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Elizabethan Demonology by Thomas Alfred Spalding

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distinguish the symptoms that show a person to have been bewitched, from
those that point to a demoniacal possession.[1] "Reason doth detect,"
says he, "the sicke to be afflicted by the immediate supernaturall power
of the devil two wayes: the first way is by such things as are subject
and manifest to the learned physicion only; the second is by such things
as are subject and manifest to the vulgar view." The two signs by which
the "learned physicion" recognized diabolic intervention were: first,
the preternatural appearance of the disease from which the patient was
suffering; and, secondly, the inefficacy of the remedies applied. In
other words, if the leech encountered any disease the symptoms of which
were unknown to him, or if, through some unforeseen circumstances, the
drug he prescribed failed to operate in its accustomed manner, a case of
demoniacal possession was considered to be conclusively proved, and the
medical man was merged in the magician.

[Footnote 1: Ch. 10.]

64. The second class of cases, in which the diabolic agency is palpable
to the layman as well as the doctor, Cotta illustrates thus: "In the
time of their paroxysmes or fits, some diseased persons have been seene
to vomit crooked iron, coales, brimstone, nailes, needles, pinnes, lumps
of lead, waxe, hayre, strawe, and the like, in such quantities, figure,
fashion, and proportion as could never possiblie pass down, or arise up
thorow the natural narrownesse of the throate, or be contained in the
unproportionable small capacitie, naturall susceptibilitie, and position
of the stomake." Possessed persons, he says, were also clairvoyant,
telling what was being said and done at a far distance; and also spoke
languages which at ordinary times they did not understand, as their
successors, the modern spirit mediums, do. This gift of tongues was one
of the prominent features of the possession of Will Sommers and the
other persons exorcised by the Protestant preacher John Darrell, whose
performances as an exorcist created quite a domestic sensation in
England at the close of the sixteenth century.[1] The whole affair was
investigated by Dr. Harsnet, who had already acquired fame as an
iconoclast in these matters, as will presently be seen; but it would
have little more than an antiquarian interest now, were it not for the
fact that Ben Jonson made it the subject of his satire in one of his
most humorous plays, "The Devil is an Ass." In it he turns the
last-mentioned peculiarity to good account; for when Fitzdottrell, in
the fifth act, feigns madness, and quotes Aristophanes, and speaks in
Spanish and French, the judicious Sir Paul Eithersides comes to the
conclusion that "it is the devil by his several languages."

[Footnote 1: A True Relation of the Grievious Handling of William
Sommers, etc. London: T. Harper, 1641 (? 1601). The Tryall of Maister
Darrell, 1599.]

65. But more interesting, and more important for the present purpose,
are the cases of possession that were dealt with by Father Parsons and
his colleagues in 1585-6, and of which Dr. Harsnet gave such a highly
spiced and entertaining account in his "Declaration of Egregious Popish
Impostures," first published in the year 1603. It is from this work that
Shakspere took the names of the devils mentioned by Edgar, and other
references made by him in "King Lear;" and an outline of the relation of
the play to the book will furnish incidentally much matter illustrative
of the subject of possession. But before entering upon this outline, a
brief glance at the condition of affairs political and domestic, which
partially caused and nourished these extraordinary eccentricities, is
almost essential to a proper understanding of them.

66. The year 1586 was probably one of the most critical years that
England has passed through since she was first a nation. Standing alone
amongst the European States, with even the Netherlanders growing cold
towards her on account of her ambiguous treatment of them, she had to
fight out the battle of her independence against odds to all appearances
irresistible. With Sixtus plotting her overthrow at Rome, Philip at
Madrid, Mendoza and the English traitors at Paris, and Mary of Scotland
at Chartley, while a third of her people were malcontent, and James the
Sixth was friend or enemy as it best suited his convenience, the outlook
was anything but reassuring for the brave men who held the helm in those
stormy times. But although England owed her deliverance chiefly to the
forethought and hardihood of her sons, it cannot be doubted that the
sheer imbecility of her foes contributed not a little to that result. To
both these conditions she owed the fact that the great Armada, the
embodiment of the foreign hatred and hostility, threatening to break
upon her shores like a huge wave, vanished like its spray. Medina
Sidonia, with his querulous complaints and general ineffectuality,[1]
was hardly a match for Drake and his sturdy companions; nor were the
leaders of the Babington conspiracy, the representatives and would-be
leaders of the corresponding internal convulsion, the infatuated
worshippers of the fair devil of Scotland, the men to cope for a moment
with the intellects of Walsingham and Burleigh.

[Footnote 1: Froude, xii. p. 405.]

67. The events which Harsnet investigated and wrote upon with
politico-theological animus formed an eddy in the main current of the
Babington conspiracy. For some years before that plot had taken definite
shape, seminary priests had been swarming into England from the
continent, and were sedulously engaged in preaching rebellion in the
rural districts, sheltered and protected by the more powerful of the
disaffected nobles and gentry--modern apostles, preparing the way before
the future regenerator of England, Cardinal Allen, the would-be Catholic
Archbishop of Canterbury. Among these was one Weston, who, in his
enthusiastic admiration for the martyr-traitor, Edmund Campion, had
adopted the alias of Edmonds. This Jesuit was gifted with the power of
casting out devils, and he exercised it in order to prove the divine
origin of the Holy Catholic faith, and, by implication, the duty of all
persons religiously inclined, to rebel against a sovereign who was
ruthlessly treading it into the dust. The performances which Harsnet
examined into took place chiefly in the house of Lord Vaux at Hackney,
and of one Peckham at Denham, in the end of the year 1585 and the
beginning of 1586. The possessed persons were Anthony Tyrell, another
Jesuit who rounded upon his friends in the time of their tribulation;[1]
Marwood, Antony Babington's private servant, who subsequently found it
convenient to leave the country, and was never examined upon the
subject; Trayford and Mainy, two young gentlemen, and Sara and Friswood
Williams, and Anne Smith, maid-servants. Richard Mainy, the most
edifying subject of them all, was seventeen only when the possession
seized him; he had only just returned to England from Rheims, and, when
passing through Paris, had come under the influence of Charles Paget and
Morgan; so his antecedents appeared somewhat open to suspicion.[2]

[Footnote 1: The Fall of Anthony Tyrell, by Persoun. See The Troubles of
our Catholic Forefathers, by John Morris, p. 103.]

[Footnote 2: He was examined by the Government as to his connection with
the Paris conspirators.--See State Papers, vol. clxxx. 16, 17.]

68. With the truth or falsehood of the statements and deductions made by
Harsnet, we have little or no concern. Western did not pretend to deny
that he had the power of exorcism, or that he exercised it upon the
persons in question, but he did not admit the truth of any of the more
ridiculous stories which Harsnet so triumphantly brings forward to
convict him of intentional deceit; and his features, if the portrait in
Father Morris's book is an accurate representation of him, convey an
impression of feeble, unpractical piety that one is loth to associate
with a malicious impostor. In addition to this, one of the witnesses
against him, Tyrell, was a manifest knave and coward; another, Mainy, as
conspicuous a fool; while the rest were servant-maids--all of them
interested in exonerating themselves from the stigma of having been
adherents of a lost cause, at the expense of a ringleader who seemed to
have made himself too conspicuous to escape punishment. Furthermore, the
evidence of these witnesses was not taken until 1598 and 1602, twelve
and sixteen years after the events to which it related took place; and
when taken, was taken by Harsnet, a violent Protestant and almost
maniacal exorcist-hunter, as the miscellaneous collection of literature
evoked by his exposure of Parson Darrell's dealings with Will Sommers
and others will show.

69. Among the many devils' names mentioned by Harsnet in his
"Declaration," and in the examinations of witnesses annexed to it, the
following have undoubtedly been repeated in "King Lear":--Fliberdigibet,
spelt in the play Flibbertigibbet; Hoberdidance called Hopdance and
Hobbididance; and Frateretto, who are called morris-dancers; Haberdicut,
who appears in "Lear" as Obidicut; Smolkin, one of Trayford's devils;
Modu, who possessed Mainy; and Maho, who possessed Sara Williams. These
two latter devils have in the play managed to exchange the final vowels
of their names, and appear as Modo and Mahu.[1]

[Footnote 1: In addition to these, Killico has probably been corrupted
into Pillicock--a much more probable explanation of the word than either
of those suggested by Dyce in his glossary; and I have little doubt that
the ordinary reading of the line, "Pur! the cat is gray!" in Act III.
vi. 47, is incorrect; that Pur is not an interjection, but the
repetition of the name of another devil, Purre, who is mentioned by
Harsnet. The passage in question occurs only in the quartos, and
therefore the fact that there is no stop at all after the word "Pur"
cannot be relied upon as helping to prove the correctness of this
supposition. On the other hand, there is nothing in the texts to justify
the insertion of the note of exclamation.]

70. A comparison of the passages in "King Lear" spoken by Edgar when
feigning madness, with those in Harsnet's book which seem to have
suggested them, will furnish as vivid a picture as it is possible to
give of the state of contemporary belief upon the subject of
possession. It is impossible not to notice that nearly all the allusions
in the play refer to the performance of the youth Richard Mainy. Even
Edgar's hypothetical account of his moral failings in the past seems to
have been an accurate reproduction of Mainy's conduct in some
particulars, as the quotation below will prove;[1] and there appears to
be so little necessity for these remarks of Edgar's, that it seems
almost possible that there may have been some point in these passages
that has since been lost. A careful search, however, has failed to
disclose any reason why Mainy should be held up to obloquy; and the
passages in question were evidently not the result of a direct reference
to the "Declaration." After his examination by Harsnet in 1602, Mainy
seems to have sunk into the insignificant position which he was so
calculated to adorn, and nothing more is heard of him; so the references
to him must be accidental merely.

[Footnote 1: "He would needs have persuaded this examinate's sister to
have gone thence with him in the apparel of a youth, and to have been
his boy and waited upon him.... He urged this examinate divers times to
have yielded to his carnal desires, using very unfit tricks with her.
There was also a very proper woman, one Mistress Plater, with whom this
examinate perceived he had many allurements, showing great tokens of
extraordinary affection towards her."--Evidence of Sara Williams,
Harsnet, p. 190. Compare King Lear, Act iii. sc. iv. ll. 82-101; note
especially l. 84.]

71. One curious little repetition in the play of a somewhat unimportant
incident recorded by Harsnet is to be found in the fourth scene of the
third act, where Edgar says--

"Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through
fire and through flame, and through ford and whirlpool, o'er bog and
quagmire; _that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his
pew_; set ratsbane by his porridge," etc.[1]

[Footnote 1: l. 51, et seq.]

The events referred to took place at Denham. A halter and some
knife-blades were found in a corridor of the house. "A great search was
made in the house to know how the said halter and knife-blades came
thither, but it could not in any wise be found out, as it was pretended,
till Master Mainy in his next fit said, as it was reported, that the
devil layd them in the gallery, that some of those that were possessed
might either hang themselves with the halter, or kill themselves with
the blades."[1]

[Footnote 1: Harsnet, p. 218.]

72. But the bulk of the references relating to the possession of Mainy
occur further on in the same scene:--

"_Fool._ This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.

"_Edgar._ Take heed o' the foul fiend: obey thy parents; keep thy word
justly; swear not; commit not with man's sworn spouse;[1] set not thy
sweet heart on proud array: Tom's a-cold.

"_Lear._ What hast thou been?

"_Edgar._ A serving-man, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair,
wore my gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress' heart, and did
the act of darkness with her;[2] swore as many oaths as I spake words,
and broke them in the sweet face of heaven; one that slept in the
contriving of lust, and waked to do it; wine loved I deeply; dice
dearly; and in women out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of
ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness,
dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes, nor the
rustling of silks, betray thy poor heart to woman; keep thy foot out of
brothels, thy hand out of plackets,[3] thy pen from lenders' books, and
defy the foul fiend."[4]

[Footnote 1: Cf. sec. 70, and note.]

