My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Whisper of the Heart (1995)

[A revised version of this post was published as ‘Synchrony in the Work of Hayao Miyazaki’ in The Child in Cinema, ed. Karen Lury (London: BFI, 2022), pp. 49-68.]eks3afnmq3xk4wvpcrvkA few weeks back I put up a post about Howl’s Moving Castle – both the book by Diana Wynne Jones and the film by Hayao Miyazaki – using the notion of synchrony as an analytic tool. This post uses the same approach to consider two more films in which Miyazaki had a hand: My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart. I shall therefore begin with a reminder of what I take synchrony to mean here, which you can skip if you remember it from the earlier post. If you choose to skip it, please begin at the asterisk!

Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the artist tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the unsettling conviction that adults can never really understand what makes youngsters tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists may fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them totally redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades.[1] The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists.[2] So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and even of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider community.[3] Researchers have investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation between members of a group, such as an army unit, church, or children’s organization.[4] There have been sociological studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between cohabiting generations.[5] Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – that is, how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of any given group may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to adults and children by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like here to think about two art works that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between cohabitants while enabling them to live in harmony, so to speak – that is, to get the most out of their cohabitation. Taken together with Howl’s Moving Castle – book and film – these films amount to an extraordinarily rich representation of the many time zones that have intersected in British and Japanese domestic space since the calamity of the Second World War.

1449441476-24118fe1309c4fadc185ab7b3b43bb1c*Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) chooses to explore synchrony by retreating into the world of the artist’s childhood and youth. Set in 1950s Japan, the film recounts the adventures of two young girls and their father forced to relocate to an old house in the country, near a hospital where the children’s mother is being treated for a life-threatening illness.[6] The house turns out to be occupied by kami, spirits that can only be seen by children; yet it’s the father who explains the spirits’ identity, recalling his own encounters with the spirit world in his childhood – like Miyazaki’s avatar addressing the audience – despite the fact that he’s excluded from it now by the demands imposed on his time by his job as an academic.[7] Meanwhile the spirits provide a conduit between the children and the time-zone of the seasons, and of the beings that inhabit it: from the gigantic camphor tree where the titular troll-spirit, Totoro, hides himself in daytime, to the trees the children plant with Totoro at night in the house’s grounds, to the freshly-picked corncob they leave as a gift for their mother at the end of the movie, whose miraculous appearance on the hospital window-sill helps the sick woman understand she’s on the road to recovery. Social time, spirit time and the cyclical time of nature operate side by side throughout the narrative, sometimes at odds, sometimes coming together; and the necessity that drives the plot is to achieve synchrony between these different time zones – to find a way for them to combine productively, for the good of the human community and the ailing body of the girls’ mother.

[Doki] Tonari no Totoro (1920x1038 Hi10P BD FLAC) [9BB2B505].mkv_002835.670_1The encounter between the three principal time zones in the movie is enriched by smaller chronological differences between the characters. The little girl Mei, for instance, experiences the passage of time quite differently from her big sister or her father. Her first encounter with the spirits takes place while her sister is at school and her father working at his desk. Mei plays outside as her father works, and her detachment from the regulated schedule of work and education is indicated by her wish to eat lunch in the middle of the morning. At this point in the movie, only Mei occupies the imaginative and geographical vantage point that enables her to see the pair of tubby spirits which comes trundling through the grass as she is playing, drifting between visibility and invisibility like daydreams. Her lack of a timetable gives her leisure to follow the spirits to their home, just as her lack of prejudice concerning the possible threat they pose enables her to embrace their companionship, to occupy their space as if it were her own. The problem in the rest of the film is for the other people who share Mei’s home – in particular her elder sister Satsuki, who is growing out of the sorts of fantasies that dominate early childhood – to learn how to synchronize themselves with her time zone for a while, unlearning the sense of urgency that has been instilled in them by work and education for long enough to share her vision.

totblu07Satsuki learns to do this as a result of a disruption to her regimented daily schedule. One evening she finds that her father forgot his umbrella when he went to work; it is raining, so she decides to go and meet him with it at the bus stop. She and Mei wait at the stop till dark, growing increasingly uneasy as the shadows lengthen and their father doesn’t arrive. Rain falls, night falls, and Mei falls asleep on Satsuki’s back. The uneven dripping of water replaces the ticking of human clocks, signalling the girls’ entry into an alternative time zone. Abruptly Satsuki notices Totoro standing beside her, sheltering from the rain under the inadequate protection of a leaf. She lends him her umbrella, which he accepts – though less for its intended function than for the pleasure of the sound of the rain drumming on the fabric, as on the skin of a drum. Soon afterwards a bus arrives; but it’s not the petrol-driven machine the girls expect. Instead it’s the celebrated cat-bus which furnishes one of the film’s most famous images: a tabby twelve-legged vehicle whose ribcage opens to admit passengers into its fur-lined interior, and whose journeys display a cat’s contempt for conventional roads and pathways, a preference for telegraph wires over carriageways, for fields and hedges over tarmac.[8] The cat-bus veers away into the night carrying Totoro; and soon an ordinary bus looms out of the darkness, with the father safely on board.

The fusion of cat and bus in this scene seems specifically calculated to conjure up the notion of what I have called synchrony: the fruitful combining of different time-zones – different ways of measuring or experiencing time – in the household or elsewhere, to enable successful dialogue or other forms of social interaction. Cats are domestic pets which notoriously ignore the rigid spatial and temporal structures of the human household. Buses knit the family home to the socially sanctioned destinations of work and school, operating to a structured timetable and unchanging routes; they are inextricably linked with the notion of accurate timekeeping, even when they’re late. Combining cats with buses gives you a form of public transport that ignores timetables, turning up when it’s least expected and cutting across the regulated rural geography to reach, not a place of work or education, but the object of its passengers’ desire. And there’s another fusion here too. Cats make a great show of being solitary, yet inhabit human communities, while buses serve those communities unambiguously. The cat-bus, with its slightly menacing Cheshire-cat smile, is clearly singular – nothing like it has existed or been drawn before; yet it also supplies a collective need, in this case both transporting Totoro to his unknown destination and heralding the restoration of the father to his children, a return to the safe routine of family life, a timetable that has been under threat since the beginning of the film because of the mother’s absence through illness. The individual and the collective, human, animal and spirit, all are embodied in this heterogeneous creature, whose impeccably timed appearances draw them all together in the face of fear.

CatbusIt’s not surprising, then, that the cat-bus should show up again when the little family and its routine come under threat for a second time. On this occasion it’s the girls’ sick mother who fails to come home on a scheduled visit. She catches cold and is told to stay in hospital, an incident that conjures up the spectre of a permanent dissolution of the family unit by death. Fear for her mother makes Satsuki lose her temper with Mei, who then sets out on an unscheduled cross-country journey of her own to take the sick woman what she thinks of as a healing corncob. Mei’s disappearance sparks off a frantic search by the whole of the local community, and sends Satsuki to ask for Totoro’s help at his tree. The troll’s response is to summon the cat-bus, which first takes Satsuki to Mei, then transports both girls to the hospital, where they leave the corncob on their mother’s sill. More even than in the bus-stop incident, this journey binds together all the time-zones of the story: adult and child, human and spirit, urban and rural, much as a cat binds together the human and natural worlds in its comings and goings, or a bus binds place to place within a city, and city to country within a nation. The cat-bus itself is part public transport vehicle, part spirit, part maternal womb, and its successful marriage of these elements anticipates the eventual reunion of parents with children, and of Satsuki’s family with the rural community, both of which are celebrated in the evocative stills that accompany the film’s end credits, where they are watched over by Totoro and his benevolent fellow spirits.

