Supernatural and Shakespeare These days, when we see a scary film or read a horror novel, we get to have the thrill of terror without worrying that the terror is real. We know that werewolves don't actually come out at the full moon, that houses aren't really haunted, and that vampires are figments of our imagination. We're rational beings, and we don't really worry about leaving a movie theater to find a monster waiting for us in the parking lot.  This rational relationship to the supernatural, however, is fairly new; the remnants  of our irrational beliefs become clear when we hesitate to walk into a moonlit room, or think we see something out of the corner of our eye down a darkened hallway. Go back even a hundred years and Americans believed in possessions, ghosts, and curses in great variety. An example of these beliefs is the séance  craze of the 1900s; people would sit together in a room illuminated only by candles and attempt to speak with the dead. These were otherwise educated people utterly convinced that by holding hands in a circle, closing their eyes, and chanting the right words, they could communicate with the long deceased. Now go another 400 years back, to the time of William Shakespeare, who lived in England from 1564 to 1616. During this time, almost no one could read or write, the king was considered to be blessed by God to rule, and what we call science was totally nonexistent. Why things happen — such as disease and death — was best explained by whoever could spin the most convincing argument, no matter how steeped in the impossible.  And of all Shakespeare's plays, it is Macbeth, with its witches, ghosts, and curses, that is most focused on matters of the supernatural. Audiences of the time viewed those supernatural elements in a very different way than we do today, because of the largely primitive social and scientific context of life during Shakespeare's time. That is to say, it scared them out of their skin. The Tragedy of Macbeth is about a Scottish general who, prompted by the encouragement of three witches, his wife, and his delusions of grandeur,  decides to kill the king and make himself king. So important is the supernatural in the play that the play opens with the witches. Their prominent  place points to the importance that witchcraft played in England at the time; basically, witches were a convenient way to explain all the terrible maladies  and misfortunes that occurred, seemingly without cause, on a daily basis. And an explanation was needed as a way to make bearable a simple fact: Life in 1600 was, on the whole, nasty, brutish, and short, without the basic services — clean water, plumbing, paved roads — that we take for granted. No one could rationally explain how a plague could wipe out half a city in a few months, as happened numerous times. From such suffering comes anger, and then fear, and then a need to find someone to blame. So witchcraft — or, more accurately, someone accused of practicing it — was Public Enemy Number One, with tragic and horrible results.  In fact, in the period when Elizabeth I was queen, and Shakespeare started coming to prominence, witch trials were a common occurrence. Early in Elizabeth's reign, in 1562, Parliament  passed the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act. That set the stage, four years later, for the trials of the Chelmsford witches in Chelmsford, England, at which Agnes Waterhouse became the first woman to be convicted for witchcraft in an official court. She was subsequently hanged. There were two more Chelmsford witch trials, in 1579 and 1589, and other witch trials across the countryside, resulting in a total of 270 people executed for being witches during Elizabeth's reign, almost all of whom were women. And Elizabeth, compared to other monarchs in Europe at the time, was lenient  regarding witchcraft, since her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been convicted and executed as a witch by her father, King Henry VIII. Still, she had to negotiate her more tolerant ideas with the demands of her subjects.  Shakespeare, too, was a man of his time. He had a theater to fill and actors to pay and he wasn't above stoking the fires of intolerance   to do so. In addition to the commoners down in the orchestra, there was another distinct and equally important audience that Shakespeare really had to please: whoever sat on the throne. When it came to Macbeth, that meant satisfying King James I, who took over in 1603 upon the death of Queen Elizabeth. James had more than a passing interest in the supernatural and witches. In 1597, when he was the king of Scotland, he wrote a book on witchcraft called Daemonologie. The basic idea of the book is "Witches exist, they are bad, and we have to kill them. Here's how to do it." James himself was directly involved in the North Berwick witch trials as a judge. So when writing Macbeth, Shakespeare took great pains to play up the evil ways of witches to get James's seal of approval. It worked. Of course, a play so bathed in horrific deeds and tragic context must be cursed itself. At least, that's the reputation of Macbeth in the theater world. It is often referred to as "the Scottish play" instead of Macbeth, as even uttering  the title is seen as bad luck. Aside from all the general carnage that occurs in Macbeth, the spells that the witches speak in the play were thought to be real, and reciting them therefore cursed the play to failure and worse. And there have been calamities  associated with the performance. The very first documented performance of Macbeth, in 1606, involved the death of a young man named Hal Berridge, who, because of the laws prohibiting female performers at the time, was slated to play Lady Macbeth. However, he dropped dead right before the performance from a fever, and Shakespeare himself stepped in to play the part. Then, in 1849, there was the Astor Place Riot, in which a performance at New York's Astor Place Theatre became the setting for a riot that killed 23 people. The cause? Ten thousand people taking sides in the feud between two actors, an Englishman and an American who were involved with a production of Macbeth. A riot over a couple of actors may sound crazy, but it's important to remember that national rivalries often played out on the stage, much as they do today in sporting events. This was only 70 years after the Revolutionary War, so the relationship between the two countries was very different than it is today. But no one blamed the calamity on international misunderstandings. They blamed it on Macbeth. Not to be a buzzkill  on this whole curse thing, but a play with this much violence means a lot of actors running around backstage with swords. Combine that with the quick pace of backstage life, and there are bound to be a few accidental jabs among even the most conscientious  troupe. Luckily, whether it is caused by carelessness or a curse, there are ways to counteract Macbeth's bad vibe; for example, to cleanse a theater, actors often recite lines from The Merchant of Venice, which is considered to be a lucky play. Whether it's unlucky or not, Macbeth is a good study of some of the darkest urges of man. The fact that we read (and watch) it a half-millennium after its creation is testimony to the insights it gives into those urges, and their horrible consequences. Works Cited
LADY MACBETH. Was the hope drunk Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since? And wakes it now, to look so green and pale At what it did so freely? From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would," Like the poor cat i' the adage? William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, scene vii How does Lady Macbeth influence Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan? A. She laughs at Macbeth's belief in the witches' prophecy, making him angry enough to kill the king. B. She warns Macbeth that if he does not kill the king, his children will go hungry and likely die. C. She tells Macbeth how proud she is of him, calling him strong and manly, until he agrees to kill the king. D. She calls Macbeth weak and questions his strength of character, pushing him to agree to the crime.
Did... Did you post an entire essay? Holy hell... Also you called the dream team to analyze this. I'll wait for the others to gather here.