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Essay on Order and Superstition in the Tragedies of William Shakespeare

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Order and Superstition in the Tragedies of Shakespeare

The concept of order was an extremely important one to William Shakespeare, and to Elizabethans in general. We in the existentialist atomic age have little trouble conceiving of an individual man or woman as the only beacon of light in a world gone irrevocably and irredeemably mad, but this would be inconceivable to Shakespeare and his audience. Shakespeare staunchly followed the common Elizabethan conception of the universe as deliberately and benevolently patterned and planned; when, for some reason, something happened to temporarily force things out of kilter, individual people might suffer, but the universe would soon right itself and life would go on. This belief in a divine plan also underwrote Shakespeare's usage of portents and omens in such plays as Julius Caesar and Macbeth; because he saw the world as something planned and coherent, it is possible to divine that plan through supernatural sources. But there is little point; to try to force one's will against fate, Shakespeare tells us, will inevitably end in tragedy.

The presence of superstition would seem to be unrelated to this passionate belief in order, but in fact it is inextricable from it. All occult practices, including divination as well as the casting of spells, presuppose a consistent pattern in the universe, where, in the words of Sir James Frazer, "a red stone. . . may be thought to have the property necessary to produce red blood, and when the production of red blood is demanded, the red stone naturally presents itself to the primitive mind as a potential source whence the redness may be borrowed" (Frazer, 170). This kind of metaphoric connection between all kinds of rednesses ...

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..., it signifies a departure from our underlying suppositions about how the world really works; that is what the word "supernatural" means. But in Macbeth and Julius Caesar, such devices actually work to reinforce Shakespeare's perception of the world as an ordered place in which there is a coherent plan -- both because this is what Shakespeare truly believed and because this is what his audience believed as well.

Works Cited:

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. Avenel Books, NY, 1978.

Frazer, Sir James. The New Golden Bough. Mentor Books, NY, 1959.

Jorgenson, Paul. William Shakespeare: The Tragedies. G.K. Hall, Boston, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Nelson Doubleday Edition, Garden City, NY, 2001.

Ferguson, Francis. "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action," from Shakespeare: The Tragedies. Prentice-Hall, NY, 1994.
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