f7da0360969a06d2fe5567d51bef6232Part of the power of My Neighbour Totoro springs from its recognition that the ability to occupy any particular time zone – above all, that of childhood, with its ready recognition of the interaction between seen and unseen, humans and spirits – will necessarily be a temporary one, and that this transitoriness need not be perceived as frightening or repugnant. At the end of the movie Satsuki’s parents still cannot see the spirits, even though they have received material confirmation of their presence in the form of the corncob, which appears where it could not possibly be, inscribed with a message from Mei. It’s clear, too, that Satsuki will soon move on to occupy her parents’ time-zone. Her awkward but friendly relationship with the boy next door predicts her approaching puberty, just as the boy’s grandmother, who seems to remember her childhood vividly, anticipates the girls’ old age. Even the stills of the final credits, which recall snapshots from a family album, remind an adult audience, at least, that they have been watching a historical reconstruction, a cartoon representation of the film-maker’s past, no longer accessible except through photographs, films and drawings. Owing to the pressures of twentieth-century life – above all its mobility, as exemplified in the luggage-laden car that opened the film – moments of synchrony are fleeting, though their impact on those who experience them may be lifelong, as the very existence of My Neighbour Totoro testifies.

A few years after Totoro, Miyazaki explored the concept of synchrony from a new angle in his script for Yoshifumi Kondo’s movie Whisper of the Heart (1995), based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Here the young protagonist Shizuku is a few years older than Satsuki, and where Satsuki needed to achieve synchrony with her neighbours – her sister, the boy next door, the spirit Totoro – Shizuku’s problem is that of finding a neighbourhood at all, in a world where urban sprawl has broken up long-standing communities.

pompoko_porch_970The same theme was developed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata in his immensely successful film of the previous year, Pom Poko (1994), which is set in the suburb of Tokyo where Shizuku lives, Tama New Town. In Pom Poko, raccoon dogs or tanuki fight against the incursions of suburban development on their territory; but their resistance is ineffectual, and the tanuki end the film by using their traditional powers of metamorphosis to merge themselves with the city’s population, walking among men and women in human form. For Takahata, then, Tama New Town consists of two time zones superimposed on one another: that of the old land and its cultures, for which the tanuki fought, and that of the new suburbs, where human beings dwell unknowingly side by side with the region’s original inhabitants. This is not synchrony but colonization, even at the poignant moment towards the end of the film when the tanuki use their powers to give the audience a fleeting glimpse of the rural landscape that underlies the urban. Reconciliation between the time zones of people and animals may be possible in the twentieth century, but the movie doesn’t offer a clear indication of how it might be achieved.

In Whisper of the Heart Shizuku’s neighbours, too, turn out to be separated from her by time, much as the tanuki are forever separated from their human neighbours, culturally and emotionally speaking, despite cohabiting with them. Shizuku has to look for these neighbours in the spaces and times that open up in her official timetable. She is abetted in this – for much of the time without her being aware – by her eccentric family, whose tiny apartment, squeezed into a hillside block in the new suburb, resembles a book-crammed annexe of the library where her father works. Shizuku’s parents give her elbowroom to dream and write and read, while around her throughout the summer vacation her schoolmates, such as her best friend Yuko, are sent to the notorious Japanese cram schools to get the grades they need to attend the best high schools. Shizuku, meanwhile, explores her neighbourhood, hurrying up hidden alleyways and over locked gates marked ‘no entry’ in pursuit of stories and ideas. Her wanderings are accompanied by the ceaseless buzzing of the summer cicadas, playing music from a hidden insect world ignored by the city’s residents but full of emotional resonance for lovers of Miyazaki’s earlier movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), whose protagonist communicates with the insects shunned by the rest of her community.

mimi_totoroIn Whisper of the Heart, the first clue to the existence of other neighbours besides the insects – neighbours of the heart, as the English title suggests[9] – occurs when Shizuku discovers, from library stamps, that someone in her school has been borrowing the same books as her, though at different times. The mysterious reader turns out to be a boy called Seiji, who is in another class and therefore separated from her geographically as well as chronologically, occupying a different section of the school building. She finds him with the help of a cat: another of those independent occupants of human space represented by the cat-bus in Totoro. In Whisper, too, the cat is linked with public transport; indeed, it’s in a sense a public cat, ownerless and known by different names to different people, so that it plays a role in a range of different stories throughout the city, connecting disconnected lives, as it were, with its amiable presence. Shizuku first meets the cat on a commuter train, following it at a whim when it alights at her station. It leads her to an old shop full of bric-a-brac from different periods and places, mostly European, though the shop is called the ‘World Emporium’: a cheerful jumble of clocks and statues and furniture assembled at random, which makes it the architectural embodiment of synchrony. Here she runs into two figures who might equally be said to embody synchrony: an old man called Nishi, who she later learns is Seiji’s grandfather; and a small statue of a cat with coat-tails and a walking stick, which Nishi calls the Baron. And it’s in this shop, not surprisingly, that Shizuku learns about the importance of synchrony in the late twentieth century.

whisper-of-the-heart-baron-2The story behind the cat figurine is the story of the arbitrary fracturing of relationships by history in the century’s turbulent middle years. There was once a female counterpart for the Baron, a statue known as Louisa; and Shizuku learns that the woman Nishi loved, also called Louisa, bought the Louisa statue in Vienna at the same time as he bought the Baron. The lovers were then separated by the outbreak of the Second World War – an event as calamitous for Louisa’s people, the Europeans, as for Nishi’s, the Japanese. The lovers Nishi and Louisa swore to reunite the statues – and each other – after the war; but the opportunity never arose, and the couple never met again. From then on the statue has stood for a moment of serendipity that brought two people of different cultures together, a moment that may never be repeated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.05.52 AMAnother object in the shop that catches Shizuku’s eye is a clock Nishi has been working on, with the figure of an armoured prince on it gazing soulfully up at a window. The person he longs to see at the window is his lover, a fairy princess; but the clock is so constructed that the lovers only glimpse each other twice a day, when the clock strikes twelve. In fact, when Shizuku sees the clock they haven’t seen each other for several years. The clock’s mechanism was broken, and Nishi has mended it so that the two figures can again become a symbol for the complex workings of life and love, showing that lovers, like neighbours in a modern suburb, only coincide at certain moments, when the pressures of work and history permit (the prince in the clock is a working man, the prince of the miner-dwarves who inhabit its belly). Nishi’s labour on the clock confirms something else: that such intersections can themselves be achieved through hard work, and that waiting for synchrony to occur without labouring to fulfil one’s desires may well be futile.

whisper-of-the-heart-shizuku-and-seijiAs the film goes on, Shizuku and Seiji – the girl and boy who read the same books from the library – are transformed into the working prince and princess, as it were, of Tama New Town, victims of the common twentieth-century condition of being out of sync, despite their mutual attraction. Seiji’s ambition is to work as a violin maker, for which he must serve a long apprenticeship in far-away Italy. Shizuku’s dream is to work as a writer. The young pair’s aspirations are incompatible both with the budding relationship between them and with the rigorous demands of the Japanese school system. Seiji cannot become an apprentice if he stays at school; Shizuku cannot write her stories if she works hard enough to get good grades. The solution, it would seem, is for them to pursue their careers simultaneously, apart from school and apart from each other, labouring to achieve their artistic dreams in different locations. When they meet in Nishi’s shop, Seiji is about to leave for a three-month trial period of violin-making in Italy, which if successful will be followed by a much longer apprenticeship. On hearing his plans, Shizuku is inspired to write her first novel while he is away, regardless of her studies and grades, aiming to complete the novel by the day of Seiji’s return. By this means the period of Seiji’s absence is transformed into a clockwork mechanism, a fragile chronometric device that counts out the hours till the moment when the young people can get together to compare their experiences. Separated in time and space, the boy and girl will be united imaginatively through their work – in Shizuku’s case, strenuous and exhausting – and through their consciousness of the approaching moment when the cogs of the world’s inner workings will reunite them.

