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"Supernatural Soliciting" in Shakespeare

H. M. Doak. The Sewanee Review. Vol.15

There are two methods of using the supernatural in literature. It may be used to work out results impossible to natural agencies, or it may be employed simply as a human belief, becoming a motive power and leading to results reached by purely natural means. The first may be fitly called the poetical method and examples of its use may be found in most of the great poets, conspicuously in Tasso, Milton, and Spenser. The second may be justly called the dramatic method. In this Shakespeare stands alone, and it is thus used by him only in the two great dramas of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."

A fair illustration of the poetic method is found in Goethe's "Faust," his great dramatic poem, where Mephistopheles, by supernatural power, turns back the tide of life, makes young again the aging Faust, and fills the new-made man with all the fire and quick-speeding wine of a new life.

If a spiritist medium should tell one that a certain very stable stock would suddenly and greatly fluctuate, and he should act upon that statement, moved neither by knowledge of the market, nor by his own judgment, but solely by superstitious confidence in the spiritistic power and knowledge of the medium, it would afford a fair example of what I have called the dramatic method of using the supernatural. While Shakespeare has also made use of the supernatural as a subtile and mysterious poetical atmosphere, cast like a spell-working autumn haze about his two greatest dramas, yet, viewing it from the purely dramatic standpoint, as a motive force to human action, he has used it precisely and only as in the example just given.

In dealing with this element after the first method, creative genius is chiefly employed in construction of the supernatural machinery. That once wrought, the master may work out what results he will. Having once transcended the bounds of natural life and means, he is limited only by his own taste and judgment. In the use of the second method, the creator works within the realm of the human soul, dealing with desires, thought, will, motive, beliefs and their consequences, working out into action. In the first case, the poet brings the forces of another world to bear upon this world; in the second, he deals strictly with the forces of this world, including man's beliefs respecting another world, without regard to whether such beliefs are true or false.

Shakespeare, in two groups of two plays each, has exhibited marvelous skill in the use of both methods. This is so apparent that one is almost tempted to believe that the dramatist intended a contrast which is so patent.

In "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," while seeming to tread upon the very boundaries of an unknown and unfathomable world, he has really confined himself rigidly to the phenomena of superstitious beliefs working out to solution purely moral and psychological problems. Discounting poetical illusions and waving aside the delicious spell of mystery, there is nothing left in "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" but human beliefs translated into human action. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and in "The Tempest," where he ascends to the heights of almost pure poetry, he gives the imagination full scope in the creation of supernatural agencies and a free, but firm-held rein in driving on to grotesque results impossible to natural agencies.

In "Macbeth" the witches hail the returning warrior as Glamis and the thane of Cawdor and king that shall be. Banquo they hail as father to a line of kings. Of the "two truths" told as "prologue to the swelling act of the imperial theme," Macbeth knows that he is thane of Glamis and the spectator knows, although Macbeth does not, that he is thane of Cawdor. Banquo's wholesome soul, believing with mind as superstitious and ear as credulous as Macbeth's, hears and heeds not. The darkly brooding soul of Macbeth hears, heeds and acts. Through a complicated train of causation, moral, psychological and external, first, his own black desires and dream of murder, and afterward the witch suggestion and the powerful aid of his wife, acting upon a weak nature, culminating in assassination — Macbeth becomes king. Again, the witches tell him that he need not fear till Birnam wood shall come to Dunsinane, nor then until he shall be assailed by one not of woman born. Birnam wood never does come to Dunsinane and he is never assailed by one not of woman born, and yet he perishes miserably. This, briefly and meagrely told, is the sole part of the apparent supernatural in "Macbeth." It plays a far other and more important part as a poetical agency and it serves to suggest the profoundest problems that have ever vexed human philosophy, including the great problem of free-will and fixed fate — two worlds "twixt which life hovers like a star." Considered from a purely dramatic standpoint, it is merely a superstitious belief acting upon a weak, wicked and wdling soul, moving to results. Considered from the poetic standpoint, it enchains, charms and appals the spectator.

