Death, Dreams, and Prophecies: How J.K. Rowling paid Homage to the Bard

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Yes, on April 23, 2014, Shakespeare turns 450 years old!

Celebrations are occurring all over the world, particularly in England, which makes it a great time to discuss some of the many Shakespeare references in the Harry Potter series.

First, let’s discuss Harry’s nightmares about Cedric’s death in Order of the Phoenix:

Harry Potter: Hey Big D. Beat up another 10 year old?

Dudley Dursley: This one deserved it.

Harry Potter: Five against one. That’s very brave.

Dudley Dursley: Well you’re one to talk, moaning in your sleep every night. At least I’m not afraid of my pillow. “Don’t kill Cedric!” Who’s Cedric, your boyfriend?

Dudley’s taunting is immediately followed by a dementor attack which makes Harry’s fears and nightmares come alive even as he seems to approach a kind of death at the hands of the dementors. This brings to mind that famous Hamlet quote that conflates death and dreams:

To sleep – perchance to dream.  Ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1, line 73-76.

And then there’s the passage in Macbeth where Banquo cannot sleep for fear of what he may dream:

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep, Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose.

Macbeth, Act II, sc. I, ll. 6-9.

At this point in Macbeth, Banquo cannot sleep because he is afraid of the prophecy given to Macbeth in the form of a riddle by three witches known as the weird sisters.

Witches, prophesies, riddles?  Sound familiar? Keep in mind that the Order of the Phoenix is the book in which Harry finally learns about the prophecy that led to his parents’ deaths.

Lest you think we are reading too much into all of this, do you remember the name of the band that plays at the Yule Ball?

You guessed it! The Weird Sisters (GF 419, OP 286, 867, H-BP 316)

Need even more proof? Check out this excerpt from HARRY POTTER AND THE ART OF SPYING:

The Background of J. K. Rowling

As you may already know, Joanne Kathleen Rowling—who was born on July 31, 1966 (which would be Harry’s birthday, fourteen years later!)—attended Wyedean Comprehensive School, a middle school. She did quite well there; she was popular and outgoing and got good grades. In what we would call her eleventh year, at Stratford-upon-Avon, Rowling saw her very first play, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and was “absolutely electrified by it”—her words. She also saw The Winter’s Tale, featuring a character named Hermione!

Excerpt from Harry Potter and the Art of Spying by Lynn M. Boughey and Peter Earnest (forthcoming September 2014).

This information is derived from Marc Shapiro’s J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter 17, 34, 38–39, 48, 64 (2007), and Lindsey Fraser’s Conversations with J. K. Rowling, 31–32 (2000).

So tip your hat, cloak, or wand not only to the Bard, but to J. K. Rowling’s wonderful use of Shakespeare throughout the series!

Want to know more?

Shakespearegirl has a lot to say about the similarities between Rowling’s tale and Shakespeare’s plays.