People have always needed ways to explain what they do not understand about the world around them. Recently, seeing a movie production of William Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” encouraged me to ponder how magical thinking was the way the world was interpreted in Shakespeare’s time, and how this continues in some forms even in modern times, in our sophisticated country.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a man of his time and a great observer of human behavior which he skillfully wove into his writing, creating for us a mirror of the thinking and mores of his society. In 1594, when he wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” witchcraft was commonplace. Knowledge of science about the world around him and that of the human body was very limited, especially among the largely uneducated masses. For example, the circulation of the blood in the human body and the function of the heart as a pump was not understood until William Harvey published his paper on the topic in 1628.
Wise ones, usually women, who created herbal remedies, birthed babies, and treated the wounds of the hard physical labor of the times, were revered, trusted, and ironically, often at the same time, mistrusted, abused, and killed because of their special knowledge. In those times knowledge was truly power, though also sometimes suspect. That same attitude of mistrust continues today, even in our sophisticated, highly connected, world.
Diseases and the vectors that spread them were not understood in the 16th century. Some people must have seen a link between vermin, rats, fleas, and other insects, the filth of congested city living, and the arrival and spreading of diseases such as The Plague. The proof was not available nor could living conditions in the densely populated cities quickly change. At that time it was easier to blame disease on the “wrath of God” and accept it or blame the little annoyances of life as described by Shakespeare on mischievous spirits like Puck, or Robin Goodfellow.
There were real people to blame too. The mean-spirited gossip or the person who was known to make spells or potions that were not always for healing were publically punished. The offenders, usually women, were strapped into the ducking stool and dunked into the cold waters of the millpond. Minor offenders were treated to a couple of chilly dunks, but for witches, it was sink or swim. We may think that times were tough and punishment cruel but it was the way that a community survived. Throughout this particular Shakespearean play we see many levels of village life, magical and human, described with great humor and sensitivity.
Our modern society is very different but, being human, we still have the same needs and cast of characters. We have abundant scientific information about how the natural world works. We have information about, and access to, technology. The information is available in many levels of detail so that we do not have to be an expert to be informed enough to make good decisions about things that affect our health. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, we also have abundant misinformation and not always the ability or desire to question it.
With widespread divergent media points of view and many levels of easy interpersonal communication, it is difficult for some people to make personal decisions. People have always asked others for advice, usually a trusted friend or family member. Nowadays with modern communications, the whole world can be your friend or neighbor but not always trustworthy. Many topics may be very personal and important to our health and that of our family but at a distance how do we decide which information is valuable?
One major difference between modern-day decision-making and that of Shakespeare’s time is the impact of politics and conspiracy theories from far and wide on all levels of that process. We do not need witchcraft and magic, we do not need to blame the wrath of God for our difficulties; we have the power of the Internet and the power of choosing among the conflicting ideas expressed there by unknown “experts”!
For example should one take vaccination against the Covid-19 virus which has spread like wildfire and killed millions worldwide? Some say that vaccines contain microchips that will allow government surveillance of our lives. Others say that vaccines may contain disease organisms or chemicals with long-term harmful effects on mental and physical development. Some say that vaccines impact people differently according to their ethnicity. For some reason, deep in our genetic make-up, we need magical thinking. Why is it that we cannot rely on our senses, our experience, our observations of the world around us? The answer may be that we do not have confidence in ourselves, our own first-hand experiences, and those of our friends and families. We prefer to go online to see what other people, strangers we think are like us, say. According to how they present their story and their apparent level of sophistication and salesmanship we may follow their lead. Following the lead of real experts may be more difficult because they may speak or write in more complex terms so they are often mistrusted.
In a way, the Internet and other social media have become our village. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, there are trusted sources and others, maybe more accurate, less chatty but not trusted so much. When you are face to face it is usually easier to know the difference; electronically it’s more difficult. For personal well-being and sanity, it is really important to think more deeply about our sources of information and the messages they are giving. As in Shakespeare’s time, not every wise woman was a witch and vice versa. Maybe it’s time to get beyond magical thinking, get educated in reality, invent an “electronic” ducking stool and do a little sink or swim testing of the so-called information sources.