(A Quick Loot At) Macbeth’s Influence Over Harry

For those of you who know a thing or three about J.K. Rowling, you know that her favorite play, arguably, is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  And it makes sense:  the Harry Potter series shares many similarities–women’s roles, impending war, and (the big one) prophecies–with Shakespeare’s play.  In fact, the topic is so rich that I’m willing to bet a dissertation could easily be written on the subject (you’re welcome, grad students).  But I want to bring quick attention to the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban:  it seems that director Alfonso Cuaron, or the producers, decided that the third film should revolve around the idea of Macbeth.  There were a few notable overt references to The Scottish Play, even in the tagline of the film:

"Something Wicked This Way Comes"

(And for you hardcore Bardies:)

I'm tempted to buy it.

The other overt reference that I caught in Prisoner of Azkaban was the choir’s lovely rendition of the three witches’ scene in Act IV (full soundtrack version):

These are two very important scenes in the play, in fact, they’ve become somewhat iconic of both Macbeth and the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban.  But the question remains:  are these Shakespearean references significant–that is, does Macbeth play a significant role in the film and the Harry Potter series in general–or are these merely casual references that lack any real merit?  My answer:  yes and no.

After watching Prisoner of Azkaban a few times, I came to the conclusion that these references do serve a purpose–that is, drawing a comparison between the events of the plot and the themes and events of Macbeth.  Turning the three witches’ famous scene into a song for the film was a clever way to hint that there are similarities between the film/novel and play.  But I want to look specifically at the tagline, “Something wicked this way comes,” which has been used throughout literature and often parodied in pop culture.  But what was happening in the context of Shakespeare’s play when the witches uttered this?

That “something” that the witches refer to is Macbeth himself, who is at this point both a murderer and traitor.  In the film, however, the “something” is more difficult to define.  It isn’t necessarily Voldemort because he doesn’t make an appearance in this novel or film.  As I see it, there are only three possible wicked somethings:  the dementors, which are essentially the manifestation of fear and came from J.K. Rowling’s own bout with depression; Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather whom the Wizarding World suspects to be evil; and Wormtail, Voldemort’s trusted minion who isn’t much of a threat to anyone even when he is supposed to be.  The main antagonists in this film, in my opinion, are fear and the perceived impending danger from that fear.  Sirius is ultimately friend rather than foe, and the dementors are simply poweful guards but not directly villains.

Indeed, that “something wicked” in Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be Wormtail who, we learn in the end of the film, is both a traitor and a murderer.  In short, Wormtail betrayed Harry’s parents by revealing their whereabouts to Voldemort, who ultimately killed them.  Then, in an attempt to escape, he framed Sirius as responsible for James’ and Lily’s death; soon thereafter, he killed twelve nearby muggles and transformed into a rat (who later became Ron Weasley’s pet, Scabbers).  It is important to note that the similarities between Macbeth and Wormtail end here.  In this sense I say that the Macbeth references are not entirely unwarranted, but they are superficial if the only connection between Shakespeare and Harry Potter are qualities that two very different characters share.  The major connection between Harry Potter and Macbeth is much deeper:  prophecies.

The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is central to both Macbeth and the Harry Potter series–that is, when a character knows about the prophecy and, because of it, ultimately fulfills it in an ironic twist of fate.  J.K. says this of the prophecy in Macbeth:  “If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan?  would any of it have happened?  Is it fated or did he make it happen?  I believe he made it happen.”  There is, in fact, the self-fulfilling prophecy that is central to the Potter series, as Professor Trelawney predicts:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. … Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not … and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives. … The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…

The ambiguous language caused quite the controversy, particularly the line, “…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…”  (Whether this meant both Harry and Voldemort needed to die or if one needed to vanquish the other was a topic of great debate.)  Knowing what we do now, however, we know that a male child would be born at the end of July.  The prophecy is actually open-ended because it could apply to both Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom.  Because of this, Voldemort would have to choose (by “mark[ing] him as his equal”–the lightning scar).

Voldemort chooses Harry because Harry is a half-blood like Voldemort (not a pure-blood like Neville).  I should also point out that Voldemort merely chose the boy who would have the power to destroy him–this does not necessarily mean that Harry would defeat Voldemort, simply that it was up to him to vanquish the Dark Lord.  It could very well have been the case that Voldemort would defeat Harry; fortunately the reverse happened.  But the series revolves around this crucial self-fulfilling prophecy, much like Macbeth.

