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Shakespeare’s plays are often hailed as a window into the reality of what it means to be human, yet they contain many elements of questionable realism, not least of which is the presence of a supernatural realm. Some plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, are deeply rooted in the fanciful. Others, however, have much subtler but still very important references to that which is beyond nature. Astrology, sorcery, and devilry come up with great frequency in some works and are scattered throughout the body of Shakespeare’s texts. Why? The simplest explanation is that familiar mythology resonates with audiences. Everyone in the crowd may be from a different walk of life, but in a single culture superstitions and faerie tales tend to be knowledge held in common. As such, Shakespeare can use supernatural aspects in his stories to both explain the otherness of characters and as analogies for different forms of otherness in his society.
Astrology: Set Apart by the Fate in the Stars
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life…”
--Romeo and Juliet, Prologue, Lines 5-6
In Elizabethan England, it was commonly believed that the stars and planets governed the fates and dispositions of the people below (Papp and Kirkland). Celestial bodies were known to have an impact on the weather and the seasons, and medical men claimed that they influenced the bodily humors, so why would they not determine individual fortunes as well (Papp and Kirkland)? “My zenith doth depend upon/a most auspicious star, whose influence/if now I court not…my fortunes/will ever after droop,” Prospero explains in The Tempest (1.2.211-214). This is a man who can command the winds and the waves, but without the correct starry alignment, he believes his plans will fail.
Elizabethans thought that people born under different constellations or planets had particular dispositions, a belief which has bled over into modern times. In Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby discuss how the stars and their zodiac signs have molded their personalities. “I think, by the excellent constitution of thy leg, it was formed under the star of a galliard,” Sir Toby declares (1.3.96-97), which is to say that he believes his friend was born with an astrological influence that made him a good dancer (Bate and Rasmussen, 654). He goes on to say that, if more proof be needed, they were born under Taurus, a constellation that Sir Toby says governs “legs and thighs” (1.3.100-102). Sir Andrew thought Taurus was “sides and heart” (1.3.101), and according to Bate and Rasmussen, they’re both wrong—Taurus was usually said to affect the neck and throat (655). Their evident confusion aside, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby do apparently believe that their love for parties and dancing can be attributed, at least in part, to stellar origins.
This might seem innocent enough, but when taken too seriously, then as now, astrology can give people a reason to reject their fellow human beings. One would presume that Sir Andrew and Sir Toby’s rival, Malvolio, was not born “under the star of a galliard,” and as such he must be fundamentally different from them and all the more loathsome for it. The human animal is inclined toward group loyalty and distrust of outsiders. Any superstition that suggests a way to identify with some and not with others has the potential to cause division and, in more extreme cases, outright ostracism.
The idea that heavenly orbs governed fate parallels another reason, besides difference of disposition, which makes people form groups and reject individuals who do not fit. One’s social class, especially in the highly stratified Elizabethan society, was a kind of fate. A person was unlikely to escape the role designated them by the omnipotent social machine. Sir Toby uses his higher class as a weapon against Malvolio, a servant who would govern the wily nobleman. “Art thou any more than a steward?” Sir Toby asks (2.3.88). “Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs,” he taunts (2.3.88 and 91), emphasizing that Malvolio is in a sort of bondage, doomed to pick up crumbs the nobles leave behind. Sir Toby doesn’t bring the stars into the conversation, but he easily could. His fate and Malvolio’s are placed in opposition by the heavens, just as Romeo and Juliet’s future together was “star-crossed.” Fate in any form is one more way for humans to shun others. Thus Shakespeare uses astrological determinism as an analogy for class determinism.
Sorcerers and Society
In the early modern period, witchcraft was a given fact of life. There was a very present fear of bewitchment. A sorcerer’s supposed powers ranged the gamut from preventing the butter hardening to controlling the weather (Papp and Kirkland). Slight a witch and she might utter a curse that would plague you for years to come. Those who practiced black magic were reviled both on religious grounds and for the damage they were reputed to do (Papp and Kirkland). A suspected witch was sure to be rejected by the community and could be killed if anyone chose to blame him for a misfortune.
