FAIRIES, PORTENTS, AND THE GREAT CHAIN:
PRETERNATURAL PHENOMENA AND ITS MEANING IN THREE SHAKESPEARE PLAYS
The Oxford English Dictionary gives us "preternatural" as having been coined by the great 13th century alchemist and theologian Albertus Magnus, one of whose students, Thomas Aquinas, went on to give us what has become the more contemporary form, "supernatural." The entry for the former term defines it as something "that is out of the ordinary course of nature; beyond, surpassing, or differing from what is natural." Aquinas's word, which has come to be thought of as synonymous with, even a replacement for, what is considered by some its more "arcane" antecedent is, in fact, far more limited in its scope: "That is above nature; belonging to a higher realm or system than that of nature." It is for this reason that I shall avoid using the latter term in this brief discourse, and defer wholly to the former, which is in its essence far more to the purpose in a discussion of the plays The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In addition, I shall be discussing the plays through three successive pairings, drawing distinctions and comparisons between each play and its significant others as relate to some aspect of the preternatural realm.
In any discussion of two Shakespeare plays, the issue of chronology deserves at least a passing nod. In the case of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, knowledge of the chronology of the plays is of paramount importance in understanding the differences in tone, language, and the relationship dynamics between Oberon/Puck and Prospero/Ariel/Caliban. A Midsummer Night's Dream came out roughly 1594-5, The Tempest around 1611-12, some seventeen years later. The development of Shakespeare's imagination, as well as his powers as a playwright and poet, are certainly evident in The Tempest: The language is richer and more convoluted, the tone darker, more brooding, as are the characters (a feature characteristic of Shakespeare's Jacobean phase), and the whole message of revenge transmuted into forgiveness and resignation is a remarkable departure from traditional Senecan motifs. Also, as often seen in the later plays, a particular character or group dynamic seen in an earlier play is updated, expanded, and elaborated upon, in this case that of Oberon and Puck.
In MND, Oberon is proud and imperious, but basically helps the course of true love run smooth in the end with the help of his mischievous imp assistant Puck. In Tempest, this same relationship is found, yet the Oberon character has been refitted as a human being, Prospero, thus making him more complex and problematic, a fairy ruler with a foot in both realms and a whole collection of humours to make him that much more unpredictable, nay undesirable, for in fact it must be said: Prospero is not a very pleasant fellow. As a father he is uncommunicative, aloof; as a master he is despotic. His peevish accusations that Miranda is not listening to him and his treatment of Ariel in I.ii, as well as his disruption of the masque (IV.i.142), are examples of both of these qualities. The Puck character has been expanded as well, broken in two if you will, into the constituent components of Ariel and Caliban. All of the sociopathic tendencies seen in Puck (some of which he himself recounts in MND II.i.42-58) are enlarged and galvanized into harder stuff in the person of Caliban, son of Sycorax and devotee of Setebos. Conversely, Ariel is the obedient sprite (albeit he is a sylph and Puck is closer to a gnome), going about his master's business and affecting the requisite phenomena required by Shakespeare to shape the ends of the other characters, rough hew them how they may.
Another thing which MND and Tempest have in common is the theme of transfiguration. Again the theme is evident in MND and more fully developed in Tempest. In the former, transfiguration is used for more comedic effect e.g. the shifting of emotional states in the lovers and Bottom's becoming a literal ass-head. However this theme is pushed farther, deeper, in the case of the characters in Tempest, as transfigurations of Ariel and the magical Art of Prospero serve to bring about real personal transformation within the persons of Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio. Indeed, Prospero himself undergoes the most profound transformation: At first a scholar of magic, he becomes a seeker of revenge via preternatural devices, but ultimately transcends the use of his Art altogether.
Moving on to our second pairing of plays, let us examine what of the preternatural exists in both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar. In JC, there are no fairies, but there are portents and omens galore, and nowhere more so than in I.iii, as the incidents of the eve of the Ides of March are related to Casius by Casca. What makes these events so disturbing (a slave's flaming hand, nightbirds perched at noon, men of flame, lions roaming the streets) is their perversity, their very preternatural-ness, the fact that they can, in Casca's words, "change from their ordinance,/their natures, and pre-formed faculties,/to monstrous quality" (I.iii.66-8). We read of a similar upheaval in nature in MND in II.i, as Titania recounts the fallout from her separation with Oberon. Here, the contagious fogs, drowned fields, mud-filled nine-men's-morris, frozen roses are all the result of a disruption that has already occurred, rather than some augury of impending doom. However, they both share a common origin in the social imagination of Elizabethan England, the concept commonly known as the great "chain of being."
