Monday, November 27, 2006

King James and the witches

Somewhere between the habitual Sunday morning hangover and nipping to the local Praktika to check the price of petrol driven chainsaws, I picked up and read the 16 pages of Daemonologie I'd managed to print off.

What a surprise!

It is one of those books you know about - one referred to as having some sort of connection to Macbeth - and a possible minor source for a few bits and pieces of information - and a good excuse for Shakey to brown-tongue to his new boss.

What you don't grasp until you read it (and until recently how accessible was it? Long live the Internet and all who search it) is how close a foundation the work gives to the witches scenes - and to some fundamental elements in the character of Macbeth himself.

The first thing I noticed was in the preface – Mr Scot, the Englishman (!), who denied witches existed.

So: There was serious doubt in England – serious enough for it to be printed and for the king of Scotland to ‘name and shame’ his future subject.

A few years later, Shakespeare, loyal English subject and chief ‘poet on the payroll’ churns out, possibly for a visit of the new King’s father in law (I did read that somewhere didn’t I?) a script with more than nodding acquaintance to the published views of his patron: “Look daddy-in-law, ain’t my boss learned and ‘ingine’ (ingenious?)!”

Then, in Chapter 1 of the first book, a couple of phrases leapt out.

‘… as first wilfully deceiues them-selves, by running vnto him . . .’


‘And as to the diuelles fortelling of things to come, it is true that he knowes not all thinges future, but yet that he knowes parte, the Tragicall event of this historie declares it, . . .’

A suspicion crept on to me at this point – Macbeth could be described as wilfully deceiving himself – and he certainly runs to the devil later in the play.

And did the fortune telling idea - partly true fortune telling at that – give Shakey the idea for the ‘tragicall historie’?

So far this is only tweaks and nudges.

Then, in Chap. 2, there is the mention of two branches of sinning against ‘the holie Ghost’.

One, ‘falling backe’, the second falling back knowingly.

I suspect this is a key to Macbeth’s fall: It starts unknowingly, but quickly develops a self-knowledge that takes it beyond excusable sin.

Next comes an exploration of Magic and Necromancy. Like most people, I suspect, I hadn’t taken a lot of notice of this second word – just assumed it to be a synonym.

Not a bit of it.

As our most knowledgeable King lets us know – ‘Necromancie’ is compounded of the Greek roots meaning ‘prophecy by the dead’.

And shortly after he adds, ‘…the Witches ar servantes onelie, and slaues to the Devil; but the Necromanciers are his maisters and commanders.’

If we look over Macbeth’s relationship with the witches, it starts with him getting information from them – but later in the play he commands – and commands them to produce dead spirits to tell the future. Macbeth has gone deeper into sin than the witches themselves by this action.

Later in the same chapter there is the ‘slippery slope’ (or primrose path?) theory – you start by wanting legitimate knowledge and then get trapped to wanting to know things you shouldn’t be asking about – all for ‘blindlie glorie of themselves’.

And they become, ‘… in verie deede, bond-slaues to their mortall enemie: and their knowledge . . . is nothing increased, except in knowing evill, . . .’

And a final very telling point – ‘ … as Adams was by the eating of the forbidden tree.’

So, Macbeth is Adam! Wham, bam, thank you mam! Lady M. is Eve – and a whole ‘mythic’ significance comes clearly into focus.

Macbeth is all mankind – that is why we watch with horror his fall: It is our fall.

But what is the fruit? Knowledge. Macbeth knows too much. Ignorance truly is bliss – heavenly bliss; knowledge is the work of the Devil.

And take no comfort all you misogynists – Lady Macbeth is no more responsible than Eve in the Jacobean World Picture (He for God, she for God in him.)

In chapter 4 we get a lovely, ‘dafte wiues’ (daft wives – oh, Lordy!), which is surely a nod in the direction of what most of the audience think of witches – and partly accounts for the humour (although I would still put most of that as due to theatrical tradition) that comes through – but we shouldn’t forget – King James has made the distinction between ignorant and knowledgeable sin – Macbeth is well beyond the daft wife stage.

Chapter 4 also has reference to battles and winning – what do the witches say in the first scene?

Chapter 5 gives us a repeat, ‘…to make himselfe so to be trusted in these little thinges, that he may haue the better commoditie thereafter, to deceiue then in the end with a tricke once for all; I meane the euerlasting perdition of their soul & body.’

And Chapter 6 gives us the witches familiars – ‘a dog, a Catte, an Ape’, and repeats the ‘dead bodie’ and ‘…to giue such answers, of the euent of battels, of maters concerning the estate of commonwelths, and such like other great questions . . .’

There is now no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare read this text, before writing Macbeth. There just seem to be too many connections for it to be accidental.

I am sure much of what is written by the King is common place knowledge – but the combination of ideas and expression seem to me to reverberate in the text we have of Macbeth.

And I also suspect the play went down really well with the man who had written Daemonologie.

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