[Footnote 2: Cf. sec. 70, and note.]

[Footnote 3: Placket probably here means pockets; not, as usual, the
slip in a petticoat. Tom was possessed by Mahu, the prince of stealing.]

[Footnote 4: l. 82, et seq.]

This must be read in conjunction with what Edgar says of himself

"Five fiends have been in poor Tom at once; of lust, as Obidicut;
Hobbididance, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Modo, of murder;
Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing; who since possesses
chamber-maids and waiting-women."[1]

[Footnote 1: Act IV. i. 61.]

The following are the chief parts of the account given by Harsnet of the
exorcism of Mainy by Weston--a most extraordinary transaction,--said to
be taken from Weston's own account of the matter. He was supposed to be
possessed by the devils who represented the seven deadly sins, and "by
instigation of the first of the seven, began to set his hands into his
side, curled his hair, and used such gestures as Maister Edmunds present
affirmed that that spirit was Pride.[1] Heerewith he began to curse and
to banne, saying, 'What a poxe do I heare? I will stay no longer among a
company of rascal priests, but goe to the court and brave it amongst my
fellowes, the noblemen there assembled.'[2] ... Then Maister Edmunds did
proceede againe with his exorcismes, and suddenly the sences of Mainy
were taken from him, his belly began to swell, and his eyes to stare,
and suddainly he cried out, 'Ten pounds in the hundred!' he called for a
scrivener to make a bond, swearing that he would not lend his money
without a pawne.... There could be no other talke had with this spirit
but money and usury, so as all the company deemed this devil to be the
author of Covetousnesse....[3]

[Footnote 1: "A serving-man, proud of heart and mind, that curled my
hair," etc.--l. 87; cf. also l. 84. Curling the hair as a sign of
Mainy's possession is mentioned again, Harsnet, p. 57.]

[Footnote 2: "That ... swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke
them in the sweet face of heaven."--l. 90.]

[Footnote 3: "Keep ... thy pen out of lenders' books."--l. 100.]

"Ere long Maister Edmunds beginneth againe his exorcismes, wherein he
had not proceeded farre, but up cometh another spirit singing most
filthy and baudy songs: every word almost that he spake was nothing but
ribaldry. They that were present with one voyce affirmed that devill to
be the author of Luxury.[1]

[Footnote 1: "Wine loved I deeply; dice dearly; and in women
out-paramoured the Turk."--l. 93.]

"Envy was described by disdainful looks and contemptuous speeches;
Wrath, by furious gestures, and talke as though he would have fought;[1]
Gluttony, by vomiting;[2] and Sloth,[3] by gasping and snorting, as
though he had been asleepe."[4]

[Footnote 1: "Dog in madness, lion in prey."--l. 96.]

[Footnote 2: "Wolf in greediness."--Ibid.]

[Footnote 3: "Hog in sloth."--l. 95.]

[Footnote 4: Harsnet, p. 278.]

A sort of prayer-meeting was then held for the relief of the distressed
youth: "Whereupon the spirit of Pride departed in the forme of a
Peacocke; the spirit of Sloth in the likenesse of an Asse; the spirit of
Envy in the similitude of a Dog; the spirit of Gluttony in the forme of
a Wolfe."[1]

[Footnote 1: The words, "Hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in
greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey," are clearly an imperfect
reminiscence of this part of the transaction.]

There is in another part of "King Lear" a further reference to the
incidents attendant upon these exorcisms Edgar says,[1] "The foul fiend
haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale." This seems to refer to
the following incident related by Friswood Williams:--

"There was also another strange thing happened at Denham about a bird.
Mistris Peckham had a nightingale, which she kept in a cage, wherein
Maister Dibdale took great delight, and would often be playing with it.
This nightingale was one night conveyed out of the cage, and being next
morning diligently sought for, could not be heard of, till Maister
Mainie's devil, in one of his fits (as it was pretended), said that the
wicked spirit which was in this examinate's sister[2] had taken the bird
out of the cage, and killed it in despite of Maister Dibdale."[3]

[Footnote 1: Act III. sc. vi. l. 31.]

[Footnote 2: Sara Williams.]

[Footnote 3: Harsnet, p. 225.]

73. The treatment to which, in consequence of his belief in possession,
unfortunate persons like Mainy and Sommers, who were probably only
suffering from some harmless form of mental disease, were subjected, was
hardly calculated to effect a cure. The most ignorant quack was
considered perfectly competent to deal with cases which, in reality,
require the most delicate and judicious management, combined with the
profoundest physiological, as well as psychological, knowledge. The
ordinary method of dealing with these lunatics was as simple as it was
irritating. Bonds and confinement in a darkened room were the specifics;
and the monotony of this treatment was relieved by occasional visits
from the sage who had charge of the case, to mumble a prayer or mutter
an exorcism. Another popular but unpleasant cure was by flagellation; so
that Romeo's

"Not mad, but bound more than a madman is,
Shut up in prison, kept without my food,
Whipped and tormented,"[1]

if an exaggerated description of his own mental condition is in itself
no inflated metaphor.

[Footnote 1: I. ii. 55.]

74. Shakspere, in "The Comedy of Errors," and indirectly also in
"Twelfth Night," has given us intentionally ridiculous illustrations of
scenes which he had not improbably witnessed, in the country at any
rate, and which bring vividly before us the absurdity of the methods of
diagnosis and treatment usually adopted:--

_Courtesan._ How say you now? is not your husband mad?

_Adriana._ His incivility confirms no less.
Good doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer;
Establish him in his true sense again,
And I will please you what you will demand.

_Luciana._ Alas! how fiery and how sharp he looks!

_Courtesan._ Mark how he trembles in his extasy!

_Pinch._ Give me your hand, and let me feel your pulse.[1]

_Ant. E._ There is my hand, and let it feel your ear.

_Pinch._ I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness his thee straight;
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven.

_Ant. E._ Peace, doting wizard, peace; I am not mad.

_Pinch._ O that thou wert not, poor distressed soul![2]

After some further business, Pinch pronounces his opinion:

"Mistress, both man and master are possessed;
I know it by their pale and deadly looks:
They must be bound, and laid in some dark room."[3]

But "good doctor Pinch" seems to have been mild even to feebleness in
his conjuration; many of his brethren in art had much more effective
formulae. It seems that devils were peculiarly sensitive to any
opprobrious epithets that chanced to be bestowed upon them. The skilful
exorcist took advantage of this weakness, and, if he could only manage
to keep up a flow of uncomplimentary remarks sufficiently long and
offensive, the unfortunate spirit became embarrassed, restless,
agitated, and finally took to flight. Here is a specimen of the
"nicknames" which had so potent an effect, if Harsnet is to be

"Heare therefore, thou senceless false lewd spirit, maister of devils,
miserable creature, tempter of men, deceaver of bad angels, captaine of
heretiques, father of lyes, fatuous bestial ninnie, drunkard, infernal
theefe, wicked serpent, ravening woolfe, leane hunger-bitten impure sow,
seely beast, truculent beast, cruel beast, bloody beast, beast of all
blasts, the most bestiall acherontall spirit, smoakie spirit, Tartareus
spirit!"[4] Whether this objurgation terminates from loss of breath on
the part of the conjurer, or the precipitate departure of the spirit
addressed, it is impossible to say; it is difficult to imagine any
logical reason for its conclusion.

[Footnote 1: The cessation of the pulse was one of the symptoms of
possession. See the case of Sommers, Tryal of Maister Darrell, 1599.]

[Footnote 2: IV. iv. 48, 62.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. 95.]

[Footnote 4: Harsnet, p. 113.]

75. Occasionally other, and sometimes more elaborate, methods of
exorcism than those mentioned by Romeo were adopted, especially when the
operation was conducted for the purpose of bringing into prominence some
great religious truth. The more evangelical of the operators adopted the
plan of lying on the top of their patients, "after the manner of Elias
and Pawle."[1] But the Catholic exorcists invented and carried to
perfection the greatest refinement in the art. The patient, seated in a
"holy chair," specially sanctified for the occasion, was compelled to
drink about a pint of a compound of sack and salad oil; after which
refreshment a pan of burning brimstone was held under his nose, until
his face was blackened by the smoke.[2] All this while the officiating
priest kept up his invocation of the fiends in the manner illustrated
above; and, under such circumstances, it is extremely doubtful whether
the most determined character would not be prepared to see somewhat
unusual phenomena for the sake of a short respite.

[Footnote 1: The Tryall of Maister Darrell, 1599, p. 2.]

[Footnote 2: Harsnet, p. 53.]

76. Another remarkable method of exorcism was a process termed "firing
out" the fiend.[1] The holy flame of piety resident in the priest was so
terrible to the evil spirit, that the mere contact of the holy hand with
that part of the body of the afflicted person in which he was resident
was enough to make him shrink away into some more distant portion; so,
by a judicious application of the hand, the exorcist could drive the
devil into some limb, from which escape into the body was impossible,
and the evil spirit, driven to the extremity, was obliged to depart,
defeated and disgraced.[2] This influence could be exerted, however,
without actual corporal contact, as the following quaint extract from
Harsnet's book will show:--

"Some punie rash devil doth stay till the holy priest be come somewhat
neare, as into the chamber where the demoniacke doth abide, purposing,
as it seemes, to try a pluck with the priest; and then his hart sodainly
failing him (as Demas, when he saw his friend Chinias approach), cries
out that he is tormented with the presence of the priest, and so is
fierd out of his hold."[3]

[Footnote 1: This expression occurs in Sonnet cxliv., and evidently with
the meaning here explained; only the bad angel is supposed to fire out
the good one.]

[Footnote 2: Harsnet, pp. 77, 96, 97.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. p. 65.]

77. The more violent or uncommon of the bodily diseases were, as the
quotation from Cotta's book shows[1], attributed to the same diabolic
source. In an era when the most profound ignorance prevailed with regard
to the simplest laws of health; when the commoner diseases were
considered as God's punishment for sin, and not attributable to natural
causes; when so eminent a divine as Bishop Hooper could declare that
"the air, the water, and the earth have no poison in themselves to hurt
their lord and master man,"[2] unless man first poisoned himself with
sin; and when, in consequence of this ignorance and this false
philosophy, and the inevitable neglect attendant upon them, those
fearful plagues known as "the Black Death" could, almost without notice,
sweep down upon a country, and decimate its inhabitants--it is not
wonderful that these terrible scourges were attributed to the
malevolence of the Evil One.

[Footnote 1: See secs. 63, 64.]

[Footnote 2: I Hooper, p. 308. Parker Society.]

