Critical Analysis on the Use of Supernatural in Richard III

Published: 2021-07-20 12:35:06
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Category: Fantasy, Witchcraft, Richard Iii

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On a technical level, Richard III is considered a historical play; it relates the events, if dramatized and romanticized, following the War of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor dynasty. However, Shakespeare’s use of supernatural themes and motifs in furthering the plot is somewhat out of character in its use in such a type of play; usually such themes and motifs form an unconscious backdrop from which the author creates depth and is not portrayed as an active force in the play.
This makes the play lean more toward the style of one of his tragedy plays. The use of the supernatural, be it in traditional fairy tales such as Snow White or Jack and the Beanstalk or in the more recent works such as Harry Potter, the Chronicles or Narnia or the Lord of the Rings, is a delicate thing. Magic is the term most would apply to it. Fantasy works are full of it – magic wands, magic shoes, magic rings and even magic lands. It can be defined as a mechanism within a story to bypass the natural laws. Essentially, it is the means of moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Magic must therefore be treated as a natural law as well – because in a fantasy story, it is real and tangible. This requires therefore a framework within which magic (or the supernatural) can be defined and quantified. Take Harry Potter for example; magic is shown to be something like a science – it can be learnt and studied and practiced. In Jack and the Beanstalk and in Snow White as well as in almost all folklore stories, magic is something that is considered inherent to the world; it appears seldom and usually only to those who look for it or want to master it.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R Tolkien took a different approach; in Narnia and the Lord of the Rings magic is rationalized from a Christian point of view by implying that it stems from an omnipotent being (Aslan and Eru Illuvatar) who is comparable to Judeo-Christian God. My point is that, in any story (excluding material primarily gear on buffoonery), supernatural elements are put in a box that we can open and understand, then close and be sure its behaving like it is supposed to.
Moving away from those examples, let us consider in what framework the supernatural is presented in Richard III. The story is shaped inside the same framework held in common belief in Shakespeare’s time. The world is therefore Christian, and “overt” magic and superstition is not considered moral or real. Therefore the primary expression of the supernatural in the play is in prophetic dreams, curses called down from heaven, and if magic is addressed at all, it is termed witchcraft to which a stigma of horror and evil is attached.
However, this worldview is slightly stretched – mostly for poetic reasons – in that it includes elements from Greek mythology (the underworld and the Furies) and from non-religious Christian mythology - demonstrated in the use of ghosts that visit people, hellhounds and such – as well as an element from Celtic and Scandinavian mythos in the form of elves (which were commonly blamed for major and minor mischief, see “elvish-marked”).
Chronologically the first use of the supernatural in furthering the plot and the characterizations is Margaret’s curses. This is done to gently introduce the reader (or viewer) to the type of supernatural themes in Richard III. (Compare this with Macbeth or other plays that immediately begin with heightened supernatural events. ) Margaret’s curses function as a sort of irony to the events of the play. Essentially, her curses foreshadow the fate of the characters later in the play.
Margaret says to Elizabeth, “ Outlives thy glory like my wretched self; long mayest thou live to wail their children’s loss and see another as I see thee now, decked in thy rights as thou art stalled in mine. Die thou neither wife, nor mother nor England’s queen. ” Elizabeth is cursed to lose everything as Margaret lost everything. By the end of the play, the curse fell, and Elizabeth is without husband, child or crown. Hastings, Rivers and Dorset are cursed to die bloodily for their part in Margaret’s sorrow; but the most interesting to the reader is her curse on Richard himself.
Margaret’s curse foreshadows exactly the events of his demise. Observe: “On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace. The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul. Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, and take deep traitors for thy dearest friends. No sleep shall close up that deadly eye, unless it be whilst some tormenting dream affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils. ” Her words mirror Richard’s gnawing conscience and his removal of Buckingham and subsequent betrayal by Stanley.
The most impressive of all is the foreshadowing of his dream before the battle – where all the ghosts of his victims “affrights thee (him) with a hell of ugly devils”. In two cases, a prophetic dream foreshadows the demise of certain characters. The first (and most beautifully and vividly described) is Clarence’s dream of drowning. In the dream, Clarence and Richard are aboard a ship when Richard “stumbles” and knocks Clarence overboard. The drowning is intensely described; Clarence sees “ugly sights of death” and hears “dreadful noise of waters”.
Once underwater (and presumably drowned), Clarence sees in piercing detail “a thousand fearful wrecks, ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon, wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl…Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in those holes where eyes did once inhabit there were crept, as ‘twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems…” Then the scene changes; Clarence is in the underworld (aptly described as the land of eternal night) and is confronted with those he had a hand in killing. The murdered ghosts call the Furies upon him who drag him down to depths of hell.
While we did not actually observed the fate of his soul past his actual murder (by Richard’s henchmen) Clarence is effectively forewarned about his impending death. Stanley had a similar dream of doom when he was killed by a boar, considered a symbol of ferocity and also Richard’s emblem. Fearful and comprehending what the dream meant, he tries to flee from Richard’s grasp and in doing so warns Hastings. Hastings dismisses it as the cobwebs of troubled sleep. Shakespeare alludes to the supernatural again when Hastings’s horse stumbles three times (a number associated with divinity) on his way to the Tower of London and his execution.
Just like black cats and ravens were considered ill omens, when a horse stumbled en route to a certain destination, it was taken as an ill omen. Chronologically after these events, Richard blatantly accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft. Now what must be remembered is that in Shakespeare’s time, being accused of witchcraft was a very real and very serious matter. England was not far past the time of the witch hunts. Thus the perceived threat of black magic was real. This is actually is very interesting plot device. See, in the framework of the story previously discussed, witchcraft and such superstitions were called just that – superstitions.
Bringing in that claim and hammering at it past all reasonability, I think, Richard is actually foreshadowing his own fall from reason to paranoia. The world Richard constructed around him was beginning to fall apart. His own sense of reality was leaving him. Thus it is an excellent way to begin to break the reader’s sense of reality and replace it with a feeling of dread as the play moved more and more away from history to a dark, surreal underworld. Overall, Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural is clear and undisguised, but it represents a subtle force.
The events of the play are moved along, not by spells or incantations, but by the conflict of politics, ambition and morality. Shakespeare utilized it like this because fundamentally he was making a historical piece. Perhaps due to his own taste and perhaps to place the emphasis on storytelling and character development, Shakespeare stayed away from using supernatural elements to affect the natural elements of his story. Supernatural elements are there, but they foreshadow rather than determine. They hint rather than compel. Ultimately, this is a play about the eternal duel between morality and vice.

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