In years gone by witchcraft was one of the grossest forms of superstition, and it would be difficult to estimate the extent of its influence in this and other countries. It is not surprising that Shakespeare should have made frequent allusions to this popular belief, considering how extensively it prevailed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the religious and dramatic literature of the period being full of it. Indeed, as Mr Williams 1 points out, "what the vulgar superstition must have been may be easily conceived, when men of the greatest genius or learning credited the possibility, and not only a theoretical but possible occurrence, of these infernal phenomena." Thus Francis Bacon was "not able to get rid of the principles upon which the creed was based. Sir Edward Coke, his contemporary, the most acute lawyer of the age, ventured even to define the devil's agents in witchcraft. Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Matthew Hale, in 1664, proved their faith, the one by his solemn testimony in open court, the other by his still more solemn sentence." Hence, it was only to be expected that Shakespeare should introduce into his writings descriptions of a creed which held such a prominent place in the history of his day, and which has made itself famous for all time by the thousands of victims it caused to be sent to the torture-chamber, to the stake, and to the scaffold. Thus he has given a graphic account of the celebrated Jeanne D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, in 1 Henry VI., although Mr Dowden 2 is of opinion that this play was written by one or
more authors, Greene having had perhaps a chief hand in it, assisted by Peele and Marlowe. He says, "It is a happiness not to have to ascribe to our greatest poet the crude and hateful handling of the character of Joan of Arc, excused though to some extent it may be by the occurrence of view in our old English chronicles."
Mr Lecky, 1 too, regards the conception of Joan of Arc given in I Henry VI. as "the darkest blot upon the poet's genius," but it must be remembered that we only have expressed the current belief of his day—the English vulgar having regarded her as a sorceress, the French as an inspired heroine. Talbot is represented as accusing her of being a witch, serving the Evil One, and entering Rouen by means of her sorceries (iii. 2).
Further on (v. 3) she is made to summon fiends before her, but she wishes them in vain, for they speak not, hanging their heads in sign of approaching disaster.
But she adds—
Finally, convicted of practising sorcery, and filling "the world with vicious qualities," she was condemned to be burnt. Her death, however, Sir Walter Scott 2 says, "was not, we
are sorry to say, a sacrifice to superstitious fear of witchcraft, but a cruel instance of wicked policy, mingled with national jealousy and hatred. The Duke of Bedford, when the ill-starred Jeanne fell into his hands, took away her life in order to stigmatise her memory with sorcery, and to destroy the reputation she had acquired among the French."
The cases of the Duchess of Gloucester and of Jane Shore, also immortalised by Shakespeare, are both referred to in the succeeding pages.
The witch of Brentford, mentioned by Mrs Page in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (iv. 2), was an actual personage, the fame, says Staunton, 1 "of whose vaticinations must have been traditionally well known to an audience of the time, although the records we possess of her are scant enough. The chief of them is a black letter tract, printed. by William Copland in the middle of the sixteenth century, entitled "Jyl of Braintford's Testament," from which it appears she was hostess of a tavern at Brentford. 2 One of the characters in Dekker and Webster's "Westward Ho" 3 says, "I doubt that old hag, Gillian of Brainford has bewitched me."
The witches in "Macbeth" are probably Scottish hags. As Mr Gunnyon remarks, 4 "They are hellish monsters, brewing hell-broth, having cats and toads for familiars, loving midnight, riding on the passing storm, and devising evil against such as offend them. They crouch beneath the gibbet of the murderer, meet in gloomy caverns, amid earthquake convulsions, or in thunder, lightning, and rain." Coleridge, speaking of them, observes that "the weird sisters are as true a creation of Shakespeare's as his Ariel and Caliban—fates, fairies, and materialising witches being the elements. They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act
immediately on the audience. Their character consists in the imaginative disconnected from the good, they are the shadowy obscure and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, elemental avengers without sex or kin."
It has been urged, however, by certain modern critics, that these three sisters, "who play such an important part in 'Macbeth' are not witches at all, but are, or are intimately allied to, the Norns or Fates of Scandinavian paganism." 1 Thus, a writer in the Academy (Feb. 8th, 1879) thinks that Shakespeare 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," it is said, "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 and won." The third, the future prophecies: "That will be ere the set of sun." The first again asks, "Where?" The second decides: "Upon the heath." The third, the future prophesies: "There to meet with Macbeth."
