I know I didn’t finish my last post, and haven’t posted for two weeks, but I have a very good reason- two weeks ago I became a dad! My wife and I are very excited about our little girl, and hope she grows up as brave as Cleopatra, as wise as Beatrice, and as independent as Katerina Minolla from “Taming Of the Shrew.”
We wanted to pick the name of a good Shakespearean character, but one that has a happy ending. Unfortunately, that left out a lot of people in the cannon; we couldn’t name her Ophelia or Cordelia or Kate, and we didn’t even think about Lavinia or Juliet! But in the end, we chose a name shared by two great characters- one of them is a doctor who saves the king’s life. The other is a sweet girl from Athens who gets the love of the man she worships with the help of magic! Let’s see if you can guess her name!
Till next time, This is the Shakespeare Student, signing off!
This story is my own invention, but it is based on historical fact and some ideas that could be inferred from Shakespeare’s life and career, composed for Friday the 13th, 2015. I hope you enjoy it.
The bell tolled in St. Paul’s Churchyard, stopping the bustling crowd in their tracks. A solemn wind blew through the crowd, like there was some dark magic in the air. Though the old queen had died months ago, all god-fearing Englishmen were still in mourning for her death, and spared a thought for the virgin queen as they passed out the long nave of the church into the yard. William Shakespeare was in mourning as well, but not for the queen; he was worried about the future of his company; without the queen’s sanction and protection, the theaters might be closed for good this time, (not one of these Newsmongers who gossiped at Paul’s Walk seemed to know how the young King James would take to plays and theater. The young man had had a life more dramatic than anything Will hat put to parchment- mother executed, father murdered, fighting off plots and murder attempts his whole life. “They say his mother’s head whispered a prayer when it was cut off” one of the gossips had told Will. “I heard talk his father was killed by cannon,” another whispered.” Shakespeare began to think of his old play Henry the Fourth, where he himself played the character of Rumor, who spoke with a million tongues, and not one of them true. Suddenly, from over the Bard’s left shoulder, came a slow deep voice that overpowered all the rest: “I heard t’other day the king fears being killed by witchcraft.” The voice came from one of the booksellers in the square.
As a writer, Shakespeare often came to St. Paul’s to buy books from the stalls at Paul’s Churchyard. He knew many of the booksellers by name, but he’d never seen this one before. His chest and arms were big as an ale barrow and his beard was grizzled and split into two forks, but what the poet marked in the man most was his piercing eyes- ones that stared at him like fire from an oily taper- quick and dancing, with an excitement as fiery as his own. “Tis true, the king were nearly shipwrecked as a boy by a coven of witches. 13 there were, always 13. They gathered on Fridays for their cursed Witches’ Sabbaths, and summoned up storms to sink the royal barge. The elder witch spoke to the King at Holy Rood house and told his majesty prophesies. She knew all the privy conversations he had with his wife, though she’d never seen him before! His majesty gasped in wonder and had her hanged and burned.” “Fine tale, said the playwright.” “Aye,” said the fire-eyed seller, but the king fears most of all the Wyrd Sisters, who foretold the deaths of his ancestors at the hands of King Macbeth.”
Shakespeare began to smell a devise- to appease the king, he would write a play honoring James’ noble ancestors and condemning this Macbeth as a villain. Shakespeare knew this kind of historical flattery would work; his tragedy of King Richard III had been a great success and the old queen had made him a courtier soon afterwards. Now he just needed to get his hands on some Scottish history to concoct a new play for the King. “Have you a copy of the Chronicles of England and Scotland?” “Nay, me press be not ready yet for the latest edition. But the best story of King Macbeth is an ancient tome written by the Elder Witch herself. Few have seen it, and fewer live to tell its secrets. If ye travel to Scotland, look for the book in the hands of a woman with hair red as flame, and eyes sea-storm blue.” Shakespeare thanked the man, wrapped himself in his cloak, and left the shop in a huff. The bookseller pondered the poet and smiled: “Wicked flame from wicked smoke. Envy burns black beneath thy cloak.”
Over the Christmas holiday, Shakespeare’s company received a summons to court to perform some entertainments before the new King! The Chamberlain’s Men were delighted and Will was quite relieved. The King ordered the players to perform at Holy Rood house in Edinburgh, as his court was still in procession from Scotland to England. “Masters,” Will shouted, “Let us give the new king a taste of our quality, and may he pay handsomely for it!” Will and the other shareholders in the company decided on a series of plays to perform for the king, and began the journey to the wilds of Scotland. On Christmas morning they set up their temporary Tiring house within the great banquet hall for the performance, placing props and costumes behind a series of tapestries.
