« AnteriorContinuar »
ON THE FABLE AND COMPOSITION OF
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantinent, and produce the chief events by the affinance of supernatural agents, would be censured as travigreffing the bounds of probability, be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted, to his advantage, and was far from overburthening the credulity of his audience.
The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most, by the learned themfelves. The phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world. The time in which this kind of credulity was at its height, seems to have been that of the holy war, in which the Chris tians imputed all their defeats to enchantments or diabolical oppofition, as they ascribed their success to the allistance of their military faints ; and the learned Dr Warburton appears to believe (Suppl. to the IntroducSion to Don Quixote) that the firit accounts of enchant
ments were brought into this part of the world by those who returned from their eastern expeditions. But there is always some distance between the birth and maturity of folly as of wickedness: this opinion had long exifted, though perhaps the application of it had in no foregoing age been so frequent, nor the reception fo general. Olympiodorus, in Photius's extracts, tells us of one Libanius, who practised this kind of military magic, and having promised xwges of H1TW xatie Bepoxqwe svegyew, to perform great things against the Barbarians with. out soldiers, was, at the instance of the empress Placi. dia, put to death, when he was about to have given proofs of his abilities. The empress shewed some kind. ness in her anger, by cutting him off at a time so con. venient for his reputation.
But a more remarkable proof of the antiquity of this notion may be found in St Chrysostom's book de Sacer. dotio, which exhibits a scene of enchantments not exceeded by any romance of the middle age: he supposes a spectator overlooking a field of battle attended by one that points out all the various objects of horror, the engines of destruction, and the arts of Naughter. Δεικνυτο δε ετι σαρα τους εναντιους και πιτομενες ιππας δια τινος μαγγανείας, και οπλισας δι αερος φερόμενους, και σασην λoντεια, ovvedev xai ideæv." Let him then proceed to thew him in the opposite armies horses flying by enchantment, armed men transported through the air, and every power and form of magic. Whether St Chrysostom believed that luch performances were really to be seen in a day of battle, or only endeavoured to enliven his description, by adopting the notions of the vulgar, it is equally certain, that such notions were in his time received, and that therefore they were not imported from the Saracens in a later age; the wars with the Saracens, however, gavé occasion to their propagation, not only as bigotry naturally discovers prodigies, but as the scene of action was removed to a great distance. The Refore mation did not immediately arrive at its meridian, and though day was gradually increasing upon us, the goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight.
Jo the time of queen Elizabeth was the remarkable trial those of the witches of Warbois, whose conviction is still comthere memorated in an annual sermon at Huntingdon. But turily in the reign of king James, in which this tragedy was exist written, many circumstances concurred to propagate fore- and confirm this opinion. The king, who was much gene: celebrated for his knowledge, had, before his arrival in
England, not only examined in perfon a woman accuy ma. sed of witchcraft, but had given a very formal account wy spine of the practices and illusions of evil spirits, the comquitla pacts of witches, the ceremonies used by them, the
manner of detecting them, and the justice of punishing given them, in his dialogues of Dæmonologie, written in the kind. Scottish dialect, and published at Edinburgh. This con book was, soon after his accession, reprinted at Lon
don; and as the ready way to gain king James's favour -f this was to flatter his speculations, the system of DæmonoSacero hlogie was immediately adopted by all who desired ei. et ex. ther to gain preferment or not to lose it. Thus the appo- fdoctrine of witchcraft was very powerfully inculcated;
d by and as the greatest part of mankind have no other rearror, fon for their opinions than that they are in fashion, it hter, cannot be doubted but this persuasion made a rapid
progress, fince vanity and credulity co-operated in its avour. The infection soon reached the parliament, who, in the first year of king James, made a law by
which it was enacted, chap. xii. That “if any perf957 ion shall use any invocation or conjuration of any evil
for wicked spirit; 2. or shall confult, covenant with, y entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil or cursed -tion, pirit to or for any intent or purpose : 3. or take up
any dead man, woman or child out of the grave, or the skin, bone, or any part of the dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery,
charm, or enchantment; 4. or shall use, praclise, or ly a exercise any sort of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or en
diantment; 5. whereby any person shall be destroyed, illed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed in any part the body; 6. That every such person being conviet.
efor. , and gobight.
ed shall luffer death.” This law was repealed in oui own time.
Thus, in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by the fac Thion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal to doubt it; and as prodigies are always seen in pro. portion as they are expected, witches were every day discovered, and multiplied fo fast in fome places, that bishop Hall mentions a village in Lancashire, where their number was greater than that of the houses. The Jesuits and Sedtaries took advantage of this universal error, and endeavoured to promote the interest of their parties by pretended cures of persons afilicted by evi spirits ; but they were detected and exposed by the cler ĝy of the established church.
Upon this general infatuation, Shakespeare might bi easily allowed to found a play, especially since he ha followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true ; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may be ridiculed were both by himself and his audience thought awsu and affecting. Johnso
It may be worth while to remark, that Milton, whi left behind him a list of no less than Cil. dramatic) subjects, had fixed on the story of this play among th relt. His intention was to have begun with the arriva of Malcolm at Macduff's castle. “The matter of Dun can (says he) may be expressed by the appearing of hi ghoft.” It should seem from this last memorandum that Milton disliked the licence that his predecessor ha taken in comprehending a history of such length withi the short compass of a play, and would have now wri ten the whole on the plan of the ancient drama. H could not surely have indulged so vain a hope, as th: of excelling Sliakespeare in the Tragedy of Macbeth,
STEEVEN Macbeth was certainly one of Shakespeare's late productions, and it might possibly have been fuggeft to him by a little performance on the same subject Oxford, before king James, 1605. I will transcril
hy notice of it from Wake's Rex Platonicus: “Fabulæ niam dedit antiqua de Regiâ prosapia historioia apud coto-Britannos celebrata, quæ narrat tres olim Sibyl: is occurile duobus Scotiæ proceribus, Macbetho et Banchoni, et illum predixiffe Regem futurum, fed Re
em nullum geniturum; hunc Regem non futurum, sed kages geniturum multos. Vaticinii veritatem rerum kentus comprobavit. Banchonis enim è ftirpe Potenfimus Jacobus oriundus.” p. 29.
Since I made the observation here quoted, I have frequently been told, that I unwittingly made Shakepeare learned at least in Latin, as this must have been
language of the performance before king James. One might perhaps have plausibly said, that he probaHy picked up the story at second-hand; but nere accitent has thrown an old pamphlet in my way, intitled Le Oxford Triumph by one Antliony Nixon, 1605, inich explains the whole matter : “ This performance,
ys Anthony, was first in Latinė to the kinge, then in Bolith to the queene and young prince ;” and, as he pes on to tell us," the conceip! thereof, the kinge Id very much applaude.” It is likely that the friendly eter, which we are informed king James once wrote Shakespeare, was on tủię, occasion. FARMER. This play is deservedly celebrated for the propriety Its tičtions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of action, but it has no nice discriminations of charac*t; the events are too great to admit the influence of articular dispolitions, ani, the course of the action nekirarily determines the conduct of the agents. The danger of ambition is well described; and I know
whether it may not be said in defence of some parts which now seem improbable, that, in Shakespeare's ine, it was neceffary to warn credulity against vai? and illusive predictions. The paffions are directed to their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and though the courage Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet. every reader redices at his fall. JOHNSON.