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considerable period of time: but in the rapidity of its progress, have we leisure to calculate this? We see, as it were, the fates weaving their dark web on the bosom of time, and the storm and whirlwind of events, which impel the hero to the first daring attempt, which afterwards lead him to commit innumerable crimes to secure the fruits of it, and drive him at last, amidst numerous perils, to his destruction in the heroic combat, draw us irresistibly along with them. Such a tragical exhibition resembles the course of a comet, which, hardly visible at first, and only important to the astronomic eye, when appearing in the heaven in a nebulous distance, soon soars with an unheard of and perpetually increasing rapidity towards the central point of our system, spreading dismay among the nations of the earth, till in a moment, with its portentous tail, it overspreads the half of the firmament with flaming fire.” *
But, in fact, as hath been remarked by the same admirable critic, Macbeth, in its construction, bears a striking affinity to the celebrated trilogy of Æschylus, which included the Agamemnon, the Choephora, and the Eumenides, or Furies, pieces which were successively represented in one day. “ The object of the first is the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, on his return from Troy. In the second, Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother : facto pius et sceleratus eodem. This deed, although perpetrated from the most powerful motives, is repugnant however to natural and moral order. Orestes as a Prince was, it is true, entitled to exercise justice even on the members of his own family; but he was under the necessity of stealing in disguise into the dwelling of the tyrannical usurper of his throne, and of going to work like an assassin. The memory of his father pleads his excuse; but although Clytemnestra has deserved death, the blood of his mother still rises up in judgment against him. This is represented in the Eumenides in the form of a contention among the gods, some of whom approve of the deed of Orestes,
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. i. pp. 352, 353.
while others persecute him, till at last the divine wisdom, under the figure of Minerva, reconciles the opposite claims, establishes a peace, and puts an end to the long series of crimes and punishments which desolated the royal house of Atreus.
“ A considerable interval takes place between the period of the first and second pieces, during which Orestes grows up to manhood. The second and third are connected together immediately in the order of time. Orestes takes flight after the murder of his mother to Delphi, where we find him at the commencement of the Eumenides.
66 In each of the two first pieces, there is a visible reference to the one which follows. In Agamemnon, Cassandra and the chorus prophesy, at the close, to the arrogant Clytemnestra and her paramour Ægisthus, the punishment which awaits them at the hands of Orestes. In the Choephoræ, Orestes, immediately after the execution of the deed, finds no longer any repose; the furies of his mother begin to persecute him, and he announces his resolution of taking refuge in Delphi.
6 The connection is therefore evident throughout, and we may consider the three pieces, which were connected together even in the representation, as so many acts of one great and entire drama. I mention this as a preliminary justification of Shakspeare and other modern poets, in connecting together in one representation a larger circle of human destinies, as we can produce to the critics who object to this the supposed example of the ancients.” *
To these observations of M. Schlegel, the following excellent remarks have been added by a writer in the Monthly Review :
Shakspeare's Macbeth,” says this critic, “ bears a close resemblance to this trilogy of Æschylus, which gives, in three distinct acts, a history of the house of Agamemnon. In Macbeth, also, are three acts or deeds, distinct from each other, and separated by long intervals of time; namely, the regicide of Duncan, the murder of
• Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol.i. pp. 95, 96.
Banquo, and the fall of Macbeth ; the first serving to shew how he attained his elevation, the second how he abused it, and the third how he lost it. A chorus of supernatural beings, (the witches of Shakspeare operate like the furies of Æschylus,) in both these tragic poems, hovers over the fate of the hero ; and, by impressing on the spectator the consciousness of an irresistible necessity, all the extenuation which the atrocities could admit is introduced. Criticism, in comparing the master-pieces of these master-poets, may be permitted to hesitate, but not to draw stakes. To the plot or fable of Shakspeare must be allowed the merit of possessing, in the higher degree, wholeness, connection, and ascending interest. The character of Clytemnestra may be weighed without disparagement against that of Lady Macbeth : but all the other delineations are superior in our Shakspeare; his characters are more various, more marked, more consistent, more natural, more intuitive. The style of Aschylus, if distinguished for a majestic energetic simplicity, greatly preferable to the mixt metaphors and puns of Shakspeare, has still neither the richness of thought nor the versatility of diction which we find displayed in the English tragedy." *
The supernatural machinery of this play, which forms one of its most striking features, is founded on a species of superstition that, during the life-time of Shakspeare, prevailed in England and Scotland in an unprecedented degree. Witchcraft had attracted the attention of government under the reign of Henry the Eighth, in whose thirty-third year was enacted a Statute which adjudged all Witchcraft and Sorcery to be Felony without Benefit of Clergy; but, at the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth, the evil seems to have been greatly on the increase, for Bishop Jewel, preaching before the Queen, in 1558, tells her,—“ It may please your Grace to understand that Witches and Sorcerers within these few last years are marvelously increased within your Grace's realm. Your Grace's
* Monthly Review, vol. Ixxxi. p. 119, 120.
