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TRAGEDY OF MACBETH:
ON SIR T. HANMER'S EDITION OF SHAKESPEARE.
FIRST PRINTED IN THE YEAR 1745.
ACT I. SCENE I.
Enter three Witches.
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet, who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be. censured as transgressing the bounds of probability; he would be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but-a survey of the notions, that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove, that Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage, and was far from over-burdening the credulity of his audience.
The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned themselves. These
"To deny the possibility, nay, the actual existence of witchcraft and
phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world. The time, in which this kind of credulity was at its height, seems to have been that of the holy war, in which the Christians imputed all their defeats to enchantment or diabolical opposition, as they ascribe their success to the assistance of their military saints; and the learned Dr. Warburton appears to believe (Supplement to the Introduction to Don Quixote) that the first accounts of enchantments were brought into this part of the world by those who returned from their eastern expeditions. But there is always some distance between the birth and maturity of folly, as of wickedness: this opinion had long existed, though, perhaps, the application of it had in no foregoing age been so frequent, nor the reception so general. Olympiodorus, in Photius's Extracts, tells us of one Libanius, who practised this kind of military magick, and having promised χώρις ὁπλιτῶν κατὰ βαρβάρων ἐνεργεῖν, to perform great things against the barbarians without soldiers, was, at the instances of the emperess Placidia, put to death, when he was about to have given proofs of his abilities. The emperess showed some kindness in her anger by cutting him off at a time so convenient for his reputation.
But a more remarkable proof of the antiquity of this notion may be found in St. Chrysostom's book de Sa
sorcery, is, at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God, in various passages both of the Old and New Testament: and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath, in its turn, borne testimony, either by examples seemingly well-attested, or by prohibitory laws, which, at least, suppose the possibility of commerce with evil spirits." Blackstone, Commentaries iv. 60. The learned judge, however, concludes with calling it a "dubious crime," and approves the maxim of the philosophic Montesquieu, whom no one would lightly accuse of superstition, that "il faut être très-circonspect dans la poursuite de la magie et de l'hérésie." Esprit des Lois, xii. 5. Selden attempted to justify the punishing witchcraft capitally. Works, iii. 2077. See Spectator, 117. Barrington's Antient Statutes, 407.
cerdotio, which exhibits a scene of enchantments, not exceeded by any romance of the middle age; he supposes a spectator, overlooking a field of battle, attended by one that points out all the various objects of horrour, the engines of destruction, and the arts of slaughter. AKÚTO δὲ ἔτι παρὰ τοῖς ἐναντίοις καὶ πετομένους ἵππους διά τινος μαγγανείας, καὶ ὁπλίτας δι ̓ ἀέρος φερομένους, καὶ πάσην γοητείας δύναμιν καὶ ἰδέαν. Let him then proceed to show him in the opposite armies horses flying by enchantment, armed men transported through the air, and every power and form of magick. Whether St. Chrysostom believed that such performances were really to be seen in a day of battle, or only endeavoured to enliven his description, by adopting the notions of the vulgar, it is equally certain, that such notions were in his time received, and that, therefore, they were not imported from the Saracens in a later age; the wars with the Saracens, however, gave occasion to their propagation, not only as bigotry naturally discovers prodigies, but as the scene of action was removed to a greater distance, and distance, either of time or place, is sufficient to reconcile weak minds to wonderful relations.
The reformation did not immediately arrive at its meridian, and though day was gradually increasing upon us, the goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight. In the time of queen Elizabeth was the remarkable trial of the witches of Warbois, whose conviction is still commemorated in an annual sermon at Huntingdon. But in the reign of king James, in which this tragedy was written, many circumstances concurred to propagate and confirm this opinion. The king, who was much celebrated for his knowledge, had, before his arrival in England, not only examined in person a woman accused of witchcraft, but had given a very formal account of the practices and illusions of evil spirits, the compacts of witches, the ceremonies used by them, the manner of detecting them, and the justice of punishing them, in his dialogues of Dæmonologie, written in the Scottish dialect, and published at Edinburgh. This book was, soon after
his accession, reprinted at London; and, as the ready way to gain king James's favour was to flatter his speculations, the system of Dæmonologie was immediately adopted by all who desired either to gain preferment or not to lose it. Thus the doctrine of witchcraft was very powerfully inculcated; and as the greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinions than that they are in fashion, it cannot be doubted but this persuasion made a rapid progress, since vanity and credulity co-operated in its favour, and it had a tendency to free cowardice from reproach. The infection soon reached the parliament, who, in the first year of king James, made a law, by which it was enacted, chap. xii. That, "if any person shall use any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit; 2. or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil or cursed spirit to or for any intent or purpose; 3. or take up any dead man, woman or child out of the grave,—or the skin, bone or any part of the dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm or enchantment; 4. or shall use, practise or exercise any sort of witchcraft, sorcery, charm or enchantment; 5. whereby any person shall be destroyed, killed, wasted, consumed, pined or lamed in any part of the body; 6. That every such person, being convicted, shall suffer death." This law was repealed in our time.
Thus, in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by the fashion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal, to doubt it; and as prodigies are always seen in proportion as they are expected, witches were every day discovered, and multiplied so fast in some places, that bishop Hall mentions a village in Lancashire, where their number was greater than that of the houses'. The Jesuits and Sectaries took advantage of this universal errour, and endeavoured to promote the interest of their parties by pretended cures of
In Nashe's Lenten Stuff, 1599, it is said, that no less than six hundred witches were executed at one time. Reed.- Boswell's Shakespeare, xi. 5.
persons afflicted by evil spirits; but they were detected and exposed by the clergy of the established church.
Upon this general infatuation Shakespeare might be easily allowed to found a play, especially since he has followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may now be ridiculed, were both by himself and his audience thought awful and affecting".
ACT I. SCENE II.
-The merciless Macdonal,-from the western isles
Kernes are light-armed, and Gallowglasses heavy-armed soldiers. The word quarry has no sense that is properly applicable in this place, and, therefore, it is necessary to read,
And fortune on his damned quarrel smiling.
Quarrel was formerly used for cause, or for the occasion of a quarrel, and is to be found in that sense in Hollingshed's account of the story of Macbeth, who, upon the creation of the prince of Cumberland, thought, says the historian, that he had a just quarrel to endeavour after the crown. The sense, therefore, is, fortune smiling on his execrable cause, &c.
If I say sooth, I must report, they were
Dr. Grey, in his notes on Hudibras, mentions, that Hopkins the noted witchfinder hanged sixty suspected witches in one year. He also cites Hutchinson on Witchcraft for thirty thousand having been burnt in 150 years.
See Barrington on Antient Statutes
m Johnson's apprehensions here are surely unfounded. The region of Fancy, however, in his mind, was very circumscribed. Mrs. Montague's chapter on Shakespeare's Preternatural Beings, in her excellent Essay, will repay perusal. See too Schlegel on Dramatic Literature.