“What’s Past is Prologue”: Shakespeare, the Supernatural and Political Imagination

Miranda Peery is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Brandeis and a BOLLI Lecturer. This essay is based on Miranda’s experience preparing for and then, in the Spring of 2022, teaching “Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses: Magic and Monarchy in Henry VI, Part 1 and Richard III at BOLLI.

How far have we really come from the days of witchcraft trials, supernatural authorization for political influence or rulers wielding claims of magic against the people over which they preside? Consider the historical document the Titulus Regius, in which King Richard III of England and his parliament use faith, and contemporary religious beliefs to deauthorize his brother Edward’s heirs, thereby making Richard the next in line to be king. While the particular charge is witchcraft, the underlying message is religious authorization to rule – and its efficacy is well documented. This, and other questions around the connection of the supernatural to political tactics, were the subject of much discussion in the study group I led at BOLLI in the Spring of 2022. 

This five-week study group, called “Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses: Magic and Monarchy in Henry VI, Part 1 and Richard III,” was envisioned as a two-fold project: first, it would serve as an entry into the extremely complicated and fraught history of the Wars of the Roses through Shakespeare’s exciting dramatizations of the root causes. Second, it would give us the chance to take a fresh look at one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays (Henry VI, Part 1) which would, in turn, help us to see one of his most popular plays (Richard III) with fresh eyes. I hoped that by the end of the course, participants would be able to see these plays with much more context. By leveraging their newfound understanding of the Wars of the Roses (for instance: the cynical way that many people of the time viewed these conflicts) and the struggles for power that were taking place among the English aristocracy at the time, they would be able to see the inside jokes and subtexts that underlie Shakespeare’s attempts at historical writing. In other words, I wanted them to read these plays like an Elizabethan would have, and to be able to understand that responding to Shakespeare as a 21st century person versus a 16th century person are two very different approaches to studying Shakespeare. 

My original questions for the study group were very broad: How do plays write history; what effect have Shakespeare’s histories particularly had on how that history is viewed; and of secondary interest (or so I thought) what role does magic play in these dynamics? Why exactly do these two plays invoke the supernatural on behalf of a monarch’s legitimacy? Since these were too vague, I re-oriented myself, instead asking why I cared about these questions—what was the heart of what I wanted to understand? I decided it came down to three main inflection points: first, authority & legitimacy – why are some authorized as monarchs and some not? And how do Shakespeare and his audience reconcile the continuous switching between rulers? Second, the supernatural as a vehicle – why does the supernatural appear in these plays and what does it do? Finally, questions about art as an historical agent –How do the stakes of art and popular theater (for example: the need for theater companies to be profitable and therefore sell tickets) change or distort the history they depict, and how much influence does that distortion have over time? Thinking about these motivations allowed me to revise my course level question to one that seemed far more useful: In these two plays, how does Shakespeare use the supernatural (especially magic) to illustrate early modern views on monarchical authority and legitimacy to rule?

Some of these questions are as relevant today as they ever were in the time of Shakespeare. Due to the nature of our electoral process, who is seen as a legitimate ruler, what qualifications make a leader, and who gets to decide are up for debate in the public forum in the United States at least every four years, if not every day. What may be less obvious is the role that the supernatural plays in these debates, from before the age of Shakespeare until our present moment. It’s integral to understanding this history, and these plays, to avoid a presentist view of magic, witchcraft and the supernatural more generally.

For the characters in these plays, who also happen to be real historical figures, these aspects were immediate, real, and literal matters of life and death. This was true for the theatergoers who attended Shakespeare’s plays as well, whether they were laborers or aristocrats. Astrology, ghosts, witches and certainly religion all played major roles in their everyday lives, as well as in matters of state. Many monarchs had royal astrologers and rarely made decisions without consulting them. The Titulus Regius, the document I began this piece with, was a real-world statute of the Parliament of England issued in 1484. It is the means by which the title of King of England was given to Richard III, and it does so by declaring that the marriage of Edward IV of England to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, in part because she and her mother used witchcraft to enchant Edward. As such, being able to, as Coleridge put it, “willingly suspend our own belief” and use our imaginations to put ourselves in the shoes of our predecessors is a key component of thinking through these plays. However, this shouldn’t require extreme flights of fancy as politics today continues to invoke the supernatural in order to authorize its claims.

