Magic and Mythology: Literary tools of Shakespeare



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).


Shakespeare: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”


[A response paper on a writer’s strategy using a single topic; something Shakespeare was an expert at.]



Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in

Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,

Like to a stepdame, or a dowager,

Long withering out a young man’s revenue.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1.1-6


Skakespeare squeezes numerous definitions out of the moon in the first two acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the above passage Theseus attributes a personality to the moon, and the alleged personality is blamed for dragging out the time until he and Hippolyta can marry: “She lingers my desires.” Hippolyta responds with her own use of the moon, but she insinuates how it will be a celestial ornament to their marriage celebration: “And then the moon, like to a silver bow new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities” – (1.1.9-10). Later, when Egeus accuses Lysander before Theseus, he claims he serenaded Hermia by moonlight: “Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung, with feigning voice, verses of feigning love” – (1.1.30-31). And when Theseus discusses Egeus’ claim with Hermia, he again mentions the moon. However, he is now using it to represent a period of time: “Take time to pause; and, by the next moon” – (1.1.83). And there are five more times within the first two acts where moon or moonlight are used. Quince tells the actors in the play that they will rehearse “by moonlight” – (1.2.98-104). Fairy claims, “I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moon’s sphere” – (2.1.6-7), a reference to an antiquated belief about the moon’s orbit in a hollow sphere around Earth. Oberon proclaims, “Ill met by moonlight” —  (2.1.60), when running into Titania: as if it is a waste of  romantic moonlight for them to meet while quarreling. And Titania later mentions “moonlight revels” – (2.1.139-142), in her talk with Oberon, when she suggests a way for them to come together after Theseus’ wedding, or she’ll continue to shun him. And, finally, Oberon tells of seeing Cupid’s arrow “in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon” – (2.1.161-162), when discussing how the flower known as love-in-idleness was transformed.

I found it interesting to see the various uses Shakespeare found for a singular topic. And the above definitions and uses are merely from the first two acts. And even though the meanings are different the multiple uses add a sense of continuity to the piece. It’s an excellent writer’s strategy to tie the piece together.

Hamlet: A Meaningful Madness

[ * It’s been many years since I first saw Hamlet, but I went and saw a local performance the other night and comments I overheard got me to thinking that I differ from the viewers who believe Hamlet was really mad. And here are my reasons. ]


There are many who believe Hamlet is genuinely mad throughout most of the play. Likewise, there are many who believe Hamlet begins by acting crazy, and then slowly descends into madness as events progress. Thus, I appear to be in the minority, since I don’t believe Hamlet ever loses his mental faculties. It is true that he gets emotional at certain times, but getting emotional and going bonkers are two different things.

I hold to my belief on this issue because of the following: at no time from the beginning of the play until the crazy antics of Hamlet begin does Hamlet show any inclination or weakness to warrant a belief in the alleged madness. Quite the contrary; when Gertrude asks Hamlet why he seems to take a particular stance to something as common as death (pertaining to the alleged long mourning period over his father); Hamlet admits his special inclination toward the particular over common. And Hamlet claims it with a very telling line: “These indeed seem, for they are actions that a man might play, but I have that within which passes show; these but the trappings and the suits of woe” – (1.2.83-86). In other words, prior to Hamlet seeing the ghost of his father, his mindset already dwells on how emotions or true motives can be hidden with pretend actions. And after the King and Queen exit Hamlet laments the situation, and shows his anger over how quickly his mother jumped into his uncle’s bed. Yet, we again see Hamlet’s tendency to hide his true emotions: “It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” – (1.2.157-158). This same mindset is shown when Hamlet is made aware of the ghost by Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo, urging them to remain silent: “I pray you all, if you have hitherto concealed this sight, let it be tenable in your silence still” – (1.2.246-248). And immediately following the conversation with his father’s spirit Hamlet again swears them to secrecy. He also warns them not to be alarmed or give it away when they see him acting strange: “how strange or odd some’er I bear myself (As I per chance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)” – (1.5.170-172).

Additionally, Hamlet’s character is clearly closer to his dead father (who is portrayed as a competent king, leader, and husband), not like his weaker uncle. That inherited strength, plus years of parental teaching, along with his new found singleness of purpose, and the multi-shown mindset of camouflaging his true motives leads me to conclude Hamlet never lost touch with reality. And since there is not a single dialogue or weak character trait attributed to Hamlet prior to the antics beginning, I see no reason to think Shakespeare had any such intent during the writing.