Sunday, May 26, 2013


MACBETH Act I, Scene I

          A desert place.
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch
Where the place?
Second Witch
Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.

Macbeth and Banquo Encountering the Three Witches on the Heath,
Musee d'Orsay, by Théodore Chassériau, 1855. The Atheneum.

The old man's son is in college now. He is home for the summer having survived his first year away from home. Asked what he learned, the son replies, "All stories, my English teacher taught, can only be understood in the context of the time in which the story is written." He continues, "The other questions that must be asked are, 'Who is the author writing for?' and 'What is his purpose in writing?'"

Good points, the old man thinks.

Macbeth has always had an attraction for fans of William Shakespeare. Written between 1603 and 1607, the play tells the story of a brave Scottish general, Macbeth, who is told by a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland.

Do these witches have some magical powers that allow them to foretell the future?

In the forty years prior to writing the play, some eight thousand women were burned as witches in Scotland. In 1597, King James VI of Scotland published Daemonologie, blaming witches for love or hate, disease, storms, and the power to kill. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and, one supposes the question of witches was fresh in the minds of James' new English subjects. Not that Elizabeth I, who preceded James, was innocent of superstition, but she only executed eighty-one women for the crime of witchcraft during her reign. Perhaps she was distracted by weightier matters of state than the hysterics of accusers and the rantings of old women who were tortured into confessing crimes they did not commit.

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth no doubt to curry favor with the new king. The conscience of Shakespeare's play turns out to be Banquo, a relative of the future king. Banquo is present with Macbeth at the meeting with the three witches. He is promised by the witches, not the crown, but the future crown. This promise surely put Macbeth to wonder about Banquo's loyalty, and thus, Macbeth, after murdering the king, subsequently murders Banquo. Banquo continues on in the play as a ghost and as father of Fleance and ancestor to the future King James I.

After the performance of the play, Shakespeare's troupe became The King's Company and Shakespeare and company were on their way to fame and fortune.

Shakespeare was an unqualified success because he wrote in an age of superstition. The mass of spectators who paid a penny to stand and watch a performance, which included witches and ghosts, regicide and suicide, battles, and blood and gore, got their money's worth. And those who paid three-penny's worth for a seat, were richly treated to more thoughtful prose.

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