Magic Plays

Other than Midsummer, which of Shakespeare’s plays have some element of the magical in them? The Tempest, of course. As You Like It has the goddess Hymen showing up at the end, correct? And then there’s Macbeth‘s witches. Hamlet and Julius Caesar‘s ghosts. The more I think about it, the more there are!
What about The Winter’s Tale? I bring it up because recently I mentioned something about “Hermione pretending to be a statue” and somebody wrote back “I’m glad you’re with me on the whole pretending thing, you don’t want to know how many arguments I’ve had.”
Really? Were we ever expected to believe that this is a statue come back to life? I never thought of it as anything other than a trick of Paulina’s.

16 thoughts on “Magic Plays

  1. I always saw the end of the Winter's Tale being a "trick" of Paulina's. Never considered that it might be taken as actual magic.

  2. You could consider the ghosts in Richard III to be supernatural elements, or Richard's subconsciousness. I prefer the former.

  3. The supernatural appears in all four plays of the first tetralogy: Joan La Pucelle's spirits in Henry VI 1, wizards and an apparition in Henry VI 2, completely accurate curses and prophecies in Henry VI 3, and ghosts in Richard III. Richard himself, who appears in three of the plays, is treated as something of a demi-devil, born with teeth and monstrously deformed in body and soul.

    This is especially fascinating when one compares the extremely skeptical attitude towards the supernatural in the second tetralogy. In Henry IV 1, Glendower's claim of supernatural powers is treated with scorn and ridicule by Hotspur, and no counter-evidence of genuine magic is offered.

  4. Richard III also has Margaret's curse/prophecy. Henry VI part 2 has the whole subplot involving Gloucester's wife and the witches.

    I do wonder how well our notion of "supernatural" maps onto Shakespeare's.

  5. I always thought it was a Paulina/Hermione trick… until I was understudying a production in which the director's interpretation involved magic. *shrugs*

  6. Of course it is a valid argument that Paulina is playing a trick. But, it is also a cynical argument. I have seen many nudge-nudge, wink-wink performances of this play and each time I am left with a bad taste in my mouth.
    Paulina performs a ceremony. She says, in one of the most stark and beautiful lines in the play, to Leontes, "It is required you do awake your faith". The play begins with a crisis of faith and ends with faith rising from the dead. The struggle of faith, which is arguably what The Winter's Tale is about, is rewarded with an actual miracle at the end of the play.
    That is beauty. That is poetry. That is Shakespeare.

  7. Nevile: I don't think the magic is necessarily banished by the non-miraculous interpretation of the statue scene. Part of the power of the scene is, after all, its theatricality. The audience is never under the impression that it is an actual statue. They understand it is the actress who played Hermione. If they haven't read the play however, they can't be sure if the actress represents (within the play's world) a statue, or her character pretending to be a statue. And of course the answer is both. What Paulina performs is not a cheap trick but a celebration of theatrical illusion (which is always in Shakespeare near-aligned to magic). She becomes a playwright-figure within the play, creating the final scene and its happy ending through the magic of theatre.

    So yes, the play does end miraculously. But the miracle is created by the genius of theatre, both Paulina's and Shakespeare's.

  8. Alexi- Again, I think that your viewpoint is a valid one. I just think it lacks the power of a production that embraces the magical transformation that faith can have in all of us. I guess my problem is that in all of the productions I have seen, in which the "trick" is a choice, they carry a heavy amount of nudge and wink that undermine any kind of real stakes.
    I think for the ending to truly work Leontes must find his faith again and that must be shown in some way or other.
    Otherwise, it's a moment about Paulina hiding her friend away for a while until she decides it will be fun to play a trick. To me, that is less plauseable than real magic.
    Yes, theatriacally I get what is happening. But so does the audience without "showing" them that magic isn't real.

  9. I am under the impression that C S Lewis took it at face value, that Hermione really became a statue. Not that C S Lewis is the best literary analyst we've had, but I think that at least puts the idea on the table.

  10. And that deep sleep potion needn't be magical; mere pharmacy can do that. However, whether Shakespeare's audience would have thought of it as magic is a fair question.

    (Sorry for the repeat posting. I keep thinking of something else afterwards.)

  11. Angela, please tell us more about that production.

    Othello says of the handkerchief, "There's magic in the web of it."

    The residents of Windsor spin a tale of the legendary appearances of Herne the Hunter.

    Both th Queen in Cymbelien and the Friar appear to have magic potions that will induce a deep coma.

    These all use the hint of maggic for different purposes…and thye wold certainly have had a greater credibility as magical back in Shakespeare's time.

    Oh, and there's a soothsayer in Antony and Cleo, too.

  12. Should we also consider the soothsayer in Julius Caesar to have preternatural abilities/precognition?

  13. Matt: Julius Caesar definitely has magic, what with all the ghosts, portents, supernatural storms. "Graves have yawned and yielded up their dead…Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds."

    In some ways, Julius Caesar is more like Macbeth than I'd thought before. It's a political thriller, centering around an assassination, shot through with the supernatural, containing magnificent persuasion scenes, and ending in the blood-soaked creation of a new dynasty.

  14. Even if you say the statue in A Winters Tale is not magic, there is still the matter of the oracle’s prophesy which correctly predicts the death of Mamillian and the finding of Perdita (as well as Hermione’s innocence).

  15. I’d say its hard to deny the magical atmosphere surrounding Hermione’s “resurrection.” Also, for what its worth, those last four plays of his, the romances, progressively embrace magic as a central element, culminating in The Tempest of course. If you’re interested check out “A Natural Perspective” by Northrop Frye. It’s the best secondary source I’ve ever read on Shakespeare.

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