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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: November ::
Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0861.  Wednesday, 20 November 1996.

(1)     From:   Belinda Johnston <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 11:57:04 +1100 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

(2)     From:   Helen Ostovich <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 10:02:03 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

(3)     From:   Steve Neville <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 10:48:14 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

(4)     From:   Patricia Cooke <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 Nov 1996 20:20:54 +1200
        Subj:   Macbeth: origin of superstitions


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Belinda Johnston <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 11:57:04 +1100 (EST)
Subject: 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

I think the 'contemporary' text Andy is referring to is Reginald Scot's 1584
*Discoverie of Witchcraft*, a sceptical text which was the target of James' own
1597 text *Daemonologie*, which rehearses scriptural 'proofs' of the existence
of witchcraft.  The strenghtening of witchcraft statutes in the early 17th
century has often been attributed to James I's personal interest in witchcraft,
however it has also been quite persuasively argued tht by the time he became
king of England he was relatively unconcerned about witchcraft.  Stuart Clark
(in Brian P. Levack ed., *Articles on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology" Garland
1992)points out that one condition that undoubtedly alleviated James' concern
was the simple fact that English witchcraft and sorcery were seldom aimed at
him.  I think it's quite difficult to simply claim that James was a rampantly
superstitious witch-hunter of a king, especially given his interventions in
later fraudulent trials.  I don't have a copy of *Daemonologie* at hand, but I
don't remember a place in it where he states that witchcraft cannot be
represented, indeed it is represented quite frequently on the Jacobean stage
(cf. *The Masque of Queenes*, *The Witch of Edmonton*, *The Witch*, *The
Tragedy of Sophonisba*).  But certainly the birth-strangled babes, pilot's
thumbs, 'witche's mummy', toads and cats of *Macbeth* can all be found in the
Scot text, and to a lesser extent, *Daemonologie*. You might also want to take
a look at Laura Levine's excellent work on *Daemonologie* in *Men in Women's
Clothing* where she suggests that the fear of witchcraft arose from the same
representative crisis that produced anti-theatrical tracts- a fear that
representation could act not just as a 'mirror of Majestie' but could actually
alter that hierarchised reality of which the monarch was

Or just wait until I publish my disseration!  Regards, Belinda

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Helen Ostovich <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 10:02:03 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

Re Andy White's reply:

Reginald Scot's _Discovery of Witchcraft_ is a very sceptical text that
basically assumes all witches are deluded impoverished old women, and that no
one but a dunce would take them seriously.  This attitude is at odds with
James' book on demonology, but not at odds so much with the later attitude
James developed towards witches, after he discovered the damage superstition
could do to deluded impoverished old women.  He stopped some witch trials in
Scotland in the 1590s and forbade further prosecution; in England he personally
involved himself in some trials and established witches' innocence.  But that
is not to say that he did not believe in witches.  He merely learned how
witch-belief could be abused. As for the famous case of the witches of Berwick,
the nobleman who may or may not have been involved did not go to sea with the
witches.  They threw in a cat weighted with dead body parts into the sea from a
cliff at Berwick. A storm happened, in which James's boat was separated from
the rest of his fleet, as he was coming home from Denmark with his bride. Yes,
one witch apparently knew the very words James said to Anne on their wedding
night.  The implication for all this in _Macbeth_ might rather be to
demonstrate the ambiguity of superstitious interpretation of events. Were the
witches of Act 1 the kind of witches Reginald Scot speaks of? Were the Act 4
witches merely figments of Macbeth's diseased imagination?  The 'reality' of
the witches in Macbeth is debatable, and that might be a better focus for a
student assignment, rather than to try to suggest that everybody believed in
witches.  That simply was not the case.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Neville <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Nov 1996 10:48:14 -0500
Subject: 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0856 Re: *Macbeth* and Theater Superstitions

The curse strikes again :

>Upon James' return, he interrogated one of these
>witches (someone check me on this, please, it's been a while since I researched
>this), and she proved her powers by repeating some rather personal remarks
>the King made in his bedchamger on his wedding night.

I've checked this, and I think you will find that it was in his bedchamber !

Regards
Steve Neville

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(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patricia Cooke <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 Nov 1996 20:20:54 +1200
Subject:        Macbeth: origin of superstitions

Dear Jan Stirm

Apart from the fact that Macbeth is quite a dangerous play for actors because
of all the sword fights and the frequent use of rostra from which it it easy to
fall, Donald Sinden in his book A Touch of the Memoirs, Hodder & Stoughton
1982, suggests the following:

"Before the days of repertory companies most towns had a stock company  - a
group of actors whose job it was to support visiting stars who toured around
the country. If any of these companies was doing badly they would put on
Macbeth, which was a sure-fire box office winer, to recoup their losses.  As
the theatreical newspapers carried details of the plays to be performed, the
entire profession would know which companies were failing. Macbeth, therefore,
became synonymous with ill fortune.  Give a dog a bad name  -  actors now look
for trouble."

Personally I think it's all those witches.
Pat
 

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