Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Supernatural Shakespeare

How do you make fairytales into realism? Everyone agrees that doing this work means supplying them with material forms. This is not, however, a novelist’s novelty. Shakespeare’s fairies are small plant flowers and seeds, and his monster knows how to dig pignuts. His witch likes chestnuts, and his ghosts rise out of real graves. The writer’s problem is how to make the fantastic seem real. But there is more to it than that. If Titania’s ‘small elves’ need coats, then they – and we – walk a shivery line between real and imaginary. If they need coats, are they as real as we are? Are we as fantastical as they? Not merely a collage of real thrown at a concept, but writing, itself.

Most of Shakespeare’s supernatural are the dead. This is delicately signed; when someone delivers a big explanation, it’s usually wrong. Fairies, for example; they follow darkness like a dream. Midnight is their time, just as it is the ghost’s time – and let’s recall that the ghost, too, is ‘goblin’, as Puck is ‘hobgoblin’. Yet, we are not meant to think any the worse of them for that. By and large, ghosts are more morally authoritative than the living, or think they are. Despite threats, they do not do the kind of harm that the living have done to them. And yet even the innocent regard them with ‘fear and wonder’; they ‘harrow’, break open, tear apart. This is a violently framed version of what the fairies do too. Not only does their magic expose the arbitrary emptiness of mortal hearts; their tricks – literally – drag support away from the old, while their quarrels leave a land as devastated as the heath on which the Weird Sisters stand.

“Prospero and Ariel” by William Hamilton. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That devastated land was all too real. By the time Shakespeare was writing, the second phase of the Little Ice Age had struck farming a savage blow. The fold did stand empty and the crops did rot in the fields, and human beings, bellies shrunken with hunger, could feel the icy and sodden air rage against them, could feel the fog heavy in their lungs. Shakespeare’s last and most ambivalent supernatural creation, the air sprite Ariel, can bring this gravid air to birth with a storm that makes ships split and men drown. The Weird Sisters are also conjurers of storms. The first witch, possessing herself of words lent her by others, can make a ship stand still in storm for long enough to make its master ‘peak and pine’, and Macbeth knows that they can “untie the winds and let them fight/ Against the churches….” Trees and castles, and above all the ‘bladed corn’, can be laid low by powers like these, powers that can be summoned by a magician, but which belong to others.

While there are plenty of dramatists and poets writing about the supernatural in Shakespeare’s time, his own half-amused and half-fascinated response is unique. For Ben Jonson, alchemy and fairies are sheer nonsense; for Dekker, Ford, and Rowley, witches are a sad response to popular stupidity and greed. For such writers, ‘the supernatural’ is part of a Popish past they hope to discard. For Shakespeare, ‘the supernatural’ is part of a vanishing past he wants to retain. His attitude is much closer to that of the great antiquarians John Aubrey and Anthony Wood. He arrived at this acute sense of what was being lost by reading Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, printed in 1582. While most people knew Scot’s work as a searingly sceptical denunciation of popular ignorance, it is also well understood that cunning folk later used Scot’s trove of incantations and practices to ply their trade. Himself cunning in his power to comprehend human rage and longing, Shakespeare may have gone before them in seeing Scot as a compendium of the wildness of folklore, replete with the words he loved. The rich texture of passages like this one, from Book XV: ‘Kit-with-the-canstick, tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, imps, Colcars, conjurers, nymphs, changelings, incubus, Robin Goodfellow, the spoorn, the mare, the man in the oak, the hell-wain, the Fire-drake, the puckle, Tom Thumb, hobgoblin, Tom-tumbler, Boneless, and such other bugs’, is a mixture of the names Shakespeare himself knew, names from classical mythology tumbled about with Irish and English, in a mishmash that is in no way syncretist; each keeps his or her own true form.

For the playwright, though, Robin Goodfellow had to be more than a name, more even than two names (the Puck[le], Robin), or three names (‘hob-goblin’), or more names, names like Oberon, or Auberon, a name from a medieval romance of the Crusades that had more recently featured in magicians’ lists of ‘spirits’ who could be summoned to do the bidding of the one who called him. Such ‘spirits’ were most often either (fallen) angels, or the dead. Or there are the names like Titania, familiar enough now, but once an obscure cognomen of the goddess Diana, the goddess whom medieval women believed led them on wild flights through the night. When Shakespeare’s Titania speaks of the changeling boy as the child of ‘a votaress of my order’, she may have such night flights in mind. And there may be still darker forces at work. In Shakespeare’s time, a changeling was usually understood as the fairy baby left behind with the mother after the human child had been carried off. Titania says nothing of this in her story, where the child’s mother dies ‘of that boy’, i.e. in childbirth, but such deaths in childbirth accompanied by the death of the child were frequently read as signs that the queen of the fairies had ‘taken’ both to be her votaries. By giving the queen a more obviously ‘low’ minion in the form of the ass-headed actor and mechanical Bottom, Oberon and Puck expose the dark bodily and sexual longings that underlie the fairy queen’s dealings with the dead.

While there are plenty of dramatists and poets writing about the supernatural in Shakespeare’s time, his own half-amused and half-fascinated response is unique.

And yet it is not in this play, but in two of the tragedies, that Shakespeare’s fascination with these active and restless kinds of dead finds full expression. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio tries to ward off Romeo’s faith in omens with a speech about their comically incredible cause – that is, Queen Mab, the fairies’ midwife, when everyone knows fairies don’t have midwives and must invite visitors from the human realms to help them… unless fairy babies are the nightmares born in the heads of the mortals across whose faces she gallops? But how can we not believe in her when we know all about how her equipage is made of spiders’ legs and the moonshine’s watery beams? Troublingly insect-like, Mab is creepily believable and quite incredible, awakening the sexuality of sleeping girls to her own improbable bodiliness. She hovers gauzily between incredible and plausible.

The other fairy reference comes in Hamlet. Stopping the action dead for rumination, on the ghost they have just seen, Shakespeare gives ones beautiful speech to Marcellus:

Then [at Christmas], they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Shakespeare’s plays, however, happen outside such graciousness, both figuratively and literally, since all theatres were closed for Christmas. Experience of a temporarily racked by wind and hail, and haunted by the unseen ‘following darkness like a dream’, leads Horatio to conclude ‘so I have heard, and do in part believe it.’ He speaks for Shakespeare too.

Featured image credit: Hamlet Meets the Ghost. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Joella Werlin

    This takes my breath away! Yet another glimpse into Shakespeare’s genius. To find magical thinking on my computer screen leaves me wondering if fairies lurk in bits and bytes, zeroes and Xs? (I also loved seeing the ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’ exhibit at the Bodleian. Readers in England, don’t miss it!) Thank you!

  2. Dianne Purkiss offers us a fascinating blog on a relatively neglected topic in Shakespeare. She tells us that “Titania” was one of Diana’s names. She mentions Ariel, and alludes to Caliban (“his monster knows how to dig pignuts”).

    She will be interested to know that someone has discovered the origin of the names of those two supernatural characters in The Tempest. Richard Paul Roe, in his excellent 2011 book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, identifies the island where the play unfolds as Vulcano, near Sicily. It is exactly on the route that King Alonso’s ship would have taken on their way back to Naples from his daughter’s marriage in Tunis Vulcano is mentioned in Virgil, since it was also on Aeneas’s route from Carthage to Italy.

    That area of Italy was once under Catalan control, so Catalan was the language of Vulcano until 1609. In Catalan, Caliban, fittingly, meant “outcast.” Equally fittingly, Ariel meant “a mischievous air or water spirit.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *