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monarch who had loaded him with honours, and who was moreover his kinsman and his guest, the struggle would necessarily have terminated on the side of virtue, had not the predictions of the weird sisters, in part instantly accomplished, and assuming the form therefore of inevitable destiny, concealed from his bewildered senses the eternal truth, that not from fate, but from his own agency alone could spring the commission of a crime, whose very suggestion had at first filled him with horror. But even this delusion, which seemed for a time to deaden the sense of responsibility, would have failed in its effect, had not the ferocious and sarcastic eloquence of Lady Macbeth been called in to its aid: dazzled by the splendour with which she clothes the expected issue of the deed; indignant at the charge of cowardice, to which she artfully imputes his irresolution, and allured by the means which she has planned as a security from detection, he, at length, rushes into the snare.
No sooner, however, has the assassination of Duncan been perpetrated, than the virtuous principles which had slumbered in the bosom of Macbeth, rise up to accuse and condemn him. Conscience-stricken, and recoiling with horror from the atrocity of his deed, he becomes the victim of the most agonising remorse; he feels deserted both by God and man, and unable even to deprecate the wrath which night and day pursues him:
Act ii. sc. 2.
"I have done the deed:-Did'st thou not hear a noise ?There's one did laugh in his sleep, and one cried, Murder! That they did wake each other: I stood and heard them.— One cried, God bless us! and, Amen! the other;" &c. To this dread of vengeance from offended heaven, is soon added the apprehension of punishment from mankind, his keen abhorrence of his own iniquity leading him to paint, in the strongest colours, the detestation and resentment which it must have incurred from others. This fear of retaliation from his fellow-creatures, together with the awful prospect of retribution in another world, produce a complete revolution in his character; he is exhibited distrustful, treacherous, and cruel, sweeping from existence, without pity or hesitation, all whose talents, virtues, sufferings, or pretensions, seem to endanger a life of which, though hourly becoming more wretched and depraved, he anticipates the close with horror and dismay.
To the very last, the contest is kept up with tremendous energy, between the native vigour of a brave mind, and the debilitating effects of a guilty, and, therefore, a fear-creating conscience. The lesson is, beyond every other, salutary and important, as it proves that the dominion of one perverted passion subjugates to its own depraved purposes the very principles of virtue itself; the sensibility of Macbeth to his own wickedness, giving birth to terrors which urge him on to reiterated murder, and finally to irretrievable destruction.
The management of the fable of Macbeth presents us with a remarkable instance of the profound art of Shakspeare, in condensing into one representation, and with an uninterrupted progress of the action, an extensive and closely concatenated series of events, forming a perfect cycle of influential incidents and passions, on a scale commensurate with that of nature, and for which it were in vain to look, where the unrelaxing unities of time and place have imposed their fetters on the poet.
"Let any one, for instance," observes Schlegel, "attempt to circumscribe the gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder, his tyrannical usurpation, and final fall, within the narrow limits of the unity of time, and he will then see, that, however many of the events which Shakspeare successively exhibits before us in such dread array, he may have placed anterior to the commencement of the piece, and made the subject of after recital, he has altogether deprived it of its sublimity of import. This drama, it is true, comprehends a considerable period of time: but in the rapidity of its progress, have we leisure to calculate this? We see, as it were, the fates weaving their dark web on the bosom of time; and the storm and whirlwind of events, which impel the hero to the first daring attempt, which afterwards lead him to commit innumerable crimes to
secure the fruits of it, and drive him at last, amidst numerous perils, to his destruction in the heroic combat, draw us irresistibly along with them. Such a tragical exhibition resembles the course of a comet, which, hardly visible at first, and only important to the astronomic eye, when appearing in the heaven in a nebulous distance, soon soars with an unheard of and perpetually increasing rapidity towards the central point of our system, spreading dismay among the nations of the earth, till in a moment, with its portentous tail, it overspreads the half of the firmament with flaming fire." *
But, in fact, as hath been remarked by the same admirable critic, Macbeth, in its construction, bears a striking affinity to the celebrated trilogy of Eschylus, which included the Agamemnon, the Choephora, and the Eumenides, or Furies, pieces which were successively represented in one day.
