Some people think Shakespeare's plays are boring. They see an endless parade of kings and lords, re-enacting the subtle negotiations of a country four centuries old and an ocean away. They'll admit there are a few interesting heroes here and there, and some dastardly villains, but these people consider the characters to be little more than dull history lessons brought to life, made even more confusing by the baroque language.
As a fan of fantasy, I'm here to tell you that Shakespeare also created or adapted a host of supernatural characters that would be right at home in The Lord of the Rings or Penny Dreadful. They add darkness, magic, and wonder to some of the greatest works ever written. Reconsider your reluctance towards the Bard with this guide to Shakespeare's fantasy creatures.
The people of the Renaissance believed in witchcraft. The new King of England, James I, even wrote a book about witches—and how to hunt them. For his sovereign, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, about a Scottish lord whose fate is predicted (or perhaps even altered) by characters known simply as the Three Witches. These spooky women recite the famous lines "Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble," and recite a recipe that includes "tooth of wolf" and "scale of dragon." They help infuse the play with a sense of doom and dread. Though they're evil (see below) and fulfill a villainous role, Shakespeare never punishes them; instead of being killed or exiled, they simply vanish at the end of the play.
Another witchy character of Shakespeare's is spoken of but never shown: Sycorax, the mother of Caliban in The Tempest. She's a sorcerer described as being so powerful she could "control the Moon." She enslaved the island's native spirits and was generally evil. She dies before the action begins, but her actions haunt Prospero, Caliban, and the fairy Ariel for much of the play. Of course, Prospero is a magician, too, though he actually casts few spells in the play itself.
The people of Shakespeare's time also believed in ghosts, and these entities make quite a few appearances in the canon. The ghost of the murdered king starts the action in Hamlet. Brutus is visited by the ghost of the friend he helped assassinate in Julius Caesar, who refers to himself as an "evil spirit" and predicts Brutus' imminent death. There's a whole creepy parade of ghosts in Richard III—victims of Richard, they recount how he killed them, and tell him he will be killed in that day's battle, finishing their morbid speech with "Despair and die."
Some modern critics argue for realism, suggesting the characters only imagine the ghosts, but Hamlet's father first appears to two guards, so it's either an incredible shared delusion or an actual specter. In a play so full of dark magic, Macbeth could be imagining that the ghost of the friend he murdered is sitting at his table... or it could be those wicked witches again.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is surely the most magical of Shakespeare's plays. It counts seven named fairy characters among its cast. There's proud Oberon, beautiful Titania, and mischievous Puck. These supernatural beings drive the action, drawing two pairs of young lovers into the craziest love quadrangle of all time. Their powers are fun too: Oberon can turn invisible, while Puck can circle the world in 40 minutes. Titania quarrels with her husband, causing storms and floods. While Shakespeare's witches and ghosts make only brief appearances, this fairy trio gets plenty of stage time and are fully realized characters.
But Dream isn't the only work that includes fairies. Ariel in The Tempest is a spirit of air and fire imprisoned by the aforementioned Sycorax because he (or she, as directors often play with fairy gender) was too good-hearted to do the witch's evil bidding. Ariel appears as fire itself during the play's famous storm, helping to destroy the ship carrying Prospero's enemies.
If the witches in Macbeth aren't scary enough, they're ruled by Hecate. At various times, she has been called Queen of the Witches, a goddess of magic, or a supernatural figure of evil. In my opinion, any of these would qualify her as a demon.
And then there are the "fiends" of Henry VI, Part One. They're summoned from Hell by none other than Joan of Arc to help France defeat the English. Yes, Joan claimed it was angels and saints who were speaking to her, but she was French, and Shakespeare is writing for the other side. The demons are described as "familiar spirits that are culled out of the powerful legions under earth." After the battle of Angiers, she summons her fiends to ask for further assistance, holding an entire conversation with them, but they desert her and she is captured.
Other Magical Characters
There are even more fantasy creatures beyond the categories above. For example:
- Caliban in The Tempest is the son of Sycorax the witch and described as a monster.
- The god Jupiter is summoned by the ghosts of the hero's ancestors in Cymbeline, and pledges to steer the man to a happy fate.
- A statue comes to life in The Winter's Tale.
- The goddess Diana appears in a vision of the main character in Pericles
And there are mentions of dragons, mermaids, and demi-gods throughout Shakespeare's plays.
Perhaps it's time we place Shakespeare in the same pantheon of fantasy writers as J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.
Jason Ginsburg is a lifelong fan of Shakespeare and folklore. He has a degree in theatre from the USC School of Dramatic Arts.