whisperThis moment, when it comes, is marked both by further hard work and careful timing. Shizuku wakes before dawn one morning to find Seiji waiting below her bedroom window – the most perfect example of synchrony in the film. He invites her to mount his bike behind him, then cycles up a hill to a nearby viewpoint, from which their neighbourhood can be seen spread out below. The pair arrive at the moment just as dawn is breaking, transforming Tama New Town into a magic world a little like the surreal landscape Shizuku created in her novel. Here, then, perfect timing brings beauty, just as it did in the earlier sequence when Shizuku sang a song to Seiji’s accompaniment, and they were joined unexpectedly by Nishi and two elderly friends, who provided additional accompaniment on the antique instruments they happened to have with them. The transformation of Tama New Town by dawn recalls the transformation of John Denver’s song, ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’, both by Shizuku and Seiji’s performance and by the two sets of new lyrics Shizuku gives it. One of these lyrics, ‘Concrete Roads’, describes the transformation of countryside into suburb, as recorded in Pom Poko. Country roads get overlaid by tarmac, but with the ghost of the countryside peering through it, so to speak, much as the new words for John Denver’s song both obscure and recall the original.

In this way, both the song and the journey to the viewpoint testify to the possibility of finding time and space to discover creativity in the pressurized context of suburban Japan – or of the world, given the presence of Italy, Austria, and the World Emporium in the equation. The possibility of being creative depends on a synchronic co-operation between generations, as exemplified in the instrumental support given by Nishi and his friends to Shizuku’s singing, and by Nishi’s and her parents’ moral support for Shizuku while she is working on her novel. The synchrony between generations also brings together the stories of the Baron and the figurine Louisa – who become characters in Shizuku’s novel – and of Nishi’s love affair with the European girl who was lost to him in the War. At the point when Shizuku finishes her novel, just before Seiji’s return, she takes it to Nishi’s shop for him to read. The old man is dozing in a chair beside the fire, dreaming of Louisa; and as he wakes, Louisa’s face merges with Shizuku’s. In the process, his support for the girl’s artistic efforts effectively completes the unfinished narrative of Nishi and his first love, bringing past and present together in a satisfying resolution, like the precisely-timed resolution of harmonies in a piece of music. And the transformation of Tama New Town at the viewpoint – its fusion with the fantastic landscape Shizuku invented for her novel, a novel she could only write with the support of Nishi, Seiji, and her parents – extends the possibility of creativity throughout the community she’s part of. The notion of synchrony between generations, and between the imagined and the real, has never been more richly imagined on the screen than in this brief closing sequence.


[1] One psychologist’s definition of the term is as ‘The carefully coordinated interaction between the parent and the child or adolescent in which, often unknowingly, they are attuned to each other’s behavior’, John W. Santrock, Adolescence, twelfth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), Key Terms: Synchrony. Some psychologists prefer the term ‘alignment’ to synchrony, since it implies the establishment of links between interlocutors in several domains simultaneously: timing in dialogue (e.g., speech rate), word choice, planning, memory, even posture. See e.g. Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering, ‘Joint Action, Interactive Alignment, and Dialog’, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009), pp. 292-304. I am grateful to Dr Kerry W. Kilborn, School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, for a discussion of this topic.

[2] See e.g. Ruth Feldman, ‘Parent-Infant Synchrony and the Construction of Shared Timing; Physiological precursors, Developmental Outcomes, and Risk Conditions’, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 48 nos. 3-4 (March/April 2007), pp. 329-354.

[3] See e.g. Daniel B. Klein and Michael J. Clark, ‘The Music of Social Intercourse: Synchrony in Adam Smith’, The Independent Review, vol. 15 no. 3 (Winter 2011), pp. 413–420, where the notion of ‘sympathy as coordinated sentiment’ is applied, among other things, to a complex commercial society.

[4] See e.g. Scott S. Wildermuth and Chip Heath, ‘Synchrony and Co-operation’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 2009), pp. 1-5. In an economic context

[5] See e.g. Michelle Thomas and Nicholas Bailey, ‘Out of Time: Work, Temporal Synchrony and Families’, Sociology, vol. 43 (2009), p. 613ff.

[6] For Totoro as a representation of Miyazaki’s childhood, see Colin Odell and Michelle le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2009), p. 79; and more expansively, Phillip E. Wegner, ‘“An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity”: Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, ImageText, Vol. 5, no. 4, http//, consulted 24.9.12.

[7] For an explanation of the complex term ‘kami’, see Michael Ashkenazi, Handbook of Japanese Mythology (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 29-36. Miyazaki’s term for Totoro and the soot-spirits is translated as ‘goblins’ in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt’s translation of Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point 1979-1996 (San Francisco: Viz, 2009), pp. 255-6.

[8] Miyazaki calls it a ‘mountain-lion bus’, which makes it less domestic than ‘cat-bus’, but the vehicle’s resemblance to a tabby is unmistakable. See Starting Point, p. 257.

[9] The Japanese title is If You Listen Closely. This is also the title of Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, on which the film is based (Mimi wo Sumaseba, Shuueisha, Ribon Mascot Comics, 1992).

Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth

Alan Cumming as Hamlet

Hamlet and Macbeth are the Shakespeare plays with the most northerly settings. Elsinore in Denmark, where Hamlet is set, lies pretty much on the same latitude as the Perthshire countryside where much of the action in Macbeth takes place, and there’s been a lot of toing and froing between the countries through history. In the original story that lies behind the tragedy of Hamlet – the tale of Amleth, Prince of Denmark, as told by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum – the Hamlet figure marries the Queen of Scotland and uses her forces to help him defeat the armies of the King of Britain. In Shakespeare’s time, the Scottish king James VI – later James I of England – married Princess Anne of Denmark in 1589, and by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in about 1600 it would have been widely assumed that this Scottish-Danish couple would be the next King and Queen of Shakespeare’s country. What would an English playwright have known about Scotland and Denmark, I wonder?

Alan Cumming as Macbeth

One thing both countries had in common was an abundance of wonders (events, objects, creatures or people whose emotional impact is far greater, for a while at least, than our capacity or will to explain them). Saxo Grammaticus said that Denmark was originally a land populated by giants, who can still be found in the ‘rugged inaccessible wastelands’ of his own time, and whose powers include being able to vanish at will and reappear in a different place, rather like the ghost in Hamlet (‘’Tis here – ’Tis here – ’Tis gone’, [1.1.141-2]).[1] Witches and magic abound there, and the land itself is deadly, full of poisonous springs, treacherous crevasses and fire that can burn water. The same was thought to be true of Scotland; there were wonders everywhere, most of them dangerous. When he visited the country in the fifteenth century, Aeneas Piccolomini – later Pope Pius II – wanted only to see one of these wonders, the barnacle geese that grow on trees along the shoreline, which he’d heard about from some medieval scholar: Albertus Magnus, maybe, or Vincent of Beauvais. In a play by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene, called The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1592), Scotland is full of fairies – including Oberon, who may have given his name to the King of Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The English pamphlet News from Scotland (1591) fills Scotland instead with witches, some of whom hatched diabolical plots against the young King James VI in the 1580s, and were tried and executed under the watchful eye of James himself. Later James acknowledged the presence of witches in his homeland in his tract Daemonologie (1597), which explains how they prey on the ‘viciated’ imaginations of their Scottish clients. Apparently they’re particularly prevalent in the Hebrides, and it seems that the Clan Chiefs of Mull and Skye were given to consulting wise women before undertaking major expeditions – though they didn’t always heed their advice. Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart was murdered by a man called the Black Dwarf or Fairy on Islay after failing to pay attention to the warnings of a witch; that was in 1598, eight years or so before Macbeth was written.[2] It’s nice to think Shakespeare might have heard of his death, though there’s no evidence for it as yet.