78. But it is curious to notice that, although possessing such terrible
powers over the bodies and minds of mortals, devils were not believed to
be potent enough to destroy the lives of the persons they persecuted
unless they could persuade their victims to renounce God. This theory
probably sprang out of the limitation imposed by the Almighty upon the
power of Satan during his temptation of Job, and the advice given to the
sufferer by his wife, "Curse God, and die." Hence, when evil spirits
began their assaults upon a man, one of their first endeavours was to
induce him to do some act that would be equivalent to such a
renunciation. Sometimes this was a bond assigning the victim's soul to
the Evil One in consideration of certain worldly advantages; sometimes a
formal denial of his baptism; sometimes a deed that drives away the
guardian angel from his side, and leaves the devil's influence
uncounteracted. In "The Witch of Edmonton,"[1] the first act that Mother
Sawyer demands her familiar to perform after she has struck her bargain,
is to kill her enemy Banks; and the fiend has reluctantly to declare
that he cannot do so unless by good fortune he could happen to catch him
cursing. Both Harpax[2] and Mephistophiles[3] suggest to their victims
that they have power to destroy their enemies, but neither of them is
able to exercise it. Faust can torment, but not kill, his would-be
murderers; and Springius and Hircius are powerless to take Dorothea's
life. In the latter case it is distinctly the protection of the guardian
angel that limits the diabolic power; so it is not unnatural that
Gratiano should think the cursing of his better angel from his side the
"most desperate turn" that poor old Brabantio could have done himself,
had he been living to hear of his daughter's cruel death.[4] It is next
to impossible for people in the present day to have any idea what a
consolation this belief in a good attendant spirit, specially appointed
to guard weak mortals through life, to ward off evils, and guide to
eternal safety, must have been in a time when, according to the current
belief, any person, however blameless, however holy, was liable at any
moment to be possessed by a devil, or harried and tortured by a witch.

[Footnote 1: Act II. sc. i.]

[Footnote 2: The Virgin Martyr, Act III. sc. iii.]

[Footnote 3: Dr. Faustus, Act I. sc. iii.]

[Footnote 4: Othello, Act V. sc. ii. 204.]

79. This leads by a natural sequence to the consideration of another and
more insidious form of attack upon mankind adopted by the evil spirits.
Possession and obsession were methods of assault adopted against the
will of the afflicted person, and hardly to be avoided by him without
the supernatural intervention of the Church. The practice of witchcraft
and magic involved the absolute and voluntary barter of body and soul to
the Evil One, for the purpose of obtaining a few short years of
superhuman power, to be employed for the gratification of the culprit's
avarice, ambition, or desire for revenge.

80. In the strange history of that most inexplicable mental disease, the
witchcraft epidemic, as it has been justly called by a high authority on
such matters,[1] we moderns are, by the nature of our education and
prejudices, completely incapacitated for sympathizing with either the
persecutors or their victims. We are at a loss to understand how
clear-sighted and upright men, like Sir Matthew Hale, could consent to
become parties to a relentless persecution to the death of poor helpless
beings whose chief crime, in most cases, was, that they had suffered
starvation both in body and in mind. We cannot understand it, because
none of us believe in the existence of evil spirits. None; for although
there are still a few persons who nominally hold to the ancient faith,
as they do to many other respectable but effete traditions, yet they
would be at a loss for a reason for the faith that is in them, should
they chance to be asked for one; and not one of them would be prepared
to make the smallest material sacrifice for the sake of it. It is true
that the existence of evil spirits recently received a tardy and
somewhat hesitating recognition in our ecclesiastical courts,[2] which
at first authoritatively declared that a denial of the existence of the
personality of the devil constituted a man a notorious evil liver, and
depraver of the Book of Common Prayer;[3] but this was promptly reversed
by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, under the auspices of
two Low Church law lords and two archbishops, with the very vague
proviso that "they do not mean to decide that those doctrines are
otherwise than inconsistent with the formularities of the Church of
England;"[4] yet the very contempt with which these portentous
declarations of Church law have been received shows how great has been
the fall of the once almost omnipotent minister of evil. The ancient
Satan does indeed exist in some few formularies, but in such a
washed-out and flimsy condition as to be the reverse of conspicuous. All
that remains of him and of his subordinate legions is the ineffectual
ghost of a departed creed, for the resuscitation of which no man will
move a finger.

[Footnote 1: See Dr. Carpenter in _Frazer_ for November, 1877.]

[Footnote 2: See Jenkins v. Cooke, Law Reports, Admiralty and
Ecclesiastical Cases, vol. iv. p. 463, et seq.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. p. 499, Sir R. Phillimore.]

[Footnote 4: Law Reports, I Probate Division, p. 102.]

81. It is perfectly impossible for us, therefore, to comprehend,
although by an effort we may perhaps bring ourselves to imagine, the
horror and loathing with which good men, entirely believing in the
existence and omnipresence of countless legions of evil spirits, able
and anxious to perpetrate the mischiefs that it has been the object of
these pages in some part to describe, would regard those who, for their
own selfish gratification, deliberately surrendered their hopes of
eternal happiness in exchange for an alliance with the devils, which
would render these ten times more capable than before of working their
wicked wills. To men believing this, no punishment could seem too sudden
or too terrible for such offenders against religion and society, and no
means of possible detection too slight or far-fetched to be neglected;
indeed, it might reasonably appear to them better that many innocent
persons should perish, with the assurance of future reward for their
undeserved sufferings, than that a single guilty one should escape
undetected, and become the medium by which the devil might destroy more

82. But the persecuted, far more than the persecutors, deserve our
sympathy, although they rarely obtain it. It is frequently asserted that
the absolute truth of a doctrine is the only support that will enable
its adherents successfully to weather the storms of persecution. Those
who assent to this proposition must be prepared to find a large amount
of truth in the beliefs known to us under the name of witchcraft, if the
position is to be successfully maintained; for never was any sect
persecuted more systematically, or with more relentlessness, than these
little-offending heretics. Protestants and Catholics, Anglicans and
Calvinists, so ready at all times to commit one another to the flames
and to the headsman, found in this matter common ground, upon which all
could heartily unite for the grand purpose of extirpating error. When,
out of the quiet of our own times, we look back upon the terrors of the
Tower, and the smoke and glare of Smithfield, we think with mingled pity
and admiration of those brave men and women who, in the sixteenth
century, enriched with their blood and ashes the soil from whence was to
spring our political and religious freedom. But no whit of admiration,
hardly a glimmer of pity, is even casually evinced for those poor
creatures who, neglected, despised, and abhorred, were, at the same
time, dying the same agonizing death, and passing through the torment of
the flames to that "something after death--the undiscovered country,"
without the sweet assurance which sustained their better-remembered
fellow-sufferers, that beyond the martyr's cross was waiting the
martyr's crown. No such hope supported those who were condemned to die
for the crime of witchcraft: their anticipations of the future were as
dreary as their memories of the past, and no friendly voice was raised,
or hand stretched out, to encourage or console them during that last sad
journey. Their hope of mercy from man was small--strangulation before
the application of the fire, instead of the more lingering and painful
death at most;--their hope of mercy from Heaven, nothing; yet, under
these circumstances, the most auspicious perhaps that could be imagined
for the extirpation of a heretical belief, persecution failed to effect
its object. The more the Government burnt the witches, the more the
crime of witchcraft spread; and it was not until an attitude of
contemptuous toleration was adopted towards the culprits that the belief
died down, gradually but surely, not on account of the conclusiveness of
the arguments directed against it, but from its own inherent lack of

[Footnote 1: See Mr. Lecky's elaborate and interesting description of
the demise of the belief in the first chapter of his History of the Rise
of Rationalism in Europe.]

83. The history and phenomena of witchcraft have been so admirably
treated by more than one modern investigator, as to render it
unnecessary to deal exhaustively with a subject which presents such a
vast amount of material for arrangement and comment. The scope of the
following remarks will therefore be limited to a consideration of such
features of the subject as appear to throw light upon the
supernaturalism in "Macbeth." This consideration will be carried out
with some minuteness, as certain modern critics, importing mythological
learning that is the outcome of comparatively recent investigation into
the interpretation of the text, have declared that the three sisters who
play such an important part in that drama are not witches at all, but
are, or are intimately allied to, the Norns or Fates of Scandinavian
paganism. It will be the object of the following pages to illustrate the
contemporary belief concerning witches and their powers, by showing that
nearly every characteristic point attributed to the sisters has its
counterpart in contemporary witch-lore; that some of the allusions,
indeed, bear so strong a resemblance to certain events that had
transpired not many years before "Macbeth" was written, that it is not
improbable that Shakspere was alluding to them in much the same
off-hand, cursory manner as he did to the Mainy incident when writing
"King Lear."

84. The first critic whose comments upon this subject call for notice is
the eminent Gervinus. In evident ignorance of the history of witchcraft,
he says, "In the witches Shakspere has made use of the popular belief in
evil geniuses and in adverse persecutors of mankind, and has produced a
similar but darker race of beings, just as he made use of the belief in
fairies in the 'Midsummer Night's Dream.' This creation is less
attractive and complete, but not less masterly. The poet, in the text of
the play itself, calls these beings witches only derogatorily; they call
themselves weird sisters; the Fates bore this denomination, and the
sisters remind us indeed of the Northern Fates or Valkyries. They appear
wild and weather-beaten in exterior and attire, common in speech,
ignoble, half-human creatures, ugly as the Evil One, and in like manner
old, and of neither sex. They are guided by more powerful masters, their
work entirely springs from delight in evil, and they are wholly devoid
of human sympathies.... They are simply the embodiment of inward
temptation; they come in storm and vanish in air, like corporeal
impulses, which, originating in the blood, cast up bubbles of sin and
ambition in the soul; they are weird sisters only in the sense in which
men carry their own fates within their bosoms."[1] This criticism is so
entirely subjective and unsupported by evidence that it is difficult to
deal satisfactorily with it. It will be shown hereafter that this
description does not apply in the least to the Scandinavian Norns,
while, so far as it is true to Shakspere's text, it does not clash with
contemporary records of the appearance and actions of witches.

[Footnote 1: Shakspere Commentaries, translated by F.E. Bunnert, p.

85. The next writer to bring forward a view of this character was the
Rev. F.G. Fleay, the well-known Shakspere critic, whose ingenious
efforts in iconoclasm cause a curious alternation of feeling between
admiration and amazement. His argument is unfortunately mixed up with a
question of textual criticism; for he rejects certain scenes in the play
as the work of the inferior dramatist Middleton.[1] The question
relating to the text will only be noticed so far as it is inextricably
involved with the argument respecting the nature of the weird sisters.
Mr. Fleay's position is, shortly, this. He thinks that Shakspere's play
commenced with the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo in the third scene of
the first act, and that the weird sisters who subsequently take part in
that scene are Norns, not witches; and that in the first scene of the
fourth act, Shakspere discarded the Norns, and introduced three
entirely new characters, who were intended to be genuine witches.

[Footnote 1: Of the witch scenes Mr. Fleay rejects Act I. sc. i., and
sc. iii. down to l. 37, and Act III. sc. v.]

86. The evidence which can be produced in support of this theory, apart
from question of style and probability, is threefold. The first proof is
derived from a manuscript entitled "The Booke of Plaies and Notes
thereof, for Common Pollicie," written by a somewhat famous
magician-doctor, Simon Forman, who was implicated in the murder of Sir
Thomas Overbury. He says, "In 'Macbeth,' at the Globe, 1610, the 20th
April, Saturday, there was to be observed first how Macbeth and Banquo,
two noblemen of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them
three women fairies, or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth, saying three times
unto him, 'Hail, Macbeth, King of Codor, for thou shalt be a king, but
thou shalt beget no kings,'" etc.[1] This, if Forman's account held
together decently in other respects, would be strong, although not
conclusive, evidence in favour of the theory; but the whole note is so
full of inconsistencies and misstatements, that it is not unfair to
conclude, either that the writer was not paying marvellous attention to
the entertainment he professed to describe, or that the player's copy
differed in many essential points from the present text. Not the least
conspicuous of these inconsistencies is the account of the sisters'
greeting of Macbeth just quoted. Subsequently Forman narrates that
Duncan created Macbeth Prince of Cumberland; and that "when Macbeth had
murdered the king, the blood on his hands could not be washed off by
any means, nor from his wife's hands, which handled the bloody daggers
in hiding them, by which means they became both much amazed and
affronted." Such a loose narration cannot be relied upon if the text in
question contains any evidence at all rebutting the conclusion that the
sisters are intended to be "women fairies, or nymphs."

