Prophecy and Heroic Destiny
in the Histories
Let me begin this exploration of prophecy and heroic imagination in Shakespeare by recounting an episode from 1532 in which prophecy played a central role. In that year William Neville, one of fifteen younger brothers of the third Lord Latimer, fell under the influence of a motley group of wizards—by trade an astrologer, a caulker, and an Oxford scholar who specialized in alchemy and sorcery. Sizing up their new client, the wizards began forecasting that his inconvenient older brother would soon die, whereupon Neville himself would become the powerful lord. To keep their dupe's imagination fired up, the seers staged omens, revealed wondrously auspicious dreams, and portentously discussed politics and magic. Eventually the talk became dangerous. Neville began speculating about, then openly predicting, the deaths of his brother and Henry VIII as well. As G. R. Elton puts it, "Neville was talking like a man planning to overthrow the state in his search for what he had come to regard as his proper rights." 1 At least one of the wizards fueled Neville's delusions by foreseeing that he would inherit the earldom of Warwick, as if Neville were a long-lost changeling child related to the legendary Guy of Warwick. Obsequiously the wizard addressed his client as earl of Warwick, although later he claimed he had only been making sport of Neville "who was a laughing stock around the neighborhood": a disclaimer, Elton judges, which "carries hardly any conviction" (p. 53). Eventually several of these inspired characters ended up in the Tower suspected of treason, although in the end none suffered the ghastly death executed on many another prophet of the time.
On the surface, Neville's experience is a tale of cynical deception