Yan Brailowsky
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Prophecy and the supernatural
Shakespeare’s challenges to performativity
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This chapter questions early modern conceptions of the supernatural from a linguistic perspective: can language produce supernatural effects? How is the supernatural expressed through language? First, it considers the context of early modern theatre in which prophecies were problematic, as church and state tried to avoid the spread of seditious rumours. The evocative power of prophecy resisted these regulatory efforts, and monarchs recognised the close link between prophecies and poetry, attested since antiquity in the figure of the poet-prophet. Then the chapter discusses how the language of prophecy (in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard II or Richard III) could trick audiences into believing in the supernatural power of prophecies, despite the fact that the language used turns out to be non-performative. Instead, prophecies make language ‘stutter’ (a concept borrowed from Gilles Deleuze), rather than advance the plot. Prophecies posit a number of hypothetical futures, questioning our interpretation of historical narratives and supernatural phenomena. By producing the supernatural through language, rather than through characters or special effects, prophecies challenge our interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.

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