Literary Allusion in “Harry Potter”: Shakespeare and “Harry Potter” – Part 3

Welcome to the final post in a special series on literary allusion in Harry Potter by guest writer Dr. Beatrice Groves! In this installment, she examines how both J.K. Rowling and Shakespeare use ghosts to embody the past. If you missed any of her earlier posts, you can check out her introduction here, or her take on Sherlock Holmes and Sirius Black here. Parts 1 and 2 of her Shakespearean analysis of Harry Potter can be read here and here. If you’re intrigued, don’t forget to check out her book Literary Allusion in Harry Potter!

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J.K. Rowling and Shakespeare are both interested in the past, and in the uncanny expression of the past [that] is embodied by ghosts. In this final blog about the connection between Harry Potter and the Bard, I argue for the Shakespearean aspect of the ghosts who appear during the final duel of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The climax of Richard III is the single combat between the villainous King Richard and his young nemesis, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. In Act 5, [S]cene 3, prior to their final battle, they are surrounded by ghosts, just as Voldemort and Harry are in their duel in Goblet of Fire. Richard III – like Goblet of Fire – is the fourth work in its series (it is [the] end of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy), and all the murders [that] we have seen Richard and Voldemort commit in the series up to this point come back to haunt them in this moment of reckoning. Richard’s recent killing spree has slightly outdone Voldemort’s, but his victims – Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the young princes, Lady Anne and Buckingham – like Voldemort’s victims (Cedric, Frank Bryce, Bertha Jorkins, James and Lily Evans) appear in the chronological order of their murder. They utter a curse over their murderer and words of encouragement to the young man destined to destroy him. Shakespeare’s eleven ghosts (or “souls,” as they call themselves) do not have an exit marked in the early texts of Richard III, suggesting a staging very much like Rowling’s scene, with [a] steadily increasing number of ghosts surrounding the two protagonists, giving strength to the hero and sapping the resolve of the villain.

In both texts, the ghosts appear as a chronological recapitulation of the murderer’s crimes – although Richard III’s victims appear in the order in which they were killed, Voldemort’s in the reverse order. However, although this was Rowling’s intention, there is a mistake here – as eagle-eyed readers have noted – for Lily should come out of Voldemort’s wand before James. Rowling has explained that she originally wrote this correctly, but her American editor told her it was the wrong way [a]round, so she changed it. Rather pleasingly, either the author or the editor of Shakespeare’s scene also appears to have mucked up the order of his ghosts. In the two first printings of the play, the ghosts of the two young [p]rinces appeared before Hastings (although they died after him). The blunder is corrected in the third printing of the play, after which the ghosts appear in strict chronological order.

In both texts, the ghosts curse their murderer while promising hope to the young man who will defeat him. The ghost of Henry VI, for example, orders Richard to “despair, and die!” (5.3.127) but tells his opponent[,] “Harry, that prophesied thou shouldst be King, / Doth comfort thee in thy sleep. Live and flourish!” (5.3.130-31). In Goblet of Fire, likewise, the ghostly figures “whispered words of encouragement to Harry” and “hissed words” to Voldemort that left his face “livid with fear” (Chapter 34). Voldemort’s haunting turns his face “livid with fear“, and Richard’s causes him, likewise, to scream out in fear[,] though he initially comforts himself with the thought that “I did but dream“. But then he notices that “the lights burn blue” (5.3.181). Blue[-]burning candles are believed to be evidence of the presence of ghosts (and Rowling – who may have learnt this particular piece of ghost-lore from Shakespeare – uses it to cast a ghastly hue over Nick’s Deathday party in which the tapers are “all burning bright blue” [CoS, Chapter 8]).

In both texts, this reckoning holds forth the promise – or the hope – that those who commit evil, however insouciant they may seem at the time (and both Richard and Voldemort appear to kill without compunction) are nonetheless haunted, and weakened, by such acts. In both texts, the gathering of the ghosts of past evil actions offers an optimistic vision of the possibilities of unity against a tyrannical power.

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Thank you to Dr. Groves for helping us celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter with a week of captivating posts about Harry’s literary predecessors! Be sure to pick up a copy of her book if you’d like to keep the fun going!

  • Ethan Asplin

    I’ve really enjoyed this series. It’s been so interesting to get this literary insight into Jo’s story, which I kind of always knew was there from things I had heard and read elsewhere but had never had really explained. Thanks for this, it’s been brilliant!

    • Beatrice Groves

      Thank you Ethan – really glad you’ve liked it!

  • Kathrin ‘Lily’ Franke

    The ghosts weren’t even my initial intent when I mentioned RIII in part 1, but a good point. I was thinking of their personalities and how they were influenced by their childhoods. By contrast this applies to Harry and Snape as well, either of them could have turned out like Voldemort.

    We don’t know that much about Grindelwald’s backstory, yet, but sometimes I think he might be a better match foe RIII. But we’ll have to wait and see.