It is further added, that the description of the sisters given by Banquo (i. 3) applies to Norns rather than witches—
But, as Mr Spalding truly adds, "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, in his "Discoverie of Witchcraft" (Book I. chap. iii. 7), 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." Harsnet, too, in his "Declaration of Popish Impostures" (1603, 136), speaks of 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, un-toothed, furrowed, having her limbs trembling with palsy, going mumbling in the streets; one that hath forgotten her paternoster, yet hath a shrewd tongue to call a drab a drab."
The beard, also, to which Shakespeare refers in the passage above, was the recognised characteristic of the witch. Thus, in the "Honest Man's Fortune" (ii. 1), it is said, "The women that come to us for disguises must wear beards, and that's to say a token of a witch." In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (iv. 2), Sir Hugh Evans 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 his muffler."
introduction of Hecate among the witches in "Macbeth" (iii. 5), Shakespeare has been censured for confounding ancient with modern superstitions. But the incongruity is found in all the poets of the Renaissance. Hecate, of course, is only another name for Diana. "Witchcraft, in truth, is no modern invention. Witches were believed in by the vulgar in the time of Horace as implicitly as in the time of Shakespeare. And the belief that the Pagan gods were really existent as evil demons is one which has come down from the very earliest ages of Christianity." 1 As far back as the fourth century, the Council of Ancyra is said to have condemned the pretensions of witches; that in the night-time they rode abroad, or feasted with their mistress, who was one of the
Pagan goddesses, Minerva, Sibylla, or Diana, or else Herodias. 1 In Middleton's "Witch," Hecate is the name of one of his witches, and she has a son a low buffoon. In Jonson's "Sad Shepherd" (ii. 1) Maudlin the witch calls Hecate the mistress of witches, "Our dame Hecate." Whilst speaking of the witches in "Macbeth," it may be pointed out that 2 "the full meaning of the 1st scene is the fag-end of a witch's Sabbath, which, if fully represented, would bear a strong resemblance to the scene at the commencement of the 4th Act. But a long scene on such a subject would be tedious and uninteresting 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." Brand 3 describes this "Sabbath of the witches as a meeting to which the sisterhood, after having been anointed with certain magical ointments, provided by their infernal leader, are supposed to be carried through the air on brooms," &c. It was supposed to be held on a Saturday, and in past centuries this piece of superstition was most extensively credited, and was one of the leading doctrines associated with the system of witchcraft.
Referring, in the next place, to the numerous scattered notices of witches given by Shakespeare throughout his plays, it is evident that he had made himself thoroughly acquainted with the superstitions connected with the subject, many of which he has described with the most minute accuracy. It appears, then, that although they were supposed to possess extraordinary powers, which they exerted in various ways, yet these were limited, as in the case of Christmas night, when we are told in "Hamlet" (i. 1), "they have no power to charm." In spite, too, of their being able to
assume the form of any animal at pleasure, the tail was always wanting. In "Macbeth" (i. 3), the first witch says—
One distinctive mark, also, of a werwolf, or human being changed into a wolf, was the absence of a tail. The cat was said to be the form most commonly assumed by the familiar spirits of witches; as, for instance, where the first witch says, "I come, Graymalkin!" 1 (i. 1), and further on (iv. i), "Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d." In German legends and traditions, we find frequent notice of witches, assuming the form of a cat, and displaying their fiendish character in certain diabolical acts. It was, however, the absence of the tail that only too often was the cause of the witch being detected in her disguised form. There were various other modes of detecting witches; one being "the trial by the stool," to which an allusion is made in "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 1), where Ajax says to Thersites—
—a practice which is thus explained in Grey's Notes (ii. 236), "In one way of trying a witch, they used to place her upon a chair or a stool, with her legs tied cross, that all the weight of her body might rest upon her seat, and by that means, after some time, the circulation of the blood would be much stopped, and her sitting would be as painful as the wooden horse; and she must continue in this pain twenty-four hours, without either sleep or meat; and it was no wonder that, when they were tired out with such an ungodly trial, they would confess themselves many times guilty to free themselves from such torture."
