Shakespeare is popularly known as "The Bard" for good reason: he excels at his literary craft, applying all the techniques and tools of drama at his disposal with a certain regularity. One of these important tools necessary for any truly coherent play is foreshadowing, or the appearance of elements early in the play that subtly predict the future direction of the plot, action, or symbolism. In all of his plays, Shakespeare uses foreshadowing extensively, both in the dialogue and in the situations he creates. This is as true of his comedies as of his tragedies and histories. By looking at any group of his works, one can find many examples of foreshadowing. For example, in the trio of King Lear, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing, we can see that quite nearly the entire play is prefigured in the themes and dialogues of the first few scenes.
There are at least two distinct sorts of foreshadowing that Shakespeare employs. The first is an explicit foreshadowing based on elements of the story. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, Don John in the first acts discusses the fact that as a natural villain he wants to hurt other people, and in particular he wishes to harm Claudio. These claims obviously and explicitly foreshadow Don John's future attempts to hurt Claudio. However, other foreshadowing is less obvious, and this may be referred to as more implicit foreshadowing. For example, in King Lear Goneril says her father is more valuable than her very eyes. This is an important point of implicit foreshadowing in that she will eventually be the one to blind Gloucester. Thus one can see that some foreshadowing deals with plans of action known to the characters and made obvious as intentions and as specific willful choices, whereas other moments of foreshadowing functions as a subtle literary technique by which the author maintains the sense of fate, design, purpose and artistic beauty within the created world.
Shakespeare's foreshadowing, both explicit and implicit, serves a variety of purposes. In many cases it serves as a sort of roadmap for the audience, somewhat similar to topic sentences within an academic paper. Foreshadowing clues the audience in to what is coming so that they can fully appreciate it when it arrives, or look forward to it in both an intellectual and emotional sense. Of course, it also assures that the audience is never lost in the plot or confused by unexplicated character behavior. So, for example, a character monologue in which said character expresses a desire to destroy the other characters provides the audience with a good sense as to the central conflict and allows them to lean back and enjoy it. This is especially true, of course, of explicit foreshadowing. Implicit foreshadowing serves a more quiet role, though not less important.
First, it helps maintain the conventions of tragedy that everything must have a degree of inevitability and fatefulness to it, or the conventions of comedy that every joke must have a suitably environment in which to be heard (as prepared by the foreshadowing). Additionally, it serves to subtly guide the audience towards a positive reaction to the foreshadowed events, a sense which says that even at its most terrible life is exactly how it was intended to be. Of course it is the stage designers and the director-godlings that design this staged life, but this does not entirely take away the moral value of such a sense of completion.
So it may be seen that villainous acts when they arrive are no longer quite as surprising or quite as devastating due to the role foreshadowing plays in preparing the audience's perceptions. Villainous acts are set up, even if occasionally to be later subdued and recanted, as necessary parts of the earlier visions and foreshadowings, and are thus more easily acceptable to people who have an enormous capacity to forget or be disturbed by the unexpected.
All this may, however, have taken second place in the mind of the writer to the role of foreshadowing in move the plot towards its denouement. Foreshadowing allows the reader to be prepared for what is coming not just because this will make them more ready to accept it, but also because it allows the writer to move the plot more quickly without losing the reader who is already familiar with the direction the story will be going. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, it is explicitly foreshadowed that Don John will be trying to destroy the lives of Claudio and Hero, and that Claudio is both jealous and easy to influence. So after the audience is informed of Don John's plan to present to Claudio a false show of Hero's promiscuity, they do not necessarily need to witness the scene to know that he will fall for it and when he next appears he will be convinced of her disloyalty. So foreshadowing serves both an artistic, an emotional, and a practical role in the plays.
The play of King Lear is a prime example of a Shakespearian tragedy which is dominated and dictated by its foreshadowing. "In its imagery and its portrayals of the beginnings of social chaos and the dissolution of Lear's kingship, King Lear's first scene foreshadows the more ample treatments the rest of the play will bring." (Lockett) It would not be amiss to say that scarcely a theme is brought up in the play which is not introduced within the first few scenes.
Even immediately, foreshadowing and its fulfillment is evident in King Lear. The play opens with scenes in which Gloucester is professing his love for his two sons, and yet to one he is being particularly unfair. "the joking comments the Earl makes about his son's mother, his admission that "the whoreson must be acknowledg'd" (I.i.24), and his promise to send Edmund abroad for yet another nine years seem a cruel betrayal of his duty as a father." (Lockett) Through-out the play a comparison will be drawn between Gloucester and his sons and Lear and his daughters. So it is interesting that at the play's beginning Gloucester jokingly speaks of sending a son into exile for nine years. This foreshadows the exile which will shortly befall Cordelia at the hands of a father who claims to love her. Likewise the sibling and generational rivalry and tension that builds up within this family is a precursor to the family strife that will rip apart the royal family and provide the central conflict of this play.
Other thematic issues are also introduced within these first pages. The play's concern with reduction to nothingness, and the relationship between nakedness and truth are all bound up and foreshadowed by the way in which Cordelia answers her father's demand for a confession of love. He asks her what she can say that will surpass the vows of her sisters, and she aptly responds: "Nothing."
Yet, as she continues, she explains that the bonds of nature hold her and she will not try to step beyond them or speak falsely of them. The importance of this answer and its foreshadowing of Lear's eventual transformation into a king of nature and nothingness is driven in by the Fool's repetition of her words: "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?" (I.iv.130) he asks.
These are of course instances of implicit foreshadowing. However, this first act also has extraordinarily explicit foreshadowing in it as well. For example, this is where the plot issues dealing with French nobility are introduced, and where Kent is set up to be in a position to appear in disguise later on. Perhaps more importantly, these scenes reveal the true personalities of the three sisters and one becomes privy to their plans and intentions toward their aging father. As with Gloucester's son, Goneril and Regan do not have the best intentions towards their parent, and one can see how easily a child may fool and eventually destroy a father. The willingness of the girls to speak of hurting their father of course foreshadows Edmund's very real betrayal of his own father.
In the final sections of this scene, Cordelia speaks to the audience of the dishonesty of her sisters, while her sisters in turn claim that she justly deserves her punishment. Their conflict here is an explicit foreshadowing of the feud that will develop between the siblings over the course of the play. Additional foreshadowing is obvious in the discussions held here by Goneril and Regan regarding their future commitment to caring for King Lear. They suggest in their dialogue that if he becomes a burden, they will have to find a way to deal with him and perhaps even dispose of him. This again is explicit foreshadowing of later events in which the daughters will send away his attendants, strip him of his worldly possessions, and eventually lock him outside their castles in the middle of a great storm.