WITCHCRAFT AND THE OCCULT IN THREE PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE
It's a Kind of Magic
1st October, 2020
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames.
That old river poet who never, ever ends…
Kate Bush, O England, My Lionheart
Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down…
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare is to be found everywhere in his native language, his phrases and metaphors, couplets and adages breathing life and history even into modern English usage. We recall the apocryphal tale of the Victorian lady who disliked Hamlet ‘because it was full of clichés’. But the Swan of Avon also wrote using the language and imagery of a hidden European tradition, one which is still with us, and yet is possibly understood less now than it was by the Bard and his contemporaries; magic.
Here, I will look at occult themes in three famous Shakespearian plays: Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The deep Hermetic magic of A Winter’s Tale is not included for reasons of space, but deserves further investigation.
The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are in the pastoral tradition, whereby troubles which begin in the city are healed in the countryside, and even Macbeth begins far out on the moors. For Shakespeare, both healing and maleficent magic lie in the woods, on the desert island, malingering on the blasted heath, which is where we pay our first visit.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
Echoed voices in the night.
The Eagles, Witchy Woman
On August 7, 1606, the first production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth was staged at Hampton Court Palace in front of the new King of England, James I. Just before the performance, the boy-actor Hal Berridge, cast as Lady Macbeth, fell ill and later died, leading to the superstition that the play is cursed, and causing stage actors to this day not to call it by name (at least if they are speaking in a theatre), but rather to refer to it as ‘the Scottish play’. According to legend, Shakespeare himself stepped in and performed the part. If so, this was bravery by the Bard, but nothing compared to the extraordinary risk he ran in showing this particular play to this particular king.
James I of England had previously been James VI of Scotland and, during his reign in Caledonian climes, witch-hunts, trials and executions had killed hundreds of innocent women. Risky then, for Shakespeare to present to this new monarch possibly the only one of his tragedies in which the agents who initiate the dread cycle of events not only get away, as it were, scot-free, but are themselves witches.
Shakespeare would have known his witchcraft, and would have needed little research to create the Weird Sisters, just as we would not need to research for long the life of, say, a fashion model should we wish to use one as a character in a play or novel. Their lifestyles are fairly comprehensively known to us, as the practices of village wise women, and the grotesque mythology that grew up around them in communities always looking for scapegoats, would have been known to Shakespeare. They certainly were to his king in 1606.
In 1597, 14 years before the King James Bible was published, James had been busy writing a dialogue on the occult entitled Daemonologie. He would almost certainly have based this manual of persecution on Sprenger and Kramer’s 15th-century Malleus Malficarum, or The Hammer of Witches. Sources say that Shakespeare himself used James’s book (and may have known both), for the rituals described in Macbeth. In creating his famous Weird Sisters, and choosing the play’s singular debut, Shakespeare showed the king what he already knew because James was one of Britain’s witchcraft experts. The Bard thus holds up a mirror to the witch-finder King just as the witches hold up a looking-glass to Macbeth. One would expect The Scottish Play to end with the three witches condemned to the flames, but no. Like all successful trouble-makers, they simply disappear, as they do literally in one of Macbeth’s opening scenes;
BANQUO: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, And these are of them.
Whither are they vanished?
MACBETH: Into the air; and what seem’d corporeal melted
As breath into the wind…’
The Weird Sisters make their (dis)appearance on the heath, and plan their next meeting before being called home by ‘Graymalkin’ and ‘Paddock’. The provenance of these mysterious characters will be explained by the infamous Matthew Hopkins, England’s Witchfinder General, some 45 years after Macbeth was first shown to the most royal of witch-finders. Look, he tells readers of his The Discoverie of Witches, for old women with strangely shaped cats, dogs, toads with names such as Holt, Jamara, Vinegar Tom (later the name of a Caryl Churchill play about witchcraft), Sack and Sugar. Everything the Sisters do is either in James or Hopkins;
‘FIRST WITCH: Where hast thou been sister?
SECOND WITCH: Killing swine’.