It is true that there is a further prophecy by the witches which deserves consideration. They hail Banquo father to a line of kings and actually show that royal line to the anxious Macbeth. If this be taken for actual prophecy, it much be remembered that its part in the drama is still solely the effect it has upon the mind of Macbeth, driving him to seek safety in further wrong-doing, and thus impelling him more swiftly and more surely to ruin. Within the bounds, however, of that little world for which it exists, the drama itself, it is not prophecy, for it is not fulfilled within the limits of the action.

The temptation of Macbeth by the weird sisters is very like the temptation of Eve by the serpent, in Genesis. It is merely suggested to our first parents that they make the delights of the Garden of Eden complete by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The witches only suggest to the soldier, flushed with victory and hurrying home in the hey-day of success, a glittering prize, fitted to round off and complete his glory and power. It is merely, in both cases, a shining bait cast out to free moral agents. There is no supernatural power or constraint in either case.

Two classical instances are identical with the use of this element in "Macbeth." When the people of Eira consulted the oracle as to their fate, they were told that their city would fall when a he-goat drank of the waters of the Neda. In the Messenian dialect the same word means a he-goat and a wild fig tree. When a wild fig tree, growing upon Neda's banks, had grown down until its branches drank of the river's waters, a soothsayer announced the oracle fulfilled. The Spartans attacked and the disheartened inhabitants fell easy prey, not because of any truth in the oracle, but because of their own superstitious beliefs and fears.

When the people of the Messenian town of Ithome appealed to the oracle, they were told that whichever of the contending powers — Messenia or Sparta — should first lay before the shrine of Jove in Ithome a hundred tripods, would be conqueror in the pending strife. For lack of means, the Ithomeans were hindered in preparing such tripods as they deemed a suitable offering. The Spartans, being of a practical turn of mind, hastily prepared a hundred small tripods, stole into Ithome by night, and laid them before Jove's altar. As soon as this was noised abroad in Ithome, the Spartans assaulted and took the town. The Ithomeans yielded to their own superstitious fears, scarcely resisting.

In "Hamlet," the dramatist is at great pains to give his ghost thorough verification. It appears thrice to three persons, and the third time also to Hamlet, to whom it makes ghostly impartment of the manner of his father's death. Equal pains are taken to surround the ghost and its appearance with all that is ordinarily circumstantial to superstitious beliefs and ghostly appearances in popular legend. The ghost walks at midnight, and starts like a guilty thing at cock-crow. The talk of the guard is of old-time ghostly visitations, when the "sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets," and of the superstitions concerning the crowing of cocks all night long near the time of our Saviour's birth. When it appears to the guard upon the post of martial watch, the ghost is fitly clad in soldier's garb. When it appears to Hamlet, and to him alone, in his mother's chamber, it is becomingly clad in night robes — "My father in his habit as he lived !" The stage direction in the quarto is, "Enter ghost in his night-gown."

This thorough verification was meant to enthral the spectator with ghostly environment; but enough of the usual concomitants of superstitious appearances are suggested to preserve it from suspicion of actual supernatural power or knowledge. As in "Macbeth," it was intended that the drama should run its course under a subtile canopy of the weird and mysterious. Thus each is made, not only a rigidly practical drama of human life, motive and action, strictly governed by natural laws of daily force and operation, but each is also invested with a rare poetic charm such as no dramatist save Shakespeare has ever been able to cast about his work, with the single exception of Goethe, in "Faust," in which, however, the purely poetic supernatural element is employed. The poet's warrant for thus surrounding his two great dramas with a subtile atmosphere of the occult, the mysterious, the supernatural, is found in the fact that human life itself is so invested. Man's life is lived out with the physical eye guiding his way through this natural world, and with the mind's eye fixed upon and ever glancing fearfully at the thick-crowding shadows of an unknown world around him.

