Renaissance, fairies are believed to be the same as nymphs, identified with the fairy queen. Shakespeare is both influenced by the beliefs in fairies and also influences his audience with his interpretation of fairies written in his works. Shakespeare’s fairies are no longer mortal but are supernatural, although they have no divine attributes. Shakespeare’s fairies frequently exhibit human attributes such as feelings of love, jealousy, hatred, etc. (Mendl 56).
Fairies, however, have not always had the kinder, earthier attributes that they now have. Prior to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, fairies are originally thought to be spirits of another sort. They are thought to resemble more gruesome creatures such as goblins and even elves. It is Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, that has changed audiences’ ideas of fairies forever. Shakespeare eradicates the old beliefs and creates the new fairy himself. Additionally, fairies now dwell in places of fancy instead of horrifying abodes (Schelling 167-171).
Elizabethan fairies, during the Renaissance, dwell in both folklore and literature. This certainly is not contributed to the Catholic church, as primarily thought, but is contributed to Shakespeare. He has removed the threat of the old goblin-like fairy and has replaced it with a mischievous creature that is unharmful to the audience. The new fairies are associated with flowers, moonbeams, and butterflies which helps to attribute to romance. These fairies are very popular due to the fact that they are not actively powerful. They are no longer fearful spirits but are pleasant such as in children’s stories. For the first time, fairies are made consistently good (Latham 176-181).
There has always been a list of what fairies dress like and their habitations. By Shakespeare changing these creatures, he has given them a new look and habitat. They are now small, wear green outfits, and live in fields, gardens, and near little brooks (Ritson 42,46). Another change in fairies is of the perception that they harm children. From the first of being believed that they steal children to harm them, now it is believed that they care for the welfare of children. With the changes that Shakespeare incorporates into his writings, fairies now look after children in a more parental manner. With all these Shakespearean changes, the fairy has become a totally different race (Latham 182-193).
It is quite evident that Shakespeare has had a profound effect on society and literature by providing so many and varied works dealing with the supernatural. He includes all forms of the supernatural in his literature in addition to the many allusions that he makes about current beliefs and superstitions. By incorporating creatures such as ghosts, witches, and fairies, he has effectively molded his audience by changing their perceptions to more readily accept his ideas. But the current beliefs also affected the tone and style of Shakespeare’s writings (Root 122-128).
Had it not been the popular belief that the supernatural exists with these themes, Shakespeare’s writings would not have been the same. Shakespeare consistently weaves the supernatural elements within all his works in both the use of characters and by allusions. He alludes to witches in all that he writes and over and over again writes of apparitions and spirits (Wills 35-36). Likewise, his A Midsummer’s Night Dream, completely involves sprite-like creatures of which he has freshly created. And if there is the thought that Shakespeare does not have any influence on his audience or that he is not influenced by current beliefs, then just start counting all the times that he mentions these different creatures. Shakespeare has thirty-seven mythological allusions in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, twenty-five mythological allusions in Romeo and Juliet, twelve mythological allusions in King Henry IV, Part I, nineteen mythological allusions in Hamlet, eight mythological allusions in Macbeth, and the list can go on and on. Shakespeare’s works are rich in the supernatural and have changed literature forever (Root 122-128).
No one questions the fact that William Shakespeare is a pure genius when it comes to creating immortal characters whose characteristics transcends those of the normal supernatural beings, but most students of literature agree that his uses of the supernatural aren’t merely figments of his creative imagination. Every man, woman, and child is influenced by the age into which they are born and Shakespeare was no exception. Not only does his use of supernatural elements within his works reveal the Elizabethans’ obsession with mythical beliefs, but it also reveals his attitude toward these beliefs at different points of his writing career. Because of the profound understanding of the beliefs of his time, Shakespeare was able to create masterpieces that critics and readers have respected all over the world.
In Shakespeare’s time, the belief in the presence and power of the supernatural touch life at every point. Customs were formed by it and behavior was dictated by it. Not only did the poor believe in it, but all classes of people were under its spell from nobles to the poor. It governed people’s lives down to the smallest details. They carried charms and mascots, found horror in spilling salt and walking under ladders, and dreaded the thirteenth of Friday (May 35-38). They believed that all supernatural elements were at work.
The Elizabethans had always been susceptible to belief in the supernatural. As May notes, these people more that other people questioned matters beyond their vision (39). Shakespeare was clearly influenced by his race. He had an inquiring mind that refused bondage by the limitations of matter (Mish 28). Listing the numberless superstitions that Shakespeare gathered from his environment would be impossible. May believes that it is because his own observations of the habits of animals and plants were explained by stories that were more myth that truth. Elizabethans also gave superstitious explanations for changing weather and season, phase of life, and sickness and death (59-63). As a youth, Shakespeare was susceptible to all kinds of influences around him.
Due to the widespread obsession with the supernatural, Shakespeare was compelled as a writer to adopt the views of the majority. The people who crowed the theaters and paid the money demanded fairies, ghost, and witches, and all the commonly held beliefs regarding them. So Shakespeare packed his works with popular beliefs about the supernatural.
Magic and supernatural beings occur in one-forth of Shakespeare-s comedies, 60% of his plays, and 60% of his tragedies (Hoffman67). Witches appear in Macbeth, a ghost appears in Hamlet, and fairies appear in A Mid-Summer Nights Dream. In addition, magic cures are given in All’s Well, evil curses are chanted in Richard III, and prophecies are told in Julius Caesar. Most of Shakespeare’s works contain some form of the supernatural. Shakespeare, however, was too great of a writer to lower the quality of his work to satisfy the taste of the Elizabethans. Although the court sometimes pressured his into including some form of the supernatural in his plays that had nothing to do with his themes, he rarely allowed Elizabethans’ demands to affect his own conception of how the supernatural should be used.
