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Shakespeare’s challenges to performativity

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.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural

This chapter examines how the supernatural elements in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are constructed from mythical and folkloric sources but reconfigured as contemporary topical allusions. The play thus seems to be a locus for potentially competing influences: borrowing from the past while also writing to the present moment, most likely to excite the interest of his audiences and their yen for gossip or scandal. Shakespeare’s invention of the name ‘Puck’ for the puckle figure of folklore creates opportunities for every member of an audience to see the figure as consonant with their own local knowledge of such a sprite, but also enables the playwright to develop an allusion to George Buck and his competition with John Lyly for the reversion of the Master of Revels. The play thus also positions the censor as its first audience, with the allusion and Puck’s epilogue addressed directly to the Master of Revels at the time, Edmund Tylney, making amends for recent offences by Shakespeare’s company. The forest outside Athens becomes the site for a clash between modes of signification – sources and topicality – anchoring supernatural elements to far more worldly contemporary issues.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural
Supernatural generation and the limits of power in Shakespeare’s Richard III

The importance of successful, legitimate birth and childrearing to the health of early modern society, from the monarch to the lowest orders, created a strong corollary between the processes of generation (procreation, birth, parenting) and social order. Supernatural influence on these processes, whether divine or malignant, raised cultural anxieties about the limits of supernatural power. From the extra-ordinary but still ‘natural’ process of maternal impression, via the specific malignancy of witchcraft or fairy-taking, to the calamitous monstrosity of personal sin or political upheaval, early modern generation was construed as a natural process intimately entwined with and susceptible to outside influence. This chapter explores how Shakespeare constructs the limits of supernatural power on generation in relation to social, legal, medical, and theological norms familiar to an early modern audience, using Richard III as a central example.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural
The various shapes of Marcus Coates

The contemporary artist Marcus Coates is well known for a series of performances in which he imitates non-human animals. The combination of humour and a makeshift aesthetic have become somewhat of a trademark in these so-called ‘becoming animal’ works, as well as in socially engaged performances where the artist uses these ‘becoming’ skills to assume the role of the shaman. Although the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari positioned imitation as an ineffective means of becoming-animal, as has already been well rehearsed, this strategy remains key to Coates’s attempts to understand the world from alternative perspectives – especially those of non-human animals. In stark visual contrast to this body of work, Coates’s monochrome sculptural installations Platonic Spirit: Running Grey Wolf (2012) and All the Grey Animals (2012) comprise formal arrangements of grey prisms in the gallery space. Reminiscent of early minimalist works, they initially appear to be a far cry from the artist’s performances. This chapter examines how human–animal relations are articulated through encounters with these installations, speculating on why the wolf was represented in a stand-alone sculpture and considering these works in the context of Coates’s interest in becoming-animal.

in In the company of wolves

Shakespeare and the supernatural explores the supernatural in Shakespearean drama, taking account of historical contexts and meanings together with contemporary approaches to these aspects in performance on stage, screen and in popular culture. Supernatural elements constitute a significant dimension of Shakespeare’s plays, contributing to their dramatic power and intrigue: ghosts haunt political spaces and psyches; witches foresee the future; fairies meddle with love; natural portents foreshadow events; and a magus conjures a tempest. Although written and performed for early modern audiences, for whom the supernatural was still part of the fabric of everyday life, the plays’ supernatural elements continue to enthral us and maintain their ability to raise questions in contemporary contexts. The collection considers a range of issues through the lens of five key themes: the supernatural and embodiment; haunted spaces; supernatural utterance and haunted texts; magic, music and gender; and present-day transformations. The volume presents an introduction to the field, covering terminology and the porous boundaries between ideas of nature, the preternatural and the supernatural, followed by twelve chapters from an international range of contemporary Shakespeare scholars whose work interrogates the five themes. They provide new insights into the central issues of how Shakespeare constructs the supernatural through language and how supernatural dimensions raise challenges of representation and meaning for critics and creators. Shakespeare and the supernatural will appeal to scholars, dramatists, teachers and students, providing valuable resources for readers interested in Shakespeare or the supernatural in drama, whether from literary, historical, film or performing arts perspectives.