Danish Giants, by Arthur Rackham

According to Saxo Grammaticus, the inhabitants of the icy northlands have had to acquire phenomenal powers to cope with the wonders that surround them. Amleth is a trickster figure with what are hinted to be magical abilities, and Saxo agrees with the Roman historian Tacitus that northerners in general are braver, stronger, cleverer and better behaved than the corrupt population of the Mediterranean. Having said this, the story of Amleth is unremittingly violent, with far more ‘carnal, bloody and unnatural acts’ than there are in Shakespeare’s play. Meanwhile the chronicles of Scotland to which Shakespeare had access are simply packed with murderous episodes – hardly a king of the country seems to have died safely in his bed. The prospect of getting James VI of Scotland as an English monarch – along with his Danish queen – may well have seemed a deeply uncomfortable one to Shakespeare and his friends and relatives, given the association of both countries with murder and magic.

The Witches, by Henry Fuseli

Shakespeare feeds this sense of discomfort in both Hamlet and Macbeth by opening the action of each play with a major supernatural incident: the appearance at a time of political turbulence of a ghost and a coven of witches, each of whom (both the ghost and the witches) can appear and disappear at will, like the Danish giants, and each of whom casts a long, long shadow over the play that follows. Shakespeare further feeds the unsettling effect by his frequent use in both plays of the adjective ‘strange’, which means ‘wonder’ and ‘foreign’, and thus combines two attitudes associated by the English with the Danes and the Scots. The ghost and the witches are deeply ambiguous; nobody quite knows what to think of them or where they come from; and their ambiguity infects their countries like a virus, leading Hamlet and Macbeth to reconsider not only who they are and what they are capable of, but the possible ways of thinking about and acting on the lands they live in and the people they interact with. I’d like to consider in this post how the supernatural wonders that trigger the action in each play continue to resonate through the rest of the narrative, and how they transform the plays’ protagonists themselves into northern wonders – just as the wonders of Denmark, according to Saxo Grammaticus, made heroes and magicians of the ancient Danes.

The Ghost, by William Blake

The opening of Hamlet is all about a crisis of identity. It’s a collective crisis, not an individual one: the guards on the walls of Elsinore castle are clearly nervous, shouting questions at passers by and expressing anxiety over whether or not what they say, and what they claim to have seen, will be believed by their social superiors. The play opens with the words ‘Who’s there?’, and it could be said that this is the question that continues to be asked until the play’s last scene. How do we know who anyone is, how can we tell what’s happening inside their heads, inside their beating hearts, inside their souls, whatever those are? It’s a standard question for guards to ask, of course – are you friend or enemy, ‘Stand and unfold yourself’, as one man puts it [1.1.2] – but it’s prompted in the guards on this particular night by something they’ve witnessed. Modern audiences would call what the men have seen a ‘ghost’, and they might go further and give the ghost a name: the spirit of Hamlet’s father, the recently deceased King of Denmark. But the guards themselves are not so sure – no one calls the apparition a ghost until Hamlet does so in the play’s fifth scene. They call it ‘this thing’, and the scholar Horatio, who hasn’t yet seen the apparition and doesn’t believe in ghosts, is clear that it’s not even that: ‘Horatio says ’tis nothing but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him / Touching this dreaded sight’ [1.1.23-5]. For him it’s no more than a figment, a dream, a symptom, perhaps, of excessive drinking. And even when the ghost appears in front of his eyes, at the very moment when the guard Bernardo is describing it – so that his words effectively materialize in front of the listeners – Horatio and the other witnesses are extraordinarily careful about how they describe it. The apparition comes ‘In the same figure, like the King that’s dead’, they say cagily [1.1.41]. A figure is something that stands for something else, a sign pointing to a thing rather than the thing itself; and later the witnesses describe it in an even more evasive way. ‘What art thou,’ Horatio asks it directly, ‘that usurp’st this time of night / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march?’ [1.1.46-8]. The word ‘usurp’st’ here suggests one reason why they’re being so careful: a usurper is a person who seizes the throne by illegal means – a dangerous thing to talk about – and talking about a recently dead monarch, too, could have been seen by his paranoid successor as usurping the right to interfere with politics, which under a monarchy is the prerogative of the king and his closest advisers. So the men say that what they have seen is in the shape of the king, thus protecting themselves from accusations of treason. Their carefulness may signal to the audience – like their nerviness in the opening lines – that the land they live in isn’t a bastion of liberty; it’s a place where you watch your words if you don’t want to get into trouble; a complicated place to live in, like any dictatorship or dystopia.

There’s another reason why the men are reluctant to say that the apparition is for sure the old King’s ghost; and this is religion. Like Scotland, the Denmark of Shakespeare’s time was Protestant – though of a different order of Protestantism from the Scottish one, since the Danes followed the teachings of Luther while the Scots followed the severer doctrines of Calvin. Of course neither the historical Amleth nor the historical Macbeth lived in Protestant countries, but most members of Shakespeare’s audience would have brought Protestant sensibilities to the theatre, and for Protestants ghosts just aren’t possible. Protestants believe that when the body dies the soul dies with it, and that both body and soul will be resurrected only at the last judgment. For Catholics, by contrast, the soul is separated from the body at death and for the most part goes to a place of temporary punishment called purgatory, where sins are purged from it – as the name suggests – in preparation for its eventual removal to Heaven. For a Protestant, then – and hence for many in Shakespeare’s audience – the apparition simply can’t be a ghost, and can only be an illusion, or an evil spirit, a devil, a fallen angel (there aren’t any good spirits wandering the earth in Protestant doctrine). For a Catholic it can be a ghost – and of course that’s how the apparition describes itself when Hamlet finally confronts it. But it could also be an evil spirit, a devil, or a blessed angel sent from heaven in human form; you can never tell. Hamlet chooses to believe that it’s his father – but he’s fully aware of the other options:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. [1.3.40-5]

This is an act of belief that is also an act of will, of deliberate choice – and a dangerous one; if Hamlet is wrong his soul is in danger of damnation, as Horatio warns him. And the consciousness of all the characters in these early scenes, Hamlet, Horatio, Bernardo and all the rest, that they don’t really know what the ghost is, becomes, in the course of the play, a general sense that nobody knows who anyone is, not really; that proof to sustain belief is something incredibly hard to come by; and that belief is always dangerous, because to believe a lie can lead to ruination and death, if you’re not very careful.

