The Structural and Symbolic Elements of Mythology in Many of Shakespeare's Plays

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Published: Oct 26, 2018

Words: 2782|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Many of Shakespeare’s plays contain the structural and symbolic elements of mythology. The inheritance of mythological conventions, which shall be explored in this essay, create an effect that is ritualistic and leads to Nietzsche’s observation of ‘an overpowering feeling of unity which leads back to the heart of nature’. This essay is not claiming that Shakespeare applied mythic elements to his plays consciously but that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate a strong level of acquaintance with ancient myths and folklore. This level of acquaintance is perhaps so deeply imbedded as part of the universal imagination that arguing whether or not the plays’ mythic elements were consciously applied is unnecessary. The aim here is to identify strong mythological strains in order to place Shakespeare in a wider historical and human context, and speculate as to the effects achieved by inclusion of these elements. Through a consideration of Frazer’s canonical anthropological text, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), primarily, this essay will assert that the effect of Shakespeare’s mythological aspects is one that communicates in a symbolic language that is universal.

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Although Michael Levenson claimed that ‘Vague terms still signify’, it is best for the purposes here to elucidate what is meant by the term ‘myth’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘myth’ as ‘A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon’. This is an apt definition for the elements in Shakespeare that can be termed ‘mythological’ as parallels can be observed between them and those that occur in societies in history and the ritualistic practices of those societies.

Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, writes that ‘even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature, and how the same processes which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation menace him with extinction. At a certain stage of development men seem to have imagined that the means of averting the threatened calamity were in their own hands, and that they could hasten or retard the flight of the seasons by magic art’. In The Tempest, Prospero is the archetypal sorcerer; a figure that is evocative of the shamans of ancient cultures. He talks of his ability in magic as ‘mine art’ (I. ii. 291) and controls spirits, such as Ariel, to govern natural ‘calamity’ by invoking the gods: ‘Jove’s lightning’ (I. ii. 201) and the ‘dread trident’ of ‘the most mighty Neptune’ are both summoned. In creating Prospero as a sorcerer, controlling nature, Shakespeare is alluding to the idea of the playwright as sorcerer. As well as the several instances where Propsero refers to his ‘so potent art’ (V. i. 50), there are other indications that the audience is supposed to infer a similarity between Prospero and playwright, playwright and shaman. Prospero states that the other protagonists ‘now are in my power’ (III. iii. 90) and sees this as a demonstration that his ‘high charms work’ (88). Later in the play, as if speaking the words of the playwright anticipating the fiction’s narrative arc and resolution, Prospero informs Ariel that ‘Shortly shall all my labours end’ (IV. i. 264). In drawing parallels between the sorcerer figure and the playwright, Shakespeare shows that, in the same way that the ancient priest exerted control over his environment through magic, the playwright exerts control over his audience through the magic and illusion of the stage.

The magic and illusion of the stage can be seen metaphorically, in The Tempest, through the recurring motif of sleeping and dreaming, whilst Shakespeare points to the artifice that creates the illusion of the stage through placing a play-within-a-play in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is significant, in The Tempest, that Ariel’s first appearance comes directly after Prospero has induced sleep in his daughter, Miranda. He tells her that ‘Thou art inclined to sleep; ‘tis a good dullness, | And give it way. I know thou canst not choose’ (I. ii. 185-6). Prospero’s power to induce sleep contains the playwright’s self-conscious aim to, in the words of Coleridge, solicit the audience it ‘yield’ itself ‘to a dream’. This is reinforced by Artaud’s assertion that the ‘audience will believe in the illusion of theatre on condition they really take it for a dream, not for a servile imitation of reality’. Once Miranda is asleep, Prospero can call his spirit to ‘Approach’ (188), in the same way that Shakespeare can construct the siege at Harfleur, in Henry V, once the Chorus has instructed the audience to ‘work your thoughts, and therein see a siege’ (III. 25). These are self-conscious elements, like the recitation of charms, that preceed, and then induce, the dream-like state.

