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 -- in other words, things that the modern mind would consider totally unrelated -- underlies the existence of superstition. For example, we consider it bad luck to break a mirror because it shatters our own image, in other words, it destroys ourselves. By believing in this superstition, we are accepting the presence of an underlying pattern in the universe that allows what happens to one component to happen to the other.
Caesar and Macbeth are not, of course, the only two of Shakespeare's plays to feature the occult, but they are the first in which he experiments with what Paul Jorgenson calls "the fullest terms of the supernatural, with prophesies, omens, and what Thomas Nashe called . . . 'the terrors of the night'": (Jorgenson, 38). They are the two tragedies in which the veil between the natural and the supernatural worlds seems the thinnest; they are also the ones in which we most clearly see the mechanics of what made up Shakespeare's sense of order. For example, in Julius Caesar, the Roman Republic was wobbling, on the brink of slipping off its track; there was considerable public adulation of Caesar, and an equally considerable concern on the part of the tribunes as to what would happen if the...