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queen Elizabeth was the remarkable trial of the witches of Warbois, whose conviction is still commemorated in an annual sermon at Huntingdon. But in the reign of king James, in which this tragedy was written, many circumstances concurred to propagate and confirm this opinion. The king, who was much celebrated for his knowledge, had, before his arrival in England, not only examined in person a woman accused of witchcraft, but had given a very formal account of the practices and illusions of evil spirits, the compacts of witches, the ceremonies used by them, the manner of detecting them, and the justice of punishing them, in his dialogues of Damonologie, written in the Scottish dialect, and published at Edinburgh. This book was, soon after his succession, reprinted at London, and as the ready way to gain king James's favour was to flatter his speculations, the system of Damonologie was immediately adopted by all who desired either to gain preferment or not to lose it. Thus the doctrine of witchcraft was very powerfully inculcated; and as the greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinions than that they are in fashion, it cannot be doubted but this persuasion made a rapid progress, since vanity and credulity co-operated in its favour. 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 person shall use any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit; 2. or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil or cursed spirit 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, 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 This law was repealed in our own time.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 Shakspeare, 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 Shakspeare 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. JOHNSON.
This play is deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action; but it has no nice discriminations of character; the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions, and the course of the action necessarily determines the conduct of the agents.
The danger of ambition is well described; and I know not whether it may not be said, in defence of some parts which now seem improbable, that, in Shakspeare's time, it was necessary to warn credulity against vain and illusive predictions.
The passions are directed to their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at his fall. JOHNSON.
It may be worth while to remark, that Milton, who left behind him a list of no less than CII. dramatic subjects, had fixed on the story of this play among the rest. His intention was to have begun with the arrival of Malcolm at Macduff's castle. "The matter of Duncan (says he) may be expressed by the appearing of his ghost." It should seem from this last memorandum, that Milton disliked the licence his predecessor had taken in comprehending a history of such length within the short compass of a play, and would have new-written the whole on the plan of the ancient drama. He could not surely have indulged so vain a hope, as that of excelling Shakspeare in the Tragedy of Macbeth. STEEVENS.
Macbeth was certainly one of Shakspeare's latest productions, and it might possibly have been suggested to him by a little performance on the same subject at Oxford, before king James, 1605. I will transcribe my notice of it from Wake's Rex Platonicus: "Fabulæ ausam dedit antiqua de regià prosapiâ historiola apud Scoto
Britannos celebrata, quæ narrat tres olim Sibyllas occurrisse duobus Scotia proceribus, Macbetho & Banchoni, & illum prædixisse regem futurum, sed regem nullum geniturum; hunc regem non futurum, sed reges geniturum multos. Vaticinii veritatem rerum eventus comprobavit. Banchonis enim è stirpe potentissimus Jacobus oriundus." p. 29.
Since I made the observation here quoted, I have been repeatedly told, that I unwittingly make, Shakspeare learned at least in Latin, as this must have been the language of the performance before king James. One might perhaps have plausibly said, that he probably picked up the story at second-hand; but mere accident has thrown an old pamphlet in my way, intitled The Oxford Triumph, by one Anthony Nixon, 1605, which explains the whole matter: "This performance, says Antony, was first in Latine to the king, then in English to the queene and young prince:" and, as he goes on to tell us, "the conceipt thereof the kinge did very much applaude." It is likely that the friendly letter, which we are informed king James once wrote to Shakspeare, was on this occasion. FARMER. Malcolm II. king of Scotland, had two daughters. The eldest was married to Crynin, the father of Duncan, Thane of the Isles, and western parts of Scotland; and on the death of Malcolm, without male issue, Duncan succeeded to the throne. Malcolm's second daughter was married to Sinel, Thane of Glamis, the father of Macbeth. Duncan, who married the daughter of Siward, Earl of Northumberland, was murdered by his cousin german, Macbeth, in the castle of Inverness, according to Buchanan, in the year 1040; according to Hector Boethius, in 1045. Boethius, whose history of Scotland was first printed in seventeen books, at Paris, in 1526, thus describes the event which forms the basis of the tragedy before us: "Makbeth, be persuasion of his wyfe, gaderit his friendis to ane counsall at Invernes, quhare kyng Duncane happennit to be for ye tyme. And because he fand sufficient' opportunitie, be support of Banyuho and otheris his friendis, he slew kyng Duncane, the vii zeir of his regne." After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth "come with ane gret power to Scone, and tuk the crowne." Chroniclis of Scotland, translated by John Bellenden, folio, 1541. Macbeth was himself slain by Macduff in Macbeth.
the year 1061, according to Boethius; according to Buchanan, in 1057; at which time king Edward the Confessor possessed the throne of England. Holinshed copied the history of Boethius, and on Holinshed's relation Shakspeare formed his play.
In the reign of Duncan, Banquo having been plundered by the people of Lochabar of some of the king's revenues, which he had collected, and being dangerously wounded in the affray, the persons concerned in this outrage were summoned to appear at a certain day. But they slew the serjeant at arms who summoned them, and chose one MACDOWALD as their captain. Macdowald speedily collected a considerable body of forces from Ireland and the Western Isles, and in one action gained a victory over the king's army. In this battle, Malcolm, a Scottish nobleman, who was (says Boethius) "Lieutenant to Duncan in Lochabar," was slain. Afterwards Macbeth and Banquo were appointed to the command of the army; and Macdowald being obliged to take refuge in a castle in Lochabar, first slew his wife and children, and then himself. Macbeth on entering the castle finding his dead body, ordered his head to be cut off, and carried to the king, at the castle of Bertha, and his body to be hung on a high tree.
At a subsequent period, in the last year of Duncan's reign, Sueno king of Norway, landed a powerful army in Fife, for the purpose of invading Scotland. Duncan immediately assembled an army to oppose him, and gave the command of two divisions of it to Macbeth and Banquo, putting himself at the head of a third. Sueno was successful in one battle, but in a second was routed; and after a great slaughter of his troops he escaped with ten persons only, and fled back to Norway. Though there was an interval of time between the rebellion of Macdowald and the invasion of Sueno, our author has woven these two actions together, and immediately after Sueno's defeat the present play commences.
It is remarkable that Buchanan has pointed out Macbeth's history as a subject for the stage. "Multa hic fabulose quidam nostrorum affingunt; sed, quia theatris aut Milesiis fabulis sunt aptiora quam historia, ea omitto. RERUM SCOT. HIST. L. VII. But there was no translation of Buchanan's work till after our author's death.
This tragedy was written, I believe, in the year 1606.