[Footnote 1: See Furness, Variorum, p. 384.]

87. The second piece of evidence is the story of Macbeth as it is
narrated by Holinshed, from which Shakspere derived his material. In
that account we read that "It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho journied
toward Fores, where the king then laie, they went sporting by the waie
togither without other companie, saue onlie themselues, passing thorough
the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund there met
them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of
elder world, whome when they attentivelie beheld, woondering much at the
sight, the first of them spake and said; 'All haile, Makbeth, thane of
Glammis' (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by
the death of his father Sinell). The second of them said; 'Haile,
Makbeth, thane of Cawder.' But the third said; 'All haile, Makbeth, that
heereafter shall be King of Scotland.' ... Afterwards the common opinion
was that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would
say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued
with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, because
everiething came to passe as they had spoken."[1] This is all that is
heard of these "goddesses of Destinie" in Holinshed's narrative. Macbeth
is warned to "beware Macduff"[2] by "certeine wizzards, in whose words
he put great confidence;" and the false promises were made to him by "a
certeine witch, whome he had in great trust, (who) had told him that he
should neuer be slaine with man borne of anie woman, nor vanquished till
the wood of Bernane came to the castell of Dunsinane."[3]

[Footnote 1: Holinshed, Scotland, p. 170, c. 2, l. 55.]

[Footnote 2: Macbeth, IV. l. 71. Holinshed, p. 174, c. 2, l. 10.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. l. 13.]

88. In this account we find that the supernatural communications adopted
by Shakspere were derived from three sources; and the contention is that
he has retained two of them--the "goddesses of Destinie" and the
witches; and the evidence of this retention is the third proof relied
on, namely, that the stage direction in the first folio, Act IV. sc. i.,
is, "Enter Hecate and the _other_ three witches," when three characters
supposed to be witches are already upon the scene. Holinshed's narrative
makes it clear that the idea of the "goddesses of Destinie" was
distinctly suggested to Shakspere's mind, as well as that of the
witches, as the mediums of supernatural influence. The question is, did
he retain both, or did he reject one and retain the other? It can
scarcely be doubted that one such influence running through the play
would conduce to harmony and unity of idea; and as Shakspere, not a
servile follower of his source in any case, has interwoven in "Macbeth"
the totally distinct narrative of the murder of King Duffe,[1] it is
hardly to be supposed that he would scruple to blend these two
different sets of characters if any advantage were to be gained by so
doing. As to the stage direction in the first folio, it is difficult to
see what it would prove, even supposing that the folio were the most
scrupulous piece of editorial work that had ever been effected. It
presupposes that the "weird sisters" are on the stage as well as the
witches. But it is perfectly clear that the witches continue the
dialogue; so the other more powerful beings must be supposed to be
standing silent in the background--a suggestion so monstrous that it is
hardly necessary to refer to the slovenliness of the folio stage
directions to show how unsatisfactory an argument based upon one of them
must be.

[Footnote 1: Ibid. p. 149. "A sort of witches dwelling in a towne of
Murreyland called Fores" (c. 2, l. 30) were prominent in this account.]

89. The evidence of Forman and Holinshed has been stated fully, in order
that the reader may be in possession of all the materials that may be
necessary for forming an accurate judgment upon the point in question;
but it seems to be less relied upon than the supposition that the
appearance and powers of the beings in the admittedly genuine part of
the third scene of the first act are not those formerly attributed to
witches, and that Shakspere, having once decided to represent Norns,
would never have degraded them "to three old women, who are called by
Paddock and Graymalkin, sail in sieves, kill swine, serve Hecate, and
deal in all the common charms, illusions, and incantations of vulgar
witches. The three who 'look not like the inhabitants o' th' earth, and
yet are on't;' they who can 'look into the seeds of time, and say which
grain will grow;' they who seem corporal, but melt into the air, like
bubbles of the earth; the weyward sisters, who make themselves air, and
have in them more than mortal knowledge, are not beings of this

[Footnote 1: New Shakspere Society Transactions, vol. i. p.342; Fleay's
Shakspere Manual, p. 248.]

90. Now, there is a great mass of contemporary evidence to show that
these supposed characteristics of the Norns are, in fact, some of the
chief attributes of the witches of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. If this be so--if it can be proved that the supposed
"goddesses of Destinie" of the play in reality possess no higher powers
than could be acquired by ordinary communication with evil spirits, then
no weight must be attached to the vague stage direction in the folio,
occurring as it does in a volume notorious for the extreme carelessness
with which it was produced; and it must be admitted that the "goddesses
of Destinie" of Holinshed were sacrificed for the sake of the witches.
If, in addition to this, it can be shown that there was a very
satisfactory reason why the witches should have been chosen as the
representatives of the evil influence instead of the Norns, the argument
will be as complete as it is possible to make it.

91. But before proceeding to examine the contemporary evidence, it is
necessary, in order to obtain a complete conception of the mythological
view of the weird sisters, to notice a piece of criticism that is at
once an expansion of, and a variation upon, the theory just stated.[1]
It is suggested that the sisters of "Macbeth" are but three in number,
but that Shakspere drew upon Scandinavian mythology for a portion of the
material he used in constructing these characters, and that he derived
the rest from the traditions of contemporary witchcraft; in fact, that
the "sisters" are hybrids between Norns and witches. The supposed proof
of this is that each sister exercises the special function of one of the
Norns. "The third is the special prophetess, whilst the first takes
cognizance of the past, and the second of the present, in affairs
connected with humanity. These are the tasks of Urda, Verdandi, and
Skulda. The first begins by asking, 'When shall we three meet again?'
The second decides the time: 'When the battle's lost or won.' The third,
the future prophesies: 'That will be ere set of sun.' The first again
asks, 'Where?' The second decides: 'Upon the heath.' The third, the
future prophesies: 'There to meet with Macbeth.'" But their _role_ is
most clearly brought out in the famous "Hails":--

_1st. Urda._ [Past.] All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of

_2nd. Verdandi._ [Present.] All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane
of Cawdor!

_3rd. Skulda._ All hail, Macbeth! thou shalt be king hereafter.[2]

This sequence is supposed to be retained in other of the sisters'
speeches; but a perusal of these will soon show that it is only in the
second of the above quotations that it is recognizable with any
definiteness; and this, it must be remembered, is an almost verbal
transcript from Holinshed, and not an original conception of
Shakspere's, who might feel himself quite justified in changing the
characters of the speakers, while retaining their utterances. In
addition to this, the natural sequence is in many cases utterly and
unnecessarily violated; as, for instance, in Act I. sc. iii., where
Urda, who should be solely occupied with past matters, predicts, with
extreme minuteness, the results that are to follow from her projected
voyage to Aleppo, and that without any expression of resentment, but
rather with promise of assistance, from Skulda, whose province she is
thus invading.

[Footnote 1: In a letter to _The Academy_, 8th February, 1879, signed
"Charlotte Carmichael."]

[Footnote 2: I have taken the liberty of printing this quotation as it
stands in the text. The writer in _The Academy_ has effected a
rearrangement of the dialogue by importing what might be Macbeth's
replies to the three sisters from his speech beginning at l. 70, and
alternating them with the different "Hails," which, in addition, are not
correctly quoted--for what purpose it is difficult to see. It may be
added here that in a subsequent number of _The Academy_, a long letter
upon the same subject appeared from Mr. Karl Blind, which seems to prove
little except the author's erudition. He assumes the Teutonic origin of
the sisters throughout, and, consequently, adduces little evidence in
favour of the theory. One of his points is the derivation of the word
"weird" or "wayward," which, as will be shown subsequently, was applied
to witches. Another point is, that the witch scenes savour strongly of
the staff-rime of old German poetry. It is interesting to find two
upholders of the Norn-theory relying mainly for proof of their position
upon a scene (Act I. sc. i.) which Mr Fleay says that the very statement
of this theory (p. 249) must brand as spurious. The question of the
sisters' beards too, regarding which Mr. Blind brings somewhat
far-fetched evidence, is, I think, more satisfactorily settled by the
quotations in the text.]

92. But this latter piece of criticism seems open to one grave
objection to which the former is not liable. Mr. Fleay separates the
portions of the play which are undoubtedly to be assigned to witches
from the parts he gives to his Norns, and attributes them to different
characters; the other mixes up the witch and Norn elements in one
confused mass. The earlier critic saw the absurdity of such a
supposition when he wrote: "Shakspere may have raised the wizard and
witches of the latter parts of Holinshed to the weird sisters of the
former parts, but the converse process is impossible."[1] Is it
conceivable that Shakspere, who, as most people admit, was a man of some
poetic feeling, being in possession of the beautiful Norn-legend--the
silent Fate-goddesses sitting at the foot of Igdrasil, the mysterious
tree of human existence, and watering its roots with water from the
sacred spring--could, ruthlessly and without cause, mar the charm of the
legend by the gratuitous introduction of the gross and primarily
unpoetical details incident to the practice of witchcraft? No man with a
glimmer of poetry in his soul will imagine it for a moment. The
separation of characters is more credible than this; but if that theory
can be shown to be unfounded, there is no improbability in supposing
that Shakspere, finding that the question of witchcraft was, in
consequence of events that had taken place not long before the time of
the production of "Macbeth," absorbing the attention of all men, from
king to peasant, should set himself to deal with such a popular subject,
and, by the magic of his art, so raise it out of its degradation into
the region of poetry, that men should wonder and say, "Can this be
witchcraft indeed?"

[Footnote 1: Shakspere Manual, p. 249.]

93. In comparing the evidence to be deduced from the contemporary
records of witchcraft with the sayings and doings of the sisters in
"Macbeth," those parts of the play will first be dealt with upon which
no doubt as to their genuineness has ever been cast, and which are
asserted to be solely applicable to Norns. If it can be shown that these
describe witches rather than Norns, the position that Shakspere
intentionally substituted witches for the "goddesses of Destinie"
mentioned in his authority is practically unassailable. First, then, it
is asserted that the description of the appearance of the sisters given
by Banquo applies to Norns rather than witches--

"They look not like the inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on't."

This question of applicability, however, must not be decided by the
consideration of a single sentence, but of the whole passage from which
it is extracted; and, whilst considering it, it should be carefully
borne in mind that it occurs immediately before those lines which are
chiefly relied upon as proving the identity of the sisters with Urda,
Verdandi, and Skulda.

Banquo, on seeing the sisters, says--

"What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' th' 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."

It is in the first moment of surprise that the sisters, appearing so
suddenly, seem to Banquo unlike the inhabitants of this earth. When he
recovers from the shock and is capable of deliberate criticism, he sees
chappy fingers, skinny lips--in fact, nothing to distinguish them from
poverty-stricken, ugly old women but their beards. A more accurate
poetical counterpart to the prose descriptions given by contemporary
writers of the appearance of the poor creatures who were charged with
the crime of witchcraft could hardly have been penned. Scot, for
instance, says, "They are women which commonly be old, lame,
bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles.... They are leane and
deformed, showing melancholie in their faces;"[1] and Harsnet describes
a witch as "an old weather-beaten crone, having her chin and knees
meeting for age, walking like a bow, leaning on a staff, hollow-eyed,
untoothed, furrowed, having her lips trembling with palsy, going
mumbling in the streets; one that hath forgotten her Pater-noster, yet
hath a shrewd tongue to call a drab a drab."[2] It must be remembered
that these accounts are by two sceptics, who saw nothing in the witches
but poor, degraded old women. In a description which assumes their
supernatural power such minute details would not be possible; yet there
is quite enough in Banquo's description to suggest neglect, squalor, and
misery. But if this were not so, there is one feature in the
description of the sisters that would settle the question once and for
ever. The beard was in Elizabethan times the recognized characteristic
of the witch. In one old play it is said, "The women that come to us for
disguises must wear beards, and that's to say a token of a witch;"[3]
and in another, "Some women have beards; marry, they are half
witches;"[4] and Sir Hugh Evans gives decisive testimony to the fact
when he says of the disguised Falstaff, "By yea and no, I think, the
'oman is a witch indeed: I like not when a 'oman has a great peard; I
spy a great peard under her muffler."[5]

[Footnote 1: Discoverie, book i. ch. 3, p. 7.]