The Ghost, by Henry Fuseli

Even if the ghost is a ghost it brings further problems with it. First, it embodies or at least makes visible the fact that human beings are not simple creatures. They’re made up of two distinct elements, body and soul, and what’s good for the former may not be so good for the latter. Second, if what the ghost says is true then it reveals something Hamlet has always suspected: that the current King of Denmark, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, isn’t who he claims to be, King of Denmark. Or rather, he is but he shouldn’t be, since he got the title by murdering his brother, the true king, Hamlet’s father. And he’s not the reasonable, balanced man he presents himself as when we first meet him: he’s an adulterer who poisoned a man because he fancied his wife and lusted after his power. Claudius has substituted himself for his brother in the marriage bed and on the throne, and the true King of Denmark should ideally be old Hamlet – and if not him, then his son, young Hamlet the Dane. Another substitution, then, should take place to put right the injustice committed by Claudius. But how to effect that substitution? By the same act of murder that made Claudius both a king and an assassin? That would make Hamlet a king and an assassin, too, effectively continuing the cycle of violence and rooting it in Danish history. Let no one tell you Hamlet’s choice is easy, or that he delays the inevitable with unnecessary fussing. He’s got real problems, and the ghost is the source of them.

When Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while the king is praying, it’s because of the binary nature of the human being: under the circumstances the king’s body will die but his soul will go to heaven, or so the prince believes. ‘Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge,’ he tells himself, and puts his sword away [3.3.78]. He means he’ll be doing the king a favour by killing him at this particular moment, when his soul is knocking at heaven’s door in an act of religious supplication. The audience knows, of course, that it wouldn’t in fact have been such a favour – the king is not praying properly, so his soul would have gone to hell or purgatory; but Hamlet doesn’t. The ghost, if it’s really a ghost with good intentions, makes revenge necessary; but it also makes it next to impossible to accomplish that revenge, because it reminds us that we know next to nothing about the state of one another’s souls. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ Hamlet says in his famous soliloquy [2.1.56]. ‘To be’ is to be multiple things at once, a person with a body, a soul, a social role, a network of relationships, a past, a future – and sometimes we might well feel tempted to abandon this condition, given the difficulties that attend it. But ‘not to be’ is equally complicated, since we can dream in so many different ways about the ‘undiscovered country’ beyond death – as the Reformation demonstrated. Thanks, ghost, the prince might be saying in this soliloquy. You’ve dumped on me all the issues that sparked off the religious wars of the sixteenth century.

Shakespeare Quartos Project

The ghost also means that Hamlet’s own identity is deeply questionable. The play is called The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; and every element in the second part of this title is problematic. Hamlet’s name, for instance. The ghost reminds him that he shares this name with his dead father, which is what sets him up as the appropriate revenger for his father’s murder – he can’t escape the obligation, as he could perhaps if his name were Sid or Keith. His title of ‘Prince’ is problematic, too, because any revenge he undertakes needs to take cognizance of the wellbeing of the country to whose throne he is heir apparent. This makes the method of dealing with his uncle’s crime extremely important, since dispensing justice appropriately is part of a prince’s job. As for Denmark; well, it’s contested territory, as the ghost again reminds him. His father’s apparition is wearing the same armour he wore when he fought in single combat against the King of Norway. The fight ended with old Hamlet’s victory, which according to the terms of the duel meant that Norway legally forfeited part of its dominions to the Danish crown. And this highlights another reason for the jumpiness of the guards at the beginning of the play. Denmark is in a state of emergency, because the young successor to the dead King of Norway, Fortinbras, is heading towards the country at the head of an army, determined to win back the part of his lands his father lost when he lost the duel. Hamlet, then, when he speaks to the ghost, discovers just how complicated it is to be Hamlet, to be a prince, to be a Dane. No wonder he chooses to hide his confusion by pretending to be mad. His madness isn’t a screen for his true identity; it’s a means of providing a front for his very real doubt over who he is.

Of course, this doubt on Hamlet’s part also makes it extremely difficult for anyone else to know who he is; and this proves maddening to his friends, his enemies, and his family. Much of the first three acts of the play is taken up with the King and his chief adviser, old Polonius, trying vainly to work out what’s going on in Hamlet’s mind – what has triggered his strange behavior, what his plans are, whether he’s really mad or just pretending. They set traps for him, encouraging Ophelia to accept his courtship – after first telling her she should reject it – so that they can see for themselves whether or not he is mad for love, as Polonius believes, or for some other reason. The ghost has already shown us, however, that seeing or witnessing something is not the same as believing it; this all depends on your philosophical or religious position. And it soon turns out that the problem of knowing people’s minds is as complicated when it comes to people who are not insane, or acting insane, as it is of madmen. Within the first few scenes of the play we see Ophelia’s brother Laertes telling her not to believe what Hamlet tells her about being in love. His reason for saying so is that Hamlet is not just a person but also an instrument of the state; as a prince he can’t decide for himself who he will marry, so anything he says that may suggest otherwise must be taken as an error, or wishful thinking, or an outright lie. Later we see Polonius sending a spy after his son Laertes as he heads back to Paris, unconvinced that the young man will behave as he has promised he will when he reaches the French capital. For Polonius, who is an experienced politician, it stands to reason that what you say can bear no relation to what you mean or to what you intend. To find out the truth about someone, even your son – to lay the grounds for something about them you can really believe in – you have to lie and plot; he encourages the spy to tell outrageous fibs about Laertes’ behavior, and pay close attention to people’s reactions to these fibs. If they say I know what you mean, I’ve seen him do exactly what you describe – gamble, sleep around, get into fights, take drugs and so on – then Polonius thinks that his spy can begin to build up an accurate picture of the young man’s true identity. In his world, words are always a screen for some hidden agenda. Add this to the already vexed question of how many roles a man can have – as a social figure, a member of a family, a desiring animal, a spiritual being, a man, a woman – and the question of how you attain belief or trust in anyone becomes unanswerable, unless you’re prepared to rely on your faith in what they tell you, make the decision to take their word for it that they are indeed who they claim to be.

It’s complicated. And all attempts to make things simple invariably fail. Laertes tells Ophelia that this is particularly the case with women. No matter how well she behaves, he tells her – no matter how simply good she is in her personal conduct – she must also make sure there can be no suspicion that she is misbehaving, or that she would misbehave if she could only get the chance:

Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes;
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed;
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent. [1.3.38-42]

In other words, Ophelia can easily find herself infected by other people’s views of her, and will also find that it’s next to impossible to shake off their ungrounded suspicions once they’ve taken root. Her only way to ‘scape’ the ‘calumnious strokes’ of slander or gossip is to avoid conversation with Prince Hamlet altogether; and old Polonius reiterates these warnings a few lines later. Later still, of course, Polonius reverses this advice and encourages her to meet with Hamlet so he can spy on him. Here’s another complication: people in Denmark are inconsistent, especially politicians. Before sending his spy after Laertes, the old man gives his son a set of precepts or rules to live by: ‘to thine own self be true,’ he tells him, ‘And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man’ [1.3.78-80]. But which self should he be true to? There are so many.

Those unfortunate college buddies of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also try to simplify things when they are sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. With would-be cunning words they try to prize from him some hint as to his attitude to his uncle, the King of Denmark – and in the process prove themselves false friends at the same time as they prove themselves true subjects of the monarch. Hamlet sees through their efforts and is outraged. He makes Guildenstern try to play the recorder, and when he can’t, points out triumphantly how much more ridiculous it is to think that Guildenstern could ‘play’ a man like Hamlet, ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery’ [3.2.357], when the prince is so much more complicated than a musical instrument.