Rowling did, in fact, draw this aspect of the Harry Potter series directly from Macbeth (though she drew many elements from different works and myths as well).  She uses the prophecy as she interprets its significance in the play:  Voldemort chose his enemy, and it was up to Harry to defeat Voldemort–that is, they had to make it happen on their own.

Going back to the third Harry Potter film, the references to Macbeth are more for effect–to create an atmosphere and tone similar to that in the play, and to point viewers (and readers) to its themes.  However, Macbeth‘s influence is rooted much deeper in the series than casual references–the play serves an important purpose without which the series could not exist.

Breaking: Potter Tops Decade’s Banned/Challenged Book List; In Other News, I Have a Cookie

And what a glorious cookie it is.

You know, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come to to conclusion that 24 really is ending.  A couple episodes ago Jack was finally done, and he even had a girlfriend to take home.  And it was an unsettling scene to watch because it showed a very calm Jack Bauer–and quite frankly I was just not used to it.  Turns out he’s actually quite calm and normal in real life, and the whole Jack Bauer image is just a facade for work.  And it was around this point that I realized there was still like. . .six episodes left, so it just couldn’t be the end, no matter how satisfied I was that Jack was finally happy.  And then, BAM!  Renee is taken from him like Teri was.  Now the reason I bring this up is because Renee’s death was to 24 what Hedwig was to Harry Potter:  I just didn’t want to see it coming.  In many ways, I think Hedwig’s death was the most heartbreaking because she really did not deserve to go.  She was always there for Harry regardless, and they were having a tiff or something, which made it that much worse.  Did J.K. NEED to kill off Hedwig?  No, not really–and yet it was entirely necessary because it signaled to me that the end was actually near.  No one was safe.  And so, Agent Walker, I mourn you the way I mourned the snowy owl in Harry Potter.  I raise my cookie to you.

Shameless Self-Promotion: MPCA/ACA

As some of you may know, I’m the acting Area Chair for the Harry Potter area of the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference.  I figure if I’m going to put myself out there, this is as good a place as any to do it.  Basically just submit a 200-300-word abstract about a Harry Potter paper or project by April 30th.  Obviously the deadline is quickly approaching, so make sure you get it in.  The full Call for Papers (CFP) is below.  Contact me if you have any questions or concerns!


The Harry Potter area of the Midwest Popular Culture Association/Midwest American Culture Association invites panel and paper proposals for its annual conference.  The conference will run from October 1-3, 2010 at the Bloomington Sheraton Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Proposals and abstracts of about 250-300 words on any aspect of Harry Potter are welcome, although topics focusing on pedagogical issues are of particular interest.

Please submit proposals and abstracts to the area chair.  Electronic submissions should be sent to Orlando Dos Reis at odosreisHP@gmail.com.  Deadline for submissions is April 30, 2010.

More information about the conference can be found at http://www.mpcaaca.org or contact the area chair with any questions you may have.

SS Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived, Part I

[Editor’s Note:  This post has a discussion video that is meant to go with it.  If/when I get all of the kinks and editing done, I will upload it to this post.]

Now, I assume you’ve all read the series before coming here, so I warn all of you who haven’t that there WILL be spoilers as I will be referring to later events in most, if not all, of these videos.

Before we even begin reading the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, we need to recognize it as both the first chapter of this novel and as the first chapter of a lengthy series.  Having said that, I won’t be talking about the events of this chapter too much (if at all), at least not in this post.  Rowling’s story has been called both original and derivative, though this is not necessarily a negative commentary.  She draws from other works to create her own, but more on that in a later post.  I tell you this because, after having read the entire series, I can safely say that she is a very capricious writer–from her plotting to her word choice–and we may overlook it in this very important chapter.  For this post I want to focus on her word and phrase choice, and in only two specific instances:

1.  Don’t even worry about what happens in the chapter itself–focus only on how she has chosen to title her first chapter.  A captivating title, “The Boy Who Lived,” but if you think about it in the broader scope of the series, it’s much more than merely eye-catching.  The boy who lived–that is to say, he survived when he should not have.  Right from the beginning Rowling is elevating her protagonist to a certain status.  What that status is we do not yet know, nor would we be so ingenious as to ponder the title so closely (at least on a first reading).  But this brings me to the other important instance in the chapter:

2.  Professor McGonagall says to Dumbledore quite pointedly, “He’ll be famous–a legend–I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future–there will be books written about Harry–every child in our world will know his name!”  At this point we know exactly what Harry is being elevated to–a legend.  In the context of this first chapter, Rowling uses it more to establish Harry as incredibly important, but it also establishes a very significant theme that will run throughout the series (but more on that later).  More intriguing is how she phrases that last part:

“[E]very child in our world will know his name!”