In Shakespeare’s England, ghosts were problematic, associated with Catholic ideas about Purgatory. However, ghosts proved popular on the early modern stage, and in Shakespeare’s plays the throne is a particularly haunted space. In Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth, political leaders encounter ghosts who had held power themselves or who were murdered as part of the brutal process of obtaining political power. Ghosts not only unsettle the boundary between life and death in these plays but also question monarchs’ positions, undermining assumptions of legitimacy. Pursuant to the theory of the king’s two bodies, the spirit of divine kingship passed seamlessly to the next legitimate ruler, but in cases of rupture, where power did not legitimately pass, the spirit of ‘authentic’ monarchy could be left disembodied, thus constituting a spectral presence displaced from the political body. Shakespeare was intensely interested in cases of rupture. This chapter explores the ghosts in these four plays, examining how they haunt political spaces, and resonate with the additional spectre, the second ghost, of the disembodied, legitimate ruler.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural
Transformations and animal selves in contemporary women’s poetry

In her poem ‘What Comes After’, Lorna Crozier’s first-person speaker evades the titular question by transforming herself into her ‘own big dog’ – ‘a big sack of sleep / stinking of me.’ This short poem exemplifies a common trope in contemporary poetry: that of transformation from human to animal as evasion of the self-awareness of being human. This chapter focuses on the transformation poems of Liz Berry and Kim Moore – two younger British poets whose first collections have been recently published – whose poems offer a reading of transformation into the non-human as a release from human social expectations, especially around gendered behaviour and romantic relationships. I argue that Berry’s and Moore’s poems may be seen to operate within an ecofeminist discourse, bringing together the human (woman) and the animal, to trouble a sense of human bodies as autonomous, limited and more-than-animal. I show how these poems seek to break down or push through boundaries between species, and different kinds of communication, finding liberation in the rejection of binarism. Their relationship with the animal is complex and multi-faceted, however, as this chapter will demonstrate, and might raise more questions than they are able to answer.

in In the company of wolves
Transformations of witchcraft in Macbeth discourse

This chapter analyses how the Macbeth narrative first appeared (in terse accounts a few decades after the historical Macbeth’s death in 1057 CE) without any hint of witchcraft; accounts of Duncan’s death – in battle, not in a secret murder – emphasised his weakness as a king. The story gradually acquired witches and their prophecies through the imaginations of early Scottish chroniclers, especially in Hector Boece’s 1527 Historia Gentis Scotorum. After Shakespeare’s masterful representation of the ‘wayward sisters’ in Macbeth, the witches began to multiply in number, sing, and become semi-comic figures in Restoration adaptations (including a parody of them as early as 1674). Whatever their nature originally, the witches are now always connected to prophecy and dream.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural

This chapter examines how contemporary Swedish Gothic relates to the dismantling of the Swedish welfare system, and how the welfare state is described in terms of horror in Lindqvist’s novels Hanteringen av odöda (2005; Handling the Undead 2009) and Rörelsen. Den andra platsen (2015; The Movement. The Other Place), and Mats Strandberg’s novel Hemmet (2017; The Home). These novels explore the failures of the welfare state in different ways. Lindqvist refers to or quotes iconic leaders associated with the welfare state, and Rörelsen deals with the murder of Olof Palme in 1986, describing the political climate at the time of his death. The zombie story Hanteringen av odöda addresses the incapacity of the state to take care of the undead, and the story indicates a connection between the awakening of the dead and climate change, reflecting the ecological anxiety of contemporary society. Strandberg’s Hemmet depicts the consequences of welfare profiteering and is defined as geriatric Gothic. The setting is a haunted nursing home and the story combines supernatural horror and social critique with the fear of old age, but also with the fear of having to put a family member in an institution run by a profit-based company.

in Nordic Gothic
Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg’s teenage witch trilogy

This chapter examines Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg’s Engelsfors trilogy, including the novels Cirkeln (2011; The Circle 2012), Eld (2012; Fire 2013) and Nyckeln (2013; The Key 2015). This trilogy, focusing on Swedish teenage witches, combines supernatural Gothic with critical social realism, and highlights the flaws and failures of the welfare state from a number of teenagers’ points of view. It places the story in a particular Swedish geographical and historical setting, while at the same time employing Gothic themes and motifs that have earlier been used in 1990s’ American films and TV series. The chapter explores the use of multiple focalisation, Gothic plot elements, the place of witchcraft, the school as a Gothic location, doppelgängers and divided selves and the attraction and dangers of the witches’ powers. Despite the elements that it shares with certain American Gothic productions, the trilogy is a distinctly Nordic Gothic production in that it manages to create a plural protagonist and in the ways in which the geographical and gloomy social setting are used to tie the Gothic elements to particular historical contexts.

in Nordic Gothic