Introduced by Trixie the Cat
Six years ago, the Revd Mark Oakley….
…now the Canon Treasurer at St. Paul’s Cathedral….
..was the Priest-in-Charge of the Grosvenor Chapel…
Father Oakley asked Stewart Trotter to give a dramatised talk on Shakespeare…..
This grew to three talks entitled:
This was based partly on his book, Love’s Labour’s Found….
…published in 2002…
…….and in turn became the basis for this blog, The Shakespeare Code.
For the last six years, Stewart has given one talk a year at The Grosvenor Chapel….
..and this year the present Priest-in-Charge of the Grosvenor Chapel…….
…..the Revd. Dr. Richard Fermer…
…..asked Stewart to write another talk.
This was called….
Something Wicked This Way Comes
New Light on the Witches in Macbeth
It was given after Mass on All Hallows’ Day, 1st November, 2015….
..in the back rooms of the Grosvenor Chapel….
AND HERE IS THE TRANSCRIPT!!!
Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Stewart Trotter and I should like to introduce the Trotter Players – Amanda Walker, Kate Godfrey, Karen Little – and our guest star, Mike Burnside. ….
We will now undertake the opening scene of Macbeth. Amanda, Kate and Karen will play the three witches. I will play Graymalkin the cat and Mike will play Paddock the toad.
We had considered using Scottish accents in this scene – but thought that might bring the terrible curse of the play down on our heads. So we’re going to be ENGLISH witches and ENGLISH warriors…
Simply by mentioning the Scottish play by name, I have, actors believe, activated its curse: so I shall now neutralise it by employing an ancient theatrical ritual. I shall leave the room, turn round three times, spit, swear a dreadful curse, then knock on the door and plead for re-admittance…..
(Stewart exits, closing the door. Pause: Stewart: One! Two! Three! Spit! Curse!. (Knocks on door). Shouts: ‘Can I come in?’. Stewart re-enters and pauses.)
I declare the curse lifted….
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with some trepidation the Trotter Players now give you the opening scene from Macbeth…..
(Thunder effects from Stewart…Witches stand.)
FIRST WITCH (Amanda Walker)
When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
SECOND WITCH (Kate Godfrey)
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
THIRD WITCH (Karen Little)
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
(Stewart miaows insistently)
I come, Graymalkin!
(Mike croaks insistently)
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
So what do we learn about the witches from this opening scene? Well they clearly love team-work, the great outdoors and filthy weather. They are NOT patriotic: to them the battle against the rebels is simply ‘lost and won’. They are NOT rooting for Scotland. They hover through the air and are martyrs to their pets….
However, what they do have, even in this first scene, is the power of prophecy: they KNOW that the battle will be over by set of sun and they KNOW that they will meet with the great warrior, Macbeth. We shall see that this ability is the CRUCIAL function of the witches in the play.
But why did Shakespeare use witches at all? There are no witches in the other great tragedies – not even in Hamlet – and Denmark at the time was notorious for witchcraft. It still is…
The witches in Macbeth come with the territory. Shakespeare nearly always used someone else’s story for his plays and in the case of Macbeth it’s Raphael Holinshed…..
His Chronicles had been first published in 1577….
…but when they were re-published ten years later, Queen Elizabeth had had enough.
She recalled the books on the grounds that they were
….fondly set out.
Holinshed wrote about the reigns of Elizabeth’s predecessors – and Elizabeth didn’t want ANYONE comparing her reign with anybody else’s. She was even more obsessed with her ‘legacy’ than Tony Blair.
However, Shakespeare and his patrons got round this censorship by staging the stories: and the story of Macbeth comes ready-packaged with witches….
Mike will now read from Holinshed:
It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres, where the king then lay, they went hunting by the way together, without other company, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly in the midst of a land, there met them three women in strange attire, resembling creatures of elder world, whom they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight….
If you look at the woodcut that accompanies the Holinshed Chronicles…..
…. the ‘WOMEN’ note – NOT witches – are dressed in clothes that look rather stylish, expensive and fetching….in sharp contrast to – the witches in Macbeth!
(Thunder from Stewart. Witches stand.)
Where hast thou been, sister?
Sister, where thou?
A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munch’d, and munch’d, and munch’d:–
‘Give me,’ quoth I:
‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger:
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.
I’ll give thee a wind.
And I another.
I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman’s card.
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost!
Look what I have.
Show me, show me!
Here I have a pilot’s thumb, Wreck’d as homeward he did come.
(Stewart makes drum noises.)
A drum! a drum! Macbeth doth come.
The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine (take three sideways steps to left ) and thrice to mine (take three steps to right)
And thrice again,(take three steps to the left) to make up nine.
Peace! the charm’s wound up.
MACBETH (Mike Burnside)
So foul and fair a day I have not seen, Banquo.