Again, it was a part of the system of witchcraft that drawing blood from a witch rendered her enchantments ineffectual. Thus in 1 Henry VI. (i. 5) Talbot says to the Pucelle de Orleans—
An instance of this superstition occurred some years ago in a Cornish village, when a man was summoned before the bench of magistrates and fined for having assaulted the plaintiff and scratched her with a pin. Indeed, this notion has by no means died out. As recently as the year 1870, a man eighty years of age was fined at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, for scratching with a needle the arm of a young girl. He pleaded that he had "suffered affliction" through her for five years, had had four complaints on him at once, had lost fourteen canaries, and about fifty goldfinches, and that his neighbours told him this was the only way to break the spell and get out of her power." 1
It was, also, a popular belief that a great share of faith was a protection from witchcraft. Hence, in the "Comedy of Errors" (iii. 2.), Dromio of Syracuse says of Nell—
In order, moreover, to check the power of witches, it was supposed to be necessary to propitiate them, a ceremony which was often performed. It is alluded to further on in the same play (iv. 3), where Dromio of Syracuse says—
and in "Macbeth" we read of their being propitiated by gifts of blood. Witches were supposed to have the power of creating storms and other atmospheric disturbances—a notion to which much prominence is given in "Macbeth." Thus the witches elect to meet in thunder, lightning, or rain. They are represented as being able to loose and bind the winds (v. 3), to cause vessels to be tempest-tossed at sea. Hence Macbeth addresses them (iv. i)—
Thus, by way of illustration we may quote a curious confession made in Scotland, about the year 1591, by Agnes Sampson, a reputed witch. She vowed that at the time his Majesty (James VI.) was in Denmark, she took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest parts of a dead man, and several joints of his body; and that in the night following, the said cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea, by herself and other witches, sailing in their riddles, or crieves, and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith, in Scotland. This done, there arose such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen, which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a boat or vessel coming from the town of Brunt Island to the town of Leith, wherein were sundry jewels and rich gifts, which should have been presented to the new Queen of Scotland at his Majesty's coming to Leith. Again, it is confessed that the said christened cat was the cause of the king's majesty's ship, at his coming forth of Denmark, having a contrary wind to the rest of the ships then being in his company, which thing was most strange and true, as the king's majesty acknowledged.” It is to this circumstance that Shakespeare probably alludes in "Macbeth" (i. 3), where he makes the witch say—
Witches were also believed to be able to sell or give winds, a notion thus described in Drayton's "Moon-Calf" (865)—
So in "Macbeth" (i. 3)—
"2 Witch. I'll give thee a wind.
1 Witch. Thou’rt kind.
3 Witch. And I another.
Singer quotes from Sumner's "Last Will and Testament"—
At one time the Finlanders and Laplanders drove a profitable trade by the sale of winds. After being paid they knitted three magical knots, and told the buyer that when he untied the first he would have a good gale; when the second, a strong wind; and when the third, a severe tempest. 1
The sieve, as a symbol of the clouds, has been regarded amongst all nations of the Aryan stock as the mythical vehicle used by witches, nightmares, and other elfish beings in their excursions over land and sea. 2 Thus the first witch in "Macbeth" (i. 3), referring to the scoff which she had received from a sailor's wife, says—
Stories of voyages performed in this way are common enough in Germany. A man, for instance, going through a corn-field, finds a sieve on the path, which he takes with him. He does not go far before a young lady hurries after him, and hunts up and down as if looking for something, ejaculating all the time, "How my children are crying in England!" Thereupon the man lays down the sieve, and has hardly done so ere sieve and lady vanish. In the case of another damsel of the same species, mentioned by Mr Kelly, the usual exclamation is thus varied—"My sieve rim! my sieve rim! how my mother is calling me in England!" At the sound of her mother's voice the daughter immediately thinks of her sieve. Steevens quotes from the Life of Doctor Fian, "a notable sorcerer," burnt at Edinburgh, January 1591, how
that he and a number of witches went to sea, "each one in a riddle or cive." In the "Discovery of Witchcraft," Reginald Scot says it was believed that "witches could sail in an egg shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and under the tempestuous seas." Thus, in "Pericles" (iv. 4), Gower says—
Their dance is thus noticed in "Macbeth" (iv. 1)—
Witches also were supposed to have the power of vanishing at will, a notion referred to in "Macbeth" (i. 3), where, in reply to Banquo's inquiry as to whither the witches are vanished, Macbeth replies—
In his letter to his wife he likewise observes—"They made themselves air, into which they vanished." Hecate, in the third Act (scene 5), after giving instructions to the weird host, says—
To this purpose they prepared various ointments, concerning which Reginald Scot 1 says—"The devil teacheth them to make ointment of the bowels and members of children, whereby they ride in the air and accomplish all their desires. After burial they steal them out of their graves and seethe them in a cauldron till the flesh be made potable, of which they make an ointment by which they ride in the air." Lord Bacon also informs us that the "ointment the witches use is reported to be made of the fat of children digged out of their graves, of the juices of smallage, wolfbane, and cinquefoil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat; but I suppose the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it, which are—henbane, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade—or, rather, nightshade—tobacco, opium, saffron," 2 &c. These witch recipes, which are very
numerous, are well illustrated in Shakespeare's grim cauldron scene. In "Macbeth" (iv. 1), where the first witch speaks of—
we may compare a similar notion given by Apuleius, who, in describing the process used by the witch, Milo's wife, for transforming herself into a bird, says—"That she cut the lumps of flesh of such as were hanged." 1
Another way by which witches exercise their power was by looking into futurity, as in "Macbeth" (i. 3), where Banquo says to them—
Charles Knight, in his biography of Shakespeare, quotes a witch-trial which aptly illustrates the passage above; the case being that of Johnnet Wischert, who was "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 answered, I shall tell thee; I have been piling 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 he a good, cheap year."