For all the witnesses that may testify to the appearance of the ghost, the suggestive point is that it is of no importance to any but Hamlet. With the rest, merely some strange apparition, like many strange appearances, accounted for or unaccountable, all thought of it would have faded utterly within a brief time. To Hamlet, already brooding over his father's death, already more than suspecting his uncle, it is revelation. To him it can speak. What is more, to him it can speak truly, because he needs no ghostly messenger to tell him how his father died. His exclamation, "Oh ! my prophetic soul, mine uncle !" is conclusive of his belief in murder. What would have been to Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio the wonder of an hour, to Hamlet imparts the manner of his father's death — nothing more. Wonderful as is the complete investment of the entire drama with a very "Sleepy-Hollow" spell of enchantment, the ghost actually comes from the other world merely to tell Hamlet, that, instead of having been stung by a serpent while sleeping in his orchard, the king was slain by a subtile poison poured into his ear. Place, circumstances, and the agent, Hamlet knew and suspected already. The ghostly disclosure is of the slightest. It is enough for the dramatist's purpose, which was chiefly to invest the drama with a mysterious spell of supernaturalism, also using the superstitious beliefs of Hamlet as dramatic forces creating human action.

Thence on the ghost works only through Hamlet's belief. Even that is not without some mingling of doubt. Hamlet's mind, suspicious and darkly brooding, treading upon the border line between sanity and madness, is not wholly given up to hallucinations. He doubts it may be a foul fiend he has seen. The play within the play, framed and acted before the court, whether like the scene of his father's death or not, is near enough to "catch the conscience of a king." "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound." From the end of the third act on to the end Hamlet is wholly absorbed in the fact of murder and the duty of vengeance, and forgets the ghost entirely.

The ghost appears twice to Hamlet and the second time to him alone. When he is wrought to passion's highest tension in the terrific scene with the queen mother, it comes again for the sole purpose of reminding him of his duty. His mother sees nothing although her attention is especially called to it. It appears as it appeared in the first scene, as a ghost of the mind should appear, clad fitly with time and place. The dramatist's purpose in the second introduction was for its effect upon the spectator, to continue the spell of mystery, for it really plays no other part.

The ghost is introduced, fulfills its part as a motive power conducive to action, and its far larger and subtiler poetical part — comes again merely as a passing reminder to the spectator that it was, and then fades out entirely and is seen no more, heard of no more. While it still mysteriously affects the spectator to the very close of the drama, it has no other or further effect upon Hamlet, or part in the play. Curiously, it is not even mentioned in the two concluding acts, not when Hamlet is alone, when the over-wrought mind would have given out some note of it, if it were still remembered, not even in the friendly communings of Hamlet and Horatio, not even in the suggestive graveyard scene. There is in "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" neither veritable ghost nor witch, but only a semblance of these; there is a subtile working out of results through human belief in such agencies and in their presence and potency.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and in "The Tempest," pitched far above the ordinary dramatic plane, in the realm of almost pure poetry, Shakespeare draws nearer to the method of the great poets, in their purely poetical works, at the same time keeping a carefully drawn dramatic line between his supernatural forces and his unfolding dramatic facts. Where he might have allowed the supernatural to run riot in results impossible to natural agencies, he yet preserved a temperance and a moderation which are remarkable, when we consider the character of his creations and how a man of meaner mould might have been tempted to revel in supernatural results. In "Jerusalem Delivered," in "Paradise Lost," and in the "Faery Queen," we are not shocked as the spectator of a drama would be — and the reader of a novel ought to be — by monstrous creations producing monstrous results. In these two dramas, in which Shakespeare has most wrought with supernatural agencies, he has been considerately careful about the manner of their use. His supernatural agencies are so filmy and insubstantial, or so grotesque, that the spectator almost feels that he has dozed, nodded and dreamed some light airy dream — when Puck has flitted across the stage — when Caliban has crawled into the scene, during some momentary nightmare — when the senses were benumbed by summer drowsiness, leaving the eyes yet open and the brain still conscious.

