Term Paper: Shakespeare's Foreshadowing in Tragedy

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[. . .] Critics are quick to point out that for the original audiences, who could draw on the current historical situation in England, this foreshadowing would have been even more immediate and visceral. Lear's division of the kingdom, at the historical moment when this play was written, would have most clearly and definitely predicted to the audience the eventual downfall of his fortunes and family.

A similarly visceral foreshadowing may be seen in Hamlet. The opening scenes of this play revolve around the appearance of a dreadful and menacing ghost, who comes in the very aspect and shape of Hamlet's dead father and namesake. As many have pointed out, however, the Old Hamlet is not a comforting father figure, for he speaks most terrifyingly of the tortures of purgatory and of hellfires. The fact that --though a member of a Protestant nation-- old Hamlet is in purgatory is itself a very deep foreshadowing of the terrible war that will take place within the soul of young Hamlet and make up the bulk of this play's psychological plot.

Purgatory is a state of torturous indecision, trapped between heaven and hell. This is where Old Hamlet must stay until his sins are cleansed. Young Hamlet, however, also gets caught in a state of mad indecision, trapped between his allegiance to the heavenly and the virtuous and his sworn duty to avenge himself. Like one suffering in purgatory he obsesses about the possibility of death and sleep, but cannot find it. So Old Hamlet becomes in many ways a metaphor for young Hamlet's eventual mental predicament.

Old Hamlet is a foreshadowing of young Hamlet's fate in more ways than one. Additionally one sees that King Hamlet is dressed in the outfit that he wore when he challenged the old King Fortinbras to a one-on-one duel in which Fortinbras was killed. He is caught, dead, at a moment of honorable dueling that will decide the fate of Denmark and Fortinbras' lands as well. Not coincidentally, this play will end when young Hamlet undertakes a one on one duel in which he will meet his death -- and young Fortinbras will take the country. A great circle is thus completed from the beginning of this play to the end, with the play opening and closing with a duel to the death and the transfer of lands from the hands of Fortinbras to the hands of Hamlet and vice versa.

Let attention return, however, to the significance of the ghost and all that it foreshadows as a religious phenomena. One recalls that the ghost must leave as the cock crows. There is implied here an idea that the ghost is somehow profane and impure, and this further foreshadows that great debate that will tear Hamlet apart throughout -- whether this be a temptation or a true sign from beyond. The ghost seems, after a fashion, almost an evil spirit come to guide Hamlet to destroy his own friends and family. "Fury, almost a violent ecstasy, is first and foremost triggered by the fatal encounter with the Ghost, that is, by an eschatological provocation" (Ozawa, 91). If one listens carefully to the story the ghost tells of having poison put into his ears, one may see a further foreshadowing. For as he cries out for Hamlet to listen he is putting a poison of revenge into Hamlet's soul, which Hamlet in turn will pass on to his mother. Later in the play Hamlet speaks of how his own accusations will be driving a dagger of truth into Gertrude's ear. Eventually these words of revenge take on the form of true poison, and both Gertrude and Hamlet die from poison of one sort or another, because of the revenge the ghost has demanded. The phrase "something rotten in Denmark" may also be seen as foreshadowing of the play's themes of death and decay. From that moment on Hamlet will become obsessed with maggots and grave-rot and the process of a king through the belly of a beggar. The rot is not really apparent at the play's beginning, but it becomes apparent later as the bodies begin to pile up.

One final and someone separate foreshadowing is present in the first act of Hamlet. Polonious says to Ophelia, "From this time, daughter, / Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence" (1.3.120-121) Her obedience to this command drives a wedge between her and Hamlet, and can be seen as directly responsible for her eventual death. Thus one may tragically read the command to make her presence scant as an ironic foreshadowing of her eventual madness and death.

In Hamlet all that is foreshadowed is of a decidedly morbid and disturbing nature. This is not so true of all Shakespeare's work. While he does use foreshadowing to predict villainy and horror, in his romantic comedies it is also effectively used to predict the forming of good and permanent relationships, in addition to almost amusing villainies. Shakespeare has a specific formula for his comedies that involves "foreshadowing and foreboding... put in the play early and... heard throughout the drama. All Shakespearean comedies have five acts. The climax of the play is always during the third act." ('the plays...') Within these comedies then, foreshadowing is used both to build the sense of foreboding against which a happy ending is possible and to foreshadow that happy ending.

In Much Ado About Nothing, foreshadowing plays both these roles. So far as predicting the happy endings goes, it is very clear from the beginning that Beatrice and Benedick will eventually become a romantic couple and wed. Imbedded within their verbal wrestling is the subtle but obvious foreshadowing of a more carnal desire they both posses. Shakespeare shows both: "hers implicitly by her hectic but derisive talk of [Benedick] in the first scene when she hears he is back from the wars, his explicitly with a remark about the beauty which might turn him into a lover were the woman concerned not 'possessed with a fury'" (Fletcher, 106) This foreshadowing is implicit within every dialogue between the two.

Explicit foreshadowing, meanwhile, is used to establish the villainy of Don John. So obvious is it that he will be the main threat to the welfare and happiness of the principles that he is found to be broadly and vocally proclaiming this from the beginning. He may be quoted as saying: "though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain... I have decreed not to sing in my cage." (I.iii.23-27) Somewhat like Edmund in King Lear, Don John is (literally) a bastard who wishes to take revenge on the entirety of civilization for the accident of his birth. He takes pleasure in the casual destruction of the lives of others, and is an unrepentant evil from the beginning.

In the first act of Much Ado..., foreshadowing is used to predict the eventual weddings that will occur, the villainy of the antagonist, and the form that the complications will take -- miscommunication and mishap. The misunderstandings of Antonio's servants are just the beginning of a long string of misunderstandings and miscommunications facilitated by the lies and games of all the characters. That it happens at first by true accident, and subsequently by arranged accident is all the more amusing.

In conclusion, one can see how both tragedy and comedy may be heightened by the artistic use of foreshadowing. King Lear and Hamlet are made all the more tragic because one cannot escape the sense that if the principles had only had the same distance from their situations that the audience enjoys, they would have been able to foresee and avoid their sad ends. Likewise, the comedies are made funnier and more charming by the fact that only the audience is "in" on all the jokes and little tricks played on all the characters. Foreshadowing not only serves as a mark of high literature, but serves an important role in the relationship between the audience and the work and helps the plot reach its destination in an timely and artistic fashion.

Bibliography

Fletcher, Anthony. Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800. New Haven:

Yale UP, 1995.

Friedlander, Ed. "Enjoying King Lear" http://www.pathguy.com/kinglear.htm

Lockett, J. Lear's lapse: foreshadowing in King Lear. http://www.io.com/~jlockett/Grist/English/lear.html

Ozawa, Hiroshi. "I must be cruel only to be kind': Apocalyptic Repercussions in Hamlet." Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Ueno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 73-85.

The Plays - The Comedies." Online Shakespeare. http://www.onlineshakespeare.com/comedies.htm

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Project Gutenberg E-Text. Http://www.promo.net/pg

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Project Gutenberg E-Text. Http://www.promo.net/pg

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado about Nothing. Project Gutenberg E-Text. Http://www.promo.net/pg [END OF PREVIEW]

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Shakespeare's Foreshadowing in Tragedy.  (2003, November 29).  Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/shakespeare-foreshadowing-tragedy/2483358

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"Shakespeare's Foreshadowing in Tragedy."  Essaytown.com.  November 29, 2003.  Accessed March 22, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/shakespeare-foreshadowing-tragedy/2483358.