Witches, Fairies and Spirits, Oh My!

A planet is not just a major celestial body. While Mars, Mercury and Venus are some of the more common examples when we think about the noun “planet,” there are three other definitions to it as well.

One definition describes a planet as as one of the seven celestial bodies that revolve around Earth (this one has obviously been updated), and another definition describes a planet specifically in the terms of the power it has; a planet can be a controlling or fateful power, usually of occult nature. A planet is lastly defined as a luminary source (a source of light), or a source of influence. And now, we know it to be those eight gaseous, rocky bodies that revolve around the Sun.

This word has multiple origins and borrows partly from French (planete) and Latin (planêta). The word may have come from an alteration of the Latin word planês meaning “wanderer” or “to lead astray.”

In Hamlet there is only one passage where this word comes up, and it was used in a very unfamiliar way. This passage starts when Horatio is with the other soldiers and they see the King’s Ghost. Horatio has just said how the Ghost disappeared when the rooster crowed, and Marcellus is continuing on with that:

(1.1.172) MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock. / Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes / Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated, / This bird of dawning singeth all night long; / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed and so gracious is that time.

Marcellus is saying that when the season of the Savior comes (Christmas time), the rooster crows all night long, and during that time, witches, fairies, spirits and planets momentarily lose their power.

It was interesting to see planets here coexisting with fairies, spirits and witches, because those are magical/supernatural beings, while a planet is not. This makes me assume Shakespeare is talking about a planet in its other definition: as a controlling or fateful power. Planets therefore have the same sway that witches and fairies do.

I think this is significant to the text, because it more clearly illustrates Hamlet’s struggle in how to act and demonstrates a fight between Fate and Free Will. The Ghost demonstrates Fate. It is an occult power, one that leads and directs Hamlet to take revenge. Hamlet’s great struggle in performing that revenge is one against the supernatural. He is in a sense fighting against those “witches, fairies, spirits and planets” that have a certain power over people.

Knowing the word “planet” and the definition Shakespeare may have had in mind when he used it reveals more about the beliefs of the people in the story, and what Hamlet’s real struggle may be. Hamlet struggles with not only himself, but with what Fate directs him to do, and he, too, is also a “wanderer.” He moves between action and thought, struggling with what one supernatural force compels him to do and what he believes he can and cannot do.

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One Response to Witches, Fairies and Spirits, Oh My!

  1. Hey JoMaris!

    When I read the passage, I automatically attached the meaning of planet as a celestial body. I did not think that there would be another meaning and since the word only appeared once in the text, I guess it allows readers to easily overlook it. Great job finding the alternate meaning that the text was referring to. I would never have thought that was the alternate meaning but it does make more sense as the lines about the fairy follow after. I like how you tied in the meaning of the word with the following lines and the overall theme of Hamlet’s fate. Great word selection and post!

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