This Strange Intelligence
By Ben Verschoor
One of the most arresting features of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has always been the terrifyingly supernatural world. This is most evident in the prominence of the three witches, the Weird Sisters, who prophesy, through “lies like truth,” the rise and fall of the vicious and ambitious Scottish thane Macbeth. Their portrayal as eerie, bearded hags is not incidental to the story — in Shakespeare’s source they are described as “the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies” — but rather is one of the many ways in which the play was designed to appeal to the newly crowned King James I, who had a long and ongoing fixation on witchcraft that, unusual though it was, was not merely theological but also personal and political.
James’ environment and his life in it guaranteed an abiding fear of the dark arts and for his personal safety. To begin with, Scotland did not lack for interest in witchcraft. Its parliament passed legislation, notably vague and undefined, in 1564 that made witchcraft a crime carrying a penalty of death, which led to the execution of some 2,000 people in the century and a half following its passage. The future monarch was born three years later, in perilous circumstances. He had already survived an attempted miscarriage by his father, Lord Darnley, who murdered one of Mary Stuart’s servants in front of her so that she might lose her unborn child and her life.
From those dubious beginnings sprang a life marked by suspicion and intrigue. For helping Mary escape captivity, Darnley was murdered by his conspirators — strangled after his home was blown up, in a gunpowder explosion no less. Threats against Mary and the Earl of Bothwell, whom she was forced to marry, led her to relinquish the throne to James when he was but 1 year old. She would go on to threaten another monarch, England’s Queen Elizabeth, who had Mary executed in 1587. Elizabeth sympathetically wrote to James that it had been a “miserable accident.” James’ world remained a hostile one.
Though sorcery and the dangerous affairs of the English and Scottish thrones may appear unrelated, James explicitly connected the two. In a scholarly conversation with Elizabeth’s godson John Harington, James gravely inquired of Harington’s opinion on Satan’s power in witchcraft. He ignored Harington’s attempt to dismiss the subject with a joke, telling him that Mary’s death — at the order of Harington’s godmother — “was visible in Scotland before it did really happen,” being, as he said, “spoken of in secret by those whose power of sight presented to them a bloody head dancing in the air” and extemporized on the books one might consult to attain such foreknowledge.
By 1604, James’ interest in the subject was long established. Its origins lay in his marriage to Princess Anne of Denmark. Wedded by proxy in 1589, on her way to Scotland she was forced ashore by storms. James then traveled to Denmark and spent the winter. His return voyage was also wracked by fierce storms at sea, which he blamed on witches. The resulting investigation, involving the torture of more than 100 suspected witches, led to untold executions. The process, which James sometimes oversaw personally, lead to the “discovery” of a coven of more than 200 witches who had met with the Devil, who instructed them to throw a dead cat into the sea to bring about the storm that struck James’ ship.
Notably, the accused in these Berwick Witch Trials included the Earl of Bothwell, nephew of the earl who had murdered James’ father. Witchcraft to James was not merely heresy, then, but also treason. Seen in this light, the Weird Sisters’ talk of a shipman “tempest tossed” and “a pilot’s thumb wrecked as homeward did he come” is not mere idle chatter but reference to an attempt on the king’s life that presages the one in the play.
Witchcraft became a consuming fascination for James, which led to his publication of an entire treatise. His Daemonologie, published in 1597 and written as a philosophical dialogue, detailed the different types of magicians and spirits that existed and the manner in which they would torment the virtuous. Its preface establishes the urgent necessity of writing such a document.
“The fearful abounding at this time in this country, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serve for a show of my learning & ingine, but only (moved of conscience) to press thereby, so far as I can, to resolve the doubting hearts of many; both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practiced, & that the instruments thereof, merits most severly to be punished.”
The punishment for practice of witchcraft ought be that “they ought to be put to death according to the Law of God, the civil and imperial law, and municipal law of all Christian nations,” by fire or whatever the nation’s custom and with no regard for “sex, age nor rank.”
Such zeal James brought at odds with England in 1603, where opinion was decidedly more skeptical. Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft, to which the Daemonologie was written as response, denied the existence of witchcraft. So did Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Popish Impostures, which received the English Church’s sanction when it was published shortly before James’ accession. In 1604 the new king replaced the previous witchcraft law with one far more punitive. The old statute, passed early in Elizabeth’s rule, said an act of witchcraft needed to be connected with a death or calamity that befell a person to merit the death penalty. The new law insisted that any practice of magic or communion with spirits, regardless of consequence, was grounds for execution. Under the new law between 40 and 50 people were tried and executed. Two-fifths of them were for simple practice of witchcraft unrelated to murder.
There is some indication that James backed away from his certainty on witches as time went on. Yet, at the time of Macbeth’s performance, he still maintained his opinions that they were an affront to God, himself and his office. As a result, Shakespeare’s contextualization of the witches in Macbeth as demonic practitioners who equivocate the title character appeased the king and established Shakespeare as James’ official writer during the early 1600s. Today, 400 years removed from its original context, the play birthed from James’ obsession continues to cast its spell in Equivocation and beyond.
Ben Verschoor is a graduate from College of Idaho. Since graduation, he worked with Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Ben has been a literary volunteer for Arena Stage since fall 2010.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.