At suppertime the chamberlain gave word to light the candles within the hall, and signal the actors to perform the play, which Will had selected as King Henry the Fourth; a clever choice by Will since it depicted an old king passing the crown to a young and energetic monarch. As the king and courtiers processed, Will spied through the tapestry a haunted looking young woman at King James’ elbow, dressed in courtly gowns with a green veil on her head. The chamberlain directed everyone to their seats and announced the start of the play. To Will’s annoyance, he addressed the company “Mr. Shaxberd and company,” but there was no time to be annoyed or intrigued. “The play’s the thing,” Will muttered, and took his place backstage.
End of Part I.
The performance was a terrific success! The king himself applauded and promised to patronize the entire company. All of Will’s dreams seemed to be coming true! That night, as he and the other players were packing their belongings into a wagon and preparing to leave the castle in search of a nice, cheap inn for the night, a pale breathless messenger arrived and informed Will that the King wished to meet with him to commission work for their next court performance. Will dutifully walked back up the battlements and entered the castle.
The servant directed him, not back into the ante-chamber of the Great Hall, but up one of the staircases on the North East tower. This tower housed the royal bed chambers! What on Earth was a mere poet from Stratford doing up here? The servant’s candle cast strange shapes upon the walls and the flame blazed upward like some bronze blade. Shakespeare knew from the gossips that the King’s mother had watched her lover David Rizzio be murdered in this very tower- he was stabbed 56 times by jealous Scottish nobles who wished to marry the queen and take the throne. Gruesome images flickered in the poet’s mind. At last, they came to an archway with four adjacent chambers. Three were heavily guarded by English soldiers with halberds but the fourth was unprotected. Slowly, ever so slowly Shakespeare nodded to the servant, and stalked along the pathway. Before he could nock, the door swung open. Pausing a little, The Bard stepped inside.
The room looked like a mix between a library and a crypt with a cold stone wall, a small altarpiece that looked barely used, and several oak bookcases piled high to the ceiling. Once the playwright entered the room, the door shut without warning. He couldn’t see who shut it and the shock put something cold in his blood. Shakespeare’s eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room.Moonlight gave the place a silvery glow, until a shadow came out of the darkness and revealed itself as a woman’s face. Shakespeare could barely make out her features but it was clearly the woman he’d seen in the procession. The Moon made her red tresses shimmer and gleam, as if she were a fairy from one of the dark pools of legend. “I am Princess Elizabeth,” she replied in a voice that seemed more solemn than proud of her royal title. Recovering from his initial shock, the poet bowed low and counterfited his best courtier’s smile. “I am Master Will Shakespeare, at your service.”
“I know who you are. They call you the Bard of Avon. You’ve written sad stories of the deaths of kings, and woven yarns of the fairy queen,” the princess said in a hollow voice that chilled the poet to the core. “When I was little,” said the princess warming slightly, “My mother spoke of how Irish Bards could change their forms, and speak with the spirits of the dead. Sometimes they even outmatched witches who danced with the devil on Friday nights. You seek my family’s patronage?” “Yes”, said Shakespeare tentatively, “And may I prove worthy of such an honor.” “Beware your ambitions,” Elizabeth went on.
“My family has been torn apart by ambitious men. You know I take it that the chamber we stand in was where my grandmother watched her servant die. She lost the crown, and never saw her son again. Death stalks ambition in Scotland. Some say the Devil tempts men to dance with him on nights like this, and signs their name in his book. My ancestor Malcolm fought armies from Hell to keep his crown.” “From King Macbeth,” replied Shakespeare, (his breath finally returned). “I am the keeper of a history of that damned king, but I will not share it with anyone. He sold his soul to a witch to get the crown, and his book is full of spells that curse the reader. I brought you here so that you can lift our family’s curse with your writing. When you get my father’s patronage, do not feed his fears with stories of witches and prophesies or the curse will envelop the throne. Heed my warning, and do not look for the story of King Macbeth.”
As mysteriously as it had closed, the door opened again. The Bard bowed politely and left the chamber. As he left, he saw the Princess kneeling at the shrine at the corner of the room, eyes closed and meloncholy.