According to a common notion firmly believed in days gone by, witches were supposed to make waxen figures of those they intended to harm, which they stuck through with pins, or melted before a slow fire. Then, as the figure wasted, so the person it represented was said to waste away also. Thus in "Macbeth" (i. 3), the First Witch says—
Referring to the histories of the Duchess of Gloucester and of Jane Shore, who were accused of practising this mode
of witchcraft, Shakespeare, in "2 Henry VI." (i. 2), makes the former address Hume thus—
She was afterwards, however, accused of consulting witches concerning the mode of compassing the death of her husband's nephew, Henry VI. It was asserted that "there was found in the possession of herself and accomplices a waxen image of the king, which they melted in a magical manner before a slow fire, with the intention of making Henry's force and vigour waste away by like insensible degrees."
A similar charge was brought against Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV., by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Thus in "King Richard III." (iii. 4), Gloucester asks Hastings—
And he then further adds—
This superstition is further alluded to in "King John" (v. 4) by Melun, who, wounded, says—
And again, in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (ii. 4), Proteus says—
Images were frequently formed of other materials, and maltreated in some form or other, to produce similar results—
a piece of superstition which still prevails to a great extent in the East. Dubois, in his "People of India" (1825), speaks of magicians who make small images in mud or clay, and then write the names of their animosity on the breasts thereof these are otherwise pierced with thorns or mutilated, "so as to communicate a corresponding injury to the person represented." They were also said to extract moisture from the body, as in "Macbeth" (i. 3)—
Referring to the other mischievous acts of witches, Steevens quotes the following from "A Detection of Damnable Driftes Practised by Three Witches," &c., arraigned at Chelmisforde, in Essex, 1579:—"Item,—Also she came on a tyme to the house of one Robert Lathburie, who, dislyking her dealyng, sent her home emptie; but presently after her departure his hogges fell sicke and died, to the number of twentie." Hence in "Macbeth" (i. 3) in reply to the inquiry of the First Witch—
the second replies—
It appears to have been their practice to destroy the cattle of their neighbours, and the farmers have to this day many ceremonies to secure their cows and other cattle from witchcraft; but they seem to have been most suspected of malice against swine. Harsnet observes, how, formerly, "A sow could not be ill of the measles, nor a girl of the sullens, but some old woman was charged with witchcraft." 1
Mr Henderson, in his "Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties" (1879, p. 182), relates how a few years ago a witch died in the village of Bovey Tracey, Devonshire. She was accused of "overlooking" her neighbours' pigs, so that her son, if ever betrayed into a quarrel with her, used always to say before they parted—"Mother, mother, spare my pigs."
Multiples of three and nine were specially employed by witches, ancient and modern. Thus in "Macbeth" (i. 3), the
witches take hold of hands and dance round in a ring nine times—three rounds for each witch as a charm for the furtherance of her purposes." 1
The love of witches for odd numbers is further illustrated (iv. 1) where one of them tells how—
this being the witches’ way of saying four times.
In Fairfax's "Tasso" (book xiii, stanza 6) it is said that—
This notion is very old, and we may compare the following quotations from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (xiv. 58)—
And again (vii. 189–191)—
Virgil too in his "Eclogues" (viii. 75) says—
The belief in the luck of odd numbers is noticed by Falstaff in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (v. 1)—
In "King Lear" (iv. 2) when the Duke of Albany tells Goneril—
he alludes to the use that witches and enchanters were commonly supposed to make of withered branches in their charms. 2*
Amongst other items of witch-lore mentioned by Shakespeare, may be noticed the common belief in the intercourse
between demons and witches to which Prospero alludes in the Tempest (i. 2)—
This notion is seriously refuted by Scot in his "Discovery of Witchcraft" (book iv.), where he shows it to be "flat knavery."