"The object of the first is the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, on his return from Troy. In the second, Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother: facto pius et sceleratus eodem. This deed, although perpetrated from the most powerful motives, is repugnant however to natural and moral order. Orestes as a Prince was, it is true, entitled to exercise justice even on the members of his own family; but he was under the necessity of stealing in disguise into the dwelling of the tyrannical usurper of his throne, and of going to work like an assassin. The memory of his father pleads his excuse; but although Clytemnestra has deserved death, the blood of his mother still rises up in judgment against him. This is represented in the Eumenides in the form of a contention among the gods, some of whom approve of the deed of Orestes, while others persecute him, till at last the divine wisdom, under the figure of Minerva, reconciles the opposite claims, establishes a peace, and puts an end to the long series of crimes and punishments which desolated the royal house of Atreus.
“A considerable interval takes place between the period of the first and second pieces, during which Orestes grows up to manhood. The second and third are connected together immediately in the order of time. Orestes takes flight after the murder of his mother to Delphi, where we find him at the commencement of the Eumenides.
"In each of the two first pieces, there is a visible reference to the one which follows. In Agamemnon, Cassandra and the chorus prophesy, at the close, to the arrogant Clytemnestra and her paramour Ægistus, the punishment which awaits them at the hands of Orestes. In the Choephora, Orestes, immediately after the execution of the deed, finds no longer any repose; the furies of his mother begin to persecute him, and he announces his resolution of taking refuge in Delphi.
"The connection is therefore evident throughout, and we may consider the three pieces, which were connected together even in the representation, as so many acts of one great and entire drama. I mention this as a preliminary justification of Shakspeare and other modern peets, in connecting together in one representation a larger circle of human destinies, as we can produce to the critics who object to this the supposed example of the ancients." †
To these observations of M. Schlegel, the following excellent remarks have been added by a writer in the Monthly Review :—
"Shakspeare's Macbeth," says this critic, bears a close resemblance to this trilogy of Æschylus, which gives, in three distinct acts, a history of the house of Agamemnon. In Macbeth, also, are three acts or deeds, distinct from each other, and separated by long intervals of time; namely, the regicide of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, and the fall of Macbeth; the first serving to shew how he attained his elevation, the second how he abused it, and the third how he lost it. A chorus of supernatural beings, (the witches of Shakspeare operate like the furies of Æschylus), in both these tragic poems, hovers over the fate of the hero; and, by impressing on the spectator the consciousness of an irresistible necessity, all the extenuation which the atrocities could admit is introduced. Criticism, in comparing the master-pieces of these master-poets, may be permitted to hesitate, but not to draw stakes. To the plot or fable of Shakspeare must be allowed the merit of possessing, in the higher degree, wholeness, connection, and ascending interest. The character of Clytemnestra may be weighed without disparagement against that of Lady Macbeth: but all the other delineations are superior in our Shakspeare; his characters are more various, more marked, more consistent, more natural, more intuitive. The style of Eschylus, if distinguished for a majestic energetic simplicity, greatly preferable to the mixt metaphors and puns of Shakspeare, has still neither the richness of thought nor the versatility of diction which we find displayed in the English tragedy." ‡
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. i. + Monthly Review, vol lxxxi p. 119, 120,
P 352, 353.
† Ibid. p. 95, 96.
The supernatural machinery of this play, which forms one of its most striking features, is founded on a species of superstition that, during the life-time of Shakspeare, prevailed in England and Scotland in an unprecedented degree. Witchcraft had attracted the attention of government under the reign of Henry the Eighth, in whose thirty-third year was enacted a Statute which adjudged all Witchcraft and Sorcery to be Felony without Benefit of Clergy; but, at the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth, the evil seems to have been greatly on the increase, for Bishop Jewel, preaching before the Queen, in 1558, tells her, "It may please your Grace to understand that Witches and Sorcerers within these few last years are marvellously increased within your Grace's realm. Your Grace's subjects pine away, even unto the death, their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft. I pray God they never practise further then upon the subject."* How prevalent the delusion had become in the year 1584, we have the most ample testimony in the ingenious work of Reginald Scot, entitled "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," which was written, as the sensible and humane author has informed us, "in behalfe of the poore, the aged, and the simple;"† and it reflects singular discredit on the age in which it was produced, that a detection so complete, both with regard to argument and fact, should have failed in effecting its purpose. But the infatuation had seized all ranks, with an influence which rivalled that resulting from an article of religious faith, and Scot begins his work with the observation, that "the fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root in the heart of man, that fewe or none can, now adaies, with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them, by and by they exclaime uppon witches;" and, in his second chapter, he declares, "I have heard to my greefe some of the ministerie affirme, that they have had in their parish at one instant, xvij or xviij witches: meaning such as could worke miracles supernaturallie ; "§ a declaration which, in a subsequent part of his book, he more particularly applies, when he informs us, that "seventeene or eighteene were condemned at once at St. Osees in the countie of Essex, being a whole parish, though of no great quantitie. " **
The mischief, however, was but in progress, and received a rapid acceleration from the publication of the "Dæmonologie" of King James, at Edinburgh, in the year 1597. The origin of this very curious treatise was probably laid in the royal mind, in consequence of the supposed detection of a conspiracy of two hundred witches with Dr. Fian, "Register to the Devil," at their head, to bewitch and drown His Majesty, on his return from Denmark, in 1590. James attended the examination of these poor wretches with the most eager curiosity, and the most willing credulity; and, when Agnis Tompson confessed, that she, with other witches to the number just mentioned, "went altogether by sea, each one in her riddle, or sieve, with flaggons of wine, making merry and drinking by the way, to the kirk of North Berwick, in Lothian, where, when they had landed, they took hands and danced, singing all with one voice,
"Commer (gossip) go ye before, commer goe yè,
Gif ye will not go before, commer let me :"
and "that Geilis Duncane did go before them, playing he said reel on a Jew's trump," James immediately sent for Duncane, and listened with delight to his performance of the witches' reel on the Jew's harp!