[Footnote 2: Harsnet, Declaration, p. 136.]

[Footnote 3: Honest Man's Fortune, II. i. Furness, Variorum, p. 30.]

[Footnote 4: Dekker's Honest Whore, sc. x. l. 126.]

[Footnote 5: Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV. sc. ii.]

94. Every item of Banquo's description indicates that he is speaking of
witches; nothing in it is incompatible with that supposition. Will it
apply with equal force to Norns? It can hardly be that these mysterious
mythical beings, who exercise an incomprehensible yet powerful influence
over human destiny, could be described with any propriety in terms so
revolting. A veil of wild, weird grandeur might be thrown around them;
but can it be supposed that Shakspere would degrade them by representing
them with chappy fingers, skinny lips, and beards? It is particularly to
be noticed, too, that although in this passage he is making an almost
verbal transcript from Holinshed, these details are interpolated without
the authority of the chronicle. Let it be supposed, for an instant,
that the text ran thus--

_Banquo._ ... What are these
So withered and so wild in their attire,[1]
That look not like the inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on't?[2] Live you, or are you ought
That man may question?[3]

_Macbeth._ Speak if you can, what are you?

_1st Witch._ All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis![4]

_2nd Witch._ All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Cawdor![5]

_3rd Witch._ All hail, Macbeth! thou shall be king hereafter.[6]

This is so accurate a dramatization of the parallel passage in
Holinshed, and so entire in itself, that there is some temptation to ask
whether it was not so written at first, and the interpolated lines
subsequently inserted by the author. Whether this be so or not, the
question must be put--Why, in such a passage, did Shakspere insert three
lines of most striking description of the appearance of witches? Can any
other reason be suggested than that he had made up his mind to replace
the "goddesses of Destinie" by the witches, and had determined that
there should be no possibility of any doubt arising about it?

[Footnote 1: Three women in strange and wild apparel,]

[Footnote 2: resembling creatures of elder world,]

[Footnote 3: whome when they attentivelie beheld, woondering much at the
sight, the first of them spake and said;]

[Footnote 4: 'All haile, Makbeth, thane of Glammis' (for he had latelie
entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father

[Footnote 5: The second of them said; 'Haile, Makbeth, thane of

[Footnote 6: But the third said; 'All haile, Makbeth, that heereafter
shalt be king of Scotland.']

95. The next objection is, that the sisters exercise powers that witches
did not possess. They can "look into the seeds of time, and say which
grain will grow, and which will not." In other words, they foretell
future events, which witches could not do. But this is not the fact. The
recorded witch trials teem with charges of having prophesied what things
were about to happen; no charge is more common. The following, quoted by
Charles Knight in his biography of Shakspere, might almost have
suggested the simile in the last-mentioned lines. Johnnet Wischert is
"indicted for passing to the green growing corn in May, twenty-two years
since or thereby, sitting thereupon tymous in the morning before the
sun-rising, and being there found and demanded what she was doing,
thou[1] answered, I shall tell thee; I have been peeling the blades of
the corn. I find it will be a dear year, the blade of the corn grows
withersones [contrary to the course of the sun], and when it grows
sonegatis about [with the course of the sun] it will be good cheap
year."[2] The following is another apt illustration of the power, which
has been translated from the unwieldy Lowland Scotch account of the
trial of Bessie Roy in 1590. The Dittay charged her thus: "You are
indicted and accused that whereas, when you were dwelling with William
King in Barra, about twelve years ago, or thereabouts, and having gone
into the field to pluck lint with other women, in their presence made a
compass in the earth, and a hole in the midst thereof; and afterwards,
by thy conjurations thou causedst a great worm to come up first out of
the said hole, and creep over the compass; and next a little worm came
forth, which crept over also; and last [thou] causedst a great worm to
come forth, which could not pass over the compass, but fell down and
died. Which enchantment and witchcraft thou interpretedst in this form:
that the first great worm that crept over the compass was the goodman
William King, who should live; and the little worm was a child in the
goodwife's womb, who was unknown to any one to be with child, and that
the child should live; and, thirdly, the last great worm thou
interpretedst to be the goodwife, who should die: _which came to pass
after thy speaking_."[3] Surely there could hardly be plainer instances
of looking "into the seeds of time, and saying which grain will grow,
and which will not," than these.

[Footnote 1: Sic.]

[Footnote 2: p. 438.]

[Footnote 3: Pitcairn, I. ii. 207. Cf. also Ibid. pp. 212, 213, and 231,
where the crime is described as "foreknowledge."]

96. Perhaps this is the most convenient place for pointing out the full
meaning of the first scene of "Macbeth," and its necessary connection
with the rest of the play. It is, in fact, the fag-end of a witches'
sabbath, which, if fully represented, would bear a strong resemblance to
the scene at the commencement of the fourth act. But a long scene on
such a subject would be tedious and unmeaning at the commencement of the
play. The audience is therefore left to assume that the witches have
met, performed their conjurations, obtained from the evil spirits the
information concerning Macbeth's career that they desired to obtain, and
perhaps have been commanded by the fiends to perform the mission they
subsequently carry through. All that is needed for the dramatic effect
is a slight hint of probable diabolical interference, and that Macbeth
is to be the special object of it; and this is done in as artistic a
manner as is perhaps imaginable. In the first scene they obtain their
information; in the second they utter their prediction. Every minute
detail of these scenes is based upon the broad, recognized facts of

97. It is also suggested that the power of vanishing from the sight
possessed by the sisters--the power to make themselves air--was not
characteristic of witches. But this is another assertion that would not
have been made, had the authorities upon the subject been investigated
with only slight attention. No feature of the crime of witchcraft is
better attested than this; and the modern witch of story-books is still
represented as riding on a broomstick--a relic of the enchanted rod with
which the devil used to provide his worshippers, upon which to come to
his sabbaths.[1] One of the charges in the indictment against the
notorious Dr. Fian ran thus: "Fylit for suffering himself to be careit
to North Berwik kirk, as if he had bene souchand athoirt [whizzing
above] the eird."[2] Most effectual ointments were prepared for
effecting this method of locomotion, which have been recorded, and are
given below[3] as an illustration of the wild kind of recipes which
Shakspere rendered more grim in his caldron scene. The efficacy of these
ointments is well illustrated by a story narrated by Reginald Scot,
which unfortunately, on account of certain incidents, cannot be given in
his own terse words. The hero of it happened to be staying temporarily
with a friend, and on one occasion found her rubbing her limbs with a
certain preparation, and mumbling the while. After a time she vanished
out of his sight; and he, being curious to investigate the affair,
rubbed himself with the remaining ointment, and almost immediately he
found himself transported a long distance through the air, and
deposited right in the very midst of a witches' sabbath. Naturally
alarmed, he cried out, "'In the name of God, what make I heere?' and
upon those words the whole assemblie vanished awaie."[4]

[Footnote 1: Scot, book iii. ch. iii. p. 43.]

[Footnote 2: Pitcairn, I. ii. 210. Cf. also Ibid. p. 211. Scot, book
iii. ch. vii. p. 51.]

[Footnote 3: "Sundrie receipts and ointments made and used for the
transportation of witches, and other miraculous effects.

"Rx. The fat of yoong children, & seeth it with water in a brazen
vessell, reseruing the thickest of that which remaineth boiled in the
bottome, which they laie up & keep untill occasion serveth to use it.
They put hereinto Eleoselinum, Aconitum, frondes populeas, & Soote."
This is given almost verbatim in Middleton's Witch.

"Rx. Sium, Acarum Vulgare, Pentaphyllon, the bloud of a Flittermouse,
Solanum Somniferum, & oleum."

It would seem that fern seed had the same virtue.--I Hen. IV. II. i.]

[Footnote 4: Scot, book iii. ch. vi. p. 46.]

98. The only vestige of a difficulty, therefore, that remains is the use
of the term "weird sisters" in describing the witches. It is perfectly
clear that Holinshed used these words as a sort of synonym for the
"goddesses of Destinie;" but with such a mass of evidence as has been
produced to show that Shakspere elected to introduce witches in the
place of the Norns, it surely would not be unwarrantable to suppose that
he might retain this term as a poetical and not unsuitable description
of the characters to whom it was applied. And this is the less
improbable as it can be shown that both words were at times applied to
witches. As the quotation given subsequently[1] proves, the Scotch
witches were in the habit of speaking of the frequenters of a particular
sabbath as "the sisters;" and in Heywood's "Witches of Lancashire," one
of the characters says about a certain act of supposed witchcraft, "I
remember that some three months since I crossed a wayward woman; one
that I now suspect."[2]

[Footnote 1: sec. 107, p. 114.]

[Footnote 2: Act V. sc. iii.]

99. Here, then, in the very stronghold of the supposed proof of the
Norn-theory, it is possible to extract convincing evidence that the
sisters are intended to be merely witches. It is not surprising that
other portions of the play in which the sisters are mentioned should
confirm this view. Banquo, upon hearing the fulfilment of the prophecy
of the second witch, clearly expresses his opinion of the origin of the
"foreknowledge" he has received, in the exclamation, "What, can the
devil speak true?" For the devil most emphatically spoke through the
witches; but how could he in any sense be said to speak through Norns?
Again, Macbeth informs his wife that on his arrival at Forres, he made
inquiry into the amount of reliance that could be placed in the
utterances of the witches, "and learned by the perfectest report that
they had more in them than mortal knowledge."[1] This would be possible
enough if witches were the subjects of the investigation, for their
chief title to authority would rest upon the general opinion current in
the neighbourhood in which they dwelt; but how could such an inquiry be
carried out successfully in the case of Norns? It is noticeable, too,
that Macbeth knows exactly where to find the sisters when he wants them;
and when he says--

"More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst,"[2]

he makes another clear allusion to the traffic of the witches with the
devil. After the events recorded in Act IV. sc. i., Macbeth speaks of
the prophecies upon which he relies as "the equivocation of the
fiend,"[3] and the prophets as "these juggling fiends;"[4] and with
reason--for he has seen and heard the very devils themselves, the
masters of the witches and sources of all their evil power. Every point
in the play that bears upon the subject at all tends to show that
Shakspere intentionally replaced the "goddesses of Destinie" by witches;
and that the supposed Norn origin of these characters is the result of a
somewhat too great eagerness to unfold a novel and startling theory.

[Footnote 1: Act I. sc. v. l. 2.]

[Footnote 2: Mr. Fleay avoids the difficulty created by this passage,
which alludes to the witches as "the weird sisters," by supposing that
these lines were interpolated by Middleton--a method of criticism that
hardly needs comment. Act III. sc. iv. l. 134.]

[Footnote 3: Act V. sc. v. l. 43.]

[Footnote 4: Ibid. sc. viii. l. 19.]

100. Assuming, therefore, that the witch-nature of the sisters is
conclusively proved, it now becomes necessary to support the assertion
previously made, that good reason can be shown why Shakspere should
have elected to represent witches rather than Norns.