When reading Shakespeare’s plays for these moments, we can pause and look around to find it reflected in our own world. In recent years, modern historians have noted that the secularity of recent history has been somewhat exaggerated. Not only are seemingly secular modes of thought often laden with hidden spiritual meanings, but religious affiliation is still a key concern for many voters. One of the more memorable moments of the Trump presidency was the image of him in the Roosevelt Room, surrounded by a circle of Evangelical leaders, while they laid their hands on him and prayed.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with using faith to guide political choice, but it seems important to note that when religion is explicitly invoked in the political sphere in the US, it is rarely questioned as a valid form of evaluation of political fitness – we take it for granted that our leaders belong to one faith or another and that their adherence to that faith reflects something about them that we understand. However, any alignment by political leaders with a religion tends to have the effect of making some (those who are in agreement with that religion’s values) feel as though that person is more qualified to lead, while at the same time, others who do not share those values will argue that it makes them less so. This position does not seem to be partisan. In the case of the above photo, many on the political left argued that it illustrated Trump’s approval of those church leaders’ sometimes controversial opinions. But remember back in 2008 when it became a story during his first run for president that Barack Obama attended Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ? The pastor’s controversial positions were also attributed to Obama, therefore making him less capable of holding high office in the eyes of many.

How far is this really from the Titulus Regius? A document that artfully, and with great intention, uses the fear of the faithful and the threat of demonic influence to legitimize his own claim to the throne. At their core, Richard’s accusations against his brother’s wife are about supernatural endorsement (or negation) of rulers – as are the charges against both Obama and Trump. And while witchcraft seems very far away from our age of internet and science, consider for a moment the QAnon movement, which continues to grow.

First appearing on message boards on 4chan, QAnon is a political conspiracy theory that later evolved into a political movement. Centering on claims made by an anonymous individual or individuals known as “Q,” the belief system is structured around the idea that a cabal of satanic, cannibalistic child sex traffickers is operating in the highest levels of society without the knowledge of the general public. Rooted in antisemitic tropes, the group believes that some politicians are acting to stop this cabal, while others are a part of it. QAnon is deeply invested in supernatural claims, immortality, Apocalypticism, and the existence of lizard people. Importantly, they have also taken their beliefs from theory to practice – on numerous occasions, QAnon believers have taken political action.  This sort of fusion of populism and millenarianism shows that we aren’t as far from the supernatural in politics as we might like to think. 

 Returning to where I started, my BOLLI study group on this topic was, as they often are, a very engaged, energetic and thoughtful group. They always came prepared with interesting and challenging questions. In fact, the group quickly became one of my favorite parts of the week for its lively debate and intellectual curiosity. The group’s keen insight meant that we were able to explore the connection of the supernatural and political imagination, not as a secondary topic, but in a central and immediate way. By thinking through how Richard could simultaneously be religious and believe fully in witchcraft, and yet cynically use it as a tool for political gain, we were able to see quite clearly how it is available to any politician to do so. Further, we were able to see how it is the political imagination of the populace itself that is being activated in this process. Rather than acting against the identity of the people, the supernatural is invoked in political discourse in order to mobilize the identity of the people – their core beliefs (and hopes) about how that which is outside of nature reflects that which is within it.

At the end of The Tempest, Prospero addresses the audience directly, in couplets. By this point, Prospero, a magician, has given up his magic but in this final scene, speaks in rhyme even though in this period, poetry was often understood as a kind of magic – a mystification of the senses.  As such, he is casting a kind of spell. In the speech, he asks the audience for his freedom, which is curious considering that up until this point, he has been the one who controlled everyone in the play. This speech has been read as the return in the play of the natural order of things: by restoring Prospero to his rightful place in the hierarchy (as Duke of Milan), the unnatural has been banished and the natural can return. Or, as Prospero puts it, “Now my charms are all overthrown.” As I said, he has controlled everything in this play – like a king or a god, he has manipulated everyone and everything with his power to create the outcome he wants. Yet here, he gives up his magic and turns it around to the audience. Now, he claims, he is being held here by them: “I must be here confined by you…dwell/ In this bare island by your spell.” Much like the leader who has used the supernatural to win, Prospero has used his magic to prevail, but also like that leader, the true power for his spells comes from the audience; a politician who deploys supernatural authorization relies on the polis to legitimize that claim. Once that relationship is established, the audience actually holds the power, as they can delegitimize that claim just as easily as endorse it. Thus, Prospero requests, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be / Let your indulgence set me free.” Whatever allure the supernatural once had for our political imagination, it seems to be as strong as ever, and as such is perhaps one of the few things about politics that remains stable.