The connection between dreams and myth is one that simultaneously shows both to evoke a symbolic language and infer a primitive past, which used ritual to celebrate the death and rebirth of a god. Northrop Frye sees a connection between the two, in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and talks about ‘a rhythmic movement from normal world to green world and back again […] The green world has analogies, not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires’. The idea of descending into a dream state, like one does in the theatre, or like the protagonists of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream do, recalls the death of an ancient god because the descension into a dream is similar to the god’s descension into death. The god’s death is dreamlike due to the fact that he has the ability to rise again, or ‘Awake’ (306), to use Prospero’s instruction to Miranda. The god awakes because of a ritual controlled by a priest, who needs the god’s rebirth in order for the environment to be fertilised. Frazer recalls that ‘every year Tammuz was believed to die, passing away from the cheerful earth to the gloomy subterranean world’ (326). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the protagonists also pass into a ‘subterranean world’. To call Shakespeare’s other-world ‘gloomy’, however, would be incorrect. Instead, Shakespeare constructs a world that is vibrant and colourful in order to make the idea of his play’s function as ritual for fertility more overt. The aim of descension in order to return revitalised is implicit in Demetrius’ comment to Helena, that he is ‘wode within this wood’ (II. i. 192). In the word ‘wood’ the idea of fertility is conjured, whilst ‘wode’ is a play on words suggesting both ‘wooed’, further suggesting the attempt to attain fertility, and the idea of ‘frenzy’, as the word derives from the Old English ‘wÓd’. The ‘subterranean world’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may not be ‘gloomy’ but there is a sense of frenzy as the protagonists attempt to fulfill their sexual desires.

The idea of descension into another world as reminiscent of the rivival rituals of primitive societies is one that manifests itself not only in Shakespeare’s plays. Literature has used the convention of dreaming as a means for its protagonists to learn and change as early as the Breton Lays and romantic poetry of the Medieval era in British history. This can be seen in the dreaming that preceeds the hero’s adventure in Sir Orfeo and the change of the dreamer’s perspective in Pearl, to name just two. The link between sleep and death is also one that has been well established by Shakespeare’s time of writing; a level of knowledge about the synonymous nature of sleep with death can be inferred in The Tempest in one of Ariel’s songs. The spirit sings, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies, | Of his bones are coral made; | Those are pearls that were his eyes, | Nothing of him that doth fade | But doth suffer a sea-change | Into something rich and strange’ (I. ii. 397-402). Implicit in this song is the idea that death, like sleep, is not a finite point. It is a point for ‘change’. The influence of mythology on Shakespeare’s writing is apparent here not only in the philosophy that is evoked but in the application of water imagery; death is not just a change, but a ‘sea-change’. Shakespeare uses imagery of water that abounds in Frazer’s depiction of rituals celebrating Adonis and Osiris, among others, which then became common currency in the mythological stories of Christianity; the stories of water into wine and the ritual of water used in baptism are just two that show the symbol to be used to convey the idea of transmutation. The philosophy that is implicit in Ariel’s song, of one’s ‘bones’ becoming ‘coral’ and one’s ‘eyes’ becoming ‘pearls’ after death, is one that extends across historical cultures as vast as Egyptian to Roman to Oriental. The mythology of ancient Oriental cultures, in particular, would have been difficult for Shakespeare to have had access to. He would have known something of the Roman belief system from reading Plutarch’s Lives, but the philosophy of the Buddha would, most likely, have been inaccessible. Yet the Buddha’s idea of the one containing the many, and the many containing the one, is alluded to strongly in Ariel’s song. The symbolic mutability of death and sleep is further conveyed in Hamlet. Contemplating suicide, Hamlet repeats the phrase ‘To die, to sleep’ (III. i. 59) and wonders ‘what dreams may come’ ‘in that sleep of death’ (65). In focusing on two, of many possible, examples, it can be ascertained that Shakespeare’s mythology was one drawn from a universal pool, whether he knew it or not.

Whilst the act of descending into a ‘subterranean world’, along with lexical and symbolic comparisons of sleep and death, aid the inferrence of a debt to the ancient mythologies of the dying god, it is in The Winter’s Tale that this idea is even more implicit. Hermione’s death and rebirth is both literal and symbolic. Literal in the sense, like in the myth of Adonis or the myth of Jesus, she really does die and she really does come to life again. Symbolic in the sense that this idea is portrayed in her body’s transmutation into a statue. This symbol recalls, and reinforces, the idea of the death of the father, in The Tempest, as a ‘sea-change’; like the ‘bones’ which have become ‘coral’, Hermione’s body has become marble. The expectation of Hermione’s revival is created in Paulina’s words: ‘I say she’s dead […] If you can bring | Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye, | Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you | As I would do the gods’ (III. ii. 203-7). In The Winter’s Tale, like in the myth of Adonis, anticipation of Hermione’s revival is inherent in her death. In Paulina’s words, Shakespeare alludes to the idea that this death and rebirth are entwined with the act of ritual and prayer; Paulina will serve the person who revives Hermione in the same way that she would serve the gods. The statue of Hermione is a means of symbolically encapsulating the idea of transformation; death and rebirth conglomerating together in one visually representative fixture. The statue is reminiscent of the effigies of gods that would be burnt or thrown out to sea as part of the fertility ritual.