For most of us Shakespeare geeks, November the Fifth isn’t just the day where we celebrate the move/comic book V For Vendetta, it’s also a celebration of one of the most infamous plots in English History, the GUNPOWDER PLOT, where 13 Catholics including Guy Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament and kill King James of Scotland. To this day, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on November 5, and little children chant:
The Fifth of November
Remember, remember! The fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot! Guy Fawkes and his companions Did the scheme contrive, To blow the King and Parliament All up alive. Threescore barrels, laid below, To prove old England’s overthrow. But, by God’s providence, him they catch, With a dark lantern, lighting a match! A stick and a stake For King James’s sake! If you won’t give me one, I’ll take two, The better for me, And the worse for you. A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, A penn’orth of cheese to choke him, A pint of beer to wash it down, And a jolly good fire to burn him. Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
The plot went down in 1605, the same year Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth! A lot of scholars believe that a plot to assassinate the rightful king of Scotland gave Shakespeare the inspiration to craft his most paranoid, frightening, and topical play, similar to the way he chose to write Romeo and Juliet right after the plague closed the playhouses of London and wanted to write about the ancient plague of family vendettas.
Other scholars suggest that Shakespeare chose to write “Macbeth” to show support of James’ right as king. Shakespeare definitely needed to do this, after all, James was his royal patron and he needed to make sure that he was on the king’s good side. More importantly, Shakespeare’s family was on thin ice when it came to their loyalty to the crown. Remember, Shakespeare’s father and mother were both lifelong Catholics, just like the conspirators who tried to blow up the king! Not only that, but Shakespeare’s father was friends with Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the whole plot! Even worse, Shakespeare’s favorite bar the Mermaid Tavern, was a meeting place for Catesby and his gang! So Shakespeare might have written “Macbeth” as a way of proclaiming the king’s legitimacy, and his allegiance to the crown.
So let’s be thankful that the king never suspected Shakespeare, because I for one wouldn’t want to live in a world without Macbeth.
Today (Monday) is All Souls Day, AKA “Dia DeLos Muertos.” Shakespeare writes an incredible speech for a character when he realizes it’s all soul’s day, but i couldn’t find a version of it online. That’s why I decided to do it myself! This is a speech that comes from Shakespeare’s bloody history play, “Richard the Third.”
To set the scene, the character Buckingham has worked as a vile two-faced politician working for Richard Gloucester, Shakespeare’s most evil and tyrannical king. To support Richard’s quest for the throne, Buckingham has arranged the murders of kings, princes, lords, ladies, and basically anyone who got in their way. All the while, he has acted like a nice and loyal Yorkist nobleman, and even swears to protect and serve them.
Whenever Buckingham doth turn his hate On you or yours, To the Queen
but with all duteous love Doth cherish you and yours, God punish me With hate in those where I expect most love! When I have most need to employ a friend, And most assured that he is a friend Deep, hollow, treacherous, and full of guile, Be he unto me! this do I beg of God, When I am cold in zeal to yours (Richard III, Act II, Scene ii).
After Richard becomes king, he slights Buckingham, who then gets bitter and joins Richard’s enemies. Richard then captures the duke, and sentences him to death by beheading. The day he is to be executed is, you guessed it, All Soul’s Day, which forces Buckingham to confront all the souls Buckingham is directly or indirectly responsible for taking. I hope you enjoy my interpretation!
Here’s the text of the speech here:
Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday. This is the day that, in King Edward’s time, I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found False to his children or his wife’s allies This is the day wherein I wish’d to fall By the false faith of him I trusted most; This, this All-Souls’ day to my fearful soul Is the determined respite of my wrongs: That high All-Seer that I dallied with Hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head And given in earnest what I begg’d in jest. Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men To turn their own points on their masters’ bosoms: Now Margaret’s curse is fallen upon my head; ‘When he,’ quoth she, ‘shall split thy heart with sorrow, Remember Margaret was a prophetess.’ Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame; Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.
Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
1. Who are they?
Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?
I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters. This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.
What Do They Look Like?
Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.
BANQUO 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.
MACBETH Speak, if you can: what are you? (Act I, Scene iii).
The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:
“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).
“Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.
Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).
For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:
The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.
Witches and mythology
1. During the reign of King James, the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.
2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).
In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this posting, please consider signing up for my online class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I tell you the story of Macbeth and you get to play through an escape room, where you must solve the witches’ puzzles or be added to their Cauldron!