subjects pine away, even unto the death, their colour fadeth, their Alesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft, I pray
I God they never practise further then upon the subject.” * How prevalent the delusion had become in the year 1584, we have the most ample testimony in the ingenious work of Reginald Scot, entitled “ The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” which was written, as the sensible and humane author has informed us, “ in behalfe of the poore, the aged, and the simple t;” and it reflects singular discredit
age in which it was produced, that a detection so complete, both with regard to argument and fact, should have failed in effecting its purpose. But the infatuation had seized all ranks, with an influence which rivalled that resulting from an article of religious faith, and Scot begins his work with the observation, that “ the fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root in the heart of man, that fewe or none can, now adaies, with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them ; by and by they exclaime uppon witches ; - insomuch as a clap of thunder, or a gale of wind is no sooner heard, but either they run to ring bels, or crie out to burne witches ;” and, in his second chapter, he declares “ I have heard to my greefe some of the minesterie affirme, that they have had in their parish at one instant, xvij or xviij witches: meaning such as could worke miracles supernaturallie ;” a declaration which, in a subsequent part of his book, he more particularly applies, when he informs us, that “ seventeene or eighteene were condemned at once at St. Osees in the countie of Essex, being a whole parish, though of no great quantitie.” ||
Strype's Annals of Reformation, vol. i. p. 8. The apprehension expressed at the close of this quotation, was realised some years afterwards, when a Mrs. Dier was accused of conjuration and witchcraft, because the Queen had been“ under excessive anguish ly pains of her teeth: insomuch that she took no rest for divers nights.” – Vide Strype's Annals, vol. iv. p. 7.
† Epistle to Sir Roger Manwood, p. 1.
Ś Ibid. p. 4. | Discourse of Divels and Spirits, p. 543.; annexed to the Discoverie of Witchcraft
The mischief, however, was but in progress, and received a rapid acceleration from the publication of the “ Dæmonologie” of King James, at Edinburgh, in the year 1597. The origin of this very curious treatise was probably laid in the royal mind, in consequence of the supposed detection of a conspiracy of two hundred witches with Dr. Fian, “ Register to the Devil,” at their head, to bewitch and drown His Majesty, on his return from Denmark, in 1590. James attended the examination of these poor wretches with the most eager curiosity, and the most willing credulity; and, when Agnis Tompson confessed, that she, with other witches to the number just mentioned, “ went altogether by sea, each one in her riddle, or sieve, with flaggons of wine, making merry and drinking by the way, to the kirk of North Berwick, in Lothian, where, when they had landed, they took hands and danced, singing all with one voice, –
« Commer * go ye before, commer goe yè,
Gif ye will not go before, commer let me:”
and “ that Geilis Duncane did go before them, playing said reel on a Jew's trump," James immediately sent for Duncane, and listened with delight to his performance of the witches' reel on the Jew'sharp!
On Agnis, however, asserting, that the Devil had met them at the Kirk, His Majesty could not avoid expressing some doubts ; when, taking him aside, she “ declared unto him the very words which had passed between him and his Queen on the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other ; whereat the King wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all the Devils in Hell could not have discovered the same." +
That the particulars elicited from the confessions of these unfortu
Gossip + These extracts are taken from a pamphlet entitled, “ Newes from Scotland,” reprinted in the Gent. Magazine, vol. xlix. p. 449. See also Gent. Magazine, vol. vii.