Supernatural Elements in Tragedy
The supernatural plays an important role in the tragic world created by the great masters of tragedies. The ancient Greek masters had admitted a large place to the deus ex machina in their tragic pattern of life. The supernatural figures were made to appear on the stage to resolve the crisis at the end. The prophecies by the oracles and omens and portents give to the Greek tragedies a supernatural effect. As a matter of fact in Greek tragedies, belief in impersonal forces operating in human life reinforces the supernatural effect of the plays.
A far more effective use of the supernatural is found in the romantic tragedies of the Elizabethan age in England. Supernaturalism in the hands of some Elizabethan dramatists is crude and horrible as in the Revenge tragedies of Webster and Tourneur. But Shakespeare makes use of the supernatural in an artistic manner. In Macbeth and Hamlet there is a distinct element of the supernatural which lends a weird enchantment of atmosphere, a certain richness and fullness of content to the play.
The supernatural is either objective or subjective. The ghost in Hamlet is objective because it is seen by all and it sets the action of the play. But Banquo‘s ghost in Macbeth and Cæsar’s ghost appearing before Brutus in Julius Cæsur are subjective; it is the projection of their fevered and oppressed brains. Apart from the ghosts, there are witches in Macbeth, omens and portents in Julius Cæsar. In Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Cæsar ‘charnel-houses and graves send’ those that are buried, and the dead make their impact on the living. Supernatural forces are introduced to reinforce the order-disorder symbolism in the tragedies. Unusual events in the human world have their repercussions on the world of Nature. The murder of Cæsar is an ominous event for Rome and this is reflected in the unnatural behaviour of the natural objects and many supernatural manifestations. The disorder in the state is reflected in the disorder in the universe. This emphasizes the spiritual content of the play.
- Supernaturalism in Riders to the Sea
- Supernatural Elements in Christabel
- Supernatural Machinery in The Rape of the Lock
The witches in Macbeth represent forces of disorder, disintegration and conflict. They are anomalies personified in their combination of grossness and sublimity. hideousness and mystery. They suggest the very spirit of the play. They introduce us to a world where values are reversed. The Macbeth world is a strange one where “good things of day begin to droop and drowse” and “nights! black agents to their preys do rouse.” Wilson Knight very aptly points out that throughout the tragedy runs the suggestion of “life threatening, ill-omened, hideous”. In Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost in mist and cold suggests the rottenness of the State of Denmark. Thus the supernatural elements in these tragedies symbolize the dark forces which are at work in the plays. They heighten the spiritual significance of the tragedies.
The philosophic Hamlet says to the skeptical Horatio : “There are more things in heaven and earth than your philosophy even dreams of.” Shakespeare’s tragic presentation of life is pervaded by a deep sense of mystery and awe. The introduction of the supernatural serves to intensify this sense of mystery and fatalism.
But Shakespeare keeps the function of the supernatural within the limits of dramatic truth and art. Human action is the main focus of the plays. The mysterious forces like the witches in Macbeth have no direct share in the action of the play: they at best influence the souls. They bring out the latent evil in Macbeth. They are demoniac forces operating in the heart of Macbeth. They are projections of the evil that is already in Macbeth. However, they have also dramatic role to play. In no sense can they be said to control human action or regulate man’s future. The ghost in Hamlet is the popular revenge ghost of the revenge tragedy. But Hamlet is not led to immediate action on the injunction of the ghost. The ghost only “gives a confirmation and a distinct form to an inward movement already present” in Hamlet’s mind. His immediate reaction to the revelations by the ghost is significant:
“O my prophetic soul!” So also does the ghost of Caesar to Brutus. They serve to intensify or illuminate some human action and not to determine it”.
Shakespeare’s ghosts have nothing crude or horrible in them. They are charged with psychological as well as spiritual significance. They appear in a setting that is tense and tremulous with gloomy forebodings and their appearance does not shock the dramatic realism. They help create the tragic atmosphere of mystery and gloom.
The supernatural elements are being generally avoided in modern tragedies. The rapid advance of scientific knowledge and rational spirit has destroyed man’s faith in the supernatural forces like ghosts, spirits and fairies. The modern man does not believe in any spiritual relationship between the human world and the supernatural world, nor does he believe in the interference of the supernatural forces in the density of man. Yet, supernatural forces cannot be completely ruled out from tragic vision.
In Synge’s great tragedy, Riders to the Sea, the supernatural in the form of the ruthless power of the sea and through omens and portents play an important part in the tragedy. Even Bernard Shaw, the staunch realist uses omens and supernatural happenings in his tragedy Saint Joan. A kind of fatalism hovers over the play like Ibsen’s Ghosts. Dark and sombre force of Nature brood like a mocking fate on the life of the characters in the tragic novels of Thomas Hardy.