In 1597, King James VI of Scotland published a compendium on witchcraft lore called Daemonologie. It was also published in England in 1603 when James acceded to the English throne.
The book asserts James’s full belief in magic and witchcraft, and aims to both prove the existence of such forces and to lay down what sort of trial and punishment these practices merit – in James’s view, death. Daemonologie takes the form of a dialogue (popular for didactic works) and is divided into three sections: the first on magic and necromancy (the prediction of the future by communicating with the dead), the second on witchcraft and sorcery and the third on spirits and spectres.
Daemonologie and Macbeth
Many elements of the witchcraft scenes in Macbeth conform to James’s ideas and beliefs in witchcraft as expressed in Daemonologie, News from Scotland and his anti-witchcraft legislation. This includes ideas such as the witches’ vanishing/invisible flight, their raising of storms, dancing and chanting, sexual acts, their gruesome potion ingredients and the presence of animal familiars.
Scholars are divided as to whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of witchcraft panders to the King’s interests, or whether it is a more subversive comment on his involvement with witch-hunting, or perhaps a mix of the two. It seems noteworthy that although the play Macbeth is contaminated with the witchcraft of the ‘Weyward Sisters’, and Macbeth himself is spurred on by their prophecies and the urging of his somewhat witchy wife, Shakespeare places the responsibility for Duncan’s murder on Macbeth himself and Macbeth’s downfall is a result of his tyranny as King. His greatest error in his dealings with the witches seems to be his credulity and naivety with their double-speaking prophecies.
Books of this period were usually sold unbound for customers to commission their own binding according to taste and cost. Booksellers would often recourse to simple stab stitching with a wrapper of binder’s waste (i.e. used paper or parchment that was no longer needed and so was recycled for wrappers and other binding material) to hold the book together with a cheap and/or temporary cover. This copy is preserved in its original wrapper: a fragment of parchment from a medieval manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea, a book of glosses on the Gospels. This particular fragment is from the glosses on Matthew.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Magic, illusion and the supernatural
John Mullan explains the position of ghosts in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, and shows how the ghosts in Shakespeare's plays relate to and boldly depart from ghostly representations in other drama of the period.
- Article by:
- Diane Purkiss
- Tragedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Carol Atherton
- Magic, illusion and the supernatural, Tragedies
Looking at context, language and form, Carol Atherton provides a close analysis of the Witches in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth.
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