Those accused of practicing black magic tended to be people who were already outside the local social circle—the old, the deformed, the sick, and the impoverished, for example (Papp and Kirkland). It was a common belief that the beautiful were virtuous and the ugly were degenerate, that one’s face showed the truth of one’s nature. The description of Sycorax in The Tempest is quite in line with this theory. Prospero terms her “the foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy/was grown into a hoop” (1.2.304-305). He calls her “hag” (1.2.317), another slur that suggests ugliness and old age. It isn’t clear from Prospero’s story in the second scene whether he ever met Sycorax, but anyone who was banished from her country for “mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible” (1.2.312) couldn’t possibly be pretty.
God would not grant a fair face to someone who was vile at heart, or so the idea went. Thus many innocent people who were made ugly by age, disease, wounds, or malformation could be accused and convicted of magic they’d never attempted (Papp and Kirkland). Why was it so easy to attack such unfortunates? Because they were already outsiders. Their physical appearance caused others to keep them at arm’s length. The concept of face resembling virtue only provided justification for the instinctive disgust with which people regard the unlovely. Sorcery could then be Shakespeare’s metaphor for deformity.
Dark arts were associated not only with physiognomic others, but also with cultural and racial others. Europeans viewed the exoticism of Africans and other dark-skinned peoples with awe and trepidation (Vaughan and Vaughan, 23). That which people fear or misunderstand, they associate with magic. It’s no coincidence that Sycorax came from Algiers (1.2.307-308). By the same logic, Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, concludes that her black husband must have used witchcraft to steal her heart. “If she in chains of magic were not bound…[she wouldn’t have] run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/of such a thing as thou: to fear, not to delight” (Othello, 1.2.78 and 82-84). Brabantio clearly has a low opinion of Othello and his Moorish race. He refers to them as fearful things, not really even human. Of course such savages would recourse to black and Satanic magic. In addition to racism, a lack of understanding about foreign, “heathen” religions made it easy for Elizabethans to believe that witchcraft was an integral part of exotic cultures. Any practice which was unfamiliar looked like, in Brabantio’s words, “arts inhibited and out of warrant” compared to what was acceptable in white, Christian European culture. “[W]e seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country,” Montaigne observed in 1580 (Brian). Through this misconception, the foreign other became the evil, mystical, hellish other—the dreaded black sorcerer.
Elizabethans didn’t think that all sorcerers practiced dark magic, however. Most villages had a “wise woman” or “cunning man” whose trade was using white magic to cancel curses, cure sickness, and bestow blessings (Papp and Kirkland). Shakespeare wasn’t ignorant of this tradition. In Twelfth Night, Fabian jokingly suggests consulting a wise woman to cure Malvolio of his “madness” (3.4.78). The Tempest comments the most widely on white magic, for the main character, Prospero, is a self-styled white witch, although that is debatable. He decries Sycorax for misusing her powers and employs his to free Ariel, the spirit that she spitefully imprisoned (1.2.303-342). Despite using his magic gently, Prospero was rejected by his family and his people and lives on an almost deserted island (1.2.140-203). So even white magic can make one an outcast because it makes a person different from the rest. A sorcerer is fundamentally disparate from the general, non-magical population, and this makes him or her an “other” in the eyes of the rest, regardless of how they feel about his or her activities.
Prospero presents his own theory about why his arts made him an outsider in his own dukedom. “The government I cast upon my brother/and to my state grew stranger, being transported/and rapt in secret studies,” he recounts (1.2.89-91). In other words, he spent too much time with his books and not enough with the affairs of state. His study of magic and “the liberal arts” (1.2.87) consumed Prospero and alienated him from his courtiers. There is a kind of otherness inherent in this which has little to do with magic. Perhaps since the beginning of time, those who have a passion for academic pursuits have been shunned by their more social peers, who cannot understand the obsession that motivates the nerds. Indeed, Prospero may be counted among the nerds of the world for his devotion to learning magic and his preference for study over more socially (and politically) acceptable activities. By his own admission, Prospero is a bibliophile who values his books more than his dukedom (1.2.194-195), though his dukedom is the prize he fights for during the play. Prospero’s sorcery is just another form of nerdery, and like most of the breed Prospero is abandoned by his fellow men. His friends turn against him, his brother usurps him, and in the end he has only his daughter, his sprites, and his art to seek solace in.
The Diabolic: Devils of Every Kind
Elizabethan culture was deeply steeped in Christianity. The Devil was an ever-present enemy who could pounce at any moment. A wealth of superstitions regarding Satan and his demons inhabited their folklore. With the diabolic so entrenched in the common mind and language, it was a ready tool for Shakespeare to use in describing how one person forces otherness onto another.