In "The Tempest" the dramatist weaves a delicious web of magic about a solid tissue of fact. The play opens with a bit of practical navigation no expert can find flaw in. In the next scene Prospero appears in wizard robes with magic wand. Thence on the drama runs its course under the spell of a weird and pervasive charm that fills us with all the delights of dreamland. Prospero raises and lays the storm, calls spirits from the vasty deep, sends his minions to plague Caliban, to lead the shipwrecked mariners hither and thither about the enchanted isle, to bring prince and maid together, to confound treason, to daze and mislead Caliban and his drunken companions, to provide celestial music, serve celestial feasts, summon gods and goddesses, and to call nymphs and naiads to featly dance upon the yellow sands of the shelving shore. Magical events upon a magic island! All magic and mystery! And yet for all the sweet haze of an overhanging spirit of incantation, investing the entire drama, through which we see every event distorted, at bottom lies a firm, well-constructed substratum of dramatic fact, a practical chain of unfolding human life relations, about which all this magic is thinnest gossamer web of mere delightful frill and fringe.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," there is more of magic and less of dramatic fact; in "The Tempest," there is more of dramatic fact and less of magical result. While events shape themselves which Prospero assigns directly to his occult powers, yet there is no event of any great dramatic importance that might not have fallen out in due course of nature. The usurpation of Antonio, the banishment of Prospero and Miranda and their landing upon a desert island, the hymeneal voyage of the king of Naples, the storm, the shipwreck, the escape, the dispersal upon the island, the conspiracies of Antonio and Caliban, the sweet and natural courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the denouement, romantic in themselves, are but ordinary facts of life that might well have run the same course without magical intervention. Although the events are in themselves romantic, how dry and barren they would seem if now divested of all the exquisite poetry of that magic ! Prospero invests the facts with a subtile charm and then blows it away with a breath at the end— into air, into thin air — leaving a solid basis of fact. It is like the making of the ring in "The Ring and the Book:"

He mingles gold With gold's alloy, and duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works;
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh, there's repristination. Just a spirt
O' the proper fiery acid o'er its face
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume,
While self-sufficient now the shape remains.

The train of human motive, desires, purpose, and action has all the time worked itself out just as these might have done in ordinary life. Except as a poetic investiture none of that wondrous supernatural, with its weird creations, from the light, delicate Ariel down to the grotesque and earthy Caliban, is absolutely necessary to the dramatic results sought of natural creations, running from the pure and graceful Miranda down to the swinish Trinculo and Stephano.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the dramatist revels in a wild, poetic debauch, a very midsummer nightmare, beginning m the capital and ending in the capital, leading the bewildered and enchanted spectator, meantime, through wild wood and tangled grove, by moonlit bank, into fairy bower shadowed with lithe vine, rank weeds and lush grass, dewy and fragrant beneath the starlight, to repose upon flowery meads, or in leafy forest, listening to the music of hound and horn. An exuberance of magic about a thin dramatic thread ! From the time we leave the suburbs of Athens with the lovers until we return to Athens with the merry royal hunting and bridal party, we are in an enchanted land, where all is grotesque and distorted, wild and extravagant. Not merely the atmosphere and setting is magical as in "The Tempest," all is spell, charm and incantation. The most essential parts of the meagre plot are worked out by actual supernatural means. When we awake upon the clear morrow of all this enchantment, we rub our eyes and look about us to find it all vanished — Bottom merely an ass without the ass's head, the lovers, who left Athens all at cross purposes, now sweetly congenial and agreed, but no fairy king, queen, nor court, nor sportive Puck anywhere. There is this difference, however, between "A Midsummer Night's Dream " and "The Tempest."

