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restored in the same magical manner, he states it as an “ infallible rule, that everie fortnight, or at the least everie moneth, each witch must kill one child at the least for hir part.” He also relates from Bodin, that " at these magicall assemblies, the witches never faile to danse, and while they sing and danse, everie one hath a broome in hir hand, and holdeth it
aloft.” * To these circumstances attending the meetings of this unhallowed sisterhood, King James adds, that Satan, in order that “ hee may the more vively counterfeit and scorne God, oft times makes his slaves to conveene in those very places, which are destinate and ordained for the conveening of the servants of God (I meane by churches) : — further, witches oft times confesse, not only his conveening in the church with them, but his occupying of the pulpit.” † For this piece of information James seems to have been indebted to the confessions of Agnis Tompson; but he also relates, that the devil, as soon as he has induced his votaries to renounce their God and baptism, “ gives them his marke upon some secret place of their bodie, which remaies soare unhealed, whilst his next meeting with them, and thereafter ever insensible, however it be nipped or pricked by any;" a seal of distinction which, he tells us at the close of his treatise, is of great use in detecting them on their trial, as “ the finding of their marke, and the trying the insensiblenes thereof,” was considered as a positive proof of their craft.
His Majesty, however, proceeds to mention another mode of ascertaining their guilt, terminating the paragraph in a manner not very flattering to his female subjects, or very expressive of his own gallantry.
66 The other is,” he tells us, “ their fleeting on the water : for as in a secret murther, if the dead carkasse bee at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were crying to the heaven for revenge of the murtherer, God having appointed that secret supernaturall signe, for triall of that secret unnaturall crime, so it appeares that God hath appointed (for a supernaturall signe of the monstrous impietie of Witches) that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof : No, not so much as their eyes are able to shed teares (threaten and torture them as you please) while first they repent' (God not permitting them to dissemble their obstinacie in so horrible a crime) albeit the women-kind especially, be able otherwayes to shed teares at every light occasion when they will, yea, although it were dissemblingly like the Crocodiles." *
* Discoverie of Witchcraft, book iii. chap. 1, 2. pp. 40–42. + Works apud Winton, pp. 112, 113.
Such are the chief features of this gross superstition, as detailed by the writers of the period in which it most prevailed in this country. Scot has taken infinite pains in collecting, from every writer on the subject, the minutie of Witchcraft, and his book is expanded to a thick quarto, in consequence of his commenting at large on the particulars which he had given in his initiatory chapters, for the
purpose of their complete refutation and exposure; a work of great labour, and which shows, at every step, how deeply this credulity had been impressed on the subjects of Elizabeth. James, on the other hand, though a man of considerable erudition, and, in some respects, of shrewd good sense, wrote in defence of this folly, and, unfortunately for truth and humanity, the doctrine of the monarch was preferred to that of the sage.
When such was the creed of the country, from the throne to the cottage; when even the men of learning, with few fexceptions, ranged themselves on the side of the Dæmonologie, it was highly judicious in Shakspeare, in his dramatic capacity, to adopt, as a powerful instrument of terror, the popular belief; popular both in his
King James's Works apud Winton, pp. 111. 135, 136. + Among these we find the mighty name of Bacon; this great man attributing, in the Tenth Century of his Natural History, the achievements and the confessions of witches and wizards to the effects of a morbid imagination.
own time, and in that to which the reign of Macbeth is * referred. And, in doing this, he has shown not less taste than genius ; for in the principal authorities to which he has had recourse for particulars; in the Discoverie of Scot, in the Demonologie of James, and even in the Witch of Middleton, a play now allowed to have been anterior to his own drama, the ludicrous and the frivolous are blended, in a very large proportion, with that which is calculated to excite solemnity
With exquisite skill has he separated the latter from the former, exalting it with so many touches of grandeur, and throwing round it such an air of dreadful mystery, that, although the actual superstition on which the machinery is founded, be no more, there remains attached to it, in consequence of passing through the mind of Shakspeare, such a portion of what is naturally inherent in the human mind, in relation to its apprehensions of the invisible world of spirits, such a sublime, though indistinct conception of powers unknown and mightier far than we, that nearly the same degree of grateful terror is experienced from the perusal or representation of Macbeth in modern days, as was felt in the age of its production. In the
first appearance, indeed, of the Weird Sisters to Macbeth and Banquo on the blasted heath, we discern beings of a more awful and spiritualised character than belongs to the vulgar herd of witches. “ What are these,” exclaims the astonished Banquo,
• What are these,
* To the traditions of Boethius and Holinshed, we may add a modern authority in the person of Sir John Sinclair, who tells us that “ In Macbeth's time, Witchcraft was very prevalent in Scotland, and two of the most famous witches in the kingdom lived on each hand of Macbeth, one at Collace, the other not far from Dunsinnan House, at a place called the Cape. Macbeth applied to them for advice, and by their counsel built a lofty Castle upon the top of an adjoining hill, since called. Dunsinnan. The moor where the Witches met, which is in the parish of St. Martin's, is yet pointed out by the countrypeople, and there is a stone still preserved which is called the Witches Stone.” -- Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. xx. p. 242.
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
Speak, I charge you.
Macb. Into the air; and what seem'd corporal, melted
Even when unattended by any human witnesses, when supporting the dialogue merely among themselves, Shakspeare has placed in the mouths of these agents imagery and diction of a cast so peculiar and mysterious, as to render them objects of alarm and fear, emotions incompatible with any tendency towards the ludicrous. But when, wheeling round the magic cauldron, in the gloomy recesses of their cave, they commence their incantations, chanting in tones wild and unearthly, and heard only during the intervals of a thunder-storm, their metrical charm, while flashes of subterranean fire obscurely light their haggard features, their language seems to breathe of hell, and we shrink back, as from beings at war with all that is good. Yet is the impression capable of augmentation, and is felt to have attained its acmé of sublimity and horror, when, in reply to the question of Macbeth,
Much, however, of the dread, solemnity, and awe which is experienced in reading this play, from the intervention of the witches, is lost in its representation on the stage, owing to the injudicious custom of bringing them too forward on the scene; where, appearing little better than a group of old women, the effect intended by the poet is not only destroyed, but reversed. Their dignity and grandeur must arise, as evil beings gifted with superhuman powers, from the undefined nature both of their agency and of their external forms. Were they indistinctly seen, though audible, at a distance, and, as it were, through a hazy twilight, celebrating their orgies, and with shadowy and gigantic shape Aitting between the pale blue flames of their cauldron and the eager eye of the spectator, sufficient latitude would be given to the imagination, and the finest drama of our author would receive in the theatre that deep tone of supernatural horror with which it is felt to be so highly imbued in the solitude of the closet.