The offspring of a witch was termed "Hag-Seed," and as such is spoken of by Prospero in the "Tempest" (i. 2).
Witches were also in the habit of saying their prayers backwards; a practice to which Hero refers in "Much ado about Nothing" (iii. 1) where speaking of Beatrice, she says—
Familiar spirits 1 attending on magicians and witches were always impatient of confinement. 2 So in the "Tempest" (i. 2) we find an illustration of this notion in the following dialogue—
Lastly, the term "Aroint thee" ("Macbeth" i. 3) used by the first witch, occurs again in "King Lear" (iii. 4), "Aroint thee, witch, aroint thee." That aroint is equivalent to "away," "begone," seems to be agreed, though its etymology is uncertain. 3* "Rynt thee" is used by Milkmaids in Cheshire to a. cow, when she has been milked, to bid her get out of the way. Ray in his Collection of North Country Words (1768, p. 52) gives "Rynt ye, by your leave, stand handsomly, as rynt you witch, quoth Bessie Locket to her mother, Proverb, Chesh."
Some connect it with the adverb "aroume," meaning "abroad," found in Chaucer's "House of Fame" (book ii. 32)—
Other derivations are from the Latin averrunco: the Italian rogna, a cutaneous disease, &c. 1*
How thoroughly Shakespeare was acquainted with the system of witchcraft is evident from the preceding pages, in which we have noticed his allusions to most of the prominent forms of this species of superstition. Many other items of witch lore, however, are referred to by him, mention of which is made in succeeding chapters.
24:1 "Superstitions of Witchcraft," 1865, p. 220.
24:2 "Shakspere Primer," 1877, p. 63.
25:1 "Rationalism in Europe," 1870, i. p. 106.
25:2 "Demonology and Witchcraft," 1881, pp. 292, 193.
26:1 "Shakespeare," 1864, ii. p. 161.
26:2 See Dyce's "Glossary," p. 51.
26:3 Webster's Works, edited by Dyce, 1857, p. 238.
26:4 "Illustrations of Scottish History, Life, and Superstition," 1879, p. 322.
27:1 Spalding's "Elizabethan Demonology," 1880, p. 86.
28:1 "Notes to Macbeth" (Clark & Wright), 1877, p. 137.
29:1 Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," 1584, Book iii., chap. 16. See Douce's "Illustrations of Shakespeare," p. 235.
29:2 "Elizabethan Demonology," pp. 102, 103. See Conway's "Demonology and Devil-lore," ii. p. 253.
29:3 "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. p. 8.
30:1 Graymalkin—a grey cat.
31:1 Henderson's "Folk-Lore of Northern Counties," p. 181.
33:1 Olaus Magnus' "History of the Goths," 1638, p. 47. See note to the "Pirate."
33:2 See Hardwick's "Traditions and Folk-Lore," pp. 108, 109; Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-Lore," pp. 214, 215.
33:3 In Greek, ἑπὶ ῥιπους πλε̑ιν, "to go to sea in a sieve," was a proverbial expression for an enterprise of extreme hazard or impossible of achievement.—Clarke & Wright's notes to "Macbeth," 1877, p. 82.
34:1 "Discovery of Witchcraft," 1584, Book iii. chap. I, p. 40; see Spalding's "Elizabethan Demonology," p. 103.
34:2 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," iii. pp. 8–10.
35:1 Douce, "Illustrations of Shakespeare," p. 245, says—"See Adlington's Translation (1596, p. 49), a book certainly used by Shakespeare on other occasions."
36:1 See Henderson's "Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties," 1879, p. 181.
37:1 See Pig—Chapter on Animals.
38:1 Notes to "Macbeth" by Clarke and Wright, 1877, p. 84.
38:2 See Jones’ "Credulities Past and Present," 1880, pp. 256–289.
39:1 Allusions to this superstition occur in "Love's Labour's Lost" (i. 2) "love is a familiar"; in 1 Henry VI. (iii. 2), "I think her old familiar is asleep; and in 2 Henry VI. (iv. 7) "he has a familiar under his tongue."
39:2 See Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," 1584, p. 85.
39:3 See Dyce's "Glossary," pp. 18, 19.
40:1 "Notes to Macbeth" (Clarke and Wright), pp. 81, 82.