It is impossible to read "Macbeth" without noticing the prominence given
to the belief that witches had the power of creating storms and other
atmospheric disturbances, and that they delighted in so doing. The
sisters elect to meet in thunder, lightning, or rain. To them "fair is
foul, and foul is fair," as they "hover through the fog and filthy air."
The whole of the earlier part of the third scene of the first act is one
blast of tempest with its attendant devastation. They can loose and bind
the winds,[1] cause vessels to be tempest-tossed at sea, and mutilate
wrecked bodies.[2] They describe themselves as "posters of the sea and
land;"[3] the heath they meet upon is blasted;[4] and they vanish "as
breath into the wind."[5] Macbeth conjures them to answer his questions

"Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged, and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken."[6]

[Footnote 1: I. iii. 11, 12.]

[Footnote 2: Act I. sc. iii. l. 28.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. l. 32.]

[Footnote 4: Ibid. l. 77.]

[Footnote 5: Ibid. ll. 81, 82.]

[Footnote 6: Act IV. sc. i. ll. 52-60.]

101. Now, this command over the elements does not form at all a
prominent feature in the English records of witchcraft. A few isolated
charges of the kind may be found. In 1565, for instance, a witch was
burnt who confessed that she had caused all the tempests that had taken
place in that year. Scot, too, has a few short sentences upon this
subject, but does not give it the slightest prominence.[1] Nor in the
earlier Scotch trials recorded by Pitcairn does this charge appear
amongst the accusations against the witches. It is exceedingly curious
to notice the utter harmless nature of the charges brought against the
earlier culprits; and how, as time went on and the panic increased, they
gradually deepened in colour, until no act was too gross, too repulsive,
or too ridiculously impossible to be excluded from the indictment. The
following quotations from one of the earliest reported trials are given
because they illustrate most forcibly the condition of the poor women
who were supposed to be witches, and the real basis of fact upon which
the belief in the crime subsequently built itself.

[Footnote 1: Book iii. ch. 13, p. 60.]

102. Bessie Dunlop was tried for witchcraft in 1576. One of the
principal accusations against her was that she held intercourse with a
devil who appeared to her in the shape of a neighbour of hers, one Thom
Reed, who had recently died. Being asked how and where she met Thom
Reed, she said, "As she was gangand betwixt her own house and the yard
of Monkcastell, dryvand her ky to the pasture, and makand heavy sair
dule with herself, gretand[1] very fast for her cow that was dead, her
husband and child that wer lyand sick in the land ill, and she new
risen out of gissane,[2] the aforesaid Thom met her by the way,
healsit[3] her, and said, 'Gude day, Bessie,' and she said, 'God speed
you, guidman.' 'Sancta Marie,' said he, 'Bessie, why makes thow sa great
dule and sair greting for ony wardlie thing?' She answered 'Alas! have I
not great cause to make great dule, for our gear is trakit,[4] and my
husband is on the point of deid, and one babie of my own will not live,
and myself at ane weak point; have I not gude cause then to have ane
sair hart?' But Thom said, 'Bessie, thou hast crabit[5] God, and askit
some thing you suld not have done; and tharefore I counsell thee to mend
to Him, for I tell thee thy barne sall die and the seik cow, or you come
hame; and thy twa sheep shall die too; but thy husband shall mend, and
shall be as hale and fair as ever he was.' And then I was something
blyther, for he tauld me that my guidman would mend. Then Thom Reed went
away fra me in through the yard of Monkcastell, and I thought that he
gait in at ane narrower hole of the dyke nor anie erdlie man culd have
gone throw, and swa I was something fleit."[6]

[Footnote 1: Weeping. I have only half translated this passage, for I
feared to spoil the sad simplicity of it.]

[Footnote 2: Child-bed.]

[Footnote 3: Saluted.]

[Footnote 4: Dwindled away.]

[Footnote 5: Displeased.]

[Footnote 6: Frightened.]

This was the first time that Thom appeared to her. On the third occasion
he asked her "if she would not trow[1] in him." She said "she would trow
in ony bodye did her gude." Then Thom promised her much wealth if she
would deny her christendom. She answered that "if she should be riven at
horsis taillis, she suld never do that, but promised to be leal and
trew to him in ony thing she could do," whereat he was angry.

[Footnote 1: Trust.]

On the fourth occasion, the poor woman fell further into sin, and
accompanied Thom to a fairy meeting. Thom asked her to join the party;
but she said "she saw na proffeit to gang thai kind of gaittis, unless
she kend wherefor." Thom offered the old inducement, wealth; but she
replied that "she dwelt with her awin husband and bairnis," and could
not leave them. And so Thom began to be very crabit with her, and said,
"if so she thought, she would get lytill gude of him."

She was then demanded if she had ever asked any favour of Thom for
herself or any other person. She answered that "when sundrie persons
came to her to seek help for their beast, their cow, or ewe, or for any
barne that was tane away with ane evill blast of wind, or elf grippit,
she gait and speirit[1] at Thom what myght help them; and Thom would
pull ane herb and gif her out of his awin hand, and bade her scheir[2]
the same with ony other kind of herbis, and oppin the beistes mouth, and
put thame in, and the beist wald mend."[3]

[Footnote 1: Inquired.]

[Footnote 2: Chop.]

[Footnote 3: Pitcairn, I. ii. 51, et seq.]

It seems hardly possible to believe that a story like this, which is
half marred by the attempt to partially modernize its simple pathetic
language, and which would probably bring a tear to the eye, if not a
shilling from the pocket, of the most unsympathetic being of the present
day, should be considered sufficient three hundred years ago, to convict
the narrator of a crime worthy of death; yet so it was. This sad
picture of the breakdown of a poor woman's intellect in the unequal
struggle against poverty and sickness is only made visible to us by the
light of the flames that, mercifully to her perhaps, took poor Bessie
Dunlop away for ever from the sick husband, and weakly children, and the
"ky," and the humble hovel where they all dwelt together, and from the
daily, heart-rending, almost hopeless struggle to obtain enough food to
keep life in the bodies of this miserable family. The historian--who
makes it his chief anxiety to record, to the minutest and most
irrelevant details, the deeds, noble or ignoble, of those who have
managed to stamp their names upon the muster-roll of Fame--turns
carelessly or scornfully the page which contains such insignificant
matter as this; but those who believe

"That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivel'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain,"

will hardly feel that poor Bessie's life and death were entirely without
their meaning.

103. As the trials for witchcraft increase, however, the details grow
more and more revolting; and in the year 1590 we find a most
extraordinary batch of cases--extraordinary for the monstrosity of the
charges contained in them, and also for the fact that this feature, so
insisted upon in Macbeth, the raising of winds and storms, stands out in
extremely bold relief. The explanation of this is as follows. In the
year 1589, King James VI. brought his bride, Anne of Denmark, home to
Scotland. During the voyage an unusually violent storm raged, which
scattered the vessels composing the royal escort, and, it would appear,
caused the destruction of one of them. By a marvellous chance, the
king's ship was driven by a wind which blew directly contrary to that
which filled the sails of the other vessels;[1] and the king and queen
were both placed in extreme jeopardy. James, who seems to have been as
perfectly convinced of the reality of witchcraft as he was of his own
infallibility, at once came to the conclusion that the storm had been
raised by the aid of evil spirits, for the express purpose of getting
rid of so powerful an enemy of the Prince of Darkness as the righteous
king. The result was that a rigorous investigation was made into the
whole affair; a great number of persons were tried for attempting the
king's life by witchcraft; and that prince, undeterred by the apparent
impropriety of being judge in what was, in reality, his own cause,
presided at many of the trials, condescended to superintend the tortures
applied to the accused in order to extort a confession, and even went so
far in one case as to write a letter to the judges commanding a

[Footnote 1: Pitcairn, I. ii. 218.]

104. Under these circumstances, considering who the prosecutor was, and
who the judge, and the effectual methods at the service of the court for
extorting confessions,[1] it is not surprising that the king's surmises
were fully justified by the statements of the accused. It is impossible
to read these without having parts of the witch-scenes in "Macbeth"
ringing in the ears like an echo. John Fian, a young schoolmaster, and
leader of the gang, or "coven" as it was called, was charged with having
caused the leak in the king's ship, and with having raised the wind and
created a mist for the purpose of hindering his voyage.[2] On another
occasion he and several other witches entered into a ship, and caused it
to perish.[3] He was also able by witchcraft to open locks.[4] He
visited churchyards at night, and dismembered bodies for his charms; the
bodies of unbaptized infants being preferred.[5]

[Footnote 1: The account of the tortures inflicted upon Fian are too
horrible for quotation.]

[Footnote 2: Pitcairn, I. ii. 211.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. 212. He confessed that Satan commanded him to chase
cats "purposlie to be cassin into the sea to raise windis for
destructioune of schippis." Macbeth, I. iii. 15-25.]

[Footnote 4: "Fylit for opening of ane loke be his sorcerie in David
Seytounis moderis, be blawing in ane woman's hand, himself sittand att
the fyresyde."--See also the case of Bessie Roy, I. ii. 208. The English
method of opening locks was more complicated than the Scotch, as will
appear from the following quotation from Scot, book xii. ch. xiv. p.

"A charme to open locks. Take a peece of wax crossed in baptisme, and
doo but print certeine floures therein, and tie them in the hinder skirt
of your shirt; and when you would undoo the locke, blow thrice therein,
saieing, 'Arato hoc partico hoc maratarykin; I open this doore in thy
name that I am forced to breake, as thou brakest hell gates. In nomine
patris etc. Amen.'" Macbeth, IV. i. 46.]

[Footnote 5:

"Finger of birth-strangled babe,
Ditch-delivered by a drab."

Macbeth, IV. i. 30.]

Agnes Sampsoune confessed to the king that to compass his death she took
a black toad and hung it by the hind legs for three days, and collected
the venom that fell from it. She said that if she could have obtained a
piece of linen that the king had worn, she could have destroyed his
life with this venom; "causing him such extraordinarie paines as if he
had beene lying upon sharpe thornes or endis of needles."[1] She went
out to sea to a vessel called _The Grace of God_, and when she came away
the devil raised a wind, and the vessel was wrecked.[2] She delivered a
letter from Fian to another witch, which was to this effect: "Ye sall
warne the rest of the sisteris to raise the winde this day at ellewin
houris to stay the queenis cuming in Scotland."[3]

[Footnote 1: Pitcairn, I. ii. 218.

"Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got."

Macbeth, IV. i. 6.]

[Footnote 2: Ibid. 235.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. 236.]

This is her confession as to the methods adopted for raising the storm.
"At the time when his Majestie was in Denmarke, shee being accompanied
by the parties before speciallie named, took a cat and christened it,
and afterwards bounde to each part of that cat the cheefest parts of a
dead man, and the severall joyntes of his bodie; and that in the night
following the said cat was conveyed into the middest of the sea by all
these witches, sayling in their riddles or cives,[1] as is afore said,
and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith in Scotland.
This done, there did arise such a tempest in the sea as a greater hath
not been seene, which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a
vessell coming over from the town of Brunt Ilande to the town of
Leith.... Againe, it is confessed that the said christened cat was the
cause that the kinges Majesties shippe at his coming forth of Denmarke
had a contrarie wind to the rest of his shippes...."[2]

[Footnote 1: Macbeth, I. iii. 8.]

[Footnote 2: Pitcairn, Reprint of Newes from Scotland, I. ii. 218. See
also Trial of Ewsame McCalgane, I. ii. 254.]

105. It is worth a note that this art of going to sea in sieves, which
Shakspere has referred to in his drama, seems to have been peculiar to
this set of witches. English witches had the reputation of being able to
go upon the water in egg-shells and cockle-shells, but seem never to
have detected any peculiar advantages in the sieve. Not so these Scotch
witches. Agnes told the king that she, "with a great many other witches,
to the number of two hundreth, all together went to sea, each one in a
riddle or cive, and went into the same very substantially, with flaggons
of wine, making merrie, and drinking by the way in the same riddles or
cives, to the kirke of North Barrick in Lowthian, and that after they
landed they tooke hands on the lande and daunced a reill or short
daunce." They then opened the graves and took the fingers, toes, and
knees of the bodies to make charms.[1]

[Footnote 1: Pitcairn, I. ii. 217.]