On Agnis, however, asserting, that the Devil had met them at the Kirk, His
Strype's Annals of Reformation, vol. i. p. 8. The apprehension expressed at the close of this qu tation, was realised some years afterwards, when a Mrs. Dier was accused of conjuration and witchcraft. because the Queen had been "under excessive anguish by pains of her teeth: insomuch that she took a rest for divers nights."-Vide Strype's Anuals, vol. iv. p. 7. Discoverie of Witchcraft, chap. i. p. 1, 2.
Epistle to Sir Roger Manwood,
** Discourse of Divels and Spirits, p. 543; annexed to the Discoverie of Witchcraft.
Majesty could not avoid expressing some doubts; when, taking him aside, she declared unto him the very words which had passed between him and his Queen on the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other; whereat the King wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all the Devils in Hell could not have discovered the same."
That the particulars elicited from the confessions of these unfortunate beings, which, it is said, "made the King in a wonderful admiration," formed the basis of the Dæmonologie, may be, therefore, readily admitted. It is also to be deplored that, weak and absurd as this production now appears to us, its effects on the age of its birth, and for a century afterwards, were extensive, and melancholy in the extreme. It contributed, indeed, more than any other work on the subject, to rivet the fetters of credulity; and scarcely had a twelvemonth elapsed from its publication; before its result was visible in the destruction, in Scotland, of not less than six hundred human beings at once, for this imaginary crime ! †
The succession of James to the throne of Elizabeth served but to propagate the contagion; for no sooner had he reached this country, than his Dæmonologie reappeared from an English press, being printed at London, in 1603, in quarto, and with a Preface to the Reader, which commences by informing him of "the fearefull abounding at this time in this Countrey, of these detestable slaves of the Divel, the Witches, or enchanters;" a declaration which, during the course of the
| same year, was accompanied by a new statute against Witches, one clause of which enacts, that
"Any one that shall use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evill or wicked spirit, or consult, covenant with, entertaine or employ, feede or reward, any evill or wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman or child, out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone, or other part of any dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charme, or enchantment; or shall use, practise, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charme, or sorcery, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed, in his or her body, or any part thereof, such offenders, duly and lawfully convicted and attainted, shall suffer death." S
We cannot wonder if measures such as these, which stamped the already existing superstitions with the renewed authority of the law, and with the influence of regal argument and authority, should render a belief in the existence of witchcraft almost universal; fashion and interest on the one hand, and ignorance and fear on the other, mutually contributing, by concealing or banishing doubt, to disseminate error, and preclude detection.
Who those were who, at this period, had the misfortune to be branded with the appellation of Witches; what deeds were imputed to them, and what was the nature of their supposed compact with the Devil, are questions which will be most satisfactorily answered in the words of Reginald Scot, whose book is not only extremely scarce, but highly curious and entertaining; and two or three chapters from this copious treasury of superstition, with a very few comments from other sources, will exhaust this part of the subject.