The chain of being was composed of six major links (God, Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetables, Minerals) with a whole hierarchy existing within each link, a meticulously stratified system of sub-links or "degrees." According to this system, the King is the highest stratum of man, gold the highest mineral, the dolphin the highest fish, the oak the highest tree, the eagle the highest bird, etc., providing a place for everything and everything in its place. The downside? Remove a link, and the chain collapses; strike a link and the whole chain reverberates; and the higher up the link which is affected, the more terrible the consequences for the entire chain. So in MND, when the king and queen of the fairies have a falling-out, the organic world is thrown into chaos; in JC, the plotting of the death of an emperor brings about a veritable cornucopia of natural horrors to herald in the dark deed.
Another dramatic element shared by MND and JC is the presence of preternatural power couples, the former featuring Oberon and Titania, the latter Caesar and Calpurnia. In the case of the latter, it should be admitted that the preternatural aspect is wholly on Calpurnia's side, but her portentous dream of Caesar's statue, "Which like a fountain with an hundred spouts/Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it" (II.ii.77-9) is indeed, as the British say, "spot on," and certainly worth mentioning in this context.
The similarities between Julius Caesar and The Tempest exist wholly on the level of politics, but, as we have seen, for Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans, politics and the preternatural are never that far apart when treachery is afoot. Political treachery is a central theme in both plays, but where the preternatural acts mainly to augur the treachery in JC, it plays a more comprehensive role in resolving the various situations brought about by treachery in Tempest.
As mentioned earlier, Tempest is a much later play for Shakespeare, indeed it is his last, save for Henry VII, and for this reason it features dramatic elements which vary wildly from the conventions of earlier plays such as JC (1599-1600). For example, the subject of betrayal and its concomitant political machinations was forever one of Shakespeare's favorite themes, fueling all of the histories and most of the tragedies, and yet with Tempest, all of the treachery is over before the play begins. Even revenge, another fave, is muted and playful in the end, giving way to the larger moral of Christian forgiveness. Perhaps Shakespeare had tired of so many plots and schemes, had lost patience with Macbeths and Iagos and Casius's, but it is significant that he never lost interest in the preternatural; in the end he came to look upon it as a metaphor for his own creative powers. Who can read Prospero's epilogue without hearing the voice of the author, weary and at the end of his career, giving up his magic for quiet retirement, overthrowing his powers as it were, like Prospero.
The other moral present in both JC and Tempest is that of the need for maintaining the political status quo. Again, this takes us back to the great chain of being, Caesar's murder being the most obvious violation thereof. However, Prospero too is ultimately guilty of such violation, not by direct action, but rather by the lack of it: He lost his kingdom because he failed to rule it. Prospero's initial immersion in his books goes against the natural order of things, in which he is the Duke of Milan, not a scholar, and it is for this reason that he must finally use his Art to transcend his exile, as well as himself, thus allowing him to return to his proper place in the chain. Even though he doesn't relish the thought, he resigns himself in the end to do the right thing and go home to rule Milan. Seen in this way, even Antonio's betrayal can be considered ancillary to Prospero's initial transgression; if he (Prospero) had ruled properly, Antonio would never have had the chance to usurp the throne in the first place.
In closing, it remains to be said only that while the existence of the preternatural in Shakespeare's plays provides what we in the 20th century might consider a quaint dramatic expedient, a colorful, fanciful, booga-booga quality, for the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre-goer of the time, the world of fairies and ghosts and demons and witches was very much a real one, and it pays to bear this in mind when reading and attending the plays. To try and imagine that such things really people one's world, really have a place somewhere in the immense chain of being, is to feel a very vital resonance within that nothing in the gray, bleak, so-called post-modern landscape can ever provide.
Badawi, M.M., Background to Shakespeare, London, MacMillan Education Ltd., 1981.
Boyce, Charles, Shakespeare A to Z, New York, Roundtable Press Inc., 1990.
All act, scene, and line number citations refer to the Arden editions of the various plays discussed in this monograph.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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