Yet Hamlet, too, tries to simplify the man he has set himself to spy on, his uncle Claudius. Again and again he attempts to reduce him to a stage villain: ‘Bloody, bawdy villain!’ he calls him at one point; ‘Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!’ [2.2.575-6] – and the word ‘kindless’ here seeks to divorce him altogether not just from Hamlet’s family – his kind – and from all feelings of kindness – but from that complicated species, man-kind itself. But of course this doesn’t work; Claudius remains irrevocably multiple. He’s Hamlet’s uncle and Hamlet’s mother’s lover as well as a killer, and can’t be dismissed so easily. Later Hamlet tries to make him into a villain in his mother Gertrude’s eyes, showing her portraits of his father and his uncle, old Hamlet and Claudius, and drawing distinctions between them on the basis of classical mythology: ‘Look here upon this picture and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ [3.4.53-4]. Old Hamlet, he claims, resembles Hyperion, the Greek god of the sun, while Claudius looks like one of the lecherous goat-footed demigods of the woods, a satyr – or a ‘mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother’ [3.4.64-5] (this is a nasty joke, since it’s into his brother’s ear that Claudius poured the poison which killed him). But this attempt too doesn’t really work. Claudius still behaves like a king in public, and expresses affection for Gertrude in private, preventing the audience as well as Hamlet from dismissing him as a monster. It’s not until Claudius is publicly behaving as a monster in the final duel scene that Hamlet finds the means to kill him – and he can only do it if he doesn’t think too deeply about it.

king-hamlets-ghostMost complicated of all, perhaps, as an idea that the ghost brings with it, is the question of whether it’s generated by the minds of the people who see it. It could be a product of the nerviness in Denmark at a time of imminent war with Norway, or of a sudden change of government, or of a collective sense of embarrassment at the very rapid remarriage of the old king’s wife to his younger brother. Or it could have been something summoned by Prince Hamlet, rather as the devil Mephistopheles was summoned by Faustus in Marlowe’s play – not through magic but as a side-effect of the Doctor’s blasphemous language and impious thoughts, as Marlowe tells us. As we’ve seen, Horatio thinks at first that the apparition is a product of the soldiers’ ‘fantasy’, their disordered imagination; he’s only convinced of its existence when he sees it, at which point he describes it as a thing that ‘harrows me with fear and wonder’ [1.1.44], and later a ‘marvel’ [1.2.195]. When Hamlet sees it, by contrast, he takes it as the embodiment of something he’s been thinking about since the moment of his father’s death: ‘O my prophetic soul!’ he exclaims [1.4.40], as the spirit tells the story of old Hamlet’s murder, and one gets the impression that the whole story is simply the reenactment of a scenario Hamlet devised for himself on the day his uncle’s marriage to his mother was announced.[3] This is why he so readily makes the choice to take what the ghost has said as true – because it conforms in every detail with what he suspected; and this is why he promises to erase all other thoughts and memories from his mind but those that tend to support the phantom’s testimony.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The process turns Hamlet into something very like a ghost: inscrutable, out of order, often deeply scary. When Ophelia sees him for the first time after his meeting with the apparition she describes him as the phantom’s double:

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors. [2.1.81-4]

The ghost has here made a ghost of Hamlet; and Hamlet goes on to ‘make a ghost’ of several more people before the end of the play, as he threatened to do when he first met the apparition [1.4.85]. He fills the performance, in fact, with the wonders and strangenesses he was imagining when we first met him in his black suit among the merry-makers at his mother’s wedding. And when he’s dead, Horatio describes the scene the prince has helped to stage – a court full of bodies – as a place of wonders: ‘What is it you would see?’ he asks the astonished Fortinbras, ‘If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search’ [5.2.354-5]. If Hamlet’s mind helped produce the ghost, by whatever means, then it also helped to produce the astonishing theatre of northern excesses that his Norwegian neighbour wanders into at the end of the play.

Hamlet, as I said, was probably written in 1600, three years before James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne. He probably wrote Macbeth in 1606, three years afterwards; a neat symmetry when we’re looking at the plays side by side. For the later tragedy he drew on James’s pamphlet about witches, Daemonologie, for inspiration, and made the power of witches over men’s imaginings the trigger for tragedy.

 maxresdefaultThe chief power or wonder performed by the witches in Macbeth is that of prophecy or ‘strange intelligence’ [1.3.76] – predicting the future. In this they aren’t far removed from Hamlet the Dane, whose prophetic soul imagined the whole story of his father’s murder before he heard it. The witches, too, predict what is in effect murder. They tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor, and these prophecies come true more or less at once; and they also prophesy that he will be ‘King hereafter’ [1.3.50], a prediction that would seem to have little chance of coming true at all at the time it’s uttered. As a result of this lack of likelihood that their prophecy will be fulfilled – as a result of its very improbability – the witches feed Macbeth’s imagination both with an idea (the idea of being king) and with the kind of logic that will impel him to body forth his ‘horrible imaginings’ of the path to kingship, to make them real. The witches give Macbeth a language whereby to express what he thought impossible, in very much the same way as the ghost gives Hamlet an image whereby to confirm what he thought quite likely – that his father was murdered. And the language the witches utter resonates through the rest of the play in much the same way as the ghost generates more ghosts in the earlier tragedy.

The language of the witches is a logic of reversal, of the world turned inside out and upside down. In the play’s first scene, the witches utter this logic in a famous phrase that captures their philosophy in a nutshell. For them, they say, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ [1.1.10], because they take pleasure in things other people find nasty or frightening. A short time later, Macbeth echoes their phrase on his first appearance: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ [1.3.38]. He says this because he has just emerged from a battle where the ‘Strange images of death’ made by his sword [1.3.97] have brought him victory and promotion – fair things (from his point of view) arising from foul bloodshed. The witches’ prophecy that he will be king confirms that such a reversal of the world’s values can work in his favour, since the foul treachery and death of the Thane of Cawdor has the fair result of elevating Macbeth to the traitor’s lands and title. And this result, in its turn, stimulates Macbeth’s fantasies of kingship to the extent that non-existent things take precedence over real ones, so that for him ‘nothing is but what is not’ [1.3.141]. The particular ‘nothing’ that interests him – the thing that is not yet – is the image of himself as monarch; and this image occurs to him, when he thinks of it, with such intensity that it has the same effect as the apparition has on those who see it in Elsinore:

[…] why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? [1.3.134-7]

At this point in the play Macbeth becomes a prophet, already haunted by the man he will kill, the old King of Scotland whose faithful servant he has been in the recent wars. Like Hamlet, Macbeth has a prophetic soul, and like Hamlet he seeks to make his visions of the future true through his own actions.

From this moment in the play the Thane of Cawdor lives, by his own choice, in a world of marvels – the Scotland of the English chronicler Holinshed, which is a place of bloodshed as well as of wonder. In this country, women can become ‘unsexed’ [1.4.38], as Lady Macbeth is when she makes herself into what is effectively a fourth witch, as a means of furthering her husband’s prospects; a man can ‘look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under it’ [1.4.62-3]; invisible daggers can materialize and incite their owners to regicide; horses eat each other in horror at their owner’s assassination; dead men and sleeping women walk by night; adults condone the wholesale slaughter of babies and children. Macbeth dies, too, in a flurry of wonders, where forests transplant themselves, friends turn into enemies, and men are not born of women, in defiance of nature. The ‘juggling fiends’, as he calls the witches [5.8.19], have conjured up in his mind so many kinds of reversal that his story becomes at last one long reversal, ‘A tale / Told by an idiot […] signifying nothing’ [5.5.26-8].