The greatest crime of which a witch could be suspected was the slaughter, by spell and curse, of a neighbour’s income-generating cattle. Crimes against money are the most strongly punished, then as now. These old women were – at least in cowed popular belief - outside society, and so became cast outside the borders of towns and counties. Witches, heathland and madness are linked in the Medieval mind, with its Freudian fear of the lawless area outside the town limits. Mad, criminal events take place there. It is an association which lingers in literature. Where our two later plays here are in the pastoral tradition, and societal and amatory problems are solved in woodland and on desert island, Macbeth positions the heath as the site of madness. It is Lear’s heath to which the witches are expelled. We think of Hardy’s Eustacia Vye, half-feared as a witch at Egdon Moor and living up on the heath wild and free, in The Return of the Native. We think of the symbolism of the name ‘Heathcliff’.
The three witches. ‘When shall we three meet again?’ is as famous a line as ‘To be or not to be’ to the literate English. But what they are to do at their next meeting might still be familiar to people who live near the blasted heaths and moors of northern Britain. Allow them to tell us…
They can make the sea ‘Tempest-toss’d’ (as Prospero will in The Tempest) using a ‘pilot’s thumb’ for sympathetic magic, concerning which Keith Thomas writes in the seminal Religion and the Decline of Magic that it ‘is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide to conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art’. It works though, on the fallible mind. One like Macbeth’s.
In the same way that modern homeopathic medicine is denounced by science but still works for some, the effect of the Weird Sisters’ prognostications concerning Macbeth and, in particular, his wife, revolves around not what the crones make happen, but what they make the spouses believe will happen. People in Africa who die to this day from ‘magical spells’ are still dead, regardless of whether magic works ‘in the real world’. Shakespeare’s witches abdicate their responsibility for the death of Duncan? Then magic works…
Everything is reversed (and the notion of polarity is important in magic). This is a transvaluation of values. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair…’ The Sisters walk widdershins, the Anglo-Saxon word for backwards. Their predictions are only true because Macbeth and his dark wife make them so. Morally, they are in reverse. Banquo is not exactly wrong when he says of the women that ‘the instruments of darkness tell us truths’. Not quite. They implant the seeds of a truth unfulfilled, a non-manifest destiny, as yet. The Weird Sisters affect Macbeth far less than they do his wife, who conducts an invocation of her own. ‘Come, ye spirits…’ Dame Judi Dench, an extraordinary Lady Macbeth in Sir Trevor Nunn’s 1979 production, turns and turns about, and looks genuinely possessed.
We know what happens to Macbeth. He stayed to listen too long, and could not forget what he had heard because he wanted to hear it. That is how magic works, on belief, influencing others with mere words if they have the predisposition to believe what they hear. Psychologists today call it confirmation bias.
I have begun with the blackest of magic the Bard wrote. In The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ‘dark arts’ will gradually take on a lighter hue.
In the reign of Elizabeth I… the term ‘conjurer’ came to be a synonym for recusant priest.
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
I have so trained myself that, committed to the teachings of no one man, I have ranged through all the masters of philosophy, examined all their works, become acquainted with all schools.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man
While magic in Macbeth is confined to witchcraft, and while Macbeth himself is not directly worked on by magical agency but rather his own lust for power, awakened by the prognostications of the Weird Sisters, a high Renaissance magic runs through The Tempest. Prospero is no witch. He can control his world rather than run mad at the mouth.
The exiled politician, who controls both tempests and The Tempest, is an amalgam of Renaissance Humanism, alchemy and the sooth-sayer’s art of scrying, or telling the future through physical media such as the famous ‘crystal ball’. Possible combinative models for the mixture presented by Shakespeare as Prospero would be philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the alchemist Paracelsus, and Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, John Dee. Dee’s crystal ball, or scrying-stone, is still in London’s British Museum. I have seen it, but did not look too closely, just in case.
Prospero is the Renaissance version of an Olympic decathlete. There seems not to be any area of the dark arts he has not mastered. He can raise and placate storms. In an echo of Macbeth, and although he damns Sycorax as a witch, he is not averse to afflicting Caliban with ‘cramps, side-stitches… aches’. Astrology is within his professional area of expertise. ‘I find my zenith doth depend upon a most auspicious star...’ Actio in distans, the dream of the Renaissance magicians, is also Prospero’s art. To Ferdinand, he says, ‘For here I can disarm thee with this stick/And make thy weapon drop’.