Curious.  Why did she not choose to say something different?  She could simply have said “everyone…,” but she instead chose “every child…”  She could well have chosen it so that it would pertain more closely to her young audience, but there’s still something very powerful about a person if even a child knows their name.  I could rant further with my own opinion on the matter, but I’ll leave it to you all to discuss.  Why did Rowling choose the words and phrases she did for this first chapter?  Is there any merit to analyzing them, or am I being overly ingenious?  I’ll open the discussion to you before I chime in with my own theories.

Infinitus 2010: The Countdown Begins

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FL will open in approximately 53 days; Infinitus 2010–a Harry Potter symposium being held there probably as an excuse to visit the park–will launch in about 80.  As of this moment the countdown to Infinitus has officially begun, and I will update you on it frequently.  When I stumbled across it online, I immediately knew I had to go.  So, this summer, I will be packing up and heading down to Universal Studios to give a presentation, hang out with one of the Tom Riddles, and have access to the park after hours.

I can practically see Hogwarts now.

My original plan of incorporating Harry into the high school classroom failed epically when the local high school decided to collapse.  (Seriously, I’m not kidding.)  The idea was to use Harry as a means to introduce kids to other kinds of literature (say, for instance, mythology and other important works that influenced this series), as well as a way to introduce them to critical research and developing ideas.  Well that idea went to straight to the dungeons.

Actually, that’s partly how the idea for this blog was born, and I may even end up using it as part of my presentation–who knows?  In any case, I just had to share my joy with you, and send you to a place where you can see updated photos on the park’s progress HERE.

Reasons for HP in the Classroom, Part Two: Intercollegiate Quidditch

Philip Nel, a bad-ass children’s lit god, observed that Harry Potter created an entire musical genre (wizard rock).  I wonder if it will also create an official NCAA intercollegiate sport.  Now, I’ve stayed away from real-world Quidditch because I imgaine it’s more or less handball with a broomstick jammed between your thighs, but this makes it appear much more epic than I originally thought possible:

According to the website, my school only has a “new team,” which is strange given how it’s both sports- and obscure-club-oriented.  I have to say I think it would be a much more exciting sport if we traded in the broomsticks for roller blades (the broomsticks seem like a formality anyway), and played it in a roller rink.  Sure, the potential for bruised organs and broken bones is multiplied exponentially, but we’re aiming for realism, aren’t we?

Children’s Lit 101

[Editor’s Note:  This post has a discussion video that is meant to go with it.  If/when I get all of the kinks and editing done, I will upload it to this post.]

We can’t talk about Harry Potter without first talking about children’s literature in general, but before we place Harry into that context, there are few things we should know:

1.  Children’s literature is fundamentally different from most, if not all, other types of literature.  For instance, take women’s literature (an oft-studied area):  when we say “women’s” in this context, we typically mean literature BY women and not necessarily FOR women.  In fact, this logic applies to most areas of literature, but the opposite is true for children’s literature.  When we say children’s literature, we typically mean literature written FOR this audience and very rarely BY it.  Which brings me to:

2.  What does this say about literature in general?  Using my example of women’s literature, what exactly classifies a work as being FOR women, or could a man possibly write women’s literature if it encompasses literature FOR that audience?  If Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights were written FOR women, is that to say a man could or should not read them?  Many of these literary labels are inaccurate:  it has become more likely to find this area as “literature by women”; even Wikipedia does not call it women’s literature, choosing instead to label it as “women’s writing.”  But as I’ve said, children’s literature is fundamentally different–in that most of it really is written FOR that audience–and so it is much harder to define.  There are four major kinds of works that must be considered:

a.  Works written for children.

b.  Works chosen by adults for children.

c.  Works written by children (they exist!).

d.  Works chosen by children for children.

3.  I never thought this would be such an important consideration for the Harry Potter series–at least not until I read Deathly Hallows, and even then I should have been more perceptive to it much sooner in the series:  fairy tales were NEVER ORIGINALLY INTENDED for children.  They were stories that tended to have moralistic values written for a general audience.  Perhaps because of this, fairy tales quickly became associated with children, and so we must take them into consideration.  However, there are far too many misconceptions surrounding them, especially in the context of children’s literature, so we must take care in making over-generalizations.  Bluebeard is a perfect example:  you won’t see Disney adapting it anytime soon.

As I’ve said, this is merely a general overview of somethings to keep in mind before you put Harry in a children’s literature context.  There are many preconceptions associated with this area of literature, especially with that last tidbit.  Of course there is more, but for now this should suffice.