Seminar 14: “Many straunge and horrible events” – Omens and Prophecies in Histories and Tragedies by Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

“To make short, in this year sundry woeful, and cruel evils, together with many strange and horrible events shall sensibly appear, which shall principally molest and afflict the westward countries.”[[Richard Harvey, An Astrological Discourse upon the great and notable Conjunction of the two superiour Planets Saturne & Jupiter, which shall happen the 28 day of April, 1583. With a briefe Declaration oof the effectes, which the late Eclipse of the Sunne 1582. is yet heerafter to woorke, London, 1583, p. 33 (spelling modernised).]]

Thus wrote Richard Harvey on the rare star constellation in 1582, a planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, seen as one of the most notorious omens in the late 16th century. Omens, prodigies or portents are extraordinary macrocosmic phenomena that prophesy or foreshadow coming events. They are symbols of the future and, in the Renaissance, were seen as cosmic relations: they could be signs of either the confirmation of a fixed divine order or a potentially violent threat posed by a contravening proto-apocalyptic disorder.

Statements like Harvey’s are not unknown in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Whether the nativity to the Duchess of Malfi’s child bodes good or ill, whether the blood of English will indeed manure the ground during the Wars of the Roses, or whether the “tempest dropping fire” and other “portentous things” on the night before the Ides of March announce Caesar’s assassination, faith in omens and prophecies often had political, historical and religious implications, affording playwrights numerous dramatic opportunities. On stage, foreshadowing by omens and prophecies often alludes to a change of power, not only in histories where events may have been familiar for audiences, but also in tragedies, as a means to hint at future events in the plot.

Omens seem almost commonplace elements to transmit a knowledge of things to come, be it through symbolic images of light or darkness, planetary and astrological references, or meteorological figures of speech. Prophecies can help anticipate events, differentiate characters, determine battles, evoke misunderstandings and create dramatic suspense. Marjorie Garber speaks of “the dramatic convention that prophecies always come true”, a fact she claims was employed by playwrights.[[Marjorie Garber, “‘What’s past is prologue’: Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Harvard UP, 1986, p. 308.]] But prophecies and omens also allow a discrepant audience awareness, a notion already introduced by Ernst Cassirer when he spoke of the symbolic function of omens to express intentions,[[Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance, 1927.]] and they can be used to re-interpret signs, plays and even history, “prophesying after the fact”, in the words of Kenneth Burke.[[Kenneth Burke, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, ed. Scott L. Newstok, Parlor Press, 2007.]]

Staging omens as visual signs in Renaissance theatre also required the support of scenery. But by means of verbal presentations of stage scenery, a skillful linguistic, dramaturgic or teichoscopic representation of omens could work like prophecies, challenging distinctions between visible and invisible, stage and audience, presenting and representing.

In this seminar, we would like to address the ambiguous, auxiliary and malleable functions of omens and prophecies in histories and tragedies by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, how they operate with source-based omens and prophecies and incorporate them in their plays; how they invent new omens and prophecies; how they choose and use characters (prophets, augurs, sybils, etc.) to utter prophecies and interpret omens; how plays exploit pagan and Christian interpretive and symbolic patterns; how royal, civic and Church authorities responded to the playwrights’ use of prophecies and omens; how the staging of prophecies and omens evolved over time.

This seminar targets the application and dramatic usage of omens and prophecies by Shakespeare and other dramatists of the early modern era: we welcome diverse methodological approaches to the topic, notably analyses based on history, anthropology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, linguistics and performance studies. As the seminar takes place during a conference commemorating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, proposals on prophecies and omens about Shakespeare and “Shakespearean” drama are also welcome.

Proposals should be sent to ->] and [ by September 10, 2013. Please include name, email, affiliation, abstract (250 words) and title of your contribution.