To understand how far Shakespeare exceeded other writers, a comparison of their supernatural characters is necessary. In other pieces of literature the ghosts, witches, and devils are merely monsters whose purpose is to scare. However, the characters are real in Shakespearean literature, and while they are evil and terrifying, and embody most of the current superstitions, they never fail to be impressive and dramatic. Another point that sets Shakespeare apart from other writers is his refusal to use the supernatural for its own sake and not for the purpose of his plot. The demands of the people convinced lesser writers to introduce a supernatural element that had no connection with the theme. A further point to be noticed in Shakespeare’s skillful handling of the supernatural is the absence of unnecessary appearances. Hoffman observes that Shakespeare never allows it to appear to much and weaken its effect on the audience (99-101). Over all, Shakespeare still handled and portrayed old beliefs but always in the interest of his plot. Because of this, he sets himself above all other writers.
Shakespeare was always ready to accept the beliefs of the Elizabethans. His ready acceptance was also typical of the young Shakespeare’s attitude toward life overall. In his years of optimism, he wrote his early plays. However, Shakespeare’s happy enthusiasm didn’t last. Schiller believes that wen he left Stratford and moved to London, He entered a new environment filled with scholars (49). As he developed as a thinker and a philosopher, he lost his cheerfulness and joy of being alive which are so apparent in his early works. The passage of years replaced it with seriousness and later with pessimism. Shakespeare, however, didn’t end his days in mental gloom. When he retired again to the peace and quietness of Stratford when he had become rich and famous, he then returned to the enthusiasm and hopefulness of his youth (Schiller 49).
Shakespeare’s First important use of the supernatural occurred when he was in his twenties. He was still a young man so he was happy to enjoy the realities of life rather that ask about its meanings (Schiller 200). The form of supernatural used by Shakespeare in Mid-Summer Night’s Dream is the harmless fairies. He doesn’t attach any particular meaning or significance to them, nor does he give them any special powers or control over humans. The fairies mix freely with men and women of the court and, through childish pranks, do nothing more than annoy them. With the desire to entertain in mind, Shakespeare doesn’t use anything heavy (Hoffman 135).
At least six or seven years pass before he writes Hamlet. A profound change has come over his attitude toward the supernatural. No longer does he handle it with the cheerfulness shown in his earlier works. Hamlet reveals that his mind is darkened by doubts and questions. The form of the supernatural he uses is the terrifying ghost. He had used it in Richard III but not until Hamlet did he develop it fully and demonstrated dramatic use of it ( Dameron 87).
The ghost fulfills all the demands of Elizabethan beliefs. In the first pace, it comes at night when it is cold and lonely, it can’t speak unless spoken to, and it comes for a purpose—to revenge his murder. Second, Shakespeare gives the ghost more power over humans than just the fairies’ ability to annoy. It, however, is limited. Th ghost has no power to float into the castle at Elsinor and slay Claudius with his own hands. It must choose the living to help. Even then, it couldn’t insist on his carrying out the task. The ghost could only spur him in the hope that it would be done.
The Ghost in Hamlet is an excellent example of the skill with which Shakespeare had in forming his supernatural characters with Elizabethan beliefs. However, it is more that that. Dameron describes it as a “revelation of the changing and darkening attitude toward the supernatural” and “a heavy tragedy” that foreshadow the gloom of Macbeth (97).
Macbeth is the Shakespearean play in which the supernatural is most largely used. Witches control events and exert an irresistible influence over the characters. They possess most of the powers that Elizabethans believed they possessed including the ability to raise storms and command the winds (Dayan 309). But that’s not all. In Macbeth the supernatural beings exercise greater powers that ever, and they succeed in their purpose to ruin the great and noble Macbeth.
Macbeth also reveals the darkest and most pessimistic phase of Shakespeare’s life. He now seems to believe that terrible influences and temptations surround human beings. At this time, according to Hoffman, Shakespeare was almost overwhelmed by his contemplation of all the sin, pain, and cruelty which seemed to rule human existence. His use of the supernatural is no longer physical; it is moral. It is the ability of evil to destroy the soul (215). Shakespeare reveals his mental state in the lines of Macbeth when the character is approaching defeat:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty place from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Shakespeare v. 2. 19-28).
Macbeth was a work of Shakespeare’s darkest years, when his own attitude toward the supernatural was one of gloominess.
The last of the plays dealing with the supernatural was The Tempest, which reveals Shakespeare’s final attitude, not only toward the supernatural, but also toward life overall. Six years passed since Macbeth and Shakespeare was approaching fifty. He retired from the busy world of London to the peace of his home town, Stratford. He once more returns to the use of fairies, but he uses them to express a new theme—reconciliation with a forgiveness of sins or mistakes (Hoffman 278). Prospero forgives his brother, Antonio for the terrible wrong he has don and no traces of anger or resentment linger. In this final play the supernatural is entirely beneath the control of man. All authority is taken form the spirits in The Tempest and the power to harm is gone. Shakespeare’s state of mind is best expressed at this point when Prospero reveals how man has at last attained dominion over the forces of evil (Schiller 378).
William Shakespeare was a genius. Not only was he able to use the supernatural in his works to the fullest extent of Elizabethan belief, but he was skillful at molding the supernatural into remarkable assets to his plot. However, Elizabethan beliefs weren’t the only influences that shoved their way into the meanings of his plays. His whole outlook on life also played a major part in the way that he shaped the supernatural. Not only does his use of supernatural elements within his works reveal the Elizabethans’ obsession with mythical beliefs, but it also reveals his attitude toward these beliefs at different points of his career. His remarkable handling of the supernatural is on reason why William Shakespeare is generally regarded as the greatest writer of English literature.