BANQUO (Stewart Trotter)
How far is’t call’d to Forres?
(seeing the witches) What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question?
You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
Speak, if you can: what are you?
All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
(Macbeth looks astonished at the news – and tempted by it.)
Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair? I’ the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!
Back to Holinshed….
Herewith the aforesaid women vanished immediately out of their sight. This was reported at first as some vain fantastical illusion: but afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the WAYARD Sisters, that is the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, indued with knowledge of prophesies by their necromantical science, because everything came to pass as they had spoken….
Shakespeare’s witches are far more sinister than Holinshed’s ‘wayard sisters’. As we have just seen, they kill pigs for fun, raise revenge storms for chestnut deprivation and try to cast death spells on war heroes….something Holinshed’s three women would never do…
Why did Shakespeare make these changes?
When I was at school studying Macbeth for O-level – as everyone did in those days – we were told that Shakespeare introduced the witches simply to flatter King James….
The implication was that Shakespeare was a highly intelligent Englishman and that James was a stupid, superstitious Scotsman….
But the truth, of course, was far more complex….
Well, a bit more complex…
The witches in Macbeth have their roots in real events that happened in Scotland in 1589….
Shakespeare would have known about them from a pamphlet called The Newes from Scotland printed in 1591….
He would also have known about it from King James’s own book about witchcraft called Demonologie printed in 1597….
But most importantly he would have known about it from James himself…
Because in 1599 Shakespeare visited Scotland!
William Guthrie of Brechin, the great Scottish historian, wrote in 1767:
King James, to prove how thoroughly he was now emancipated from the tutelage of his clergy, desired Elizabeth to send him in the year of 1599 a company of English actors. She complied, and James gave them a licence to act in his capital, and in his court. I have great reason to think that the immortal Shakespeare was of the number….
Putting together information from contemporary sources, this is what happened in Scotland 1589 – or appeared to have happened…..
Within the town of Trenent in the Kingdom of Scotland, there dwelleth one David Seaton, who being deputy Bailiff in the said town, had a maid servant called Gillis Duncan, who used secretly to be absent and to lie forth of her Master’s house every other night: she took in hand to help all such as were troubled or grieved with any kind of sickness or infirmity: and in short space did perform many matters most miraculous, which things, forasmuch as she began to do them upon a sudden, having never done the like before, made her Master and others to be in great admiration, and wondered thereat: by means wherof Seaton had his maid in some great suspicion, that she did not those things by natural and lawful ways, but rather supposed it to be done by some extraordinary and unlawful means…..
Witchcraft! The fact that Gillis was setting out to heal the sick and the infirm – and that she had ‘miraculous’ success with this – was neither here nor there.
She was exercising powers way beyond those of a serving –maid, so she must be in league with the Devil!
At this point her master, Seton….
……put thumbscrews upon her fingers and bound her head with a rope, which is a most cruel torment . Yet would she not confess anything, whereupon they suspecting that she had been marked by the Devil (as commonly witches are) made diligent search about her, and found the enemy’s mark to be in the forepart of her throat. She confessed that all her doings was done by the wicked allurements and enticements of the Devil and that she did them by witchcraft.
Every single witchcraft examination in Scotland at this time followed the same pattern. No witch EVER confessed voluntarily – or even when she was being tortured. It was only when the Devil’s mark was found that she admitted to being a witch. The Devil was said to kiss witches to seal his pact with them and his tongue left a permanent mark…..
But, of course, if you are looking for a body-mark that you are convinced is there, then you’ll find it. And once the mark is found, the game is up: the woman might as well confess she is a witch to stop the pain.
Gillis now began to name names and a literal witch hunt began. It soon became clear that the top witch was called Agnes Sampson….
….commonly called the wise wife of Keith, a woman not of the base and ignorant sort of witches, but matron-like, grave and settled in her answers. In her examination she declared…..
AGNES SAMPSON (Amanda Walker)
I have a familiar spirit, who when I call ‘Holla Master!, appears in animal form, and resolves me of any doubtful matter, especially concerning the life or death of persons lying sick….
So that’s why Shakespeare’s witches were martyrs to their pets! They were powerful spirits in animal form.
Agnes had spent her life doing good – most of the time. Like Gillis, she healed people, often using Christian prayers, creeds and Ave Marias – and sometimes even transferred their illnesses to herself.
But if people paid her to do evil, she did evil.
She was a hired gun…
She claimed she had made a pact with the Devil out of economic necessity: her husband had died, leaving her penniless, with children to support, in the middle of a famine. Satan had appeared to her in the form of a black dog and told her that if she worked for him he would make her, and her children, rich.
She could also have revenge on her enemies. This last offer seems to have been particularly appealing.
To Agnes, it was a no-brainer.
To have the Devil as her sponsor would give her massive prestige in the area – with the nobility as well as ordinary people. With royalty, even…
King James himself, it seems, was one of her clients.
He wanted to marry Anne of Denmark.
He much preferred young men, but he needed to ensure his succession.
However, every time Anne sailed from Denmark, her ship was driven back by storms.
James was staying at Seton at the time – so he could spot Anne’s ship when it sailed down the Firth of Forth. This was only six miles away from the village of Haddington where Agnes was living. She claimed ‘The Sprite’ – the Devil – had told her that Anne would only arrive safely in Scotland if James went to fetch her himself – and she passed on this information to King James.
A timorous, hesitating man, he acted entirely out of character. Like a hero of romance, he risked the storms at sea to claim his bride. The royal couple enjoyed an extended honeymoon at in Norway and Denmark.
But when they returned to Scotland they encountered stormy weather at sea….
Agnes, as part of the witch-hunt, was now being blamed for these storms – and when James heard about this, he had her brought to Holyrood House so he could examine her himself. He ordered her to be tortured and her hair shaved off, so he could look for the Devil’s mark. Sure enough he found it…
KING JAMES (Mike Burnside)
…..upon her privities…….
…..and only then did Agnes confess.
Upon the night of Allhallows Even last, I was with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundredth. We all together went by sea, each one in a sieve…
Just like the witches in Macbeth……
…….with flagons of wine, making merry and drinking by the way to the Kirk of North Berwick in Lothian.
After we landed, we took hands and danced this reel or short dance, singing all with one voice….
Commer go ye before, commer go ye, If you’ll not go before, commer let me…….
Gillis Duncan went before us playing this reel upon a small trump, called a Jew’s Harp, until we entered the Kirk….
These confessions, says The Newes from Scotland, made the King in a wonderful admiration and sent for the said Gillis Duncan, who upon the like trump did play the said dance before the King’s Majesty.
The Devil was already at the Kirk, attending our coming in the habit or likeness of a man, and seeing that we tarried over long, he enjoined us all to a penance, which was, that we should kiss his buttocks: which being put over the pulpit bare, we all did as he said…
The Devil also told them to dig up bodies in the graveyard and to use bits of them – properly dried and prepared of course – for magical spells.
But even King James’s credulity snapped when, according to the pamphlet.…
Agnes Sampson confessed before the Kings Majesty sundry things which were so miraculous and strange his Majesty said…..
You are all extreme liars!
I dinna wish you to believe my words are false! I want you to believe them. I will discover such matter to you as Your Majesty should not any way doubt of….
And thereupon, taking his Majesty a little aside, she declared unto him the very words which passed between the Kings Majesty and his Queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other: whereat the King’s Majesty wondered greatly, and swore…..
By the living God, I believe that all the Devils in hell could not have discovered this! Your words are true.
Agnes then confessed she had been part of a witchcraft conspiracy to kill the king….
I took a black Toad, and did hang the same up by the heels, three days, and collected and gathered the venom as it dropped and fell from it into an oyster shell. I kept the same venom close covered, until I should obtain a part or piece of foul linen cloth, that had appertained to Your Majesty……
She means his dirty old underpants…
I would then have bewitched you to death, and put you to such extraordinary pains, as if you had been lying upon sharp thorns and ends of needles.
Agnes also admitted that, working in concert with a group of other witches, she had christened a cat, tied body parts to it and threw it into the sea. The first time it had swum back – so they went to sea in their sieves and threw it further out. It was this act of magic that had raised the tempest on King James’s return from Denmark and caused James’s ship to have a wind contrary to the other ships in his party, which the King acknowledged was….
Most strange and true….
Agnes then tried to save her skin with a bit of flattery….
…Your Majesty had never come safely from the sea, if your faith had not prevailed above our intentions….
But it was too little and too late. Agnes was first strangled, then burnt at the stake. Her naked, hairless ghost is said to haunt Holyrood House to this day….
But why had she raised a storm against the King’s return? People in the past have argued that the Scottish witches didn’t want a Danish Queen: but we KNOW from Macbeth that Scottish witches at the time WEREN’T patriotic.
They were available to the highest bidder!
And Agnes and her colleagues had been hired by a very high bidder indeed – Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell – King James’s cousin and Chancellor – and his greatest enemy.
Bothwell wanted to be King of Scotland.
While James was cavorting with young men, he was easy to manipulate: but when he decided to found a dynasty, he had to go. So while he was on his honeymoon, Bothwell paid every witch in the area to destroy the King. That’s why they met with the Devil in the Kirk at North Berwick….
And that’s why Agnes Sampson switched sides….
But I can hear you thinking………..
Bare-bottomed Devils? Sea-borne sieves? Talking dogs? Drowned cats, body parts and storms? What on earth was going on?
To find out WHAT WAS going on, read ……PART TWO..