It can be easily understood that these trials created an intense
excitement in Scotland. The result was that a tract was printed,
containing a full account of all the principal incidents; and the fact
that this pamphlet was reprinted once, if not twice,[1] in London,
shows that interest in the affair spread south of the Border; and this
is confirmed by the publisher's prefatorial apology, in which he states
that the pamphlet was printed to prevent the public from being imposed
upon by unauthorized and extravagant statements of what had taken
place.[2] Under ordinary circumstances, events of this nature would form
a nine days' wonder, and then die a natural death; but in this
particular case the public interest continued for an abnormal time; for
eight years subsequent to the date of the trials, James published his
"Daemonologie"--a work founded to a great extent upon his experiences at
the trials of 1590. This was a sign to both England and Scotland that
the subject of witchcraft was still of engrossing interest to him; and
as he was then the fully recognized heir-apparent to the English crown,
the publication of such a work would not fail to induce a great amount
of attention to the subject dealt with. In 1603 he ascended the English
throne. His first parliament met on the 19th of March, 1604, and on the
27th of the same month a bill was brought into the House of Lords
dealing with the question of witchcraft. It was referred to a committee
of which twelve bishops were members; and this committee, after much
debating, came to the conclusion that the bill was imperfect. In
consequence of this a fresh one was drawn, and by the 9th of June a
statute had passed both Houses of Parliament, which enacted, among other
things, that "if any person shall practise or exercise any invocation or
conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit, or shall consult with,
entertain, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit,[3] or take up any
dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave ... or the
skin, bone, or any other part of any dead person to be employed or used
in any manner of witchcraft,[4] ... or shall ... practise ... any
witchcraft ... whereby any person shall be killed, wasted, pined, or
lamed in his or her body or any part thereof,[5] such offender shall
suffer the pains of death as felons, without benefit of clergy or
sanctuary." Hutchinson, in his "Essay on Witchcraft," published in 1720,
declares that this statute was framed expressly to meet the offences
exposed by the trials of 1590-1; but, although this cannot be
conclusively proved, yet it is not at all improbable that the hurry with
which the statute was passed into law immediately upon the accession of
James, would recall to the public mind the interest he had taken in
those trials in particular and the subject in general, and that
Shakspere producing, as nearly all the critics agree, his tragedy at
about this date, should draw upon his memory for the half-forgotten
details of those trials, and thus embody in "Macbeth" the allusions to
them that have been pointed out--much less accurately than he did in the
case of the Babington affair, because the facts had been far less
carefully recorded, and the time at which his attention had been called
to them far more remote.[6]

[Footnote 1: One copy of this reprint bears the name of W. Wright,
another that of Thomas Nelson. The full title is--

"Newes from Scotland,

"Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was
burned at Edenborough in Januarie last, 1591; which Doctor was Register
to the Deuill, that sundrie times preached at North Barricke kirke to a
number of notorious witches; with the true examinations of the said
Doctor and witches as they uttered them in the presence of the Scottish
king: Discouering how they pretended to bewitch and drowne his Majestie
in the sea, comming from Denmarke, with such other wonderfull matters,
as the like hath not bin heard at anie time.

"Published according to the Scottish copie.

"Printed for William Wright."]

[Footnote 2: These events are referred to in an existing letter by the
notorious Thos. Phelippes to Thos. Barnes, Cal. State Papers (May 21,
1591), 1591-4, p. 38.]

[Footnote 3: Such as Paddock, Graymalkin, and Harpier.]

[Footnote 4: "Liver of blaspheming Jew," etc.--Macbeth, IV. i. 26.]

[Footnote 5:

"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."

Macbeth, I. iii. 18-23.]

[Footnote 6: The excitement about the details of the witch trials would
culminate in 1592. Harsnet's book would be read by Shakspere in 1603.]

106. There is one other mode of temptation which was adopted by the evil
spirits, implicated to a great extent with the traditions of witchcraft,
but nevertheless more suitably handled as a separate subject, which is
of so gross and revolting a nature that it should willingly be passed
over in silence, were it not for the fact that the belief in it was, as
Scot says, "so stronglie and universallie received" in the times of
Elizabeth and James.

From the very earliest period of the Christian era the affection of one
sex for the other was considered to be under the special control of the
devil. Marriage was to be tolerated; but celibacy was the state most
conducive to the near intercourse with heaven that was so dearly sought
after. This opinion was doubtless generated by the tendency of the early
Christian leaders to hold up the events of the life rather than the
teachings of the sacred Founder of the sect as the one rule of conduct
to be received by His followers. To have been the recipients of the
stigmata was a far greater evidence of holiness and favour with Heaven
than the quiet and unnoted daily practice of those virtues upon which
Christ pronounced His blessing; and in less improbable matters they did
not scruple, in their enthusiasm, to attempt to establish a rule of life
in direct contradiction to the laws of that universe of which they
professed to believe Him to be the Creator. The futile attempt to
imitate His immaculate purity blinded their eyes to the fact that He
never taught or encouraged celibacy among His followers, and this
gradually led them to the strange conclusion that the passion which,
sublimed and brought under control, is the source of man's noblest and
holiest feelings, was a prompting proceeding from the author of all
evil. Imbued with this idea, religious enthusiasts of both sexes immured
themselves in convents; took oaths of perpetual celibacy; and even, in
certain isolated cases, sought to compromise with Heaven, and baffle the
tempter, by rendering a fall impossible--forgetting that the victory
over sin does not consist in immunity from temptation, but, being
tempted, not to fall. But no convent walls are so strong as to shut
great nature out; and even within these sacred precincts the ascetics
found that they were not free from the temptations of their arch-enemy.
In consequence of this, a belief sprang up, and spread from its original
source into the outer world, in a class of devils called incubi and
succubi, who roamed the earth with no other object than to tempt people
to abandon their purity of life. The cases of assault by incubi were
much more frequent than those by succubi, just as women were much more
affected by the dancing manias in the fifteenth century than
men;[1]--the reason, perhaps, being that they are much less capable of
resisting physical privation;--but, according to the belief of the
Middle Ages, there was no generic difference between the incubus and
succubus. Here was a belief that, when the witch fury sprang up,
attached itself as a matter of course as the phase of the crime; and it
was an almost universal charge against the accused that they offended in
this manner with their familiars, and hundreds of poor creatures
suffered death upon such an indictment. More details will be found in
the authorities upon this unpleasant subject.[2]

[Footnote 1: Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p. 136.]

[Footnote 2: Hutchinson, p. 52. The Witch of Edmonton, Act V. Scot,
Discoverie, book iv.]

107. This intercourse did not, as a rule, result in offspring; but this
was not universally the case. All badly deformed or monstrous children
were suspected of having had such an undesirable parentage, and there
was a great tendency to believe that they ought to be destroyed. Luther
was a decided advocate of this course, deeming the destruction of a life
far preferable to the chance of having a devil in the family. In
Drayton's poem, "The Mooncalf," one of the gossips present at the birth
of the calf suggests that it ought to be buried alive as a monster.[1]
Caliban is a mooncalf,[2] and his origin is distinctly traced to a
source of this description. It is perfectly clear what was the one
thing that the foul witch Sycorax did which prevented her life from
being taken; and it would appear from this that the inhabitants of
Argier were far more merciful in this respect than their European
neighbours. Such a charge would have sent any woman to the stake in
Scotland, without the slightest hope of mercy, and the usual plea for
respite would only have been an additional reason for hastening the
execution of the sentence.[3]

[Footnote 1: Ed. 1748, p. 171.]

[Footnote 2: Tempest, II. ii. 111, 115.]

[Footnote 3: Cf. Othello, I. i. 91. Titus Andronicus, IV. ii.]

108. In the preceding pages an endeavour has been made to delineate the
most prominent features of a belief which the great Reformation was
destined first to foster into unnatural proportions and vitality, and in
the end to destroy. Up to the period of the Reformation, the creed of
the nation had been practically uniform, and one set of dogmas was
unhesitatingly accepted by the people as infallible, and therefore
hardly demanding critical consideration. The great upheaval of the
sixteenth century rent this quiescent uniformity into shreds; doctrines
until then considered as indisputable were brought within the pale of
discussion, and hence there was a great diversity of opinion, not only
between the supporters of the old and of the new faith, but between the
Reformers themselves. This was conspicuously the case with regard to the
belief in the devils and their works. The more timid of the Reformers
clung in a great measure to the Catholic opinions; a small band, under
the influence possibly of that knight-errant of freedom of thought,
Giordano Bruno, who exercised some considerable influence during his
visit to England by means of his Oxford lectures and disputations,
entirely denied the existence of evil spirits; but the great majority
gave in their adherence to a creed that was the mean between the
doctrines of the old faith and the new scepticism. Their strong common
sense compelled them to reject the puerilities advanced as serious
evidence by the Catholic Church; but they cast aside with equal
vehemence and more horror the doctrines of the Bruno school. "That there
are devils," says Bullinger, reduced apparently from argument to
invective, "the Sadducees in times past denied, and at this day also
some scarce religious, nay, rather Epicures, deny the same; who, unless
they repent, shall one day feel, to their exceeding great pain and
smart, both that there are devils, and that they are the tormentors and
executioners of all wicked men and Epicures."[1]

[Footnote 1: Bullinger, Fourth Decade, 9th Sermon, p. 348, Parker

109. It must be remembered, too, that the emancipation from medievalism
was a very gradual process, not, as we are too prone to think it, a
revolution suddenly and completely effected. It was an evolution, not an
explosion. There is found, in consequence, a great divergence of
opinion, not only between the earliest and the later Reformers, but
between the statements of the same man at different periods of his
career. Tyndale, for instance, seems to have believed in the actual
possession of the human body by devils;[1] and this appears to have
been the opinion of the majority at the beginning of the Reformation,
for the first Prayer-book of Edward VI. contained the Catholic form of
exorcism for driving devils out of children, which was expunged upon
revision, the doctrine of obsession having in the mean time triumphed
over the older belief. It is necessary to bear these facts in mind
whilst considering any attempt to depict the general bearings of a
belief such as that in evil spirits; for many irreconcilable statements
are to be found among the authorities; and it is the duty of the writer
to sift out and describe those views which predominated, and these must
not be supposed to be proved inaccurate because a chance quotation can
be produced in contradiction.

[Footnote 1: I Tyndale, p. 82. Parker Society.]

110. There is great danger, in the attempt to bring under analysis any
phase of religious belief, that the method of treatment may appear
unsympathetic if not irreverent. The greatest effort has been made in
these pages to avoid this fault as far as possible; for, without doubt,
any form of religious dogma, however barbarous, however seemingly
ridiculous, if it has once been sincerely believed and trusted by any
portion of mankind, is entitled to reverent treatment. No body of great
and good men can at any time credit and take comfort from a lie pure and
simple; and if an extinct creed appears to lack that foundation of truth
which makes creeds tolerable, it is safer to assume that it had a
meaning and a truthfulness, to those who held it, that lapse of time
has tended to destroy, together with the creed itself, than to condemn
men wholesale as knaves and hypocrites. But the particular subject which
has here been dealt with will surely be considered to be specially
entitled to respect, when it is remembered that it was once an integral
portion of the belief of most of our best and bravest ancestors--of men
and women who dared to witness to their own sincerity amidst the fires
of persecution and in the solitude of exile. It has nearly all
disappeared now. The terrific hierarchy of fiends, which was so real, so
full of horror three hundred years ago[1], has gradually vanished away
before the advent of fuller knowledge and purer faith, and is now hardly
thought of, unless as a dead mediaeval myth. But let us deal tenderly
with it, remembering that the day may come when the beliefs that are
nearest to our hearts may be treated as open to contempt or ridicule,
and the dogmas to which we most passionately cling will, "like an
insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a wrack behind."

