Magick, Metaphor, and the Supernatural in the Works of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare contributed many phrases to common English, from the famous "To be, or not to be" to "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" to a few lesser known, but still commonly used, phrases in everyday English.
Much of the content and story lines in Shakespeare's works were of a supernatural theme. This lens focuses on a few of these themes, popular phrases, and metaphors that derive from the works of Shakespeare, as well as their meanings in the context of the works in which they were written.
Make sure you read to the end; I have included a link to a copy of Shakespeare's will, among other things.
Who was William Shakespeare?
You would think that his name would need no explaining, but just in case there is someone out there who doesn't know who William Shakespeare is, I will tell you in a nutshell.
William Shakespeare (April 26, 1564 - April 23, 1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's preeminent dramatist. His plays, of which there are 38, have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
While there are any number of things to discuss about William Shakespeare, this lens focuses on quotes from his works that are of a supernatural nature.
Photo of Shakespeare's birthplace. This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Wikipedia Commons using Flickr upload bot on 21:28, 22 April 2008 (UTC) by Snowmanradio (talk). On that date it was licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.
Double, double toil and trouble!
Three Scottish witches are going about their business—tossing poisoned entrails, eye of newt, toe of frog, and such, into a cauldron—while awaiting a visit from the man they said would be king: Macbeth. "Double, double toil and trouble" is part of the refrain to their demonic incantation, an inspiring little number in tetrameter
(four accents per line). The collective memory has clouded somewhat; often, this refrain comes to mind in the jumbled form "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble," which makes even less sense than the original. The witches are actually trying, with their spells, to pile up toil and trouble until they "double"—yielding twice the toil and double the trouble for Macbeth, presumably.
Golden Tree Frog
Eye of newt, and toe of frog
This line, uttered by the three ugly witches in Macbeth as they stir their boiling cauldron, is one of the most familiar phrases associated with traditional witchcraft. It is the infamous recipe for spell-casting, curse-inducing witchery. People believed in witches in Shakespeare's time, and thought of them as powerful practitioners of evil. Yet while these witches in Macbeth did possess the ability to conjure up spirits, they did not really control Macbeth but rather tricked him into acting in certain ways. Having correctly predicted he would be king, they now produce ghosts who allow him to conclude that he will not be killed by anyone. These ghosts have been called into our world by the use of the infamous recipe given above, which continues with "adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg and owlet's wing," and an assortment of other colorful ingredients.
Did you know...
Spells are cast by drawing runes or sigils on an object to give it magical powers, by binding wax or clay poppets of a person to affect him or her magically, by reciting incantations, by performing rituals, by using magical herbs as amulets or potions, and by gazing at mirrors etc. for divination.
Something wicked this way comes
After conjuring up "double, double toil and trouble" the three witches admit a visitor to their cave-King Macbeth of Scotland. "Something wicked this way comes," indeed, and they're delighted. Macbeth-at least, the wicked Macbeth-is in part their own creation. The first time around, they came looking for him, to deliver the enticing prophecy that set off the whole chain of events which has included Macbeth's regicide and subsequent bloody events. Now, Macbeth comes looking for them, and the witches summon apparitions to tell Macbeth exactly what he wants to hear: that he's invulnerable. This news is purposely ambiguous; it is calculated only to make Macbeth act more wickedly before he is finally finished off.
In My Mind's Eye
Hamlet has the most active imagination of all Shakespeare's characters. That he coined the phrase "In my mind's eye" is therefore not surprising-his inner life is vivid, and he surveys it often.
But Hamlet's coinage does come as a surprise to his levelheaded but shaken school chum Horatio. In the first scene of the play, the skeptical Horatio beheld, or thinks he beheld, the ghost of the former king, Hamlet's father. Hamlet's wistful "methinks I see my father" therefore unnerves his friend, whom a producer should probably instruct to whirl about to look for the ghost. Then Horatio, after assenting to Hamlet's idealizing assessment of his father's uniqueness, must break the unsettling news that Hamlet may indeed look upon his "like" again. Hamlet does, two scenes later.
Did you Know...
The phrase "mind's eye" refers to the human ability for visualization, i.e., for the experiencing of visual mental imagery; in other words, one's ability to "see" things with the mind.
Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Anticipating his daughter's wedding to the Prince of Naples, Prospero has staged a short entertainment, with spirits taking the parts of Roman gods. But he abruptly cuts the fun short when he remembers some pressing business. He tries to calm the startled couple by explaining, somewhat off the point, that the "revels" (performance) they've witnessed were simply an illusion, bound sooner or later to melt into "thin air"-a phrase he coins.
Prospero's metaphor applies not just to the pageant he's created on his fictional island, but also to the pageant Shakespeare presents in his Globe Theater-the "great globe itself." Dramatic illusion in turn becomes a metaphor for the "real" world outside the Globe, which is equally fleeting. Towers, palaces, temples, the Globe theater, the Earth-all will crumble and dissolve, leaving not even a wisp of cloud (a "rack") behind. Prospero's "pageant" is the innermost Chinese box: a play within a play (The Tempest) within a play (the so-called "real" world).
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream, and people are the "stuff" dreams are "made on" (built of)-just as characters might be called the "stuff' plays are "built on." "Our little life" is like a brief dream in some divine mind, "rounded with a sleep"-that is, either "surrounded" by sleep or "rounded off" (completed) by sleep. Prospero seems to mean that when we die, we awake from the dream of life into true reality-or at least into a truer dream.
"The stuff of dreams" seems to derive from this passage, but it only superficially resembles Prospero's pronouncement. "The stuff of dreams" as we use it today refers to a scenario one can only fantasize-something devoutly to be wished. Prospero's "stuff" refers to the materials that go into creating an illusion, not to the object of a wish.
Take note that Prospero says "made on," not "made of," despite Humphrey Bogart's famous last line in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon: "The stuff that dreams are made of." (Bogart suggested the line to director John Huston, but neither seems to have brushed up his Shakespeare.) Film buffs may think "made of" is the authentic phrase, but they're only dreaming.
Did you know...
Many cultures practiced dream incubation, with the intention of cultivating dreams that were prophetic or contained messages from the divine.
Horatio, Marcellus, Hamlet, and the Ghost (Artist: Henry Fuseli 1798)
There are More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio
Horatio and Marcellus, though advised against it, barge into Hamlet's conversation with his father's ghost. Hamlet is a little unforthcoming with the news imparted by this spirit, who is still rustling about under the stage. So it's hard to figure what Horatio and Marcellus are being asked to keep quiet, though Hamlet and the burrowing ghost (a "pioner," or miner) insist.
Horatio, a model of rationality, is still having a hard time swallowing the whole business. Ghosts are not the sort of beings his "philosophy" easily takes into account. We know that Horatio is, like Hamlet, a student at the University of Wittenberg, a notable outpost of Protestant humanism. The philosophy he studies there is probably classical-a compound of ethics, logic, and natural science. The emphasis on everyday phenomena pretty much excludes speculation about talking ghosts.
Wittenberg, however, isn't just a place where sober-minded Horatios debate Aristotelian physics. In Christopher Marlowe's play of the late 1580s, Doctor Faustus, it is where the doctor lectures and, on the sideline, fraternizes with demons.
Did you know?
The University of Wittenberg was forced to close by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1813.
Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
This is one time when the popular misquotation-"Something's rotten in Denmark"-is a real improvement on the original. But you ought to be careful around purists, who will also remember that the minor character Marcellus, and not Hamlet, is the one who coins the phrase. There's a reason he says "state of Denmark" rather than just Denmark: the fish is rotting from the head down-all is not well at the top of the political hierarchy.
There have been some hair-raising goings-on outside the castle at Elsinore. As the terrified Horatio and Marcellus look on, the ghost of the recently deceased king appears to Prince Hamlet. The spirit beckons Hamlet offstage, and the frenzied prince follows after, ordering the witnesses to stay put. They quickly decide to tag along anyway-it's not "fit" to obey someone who is in such a desperate state. In this confused exchange, Marcellus's famous non sequitur sustains the foreboding mood of the disjointed and mysterious action. And it reinforces the point and tone of some of Hamlet's earlier remarks-for example, that Denmark is "an unweeded garden" of "things rank and gross in nature" (Act 1, scene 2). When his father's ghost tells him his chilling tale in scene 5, the prince will realize just how rotten things really are in Denmark.
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