The idea for the effect of Shakespeare’s mythology as being one that communicates in a universal language arose from a reading of Lévi-Strauss’ essay, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’. In seeing the contradictory nature of mythology, and therefore suggesting its difficulty to define, Lévi-Strauss asked, ‘If the content of a myth is contingent, how are we going to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?’ He proceeds, in his essay, to analyze the semiotics of mythology on a linguistic level (‘sounds’ and ‘meaning’) in order to answer his own question: ‘Myth is language – to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech’. The Tempest, in demonstrating its visually and philosophically mythological elements, also shows, within its narrative, the idea that myth itself is language. The mythological elements of sleep and magic are juxtaposed with the recurring theme of language. Prospero instructs his earth spirit, Caliban, ‘Thou earth, thou: speak!’ (I. ii. 314), in a way that is reminiscent of the primitive priest invoking his environment to communicate with him. Interaction can be seen, among the protagonists who are not equipped with magic, to take place within the mythic framework. Ferdinand, in speaking with Miranda, exclaims, ‘My language? Heavens! | I am the best of them that speak this speech, | Were I but where ‘tis spoken’ (I. ii. 429-431); speech, here, is seen as a valuable tool in which to communicate with one’s environment. Removed from the environment in which his language is understood, Ferdinand is powerless. Further on in the play, once more time has been spent on the island and in Miranda’s company, Ferdinand learns to speak the language of mythology; he speaks from his ‘soul’ (III. i. 63) and implores ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ to ‘bear witness to this sound’ (68). In the microcosm of the island, speech is intricately bound with mythology; Sebastian observes, for example, that Antonio speaks a ‘sleepy language’ (II. i. 211). On a metatheatrical level, words are used by both playwright and sorcerer. Words are used to induce stage illusion and to construct myth. They are used to invoke spirits and gods. Caliban suggests all of this when he informs Stephano that ‘voices, | That if I then had waked after long sleep, | Will make me sleep again’ (III. ii. 138-40). Prospero, too, makes an inference between the illusion of mythology and the illusion of the stage as created by words: ‘These our actors, | As I foretold you, were all spirits and | Are melted into air, into thin air […] We are such stuff | As dreams are made on, and our little life | Is rounded with a sleep’ (IV. i. 148-158).

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Freud saw dreams as arising from a need to sublimate desires. Dreams and myth coexist closely in Shakespeare’s plays and the idea of desire is added to this existence in statements such as Northrop Frye’s, in which the ‘dream world’ is created out of ‘our own desires’. Freud’s studies, particularly in The Interpretation of Dreams (1890), suggest that there are common desires in everyone and sees them manifested in dreams, mythological stories, and Shakespeare’s plays. A famous example is that of the ‘Oedipus Complex’. The complex takes its name, and what it designates, from Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which itself is influenced by a mythological background. Freud defines it , in ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’, as a ‘straightforward sexual object-cathexis towards his mother and an identification with his father which takes him as the model’. Freud saw this particular desire as sublimated in dreams, mythology, and plays such as Hamlet. What mythology does, in a psychoanalytical sense, is give a language to universal desires. Lacan’s definition of a language, in ‘The Symbolic Order’ (The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis), compounds the idea that mythology itself is a language: ‘What defines any element of a language as belonging to language, is that, for all the users of this language, this element is distinguished as such in the ensemble supposedly constituted of homologous elements’. The language of mythology in Shakespeare’s plays, that of dying and rebirth, speaks to the common desire of man to progress and for the seasons to continue their cycle. Jung, in the written format of his lecture ‘The Psychology of Rebirth’, confirms this: ‘The mere fact that people talk about rebirth, and that there is such a concept at all, means that a store of psychic experiences designated by that term must actually exist’. Shakespeare’s plays are at once indebted to the ritualistic practices of primitive times and at the same time use them as a means of communication. Shakespeare, like mythology, speaks in a language that is common to all of us.


  1. Artaud, Antonin, The Theatre and its Double, Calder (2005)
  2. Frazer, Sir James George, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Wordsworth (1993)
  3. Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton (2000)
  4. Heller, Janet Ruth, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (1984)
  5. Jung, Carl, Four Archetypes, Routledge (2007)
  6. Rivkin, Julie, & Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell (1998)
  7. Shakespeare, William, The Riverside Shakespeare: Second Edition, 1997
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Structural and Symbolic Elements of Mythology in Many of Shakespeare’s Plays. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
“The Structural and Symbolic Elements of Mythology in Many of Shakespeare’s Plays.” GradesFixer, 26 Oct. 2018,
The Structural and Symbolic Elements of Mythology in Many of Shakespeare’s Plays. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2024].
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