St John writes the Book of Revelation, by Hieronymus Bosch

All these things Macbeth predicts in the early scenes of the play, so that he too becomes, in effect, a member of the witches’ coven. Like a prophetic witch, he knows from the first that killing the king will ‘teach / Bloody instructions’ to other men [1.7.8-9], making it possible for them to imagine killing the killer – even after he’s been crowned in the victim’s place – since he has proved with his own hands that kings are mortal. Macbeth, then, can foretell his own assassination from the moment he decides to assassinate Duncan. His vision of his death takes the form of an image that recalls the most celebrated set of prophecies in the Bible, the Book of Revelation:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast […]
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. [1.7.21-5]

The picture conjured up in his passage is that of the child in Revelation Chapter 12, who is borne by the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ and immediately snatched up to heaven to protect him from the fearful Dragon who is waiting to devour him. This child returns in Chapter 19 in the form of Christ riding on a white horse. By this stage his eyes shoot out flames and his robe is dipped in blood, while his sword and his rod of iron wreak a terrible vengeance on those who have ruled unjustly in his place: ‘the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies’. For Macbeth, by contrast, the vengeful Christ-figure is still an infant, as he was when he was first snatched up to heaven after his birth; and his youthfulness predicts – or perhaps ensures – that Macbeth’s violence will be particularly visited on the very young: on MacDuff’s children, young Siward in the final battle, Banquo’s son Fleance (though the last of these escapes). His eagerness to kill off the young – like the archetypal biblical tyrant, King Herod, who slaughtered the innocents in an effort to kill off Christ – is part of his attempt to prevent the prophecies of the witches, and more importantly his own prophecy of his death at the hands of his subjects, from coming true. To this end he tries to anticipate his prophetic thoughts, to catch them before they get out of hand, by acting on them as soon as they occur to him. A few scenes after his speech about ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe’, Macbeth tells us that from now on ‘The very firstlings of my heart’ will be ‘The firstlings of my hand’ [4.1.147-8] – that is, he will put his murderous ideas into action at once, as soon as they are conceived. But the attempt to stem the tide of self-fulfilling prophecies is doomed to failure, as any Jacobean spectator would have known it was when Macbeth conjured up an echo of that most infallible prophecy of all, the Book of Revelation. In the same speech the new King of Scotland tells us that ‘Time’ itself ‘anticipates my dread exploits’ [4.1.144], since the people he is thinking of killing put themselves beyond his reach as if his plans for them have been broadcast by the vividness of his ‘horrible imaginings’. MacDuff has fled to England, and his response is to kill off the future generation – MacDuff’s children – as a substitute for killing MacDuff himself. This in its turn prompts MacDuff to avenge himself on Macbeth, bringing about the very eventuality Macbeth was trying to avoid. From the moment he starts to prophesy, the Scot is locked in a cycle of inevitability, unable to turn aside from the course he mapped out for himself in his head after meeting the witches.

Isuzu Yamada as ‘Lady Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Prophecy is particularly at home in Calvinist countries, where predestination is a given, since for Calvinists God has foreknown everything since before the beginning of time, and human choice is therefore more or less an illusion. As I said earlier, Calvinism didn’t exist in Macbeth’s historical period – the eleventh century – since Calvin himself had not yet been born. So Macbeth’s willingness to believe himself predestined could be said to be another prediction, foretelling Scotland’s Calvinist future as well as his own ‘life to come’. And his gift of prophecy could also be said to be something all Calvinists had in common in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Though not prophets themselves, they were deeply familiar with the concept that their every exploit had been anticipated; predictions of what was to come would therefore not have seemed surprising to them, and a prophecy about a person didn’t make them exceptional. By the end of the play, Macbeth anticipates this attitude. He has come to believe that the art of prophecy has nothing wonderful about it, and that the sameness of successive days and years makes the future endlessly predictable. When his wife dies, for instance, he has little more to say than what Gertrude said to Hamlet about his father’s death: it is common, or dead ordinary, to die:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day […]
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. [5.5.19-23]

Since death will be everyone’s end, in other words, all human beings – not just Calvinists – are in some sense prophets, and prophecy itself is one of the tricks played by the cruel supernatural powers that love to toy with us, since it is useless to the people who have it, a mere imaginative trap.

Yet for all his apparent cynicism, Macbeth continues to believe he can evade his fate, thanks largely I think to the impossibility of the witches’ prophecies being fulfilled. What man was ever born without the help of a woman? Since when have woods walked from place to place? The answer, of course, is since the language of reversal and impossibility – the language of wonder – was unleashed by the witches at the start of the play, and since Macbeth helped to spread that language and the wonders it describes through his country, Scotland. The fact that this is so, and that the witches have tricked him, comes as a tremendous shock to the half-mad tyrant in the final scene, despite the fact that he has always known them to be ‘juggling fiends’ – and has always known, thanks to his own logic, how his story would end. And for the play’s audiences, the progress of his disenchantment – which has the ghastly inevitability of a nightmare, yet is chock full of linguistic and imaginative surprises – has always been the most potent and shocking of theatrical wonders.

Toshiro Mifune as ‘Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Thanks to Hamlet and Macbeth, we in the twenty-first century know we still live in an age of wonders. There are more things in our heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any philosophy; astonishing things being generated every moment by our minds, our words, our actions, and by the physical and metaphysical spaces beyond us. There are giants, ghosts, witches, assassins, prophets and pygmies in our collective cultural imagination. And there are monsters too, sometimes indistinguishable from heroes. These monsters – the hyper-imaginative, hyper-playful Hamlet and the clear-eyed murderer Macbeth – are the biggest wonders Shakespeare bequeathed us, and it’s them rather than the ghosts and witches we go to see, when we seek out the plays in which they appear.


[1] See Andrew Hadfield, ‘The Idea of North’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1 (2009),

[2] For details, see Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Murder Under Trust: The Crimes and Death of Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart, 1558-1598 (1999).

[3] See also 1.2.184-5, where Hamlet says – before he’s even heard of the ghost – ‘methinks I see my father […] In my mind’s eye, Horatio’.

Jealous Gods

little-mount-ararat-michele-burgessThe High Priest of the Sun stood on a little hill and lifted high his palsied gloves before the multitude. He was older than the hill he stood on, and somewhere in the course of his many reincarnations had lost the use of his eyes, his ears, his taste-buds and his sphincter muscles. On his head he wore a massive jewel-encrusted crown of seven layers: gold, silver, bronze, tin, wood, glass, and salt. The topmost layer had rather changed its shape in a recent downpour. His robes were made of seven-ply cloth of gold, which rendered them hot and stiff. There was a small bench attached inside so that when he got tired during a ceremony – which he often did – he could seat himself comfortably and still give the appearance of standing upright, supported by the rigid folds of his inner garment. His face was a mass of wrinkles, the sightless eyes deeply recessed in his delicate skull.

When the High Priest got agitated his jawbone sometimes detached itself due to weaknesses in the condylar process and the masseter. So a skilled ventriloquist was standing by, ready to take over his speech in the event of an awkward silence. There was ample room for the ventriloquist in the hollows of the old man’s cloak, which was half a mile long with a pearl to every inch.

The High Priest of the Sun raised high his palsied gloves before the multitude, dropped his jaw so that saliva dribbled down his chin, and nudged the ventriloquist with his foot, warning him to pay close attention.

‘Brethren!’ he cried, in stern and ringing tones. ‘Or children, or sinners, or Chosen Ones – depending on your preference. We are gathered together in this place, as well you know, from every corner of this vast terrestrial orb, or plain, or shell, for an experiment. An experiment on a scale never attempted since the creation – or big bang, or birthing of the world, or hatching of the cosmic egg, whichever takes your fancy. We are all here, emissaries from every known religion, devotees of every known cult, firm in faith and ambitious in design, glorying in the honour of our temples, churches, or sacred geographical features, and inspired by the sight of this, the grandest mountain in this or any other dimension…’

At this point there was a resounding crack, and the High Priest’s chin flapped uselessly on his scrawny neck. Inside the folds of his cloak the ventriloquist gave a start and ruffled hastily through his manuscript.