When Prospero had blown off the iridescent bubbles of his magic and drowned his wizard arts with his book, magic robe and staff, the fact-fabric was left just like any ordinary fact-fabric of this world of intermingling men and women. When the spectator wakes upon the morrow after a midsummer night's dream in fairyland, with Oberon, Titania and sportive Puck, where men and women wander exposed to strange metamorphoses, due to the kindly or jealous fancies of the royal fairy, or to the malicious mirth of fun-loving Puck, all in a land of dewy, sweet-smelling flower and shrub, one essential fact — the love of Demetrius and Helena — remains as an effect due solely to supernatural power. In both plays there is an exuberance of fancy and imagination. In both the dramatist leans strongly towards a highly poetical use of the supernatural. The differences between them, with respect to this element, are chiefly differences of degree.
In other plays Shakespeare makes minor use of the supernatural. In two cases the denouement is made to depend upon the prophecy or vision and pregnant disclosures. Even in these the supernatural plays but small part in the drama. Except in the four plays mentioned there is no investing atmosphere of supernaturalism such as is actual in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "The Tempest," and only apparent in "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."

I. In "A Winter's Tale," III, 2, an oracle tells what the spectator already knows, its chief part being its effect upon the mind of Leontes, furnishing also a reason for his sudden conversion after the death of his son.

II. In "Henry VI," Part I, V. 3, the English and the prevailing French view of the demoniac character of Joan's power is indicated by fiends, which appear to her upon the field of battle. Except to enfeeble her powers, they play no part.

III. In "Henry VI," Part II, I, 4, Eleanor, of Gloster, consults witches and dabbles in magic. The incident is brief and plays but little part.

IV. In "Richard III," V., 3, ghosts appear to both Richard and Richmond. In both cases the supernaturalism is merely a convenient stage expedient for representing the dreams of good and bad men upon the eve of battle.

V. In "Henry VIII," IV, 3, Catherine's dream of peace is presented in the form of a vision. This is a mere stage expedient.

VI. In "Cymbeline," V, 4, a vision of gods and mortals appears to Posthumus, and a written tablet is left, upon whose interpretation depends the denouement. While this is otherwise one of the most delightful dramas the master has left us, both the vision and the interpretation are unworthy the great dramatist, apparently a mere clumsy invention to get the play ended. It is pure supernaturalism of the poetic kind.

VII. In "Troilus and Cressida," Cassandra prophesies in II, 2, and in V, 3.

VIII. In "Julius Caesar, IV, 3, the ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus. This is such stage expedient as we have in "Richard III." It is mere personification of the inner thoughts and sentiments.

IX. Diana appears to Pericles, V, 2, and gives him such directions as bring about the denouement.

X. The ghost of Banquo, "blood-boltered," appears to Macbeth. This is mere personification, for stage purposes, of the diseased fancies of Macbeth. It is presentable and is sometimes presented, without the actual appearance, although not best presented so to any modern audience. It differs in no essential way from the dagger soliloquy, which is giving, in words and actions, the assassin's thoughts and feelings upon the threshold of murder. No man ever speaks as Hamlet and Macbeth speak in their two great soliloquies; but the dramatist therein unfolds with fine art their inmost selves.

I know of no other writer who has made such use of man's belief in the supernatural as Shakespeare has done in "Macbeth" and "Hamlet." Bulwer has dealt in it suggestively and effectively, but he was merely dealing with the spiritist problems of the day, rather than using the supernatural for its artistic value after either the poetical or dramatic method; while Shakespeare, strangely, as rigidly practical as he was profoundly poetical, was merely dealing with humanity in another of the many phases he touched in such infinite and picturesque variety. Latter day novels, and especially many of third, fourth and fifth rate — none of first rate — are full of theosophy, spiritism, mesmerism, and especially of hypnotism.

Of all forms of literature, the novel can least tolerate results worked out by other than purely natural means. And yet the novel, the drama not excepted, in the hands of great genius, is best fitted, as a romantic history of human life and human nature in their manifold complexity, for such use of the supernatural as Shakespeare has made in "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."
H. M. Doak.

How to cite this article:
Doak, H. M. "Supernatural Soliciting" in Shakespeare. 1 July, 1907. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 15. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2013. < >.


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