Cannot be ill, cannot be good: Bad Omens in Plutarch and Shakespeare

In one of the Shakespeare courses I took, we discussed The Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical organization of all life and matter that started with God at the top and went down through social classes to minerals. In many of the plays, particularly the tragedies, a disturbance to the order of things–which must be righted by the end– is felt throughout the organization of the social world, but then extends itself to the metaphysical and down into the psychological.

For example, in Macbeth, characters discuss the wild events in nature: storms, owls killing falcons, horses eating each other, etc. In Caesar, the owl sits in the marketplace at noon, men on fire walk through the streets, people are popping out of graves. These disturbances in the natural world are reflected in the social and political worlds of the plays. Macbeth is debating whether or not to kill the king, a total disruption of the natural order–Macbeth is usurping the power of a king, but also contemplating murdering a family member and guest in his own castle. In Caesar, there is the potential for an emperor to once again take over Rome, but there is also a conspiracy to kill him if he accepts. Shakespeare’s audience would likely watch this as as affront to the divine right of kings. Frequently, at the center of the plays is psychological disturbance. The Macbeths are driving themselves insane with greed and murder and power. Brutus broods on what he should do for himself, his friend, and for his country. 

Shakespeare read the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch, but I don’t know if the mirrorings of the natural, social, and psychological landscapes came from it or not. I did make the connection when reading Plutarch’s Life of Marcellus:

After assuming his office, he first quelled a great agitation for revolt in Etruria, and visited and pacified the cities there; next, he desired to dedicate to Honour and Virtue a temple that he had built out of his Sicilian spoils, but was prevented by the priests, who would not consent that two deities should occupy one temple; he therefore began to build another temple adjoining the first, although he resented the priests’ opposition and regarded it as ominous. And indeed many other portents disturbed him: sundry temples were struck by lightning, and in that of Jupiter, mice had gnawed the gold; it was reported also that an ox had uttered human speech, and that a boy had been born with an elephant’s head; moreover, in their expiatory rites and sacrifices, the seers received bad omens, and therefore detained him at Rome, though he was all on fire and impatient to be gone. For no man ever had such a passion for any thing as he had for fighting a decisive battle with Hannibal. This was his dream at night, his one subject for deliberation with friends and colleagues, his one appeal to the gods, namely, that he might find Hannibal drawn up to meet him. 

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The mice gnawing the gold in the temple of Jupiter, an ox talking, a boy with an elephant head–fantastic images. The plays are full of bad omens and portents as well, statues spouting blood and animals with no hearts.

And since it is getting to Halloween, three of my favorites are the apparitions who give Macbeth duplicitous charms. I gravitate towards these images of the fantastic and grotesque, many times before narrative is even clear in my head.

I fall in love with the images first.

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