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person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; 4. or shall use, practise or exercise any sort of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; 5. whereby any person shall be destroyed, killed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed in any part of the body ; 6. That every such person being convicted shall suffer death.” This law was repealed in our own time.
Thus, in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by the fashion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal, to doubt it; and as prodigies are always seen in proportion as they are expected, witches were every day discovered, and multiplied so fast in some places, that bishop Hall mentions a village in Lancashire, where their number was greater than that of the houses. The jesuits and sectaries took advantage of this universal error, and endeavoured to promote the interest of their parties by pretended cures of persons afflicted by evil spirits ; but they were detected and exposed by the clergy of the established church.
Upon this general infatuation Shakespeare might be easily allowed to found a play, especially since he has followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true ; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may now be ridiculed, were both by himself and his audience thought awful and affecting.
Act I. SCENE X. (1. vii. 28 foll.)
The arguments by which Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to commit the murder, afford a proof of Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature.
She urges the excellence and dignity of courage, a glittering idea which has dazzled mankind from age to age, and animated sometimes the housebreaker, and sometimes the conqueror ; but this sophism Macbeth has for ever destroyed by distinguishing true from false fortitude, in a line and a half; of which it may also be said, that they ought to bestow immortality on the author, though all his other productions had been lost.
I dare do all that may become a man,
Who dares do more, is none. This topic, which has been always employed with too much success, is used in this scene
with peculiar propriety, to a soldier by a woman. Courage is the distinguishing virtue of a soldier, and the reproach of cowardice cannot be borne by any man from woman, without great impatience.
She then urges the oaths by which he had bound himself to murder Duncan, another art of sophistry by which men have sometimes deluded their consciences, and persuaded themselves that what would be criminal in others is virtuous in them; this argument Shakespeare, whose plan obliged him to make Macbeth yield, has not confuted, though he might easily have shown that a former obligation could not be vacated by a latter: that obligations laid on us by a higher power, could not be overruled by obligations which we lay upon ourselves. Act II. SCENE ii. (11. i. 49-50.)
Now o'er one half the world
Nature seems dead. That is, over our hemisphere all action and motion seem to have ceased. This image, which is perhaps the most striking that poetry can produce, has been adopted by Dryden in his Conquest of Mexico.
All things are hush'd as Nature's self lay dead,
These lines, though so well known, I have transcribed, that the contrast between them and this passage of Shakespeare may be more accurately observed.
Night is described by two great poets, but one describes a night of quiet, the other of perturbation. In the night of Dryden, all the disturbers of the world are laid asleep; in that of Shakespeare, nothing but sorcery, lust and murder, is awake. He that reads Dryden, finds himself lull’d with serenity, and disposed to solitude and contemplation. He that peruses Shakespeare, looks round alarmed, and starts to find himself alone. One is the night of a lover, the other, of a murderer. Act II. SCENE V. (11. iii. 118-21.)
Here, lay Duncan;
For Ruin's wasteful entrance. Mr. Pope has endeavoured to improve one of these lines by substituting goary blood for golden blood; but it may easily be admitted that he who could on such an occasion talk of lacing the silver skin, would lace it with golden blood. No amendment can be made to this line, of which every word is equally faulty, but by a general blot.
It is not improbable, that Shakespeare put these forced and unnatural metaphors into the mouth of Macbeth as a mark of artifice and dissimulation, to show the difference between the studied language of hypocrisy, and the natural outcries of sudden passion. This whole speech so considered, is a remarkable instance of judgment, as it consists entirely of antithesis and metaphor. Act III. SCENE Ü. (111. i. 68-9.)
Mine eternal jewel Gio'n to the common enemy of man, It is always an entertainment to an inquisitive
reader, to trace a sentiment to its original source, and therefore though the term enemy of man, applied to the devil, is in itself natural and obvious, yet some may be pleased with being informed, that Shakespeare probably borrowed it from the first lines of the destruction of Troy, a book which he is known to have read.
That this remark may not appear too trivial, I shall take occasion from it to point out a beautiful passage of Milton evidently copied from a book of no greater authority, in describing the gates of hell. Book 2. v. 879. he says,
On a sudden open fly,
Harsh thunder. In the history of Don Bellianis, when one of the knights approaches, as I remember, the castle of Brandezat, the gates are said to open grating harsh thunder upon their brazen hinges. Act IV. SCENE i. (ıv. i.)
As this is the chief scene of inchantment in the play, it is proper in this place to observe, with how much judgment Shakespeare has selected all the Circumstances of his infernal ceremonies, and how exactly he has conformed to common opinions and traditions.
T brice the brinded cat bath mew'd. The usual form in which familiar spirits are reported to converse with witches, is that of a cat. A witch, who was tried about half a century before the time of Shakespeare, had a cat named Rutterkin, as the spirit of one of those witches was Grimalkin; and when any mischief was to be done she used to bid Rutterkin go and fly, but once when she would have sent Rutterkin to torment a daughter of the countess of Rutland, instead of going or flying, he only cried mew, from whence she discovered that the lady was out of his power, the power of witches not being universal, but limited, as Shakespeare has taken care to inculcate.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
ret it shall be tempest tost. The common afflictions which the malice of witches produced were melancholy, fits, and loss of flesh, which are threatened by one of Shakespeare's witches.
Weary sev'n-nights, nine times nine,
Shall be dwindle, peak and pine. It was likewise 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. Shakespeare has accordingly made one of his witches declare that she has been killing swine, and Dr. Harsenet observes, that about that time, a sow could not be ill of the measles, nor a girl of the sullens, but some old woman was charged with witchcraft.
Toad, that under the cold stone,
Boil thou first i'th' charmed pot. Toads have likewise long lain under the reproach of being by some means accessary to witchcraft, for which reason Shakespeare, in the first scene of this play, calls one of the spirits Padocke or Toad, and now takes care to put a toad first into the pot. When Vaninus was seized at T holouse, there was found at his lodgings ingens