[Footnote 1: Perhaps the following prayer, contained in Thomas Becon's
"Pomander," shows more clearly than the comments of any critic the
reality of the terror:--

"An infinite number of wicked angels there are, O Lord Christ, which
without ceasing seek my destruction. Against this exceeding great
multitude of evil spirits send Thou me Thy blessed and heavenly angels,
which may deliver me from then tyranny. Thou, O Lord, hast devoured
hell, and overcome the prince of darkness and all his ministers; yea,
and that not for Thyself, but for those that believe in Thee. Suffer me
not, therefore, to be overcome of Satan and of his servants, but rather
let me triumph over them, that I, through strong faith and help of the
blessed angels, having the victory of the hellish army, may with a
joyful heart say, Death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy
victory?--and so for ever and ever magnify Thy Holy Name. Amen." Parker
Society, p. 84.]

* * * * *

111. Little attempt has hitherto been made, in the way of direct proof,
to show that fairies are really only a class of devils who exercise
their powers in a manner less terrible and revolting than that depicted
by theologians; and for this reason chiefly--that the proposition is
already more than half established when it has been shown that the
attributes and functions possessed by both fairy and devil are similar
in kind, although differing in degree. This has already been done to a
great extent in the preceding pages, where the various actions of Puck
and Ariel have been shown to differ in no essential respect from those
of the devils of the time; but before commencing to study this phase of
supernaturalism in Shakspere's works as a whole, and as indicative, to a
certain extent, of the development of his thought upon the relation of
man to the invisible world about and above him, it is necessary that
this identity should be admitted without a shadow of a doubt.

112. It has been shown that fairies were probably the descendants of the
lesser local deities, as devils were of the more important of the
heathen gods that were overturned by the advancing wave of
Christianity, although in the course of time this distinction was
entirely obliterated and forgotten. It has also been shown, as before
mentioned, that many of the powers exercised by fairies were in their
essence similar to those exercised by devils, especially that of
appearing in divers shapes. These parallels could be carried out to an
almost unlimited extent; but a few proofs only need be cited to show
this identity. In the mediaeval romance of "King Orfeo" fairyland has
been substituted for the classical Hades.[1] King James, in his
"Daemonologie," adopts a fourfold classification of devils, one of which
he names "Phairie," and co-ordinates with the incubus.[2] The name of
the devil supposed to preside at the witches' sabbaths is sometimes
given as Hecat, Diana, Sybilla; sometimes Queen of Elfame,[3] or
Fairie.[4] Indeed, Shakspere's line in "The Comedy of Errors," had it
not been unnecessarily tampered with by the critics--

"A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and rough,"[5]

would have conclusively proved this identity of character.

[Footnote 1: Fairy Mythology of Shakspere, Hazlitt, p. 83.]

[Footnote 2: Daemonologie, p. 69. An instance of a fairy incubus is
given in the "Life of Robin Goodfellow," Hazlitt's Fairy Mythology, p.

[Footnote 3: Pitcairn, iii. p. 162.]

[Footnote 4: Ibid. i. p. 162, and many other places.]

[Footnote 5: Fairy has been altered to "fury," but compare Peele, Battle
of Alcazar: "Fiends, fairies, hags that fight in beds of steel."]

113. The real distinction between these two classes of spirits depends
on the condition of national thought upon the subject of
supernaturalism in its largest sense. A belief which has little or no
foundation upon indisputable phenomena must be continually passing
through varying phases, and these phases will be regulated by the nature
of the subjects upon which the attention of the mass of the people is
most firmly concentrated. Hence, when a nation has but one religious
creed, and one that has for centuries been accepted by them, almost
without question or doubt, faith becomes stereotyped, and the mind
assumes an attitude of passive receptivity, undisturbed by doubts or
questionings. Under such conditions, a belief in evil spirits ever ready
and watching to tempt a man into heresy of belief or sinful act, and
thus to destroy both body and soul, although it may exist as a theoretic
portion of the accepted creed, cannot possibly become a vital doctrine
to be believed by the general public. It may exist as a subject for
learned dispute to while away the leisure hours of divines, but cannot
by any possibility obtain an influence over the thoughts and lives of
their charges. Mental disturbance on questions of doctrinal importance
being, for these reasons, out of the question, the attention of the
people is almost entirely riveted upon questions of material ease and
advantage. The little lets and hindrances of every-day life in
agricultural and domestic matters are the tribulations that appeal most
incessantly to the ineradicable sense of an invisible power adverse to
the interests of mankind, and consequently the class of evil spirits
believed in at such a time will be fairies rather than devils--malicious
little spirits, who blight the growing corn; stop the butter from
forming in the churn; pinch the sluttish housemaid black and blue; and
whose worst act is the exchange of the baby from its cot for a fairy
changeling;--beings of a nature most exasperating to thrifty housewife
and hard-handed farmer, but nevertheless not irrevocably prejudiced
against humanity, and easily to be pacified and reduced into a state of
fawning friendship by such little attentions as could be rendered
without difficulty by the poorest cotter. The whole fairy mythology is
perfumed with an honest, healthy, careless joy in life, and a freedom
from mental doubt. "I love true lovers, honest men, good fellowes, good
huswives, good meate, good drinke, and all things that good is, but
nothing that is ill," declares Robin Goodfellow;[1] and this jovial
materialism only reflects the state of mind of the folk who were not
unwilling to believe that this lively little spirit might be seen of
nights busying himself in their houses by the dying embers of the
deserted fire.

[Footnote 1: Hazlitt, Fairy Mythology, p. 182.]

114. Such seems to have been the condition of England immediately before
the period of the great Reformation. But with the progress of that
revolution of thought the condition changes. The one true and eternal
creed, as it had been deemed, is shattered for ever. Men who have
hitherto accepted their religious convictions in much the same way as
they had succeeded to their patrimonies are compelled by this tide of
opposition to think and study for themselves. Each man finds himself
left face to face with the great hereafter, and his relation to it.
Terrible doctrines are formulated, and press themselves with remorseless
vigour upon his understanding--original sin, justification by faith,
eternal damnation for even honest error of belief,--doctrines that throw
an atmosphere of solemnity, if not gloom, about national thought, in
which no fairy mythology can flourish. It is no longer questions of
material ease and gain that are of the chief concern; and consequently
the fairies and their doings, from their own triviality, fall far into
the background, and their place is occupied by a countless horde of
remorseless schemers, who are never ceasing in their efforts to drag
both body and soul to perdition.

115. But it is in the towns, the centres of interchange of thought, of
learning, and of controversy, that this revolution first gathers power;
the sparsely populated country-sides are far more impervious to the new
ideas, and the country people cling far longer and more tenaciously to
the dying religion and its attendant beliefs. The rural districts were
but little affected by the Reformation for years after it had triumphed
in the towns, and consequently the beliefs of the inhabitants were
hardly touched by the struggle that was going on within so short a
distance. We find a Reginald Scot, indeed, complaining, half in joke,
half in sarcasm, that Robin Goodfellow has long disappeared from the
land;[1] but it is only from the towns that he has fled--towns in which
the spirit of the Cartwrights and the Latimers, the Barnhams and the
Delabers, is abroad. In the same Cambridge where Scot had been educated,
a young student had hanged himself because the shadow of the doctrine of
predestination was too terrible for him to live under;[2] and such a
place was surely no home for Puck and his merry band. But in the country
places, remote from the growl and trembling of this mental earthquake,
he still loved to lurk; and even at the very moment when Scot was
penning the denial of his existence, he was nestling amongst the woods
and flowers of Avonside, and, invisible, whispering in the ear of a
certain fair-haired youth there thoughts of no inconsiderable moment.
And long time after that--after the youth had become a man, and had
coined those thoughts into words that glitter still; after his monument
had been erected in the quiet Stratford churchyard--Puck revelled,
harmless and undisturbed, along many a country-side; nay, even to the
present day, in some old-world nooks, a faint whispering rumour of him
may still be heard.

[Footnote 1: Scot, Introduction.]

[Footnote 2: Foxe, iv. p. 694.]

116. Now, perhaps one of the most distinctive marks of literary genius
is a certain receptivity of mind; a capability of receiving impressions
from all surrounding circumstance--of extracting from all sources,
whether from nature or man, consciously or unconsciously, the material
upon which it shall work. For this process to be perfectly accomplished,
an entire and enthusiastic sympathy with man and the current ideas of
the time is absolutely essential, and in proportion as this sympathy is
contracted and partial, so will the work produced be stunted and untrue;
and, on the other hand, the more universal and entire it is, the more
perfect and vital will be the art. Bearing this in mind, and also the
facts that Shakspere's early training was effected in a little country
village; that upon the verge of manhood, he came to London, where he
spent his prime in contact with the bustle and friction of busy town
life; and that the later years of his life were passed in the quiet
retirement of the home of his boyhood--there would be good ground for an
argument, _a priori_, even were there none of a more conclusive nature,
that his earlier works would be found impregnated with the country
fairy-myths with which his youth would come in contact; that the result
of the labours of his middle life would show that these earlier
reminiscenses had been gradually obliterated by the gloomier influence
of ideas that were the result of the struggle of opposed theories that
had not then ceased to rage in the towns, and that the diabolic element
and questions relating thereto would predominate; and that, finally, his
later works, written under the calmer influence of Stratford life, would
show a certain return to the fairy-lore of his earlier years.

117. But fortunately we are not left to rely upon any such hypothetical
evidence in this matter, however probable it may appear. Although the
general reading public cannot be asked to accept as infallible any
chronological order of Shakspere's plays that dogmatically asserts a
particular sequence, or to investigate the somewhat dry and specialist
arguments upon which the conclusions are founded, yet there are certain
groupings into periods which are agreed upon as accurate by nearly all
critics, and which, without the slightest danger of error, may be
asserted to be correct. For instance, it is indisputable that "Love's
Labour's Lost," "The Comedy of Errors," "Romeo and Juliet," and "A
Midsummer Night's Dream" are amongst Shakspere's earliest works; that
the tragedies of "Julius Caesar," "Hamlet," "Othello," "Macbeth," and
"Lear" are the productions of his middle life, between 1600 and 1606;
and that "A Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest" are amongst the latest
plays which he wrote.[1] Here we have everything that is required to
prove the question in hand. At the commencement and at the end of his
writings--when a youth fresh from the influence of his country nurture
and education, and when a mature man, settling down into the old life
again after a long and victorious struggle with the world, with his
accumulated store of experience--we find plays which are perfectly
saturated with fairy-lore: "The Dream" and "The Tempest." These are the
poles of Shakspere's thought in this respect; and in the centre,
imbedded as it were between two layers of material that do not bear any
distinctive stamp of their own, but appear rather as a medium for
uniting the diverse strata, lie the great tragedies, produced while he
was in the very rush and swirl of town life, and reflecting accurately,
as we have seen, many of the doubts and speculations that were agitating
the minds of men who were ardently searching out truth. It is worth
noting too, in passing, that directly Shakspere steps out of his beaten
path to depict, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the happy country life
and manners of his day, he at the same time returns to fairyland again,
and brings out the Windsor children trooping to pinch and plague the
town-bred, tainted Falstaff.

[Footnote 1: For an elaborate and masterly investigation of the question
of the chronological order of the plays, which must be assumed here, see

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