Magic and Mythology: Literary tools of Shakespeare

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Magic and a sense of the divine were often used by Shakespeare, though their use and purpose varied. An example of this variation can be seen when comparing The Winter’s Tale with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In The Winter’s Tale, the magical elements are presented more like an illusion, similar to a magician’s trick. And the incidents that are not illusionary are credited to the supernatural, primarily Apollo. Even while Leontes is half-crazed by his own suspicions he still seeks divine confirmation: “For in an act of this importance, ‘twere most piteous to be wild – I have dispatched in post to sacred Delphos, to Apollo’s temple – (2.1.181-183). And to boost the divine element there are several passages which allegedly illustrate supernatural characteristics or acts attributed to the divine. For instance, Cleomenes claims, “But of all, the burst and the ear-deaf’ning voice o’ th’ oracle, kin to Jove’s thunder, so surprised my sense, that I was nothing” – (3.1.9-10). The incidents primarily attributed to divine intervention occur after Leontes claims the oracle’s reply to be false. The death of Mamillius seems but a heartbeat after the false accusation, which is credited to Apollo by Leontes, who quickly begs forgiveness: “Apollo, pardon my great profaneness ‘gainst thine oracle” – (3.2.150). Yet, Paulina then brings word of Hermione’s alleged death as well. And, subsequently, the death of Antigonus and the boat crew are considered byproducts of the supernatural, for they are foretold by Hermione in Antigonus’ dream: “For this ungentle business put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see thy wife Paulina more” – (3.3.33-35). And in the same scene Clown tells his father how he saw both the ship “flap-dragoned” by the sea, and Antigonus killed by a bear. And yet, the most magical-like incident in the play comes by way of Paulina and Hermione’s 16-years of hide’n’seek, and getting the others to believe Hermione is a statue transforming back into the queen in the final act: “Music, awake her: approach; strike all that look upon with marvel; come; I’ll fill your grave up” – (5.3.99-101). This truly goes to show that suspending disbelief applies not only to the audience, but equally to the characters within the play.

By comparison, and unlike The Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream utilizes magic in abundance, and not like a magician’s illusion, but portrayed as actual power within the fantastic characters inhabiting the fairy realm. Thus, it is a substantial part of the theme: a parallel between the real and fantasy, and how both worlds fall into disarray when love is out of balance. However, the characters in the real realm, similar to The Winter’s Tale, portray a strong belief in the supernatural realm, though, for the most part, they cannot see it. We see an example of this when Hermia makes a promise to Lysander: “I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow” – (1.1.169). And confirmation to the reality of these characters follows later in the play. For instance, Oberon confirms the existence of Cupid within his realm when he recalls how Cupid missed a shot and the arrow hit a flower: “It fell upon a little western flower, before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, and the maidens call it love-in-idleness” – (2.1.166-168). Puck, likewise, speaks of Cupid as a living entity within their realm: “Cupid is a knavish lad, thus to make poor females mad” – (3.2.440-441).

The fantasy realm, magical though it might be, and well able to use their powers to manipulate characters in the real realm, still find themselves plagued with problems. When Oberon and Titania show human-like emotions, both love and pride, it creates disharmony in nature: “Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, as in revenge, have sucked up from the sea contagious fog; which, falling in the land, hath every pelting river made so proud that they have overbourne their continents” – (2.1.88-92). This event of nature out of harmony when Oberon and Titania’s love is equally in disarray parallels the upheaval caused to Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius; both through the prideful act of Egeus, and later, the magical mishap of Puck. Subsequently, when love is once more in harmony it appears to heal most ills, as if, and in this play, with the help of magic. Even Bottom, clearly the most ill-used by the fairies, from ass in action to ass in appearance, feels no animosity after being a pawn in their game. In fact, he feels blessed, as if awakening from a wondrous dream: “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of men to say what dream it was” – (4.2.207-209). And yet, he still confirms the ass it made of him: “Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream” – (4.2.209-210). However, dreaming is merely another plot to the play. After all, Shakespeare has Puck recite the following within the closing dialogue: “That you have but slumb’red here, while these visions did appear, and this weak and idle theme, no more yielding than a dream” – (5.1.427-430).

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14 thoughts on “Magic and Mythology: Literary tools of Shakespeare

  1. MC Clark June 5, 2017 / 9:42 pm

    Well, you explained a little bit of Shakespeare to me, JW…I guess there’s hope for me yet. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • jwtatfbc June 5, 2017 / 10:40 pm

      Hope doth abound within thee, Cathy. ‘Tis an honor and a privilege to be of service, he saith with a touch of joviality.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. poeturja June 20, 2017 / 10:56 am

    Wonderful post! Since it is a mere few hours before Midsummer, as I type this, I think I’ll dig out the ol’ Shakespeare book and re-read the play. Great timing!

    Liked by 1 person

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