Literary Allusion in “Harry Potter”: Shakespeare and “Harry Potter” – Part 1

Dr. Beatrice Groves, fellow and Shakespeare tutor at Trinity College, Oxford University, is back again today, this time kicking off a three-part series on the connections between Harry Potter and the works of Shakespeare. Dr. Groves’ new book, Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, is available now. You can read her earlier MuggleNet posts, “Links Between Philosopher’s Stone and Deathly Hallows” and “Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, and Sherlock Holmes,” here and here.


J.K. Rowling has recently quoted Shakespeare on Twitter (on May 25, 2017), and this blog-post [sic] will follow up her lead by looking at the extensive influence of the Bard on Harry Potter.

Rowling loves Shakespeare’s plays, and after seeing his Winter’s Tale as a teenager, she named her heroine after his. (She has even left a sly allusion to Shakespeare’s Hermione’s appearance in the famous statue-scene [sic] of that play in her Hermione’s Petrification in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). There are a number of less explicit times when Harry Potter may show the influence of Rowling’s favorite playwright. Phineas Nigellus Black’s old-fashioned term of abuse, for example, when he calls Harry a “poor puffed-up popinjay” (OotP, Chapter 23) may recall the moment when Hotspur, in Henry IV  Part I, objects to being pester’d with a popinjay” (1.3.49). Likewise, Barty Crouch Jr.’s sneering belief that decent people are so easy to manipulate” (GoF, Chapter 35) echoes one of the most abiding taunts of Shakespearean villains. Iago says[,] “the Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (Othello, 1.3.398-99) and declares (correctly) how easy Othello will be to control. Edmund, likewise, mocks his father for being “credulous” and his brother for being “noble”: “Whose nature is so far from doing harms, / That he suspects none – on whose foolish honesty / My practices ride easy” (King Lear, 1.2.178-80). Crouch controls Cedric’s actions, just as Iago and Edmund manipulate Othello and Edgar, but in all three cases, there is a hollowness to their triumph. They gain the upper hand in these encounters and congratulate themselves for their exploitation of the trustfulness of kind people, but though they have won the battle, they have lost the war. Good people cooperate while the villain is left to act alone.

Rowling’s more explicit links with Shakespeare’s witchiest play – Macbeth – are well-known [sic]. She has also left a light-hearted allusion to the play in the name of the Weird Sisters band (for the “witches” in Macbeth are not, in fact, ever named as such in the play and are referred to instead as “the weird sisters” [1.3.30]). Rowling has named Macbeth as one of her favorite plays and has spoken of it in reference to the prophecy in Order of Phoenix: “The Macbeth idea: the witches tell Macbeth what will happen, and he then continues to make it happen.” There [is] also, however, a less obvious link with the play.

When Malfoy intends to kill his [H]eadmaster in Harry Potter and the Half-[B]lood Prince, he takes rather a long time to screw his courage to the sticking-place. During their final conversation, despite what seems like Dumbledore’s hopeless situation, he nonetheless remains in control. Harry’s observation that Malfoy still needs Dumbledore’s approval (that he seems heartened by it as he might have been by his teacher’s praise for a good assignment) illustrates the fact that, for all that Malfoy is the only one holding a wand, he also remains the subordinate figure. When Malfoy hesitatingly reminds himself of the job he has come to do, Dumbledore gently replies, “well, then, you must get on and do it, my dear boy” (HBP, Chapter 27). Dumbledore’s soft words intimate the extent to which he remains in control: he is trying to stop Malfoy murdering him, and he will succeed.

Dumbledore’s words – “well, then, you must get on and do it” – echo Macbeth’s words as he ponders a similar murderous betrayal (plotting to kill his king). Macbeth, hesitating from committing the intended murder, and apparently as keen as Malfoy is to back out of it, tells himself[,] “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly” (1.7.1-2).

Dumbledore’s phrase, however, not only recalls Macbeth but an earlier address to a would-be murderer that Shakespeare is also echoing. When Judas leaves the Last Supper, Jesus tells him[,] “that thou doest, doe quickely” (John 13:27). Macbeth’s words – “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly” – are a direct allusion to Jesus'[s] words, painting Macbeth’s intended murder of his king and master as the worst of betrayals. When Dumbledore says, “well, then, you must get on and do it” to his betrayer and would-be murderer, the echo with the Gospels is likewise strong. For Dumbledore, like Jesus, retains complete agency over the situation. Malfoy, like Judas, thinks he has been plotting in secret only to discover at this moment that the person he has betrayed knows all about it. The echo of Jesus’s phrase is a sign that Dumbledore is not only likewise fearless in the face of his death but also has more control over what is happening than the person who intends to kill him. It is part of Harry Potter’s generosity to even its darker characters, however, that the parallels with Macbeth and Judas will not come to fruition for Malfoy and he will be saved from taking the final step into darkness that following in their path would entail.

Our exploration of Harry Potter and Shakespeare will continue tomorrow – stay tuned!


Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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