A strange and funny beast is prophecy. All the greats tell us this. And Shakespeare can’t let it well enough alone, like so many.
We all know about those witches in Macbeth:
FIRST WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
SECOND WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
THIRD WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!
FIRST WITCH. Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
SECOND WITCH. Not so happy, yet much happier.
THIRD WITCH. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
Of course Macbeth can’t help himself and off he goes to make it happen – it does make me wonder what would Banquo might have done, given a little longer to reflect on the witches’ prophecies*. So far so straightforward – self-fulfilling prophecies are definitely fulfilled, you can say that much for them. It is the second set of prophecies – delivered not by the witches themselves but by hideous apparitions they conjure – which lead Macbeth astray.
FIRST APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff,
Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.
SECOND APPARITION. Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.
THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
These apparitions can rhyme better than the witches, as well as dissembling. And we all know what happens – Great Birnam Wood is used to disguise troops and apparently Scottish Caesareans don’t count as birth**.
Strangely enough, the prophecy that prompted the post is an odd little coda at the end of Henry IV Part 2:
KING. Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?
WARWICK. ‘Tis call’d Jerusalem, my noble lord.
KING. Laud be to God! Even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I suppos’d the Holy Land.
But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.
The reason it sticks in the brain is not the way the prophecy twists to Henry’s disadvantage, but that since the end of Richard II he has been mad keen to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land – and why so eager to go to his death? I wondered if it meant that all of the unhappiness when his plans were repeatedly upset was a ruse, but it may have had more to do with the medieval belief that people would be resurrected for the Last Judgement where they had died, and those who died in Jerusalem would be therefore be near Christ and be able to gain Paradise.
The second set of history plays (Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III) are also chock full of prophecies – having Joan of Arc as a character helps in that regard, as does the strange Queen Margaret. The extent to which those characters prophesied at believe what is said is less clear – as usual, Richard III (at this point just the Duke of Gloucester) breaks the fourth wall to talk to us:
This day should Clarence [George, his brother] closely be mew’d up-
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul.
In Shakespeare’s version at least the prophecy is “right” – but of course not in the way most of the character’s believe***.
King John clearly believed in prophecy – he was most unhappy to receive this one:
BASTARD. And here’s a prophet that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your Highness should deliver up your crown.
KING JOHN. Thou idle dreamer, wherefore didst thou so?
PETER. Foreknowing that the truth will fall out so.
KING JOHN. Hubert, away with him; imprison him;
And on that day at noon whereon he says
I shall yield up my crown let him be hang’d.
Again – the man is technically right – King John is persuaded by Pandulph to relinquish his crown – very briefly, to have it placed back on his head by Pandulph himself moments later.
KING JOHN. Is this Ascension-day? Did not the prophet
Say that before Ascension-day at noon
My crown I should give off? Even so I have.
I did suppose it should be on constraint;
But, heaven be thank’d, it is but voluntary.
It’s a bit of a shame the poor man is almost certainly killed anyway – King John does not the end the scene by calling for his pardon and release…
The poor soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra, though he speaks true, seems to be largely ignored – after his fortunes to Cleopatra’s court Antony takes him to Rome, and despite this sage advice
ANTONY. Say to me, Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?
SOOTHSAYER. Caesar’s. Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side.
Antony remains in Rome, and sets in motion the rest of the play****.
Still, being ignored is probably better than being consulted and then being flat-out called a liar, as Leontes does to the Delphic oracle in A Winter’s Tale.
OFFICER. ‘Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.’
LORDS. Now blessed be the great Apollo!
LEONTES. Hast thou read truth?
OFFICER. Ay, my lord; even so As it is here set down.
LEONTES. There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle. The sessions shall proceed. This is mere falsehood.
The other option, of course, is to just get the soothsayer to explain the plot of the play for the hard-of-understanding – this is the favoured option in Cymbeline.
LUCIUS. Read, and declare the meaning.
SOOTHSAYER. [Reads] ‘When as a lion’s whelp shall, to himself
unknown, without seeking find, and be embrac’d by
a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall
be lopp’d branches which, being dead many years, shall
after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow;
then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate
and flourish in peace and plenty.’
Thou, Leonatus, art the lion’s whelp;
The fit and apt construction of thy name,
Being Leo-natus, doth import so much.
[To CYMBELINE] The piece of tender air, thy virtuous daughter,
Which we call ‘mollis aer,’ and ‘mollis aer’
We term it ‘mulier’; which ‘mulier’ I divine
Is this most constant wife, who even now
Answering the letter of the oracle,
Unknown to you, unsought, were clipp’d about
With this most tender air.
CYMBELINE. This hath some seeming.
SOOTHSAYER. The lofty cedar, royal Cymbeline,
Personates thee; and thy lopp’d branches point
Thy two sons forth, who, by Belarius stol’n,
For many years thought dead, are now reviv’d,
To the majestic cedar join’d, whose issue
Promises Britain peace and plenty.
From kingmaker to exposition, as usual Shakespeare manages to explore all possible avenues…
* Probably nothing, at least in the Shakespeare version. King James claimed descent from Banquo, and Shakespeare was not going to piss him off.
** Which is clearly some kind of legal grey area. This covers it well http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/macbeth-and-macduff-get-into-an-argument-over-semantics
*** We the audience are a little more savvy by this point in the play and already know Richard is a magnificent bastard.
**** Which is always death. Nobody ever got married after a prophecy.