Shakespeare’s 400th: Supernatural in Bard’s Plays Keeps ‘Em Coming Back

Book for educators shows how Shakespeare animates his stories with magic
June 29, 2016 Updated: June 30, 2016

NEWBURGH—”Shakespeare knew how to make a good story and how to draw in an audience,” says Joanne Zipay, co-author of “Come, You Spirits! The supernatural World of Shakespeare.”

Joanne Zipay, co-author of Come, You Spirits! (courtesy of SUNY Orange)
Joanne Zipay, co-author of “Come, You Spirits!” (Courtesy of SUNY Orange)

This year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and commemorative events are happening around the globe. Zipay hosted a book signing at the SUNY Orange in Newburgh on June 25.

The 175-page book, co-authored by Zipay, Milton Polsky, and Warren Wyss, is packed with analysis of plays, fun facts, and activities for educators and other lovers of Shakespeare’s plays.

Zipay read from the introduction to explain why ghosts, prophesies, witches, and mischievous fairies drove five of his plays—”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” and “The Tempest.”

Master Storyteller

“Welcome to the supernatural world of Shakespeare,” Zipay read and then continued with a line from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Shakespeare understood this human need as well as anybody ever has,” the introduction states. “He incorporates superbly crafted supernatural images into his dramatic elements…to enthrall his audiences with dozens of plays involving ghosts, fairies, potions, and nightmares.”

The Harry Potter franchise, Game of Thrones, and many video games feature magic and magical characters. Zipay says “it’s a great hook.”

Shakespeare knew what his audience wanted in a satisfying play, Zipay said. “Shakespeare liked the supernatural because it made for some good storytelling.”

Image in Come, You Spirits! by Milton Polsky, Warren Wyss, and Joanne Zipay. (courtesy of SUNY Orange)
Image in Come, You Spirits! by Milton Polsky, Warren Wyss, and Joanne Zipay. (Courtesy of SUNY Orange)

Kids today tell her why they go to a summer blockbuster. It’s mostly to see superheroes use their other-worldly powers.

Today, readers and moviegoers swarm to Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and M. Night Shyamalan because “in the 21st century, we love to be scared, to venture into the unknown, or even to be utterly terrified,” according to her introduction.

“Shakespeare’s audiences loved those kinds of things as well,” Zipay said. In his day, Shakespeare scared his audience with witches, ghosts, and bad fairies.

He made his characters scary and sometimes fun, as in Midsummer “Nights Dream.” “Magic is fun,” Zipay said.

Human beings have always known one thing about the supernatural that has never changed: It makes for great storytelling.
— Introduction to Come, You Spirits!

“No matter what your level of understanding, human beings have always known one thing about the supernatural that has never changed: It makes for great storytelling,” Zipay read.

Every audience, no matter what period of history, is transfixed by wonder and awe. We all want that adrenaline rush.

Modern folks see a play because they are willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy the theatrical experience. “It’s possible to believe in the supernatural for a while as we are drawn in to a story about it, even if we don’t find it plausible in real life.”

Zipay said these magical events bring a lot of people into Shakespeare who might never have thought of reading or seeing his plays, then find the play gives them so much more.

The Supernatural World

“As long as human beings have existed on the earth, there have been experiences which they could not explain. We call these mysterious events supernatural because they are literally above and beyond our understanding of the natural world,” the book’s introduction states.

Attendee Clare Smith said she finds the Bard’s stories interesting and gives some credence to supernatural happenings.

She said she has heard ghost stories, “that seemed very real,” and once she heard knocking on a window in a British pub that could not be explained. Locals said it was a spirit who wanted to come in. 

Zipay said the witches in “Macbeth” make predictions that set the action in motion. She notes they were played by older men with beards, not like other female characters who were played by young boys. “They were pretty scary people,” she said.

Supernatural forces will not only explain the unexplainable, but also the mundane, awkward, and just plain embarrassing.
— Introduction to 'Come, You Spirits!'

Zipay said people in the 16th century knew less about the world than we do, and the supernatural, not science, gave them answers. “Supernatural forces will not only explain the unexplainable, but also the mundane, awkward, and just plain embarrassing,” she said.

They believed that a fairy would replace a good baby with a fussy one, for example.  

In ancient times fairies and ghosts could explain the unexplainable. Today, if we lose our keys, we might jokingly say a gremlin took them.

Brendan Pettus is a young Shakespeare fan who attended the event. “I like that a lot of [Macbeth’s] motives are driven by something that he didn’t really particularly see in person. It’s sort of a vision that comes to him in this sort of supernatural form.”

Guide to Shakespearean Magic

The book evolved into its present form because the authors could not locate the right illustrator on their first try, which was planned as a pop-up book.

“We originally had the idea to do a pop-up book where you could see ghosts appear. We were going to call it ‘Shakesappear,'” Zipay said. She and her co-authors finally settled on a guidebook for educators.

I consider myself to be a sort of evangelist for Shakespeare.
— Joanne Zipay, Co-author, 'Come, You Spirits!'

“I consider myself to be a sort of evangelist for Shakespeare,” Zipay said.

The book format developed as a tool for educators, then broadened the audience to include “anyone who is just interested in Shakespeare.”

The book has a chapter on each highlighted play. A section of activities for students centers on ghosts, fairies, and witches.

Five chapters of the book follows plots of the selected plays. As the plot unfolds, there are questions “to stop and think as you read the play.” Various sections presents activities for visual arts, acting, and writing, even play-writing.

Students can read original plays in Shakespearean style at the end of the book. Zipay wrote “A Midwinter Afternoon’s Nightmare” about fairies who visit children at home.

“Shakespeare is pretty much what I do,” Zipay says. She teaches in the SUNY Orange department of Art and Communication in Newburgh, directs plays, and works with a children’s theater company that puts on full-fledged Shakespearean plays.

“Come You Spirits!” is published by Puck Press and is available on

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