Religious otherness is a theme in several of Shakespeare’s plays and one which lends itself easily to the use of hellish references. In The Merchant of Venice, Christian characters make great show of calling Shylock the Jew and his kin diabolical names. Enraged by his daughter’s betrayal, Shylock rails that she will be damned for it (3.1.22). “That’s certain, if the devil may be her judge,” Solanio taunts in reply (3.1.23), “the devil” being Shylock who judges her. After enduring this treatment his whole life, Shylock purposefully puts on the fiendish role that has been ascribed to him and determines to do his legally bound violence upon Antonio. “I beseech you,” Bassanio then begs the judge, “to do a great right, do a little wrong,/and curb this cruel devil of his will” (4.1.214 and 216-217). Bassanio uses the same insult again before the scene closes (4.1.291), yet he is clueless to the fact that it is the Christian’s name-calling, among other abuses, which has made a devil of what was once merely a man of a different creed.
The most obvious reason for calling Jewish characters “devil” is that Satan is a vile, villainous being and the Christians of Europe viewed Jews in essentially the same light. They were the killers of Christ, after all, an argument that was as popular as it is illogical. There is also a parallel between the Jews’ rejection of Christ and Lucifer’s rejection of Man. Beyond that, however, is the resemblance between Lucifer’s banishment from heaven and the Christian practice of forcing Jews to live in ghettos and forbidding them from many professions. Whether that parallel makes the Fiend more sympathetic or the Jews more detestable is open to interpretation. What is evident is that linking Jews with Lucifer, the ultimate other in Christian culture, served as a reason to maintain that ostracism in society and as a biblical allusion to draw attention to Jewish otherness in Shakespeare’s text.
Satanic language comes up again when Christians take issue with other Christians in Twelfth Night. “Sometimes, he is a kind of Puritan,” Maria complains of her fellow servant, Malvolio (2.3.107). Puritans were an extreme and numerous faction of English Christians who insisted on strict, sober moral standards. They berated those who took part in what they saw as ungodly recreation: “…some spend the Sabbath day (for the most part) in frequenting of bawdy stage-plays…in piping, dancing, dicing, carding, bowling, tennis-playing; in bear-baiting, c***-fighting, hawking, hunting, and such like…whereby the Lord God is dishonoured” (Stubbes). The Puritans were furthermore a Calvinist sect, which meant they believed that some few, special souls, the elect, were predestined for heaven while the masses were not gifted with salvation (Helm, 8). These beliefs made them seem like holier-than-thou killjoys to other Protestants. Whether or not the uptight, righteous servant Malvolio is actually an espoused Puritan is never made clear, but that he represents Puritan ideals is evident. He rejects drunkenness and partying, foolishness and irreverence. Opposed to him are Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and Maria, who are Christians of a far more liberal, merry nature. Malvolio is outside their circle by virtue of his rigid beliefs, and when they use a dirty trick to make it seem he has lost his mind, it is the outcast Prince of Light whom they blame for his madness.
“La you, an you speak ill of the devil, how he takes it at heart,” Maria exclaims in their playacting (3.4.76). “Get him to say his prayers,” she adds (3.4.91). Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian participate in the show, all pretending to be convinced that Malvolio is possessed by a demon (3.4.65-93). They know that the poor dupe is only taken in by their trick, not by the Devil, but they enjoy toying with the idea that this man who stands so sure upon his religion is the one possessed. They think his perspective on life and Lord is off-base, so they claim that his heretical religion has left his heart open to diabolical invasion. If he wasn’t an outsider before, he certainly is now that hell supposedly resides in his very body.
Supernatural people are “other” from the rest in that they live in a different world. However, someone doesn’t have to be a sorcerer or devil to be pushed outside the inner circle. Those who differ from oneself in personality, appearance, culture, or religion are strangers to one’s tribe. Humans associate with those like themselves and cast aside those who are not. Shakespeare uses the magical and unnatural as a metaphor for other traits that make a person an outsider. Astrological signs represent dissimilar dispositions or classes. Witchcraft stands in for deformity or foreignness. Bedevilment parallels religious differences. In fantastical plotlines like that of The Tempest, supernatural wrongness can be a reason for ostracism, but really Shakespeare uses that which is beyond nature to remind us that insider-outsider dynamics are in fact all too natural for us.