‘…in …in …in order to participate in a test unprecedented in human history.’

As he spoke, officers picked for the clarity of their voices roared the speech to one another, relaying it to the ears of the millions who had gathered in the shadow of Mount Shi in obedience to the summons of the High Priest of the Sun. One officer shouted to the next what the High Priest was saying, the next bawled the same words to his nearest neighbour, and so on, so that gradually more and more of the priests, shamans, god-kings, acolytes and faithful believers found themselves nodding in agreement, and a ripple of movement, a faint swell of sound ran over the surface of the crowd like a cat’s paw of wind over the surface of a quiet ocean.

‘We are here, worthy brethren, to move Mount Shi.’

A murmur rose from the first to hear this. Then gradually, as the sentence was relayed about the throng, the murmur grew to a rumble, and the rumble to a steady throb that vibrated in the soles of the High Priest’s cork-heeled shoes. The crowd’s anticipation was palpable; and the farthest section of that unprecedented congregation was only beginning to voice it a quarter of an hour after the nearest had fallen silent.

The priest, his gloves still quivering in the air, gave his head a shake to try and relocate his jaw. He must keep his arms extended skywards, for if once he lowered them he would lose the right to continue speaking. But he had remembered something he had omitted from the ventriloquist’s notes. Something important. Something on which their very lives might depend… He shook his head, and nodded it, and wagged it wildly round and round. Drool from his gaping mouth splashed the ventriloquist in his hiding place, but that highly-trained professional had been instructed to ignore the physical symptoms of his master’s decrepitude. Safe in his nest, he rustled his papers importantly and carried on, uplifted with the excitement of addressing so large a multitude.

‘Brethren!’ he cried. ‘Brethren! Our researches indicate that you have all included in the tenets of your religions – enshrined as a saying or a song, a hieroglyph, a rune, or a meaningful gesture – the unshakeable conviction that Faith Moves Mountains. Today we shall test that conviction. Today we shall discover the true religion, the One True God!’

Another half-hour murmur thundered about the plain beneath the snow-capped mass of Mount Shi. Behind the mountain, dawn was crouching ready to brindle the horizon. The clouds flocked by in small pink herds, unconscious of the imminent approach of morning. A few of the faithful chosen souls had fallen asleep where they stood or knelt or lay, patiently waiting for their own particular officer-interpreter to relay the High Priest’s latest words.

‘The experiment will be conducted as follows. Each of you will stand or kneel or lie facing the mountain; and each shall call out, in a stern and ringing voice, the following command (or some suitable modification that conforms to your own theological perspective): IN THE NAME OF GOD, BE THOU REMOVED AND BE THOU CAST INTO THE SEA. If you turn your heads you will see the Ocean of Pish directly behind your backs.’

This news was greeted with a rustle as of wind-tossed leaves in a mighty forest, as every individual turned to get a look at the distant waters glittering between the dark silhouettes of the western hills. Then all eyes turned again to the tiny figure of the Priest, perched on his hummock at the mountain’s feet. The sun was beginning to stretch and yawn behind Mount Shi, scattering rays of light from its tousled mane.

‘As the organizer of this experiment,’ cried the ventriloquist, his voice breaking a little with emotion, ‘I claim the privilege of initiating this holy procedure.’

Together, High Priest and Ventriloquist revolved until they were facing eastwards. Trembling now with faith as well as palsy – trying to dismiss from his mind the nagging anxiety that refused to let him be – the High Priest lifted his sightless eyes to the sheer West Face of the holy peak. He stood up straight in his cork-heeled shoes, raised his arms a little higher and cleared his throat. Then the ventriloquist stepped forth out of the shadow of his cloak, and cried aloud in the sternest and most ringing tones he could muster:

‘Three pounds of tomatoes! A carrot! Take two large onions, chop them to bits, and fry until transparent!’

The officers began to repeat the words, then clamped their lips suddenly shut and looked round in amazement at the High Priest of the Sun. The ventriloquist went bright red, muttered, ‘I beg your pardon… I must have got my notes muddled up…’ and vanished into the protection of the cloak. The High Priest nodded his head and let his arms drop to his sides. His eyes popped out of their sockets, his tongue unfurled itself from between his mottled gums, and slowly, very slowly he subsided into the recesses of his gown. His sphincter muscles gave a final, brief convulsion. His heart ceased to beat, warmth died away in his brain, and his soul departed thankfully, already looking forward to its next incarnation. It thought it would try something more modest this time: a newt, perhaps, or some sort of crawling insect. A creature without voice or ambitions, and highly unlikely to live to a ripe old age.

Meanwhile the ventriloquist, eager to distract attention from his master’s collapse and his own unfortunate part in it, squeaked ‘Your turn now!’ and dived to the ground with his hands over his ears.

There was a long, long pause as the officers explained the situation to the multitude. With uncharacteristic patience, the first to hear the ventriloquist’s invitation waited in utter silence as the word spread abroad. Heads bowed in thought, hands clasped on their stomachs, they concentrated on summoning every ounce of their spiritual energy for the momentous challenge to come. Then, as the last officer barked the three-word phrase to the most distant members of that innumerable assembly, every priest, shaman, god-king, acolyte and faithful believer on the plain before Mount Shi raised his or her head with the fire of fanaticism flashing in his or her eyes. Every religious leader on the earth’s surface adjusted his or her stance minutely, planting his or her feet firmly in the churned-up sand, straightening his or her spine and rising to his or her full height. A million gazes fixed themselves on the snow-covered peak of the mountain. A million throats gave a nervous cough, and a few rocks were dislodged by the sound from the serrated ridge above the High Priest’s promontory. A million voices trumpeted, in a thousand different languages, in the sternest and most ringing tones they could manage, some variation on the command with which they were all so familiar:


It was at this moment that the ventriloquist belatedly realized what the High Priest had been trying to say. ‘One at a time! One at a time!’ he squealed with all his might. Nobody heard him.

With a thunderous groan the mountain gave a heave and cracks ran across its many faces. It rumbled like a very large man with toothache; roared like a beast in intolerable pain; and finally howled in a terrifying all-consuming shriek. Boulders tore themselves loose from their age-old moorings in its flesh, then bounded down as if exulting in their brief mobility and drove furrows through the screaming crowd. A huge crack opened in the earth at the mountain’s feet, and the little hill on which the High Priest’s lifeless form still stood – still attended by the ventriloquist, whose hands were still clamped firmly over his ears – subsided into the depths. More cracks ran across the plain, opening rifts between segments of the crowd into which screaming knots of faithful believers tumbled, clinging to one another as passionately as they had ever clung to their convictions. Pits opened here or there like wounds and the earth’s fiery blood squirted out of them, drenching god-kings and acolytes without discrimination. Dust rose in a choking cloud that clogged the lungs and filled the mouth. Interpreter-officers ran about madly, their mouths wide open as if still discharging their offices, relaying fear from ear to ear till they plunged into an abyss or were crushed beneath a falling lump of granite. Priests, shamans, monks, nuns, prophets, faithful believers, and believers who had been seized with sudden doubt – all found themselves unceremoniously stripped of life and tumbled into a chaotic common burial ground. And Mount Shi began to slide. It slid across the plain, between the western hills and into the seething Ocean of Pish, where it vanished from mortal sight and mind, never to be seen again in this or any other dimension.

As the mountain sank beneath the waves a cloud of steam obscured the sky from horizon to horizon. But before this happened, in the lull before the final storm, the sun appeared in the space where the mountain had been standing.

Dawn came, and the birds in the nearby forest began to sing.