"The sort of such as are said to be witches," writes Scot, "are women which be commonly od, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles; poore, sullen, superstitious, and papists; or such as knowe no religion; in whose drousie minds the divell hath gotten a fine seat; so as, what mischeefe, mischance, calamitie, or slaughter is brought to passe, they are easilie persuaded the same is doone by themselves; imprinting in their minds an earnest and constant imagination thereof. They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them. They are doting, scolds, mad, divelish, and not much differing from them that are thought to be possessed with spirits; so firme and stedfast in their opinions, as whosoever • These extracts are taken from a pamphlet entitled, “Newes from Scotland,” reprinted in the Gent Magazine, vol. xlix. p. 449. See also Gent. Magazine, vol. vii. p. 556.
+ See Nashe's Lenten Stoff, 1599, as quoted by Mr. Reed, in his Shakspeare, vol. x. p. 5. note. King James's Works, as published by James, Bishop of Winton, folio, 1616, p. 91.
9 This act agaiast witches was not repealed until the year 1736, being the ninth of George the Second!
shall onelle have respect to the constancie of their words uttered, would casilic belceve they were true indeed.
"These miserable wretches are so odious unto all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie them anic thing they aske: whereby they take upon them; yea, and sometimes thinke, that they can doo such things as are beyond the abilitie of human nature. These go from house to house, and from doore to doore for a pot full of milke, yest, drinke, pottage, or some such releefe; without the which they could hardlie live: neither obtainng for their service and paines, nor by their art, nor yet at the divels hands (with whome they are said to make a perfect and visible bargaine) either beautie, monie, promotion, welth, worship, pleasure, honor, knowledge, learning, or any other benefit whatsoever.
"It falleth out many times, that neither their necessities nor their expectation is answered or served, in those places where they beg or borrowe; but rather their lewdness is by their neighbors reproved. And further, in tract of time the witch wareth odious and tedious to her neighbors; and they againe are despised and despited of hir; so as sometimes she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattell, etc. to the little pig that lieth in the stie. Thus in processe of time they have all displeased hir, and she hath wished evil luck unto them all; perhaps with cursses and imprecations made in forme. Doubtless (at length) some of hir neighbors die, or falle sicke; or some of their children are visited with diseases that ver them strangelie as apoplexies, epilepsies, convulsions, hot fevers, wormes, etc. Which by ignorant parents are supposed to be the vengeance of witches. Yea and their opinions and conceits are confirmed and maintained by unskilfull physicians: according to the common saieng; "Inscitiæ pallium maleficium et incantatio," Witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke of ignorance: whereas indeed evill humours, and not strange words, witches, or spirits are the causes of such diseases. Also some of their cattell perish, either by disease or mischance. Then they, uppon whom such adversities fall, weighing the fame that goeth upon this woman (hir words, displeasure, and cursses meeting so justly with their misfortune) doo not onlie conceive, but also are resolved, that all their mishaps are brought to passe by hir onelie means.
"The witch on the other side expecting hir neighbors mischances, and seeing things sometimes come to passe according to hir wishes, cursses, and incantations (for Bodin himself confesseth, that not above two in a hundred of their witchings or wishings take effect), being called before a Justice, by due examination of the circumstances is driven to see hir imprecations and desires, and hir neighbors harmes and losses to concurre, and as it were to take effect: and so confesseth that she (as a goddes) hath brought such things to passe. Wherein, not onelie she, but the accuser, and also the Justice are fowlie deceived and abused; as being thorough hir confession and other circumstances persuaded (to the injurie of Gods glorie) that she bath doone, or can doo that which is proper onelie to God himselfe.
"Another sort of witches there are, which be absolutelie cooseners: These take upon them, either for glorie, fame, or gaine, to doo any thing, which God or the divell can doo. either for fortelling things to come, bewraieng of secrets, curing of maladies, or working of miracles."
To this chapter from Scot, which we have given entire, may be added the admirable description of the abode of a witch from the pen of Spenser, who, as Warton hath observed, copied from living objects, and had probably been struck with seeing such a cottage, in which a witch was supposed to live:
"There in a gloomy hollow glen she found
Far from all neighbours, that her divelish deeds
And hurt far off unknowne whomever she envide."
This very striking picture for ever fixed the character of the habitation allotted to a witch; thus in a singularly curious tract, entitled "Round about our CoalFire," published about the close of the seventeenth century, and which details, in a pleasing manner, the traditions of the olden time, as a source of Christmas amusement, it is said that "a Witch must be a hagged old woman, living in a little
* Discoverie of Witchcraft, book i chap. 3. p 7-9.
† Todd's Spenser, vol. iv. p. 480, 481. Faerie Quene, book iii, cant ›.7, stanza 6 and note