Prospero is also a master of invocation, the ultimate dark art. (Aleister Crowley was obsessed with summoning spirits). But there is, as it were, a technical difference at work here which should be noted because, once again, Shakespeare is absolutely in control of what he is writing about, just as Prospero is absolutely in control of the spirit who effects so much of the action in The Tempest; Ariel.
Spirits are of two types, the living and the dead. Ariel is the former, a supernatural being, Hamlet’s father the latter, a ghost. While ghosts tend to visit unbidden – the French word revenant perfectly gives this sense – the spirit must be summoned, and this requires incantation, generally to be found in books. So it is that Prospero’s books are mentioned so often in The Tempest. Peter Greenaway’s sumptuous 1991 film version of The Tempest was subtly entitled Prospero’s Books.
Books and the secrets they contained were of paramount importance to the man of knowledge during the Italian Renaissance and its echo in England. John Dee, court astrologer to Elizabeth I, would be consulted as a matter of course if the navy were to set sail. He would return home to consult his books of astrology and angels, sigils and notations, mystical almanacs, having had at one point the largest library in Europe at his house in Mortlake, Surrey.
The moral framework of the crucial relationship between Prospero and Gonzalo is set by a gift of books along with other smuggled supplies for Prospero to use in exile;
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom’.
The occult power of books was foremost in the Renaissance mind, and so we find Spenser’s Hermit in the Faerie Queene (written 20 years prior to The Tempest) in a cell not unlike Prospero’s;
‘He to his study goes, and there amiddes
His Magick bookes and artes, of sundry kindes,
He seekes out mighty charmes, to trouble mindes’.
Famously, Prospero renounces his art at the end of the play, the balm of pastoral having worked once again, and the sacrifice of his books is highly symbolic. The sea has been commanded by Prospero to create the tempest which begins The Tempest. By the old magic principle of balance, he knows the sea must be paid in kind. ‘I’ll drown my book…’ Prospero also throws his staff into the sea. Again, in the Renaissance mind, medicine was inextricably linked with the staff entwined by two serpents, the caduceus (which still exists in the medical symbology of some national health services) having been preceded in Greek myth by the pine-cone-tipped branch carried by the followers of Dionysus, or Pan. Look at traditional artistic renditions of Dionysus. Then look at Dionysus on any amphora. It’s the same staff. Note the trees present when Prospero throws away his staff. ‘Pine and cedar’. Trees still connected, to this day, with life, with death.
Even one of Shakespeare’s most potent talents, the writing of love, is affected by spells and magic. Prospero and Gonzalo may provide the moral engine-room of The Tempest, but Miranda and Sebastian’s wonderful love-affair – far quicker than any modern dating app – is controlled by her father.
I once spoke to the sister of an ex-girlfriend at a party. Making small talk, I asked her if she knew who had invented her name, which was Miranda. She did not know that it was Shakespeare. The Bard knew what he was doing when he invented this prettily named character, one of his more charming ladies. One knows that Miranda will not endure Cordelia’s sadness, Ophelia’s fate, or Lady Macbeth’s personality. She is her father’s daughter, in part, with a charmed life. The curious latinate construction ‘Miranda’ is almost certainly homage to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, author of Oration on the Dignity of Man. I would give much to know if Shakespeare had read that splendid book.
Is Prospero Shakespeare? ‘This great O’ could just as easily be the protective circle traced out by the magician summoning powerful spirits or demons, surrounded by symbols within which the spirit might not enter. Is any author one of his characters, and one alone?
In the end, after the fifth act of his own life, Shakespeare is Prospero. But only in so far as he is also Lear, Trinculo, Falstaff, Beatrice, Oberon, Timon, even the Weird Sisters… Academic debates still rage about whether Homer was one person or many, a sort of crack squad of Greek poets. I find it much more difficult to believe that Shakespeare was one man, and one alone.
To return to magic in the work of the Bard, his crowning triumph was surely his shortest play – about the length of an English football match – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
How long within this wood intend you stay?
Oberon to Titania
And the forests will echo with laughter.
Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
A personal reminiscence. In 1984, the Sussex University Dramatic Society (SUDS) performed, for five balmy summer nights, A Midsummer Night’s Dream outdoors in the tiny nearby village of Falmer. I was cast as Oberon.
The director was a talented girl who went on to direct at the Young Vic, as did her boyfriend. Before we staged the play affectionately referred to by professional actors as ‘The Dream’, she wrote to a local school, informing the teachers that the children, and themselves, would be welcome to come to the performances free of the usual ticket charge, but that she had something she wanted in exchange. Exchange, of course, is key to the play. The exchange of vows, the exchange of romantic partners, the exchange of a human head for that of an ass (so well captured in Fuseli’s painting), and the exchange of the changeling child at the centre of the rift between Oberon and Titania. The director’s boyfriend had only one request for the headmistress.
He asked for the girls at the school to dress in white as fairies and run around in the woods behind where we were acting the play. This they did.
As the sun went down, and between acts, we would take a break from the mischief in the woods outside Athens, and the little girls would run about, hiding between the trees, sprinkling petals. It was unannounced. I remember a boy in the audience pulling his mother’s sleeve and pointing, saying, wide-eyed, ‘Mummy! Mummy! Look! There are fairies’. She didn’t believe him. Then she looked. The changeling child, the cause of the fight in fairy-land, was played by a little boy called Max. While Titania and I were arguing, he walked around. On his hands. To this day, it is the most magical experience I have ever had. I think the whole cast believed in fairies by the end…
It is not true to say that fairies did not exist in European consciousness before this play, butShakespeare consolidated the modern image we have. It was always waiting to come out and help – and cause trouble - as were the mabs, imps, brownies and flower-fairies of English folklore. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole is a delight precisely due to the fairy-magic that lights its way, linguistically and even logistically, due to the elements of magic and the mischief of the little people.
The play seems frivolous, but shows Shakespeare’s knowledge of the mechanics – exemplified by the rude mechanicals – of what it was and is to stage a play. It is a standard device in The Dream to make Theseus and Hippolyta, King and Queen of Athens, the same actors that play Oberon and Titania (we didn’t. I never played the king, just the king of the fairies). Shakespeare leaves plenty of time for costume changes. The world’s finest playwright was also a great stage manager. Just as the play of the rude mechanicals is well-stage managed. ‘So go with me without the town…’ Heath, desert island, woods. Shakespeare is not a magical writer of the urban. Enter Oberon and Titania…
‘I shall do thee mischief in the wood…’ Not Oberon’s line, but the compass of the play. That love itself is a form of magic is not missed by Shakespeare. Lysander’s lips, says Hermia, ‘are bewitch’d’. The natural herbal magic Oberon uses to effect mischief works, but in a way that even the king of the fairies cannot predict.
When we compare these three plays, and their relation to the occult, it seems that we have two serious essays on the dark arts and a comic romp in the woods. But the Dream may be closer to life for all its larks. Lady Macbeth birthed the Weird Sisters from her unsexed mind and her own dark half. Prospero had Ariel to do his bidding. They chose efficiently. Not so Oberon, who has the bungling Puck work incompetently for him, applying his love-philtre to the wrong lovers and causing chaos. It is as though Prospero hired the Magnificent 7 and Oberon got the Keystone Cops.
The Dream has its contributions to the rich store of figurative English. Sometimes people think they know no Shakespeare. They are always wrong. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, anyone? ‘Ill met by moonlight…’ ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. It is tempting to cast these phrases, so deep in the English DNA do they run, as magical spells of their own.
As for Puck, perhaps Shakespeare is closer to him than Prospero. Robin Goodfellow, the Green Man, king of the wood, stealer of the golden bough, was a figure large in the rural mind of the medieval age, sowing confusion in the woods. ‘Look thou lead them thus…’
And so, while it is traditional to see Prospero’s great final speech as Shakespeare’s will and testament, we might consider the mischief-making the Bard so enjoyed, incorporating magic into his stagecraft because he knew all too well how it functioned, both actually and symbolically. Perhaps it is Puck who speaks for the Swan of Avon;
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends’.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote the plays and sonnets which are one of the reasons why to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in God’s lottery, the spell he cast is unlikely to be broken.