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).
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