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SHAKESPEARE'S EMPLOYMENT OF THE SUPERNATURAL
In the oldest religions of mankind, which grew up out of a very limited study of nature, we find, in the midst of piety, beliefs scarcely reconcilable with it. In their search into the origin of things, they discovered forces in operation, which, according to the point of view whence they were regarded, suggested ideas of good or evil. In these forces they thought they discerned intelligence, and an aptitude to enter into relations with human beings through the performance by the latter of certain ceremonies and rites which exerted a mystic efficacy. In their conception this globe of earth, of which they knew not the extent, was synonymous with Nature: the source of all being, whether human or divine, throwing forth continually, from her prolific womb, existences of all kinds instinct with spirit or intelligence. Human beings, according to this theory, are only so many external embodiments of internal forces, which, in proportion to those forces or to their nature, are linked and hold communion with the spiritual root from which they spring.
This idea was firmly fixed in the Hellenic mind, and has probably held possession more or less of all minds from the very beginning of things. To extirpate it, therefore, is impossible. Throughout all latitudes it springs up, as it were, under the feet of humanity,
and, diffusing itself like an atmosphere, involves everything that lives and reasons in its folds. The difference between the wisest and the least wise is only one of degree, the constitution of all minds being essentially the same. Hence, at different periods of the world's history, the rapid spread of epidemic beliefs, which, through some inextricable affinity, pass from mind to mind, till whole quarters of the world are overshadowed by some new form of superstition; just as, beneath the surface of the earth, there runs round the globe a belt of earthquakes, always more or less in activity, but sometimes so violent as to make us distrust the stability of what we stand on.
Events taking place among men were, in conformity with the above theory, traced to springs lying outside of the human mind, but darting their influence into it in obedience to hidden laws of which it were vain to seek the nature.
The Greek dramatists subordinated the action of all their pieces to an influence originating beyond the sphere of humanity, but invested with that grandeur and majesty which in human apprehension belong to the unknown.
The Northern nations, deriving their religion from the East, drew likewise from the same source that superstition, which after the introduction of Christianity they shaped into the belief in witchcraft. It would be wronging Shakespeare to suspect him of sharing in such a belief, but perceiving how widely it prevailed, and in what revered department of superstition it took its rise, he resolved to employ it for dramatic purposes. In his mind, the process appears to have been this : a council of intelligences, in their nature evil, being held, it is in it determined to
originate a series of disastrous events in the kingdom of Scotland. The plan of action is laid down, the instruments are chosen, the delusions are conceived and organised by which the calamitous process is to be completed. All this having been antecedently settled, Shakespeare's genius, accepting the decision of destiny, brings together the agents natural and
supernatural, and begins his drama.
Every reader perceives that Macbeth is accosted by the witches on the blasted heath,' in conformity with a scheme of action laid down elsewhere, without his privity or the consent of his will. I say nothing now of the ethical question, but look upon things simply as they are found in Shakespeare, though not without reference to something not found in him, but yet necessary to the completeness and comprehension of what is there found. It might be mere pedantry to attribute to the poet the design of lecturing mankind on the absurdity of their superstitions ; we may suppose him intent only on producing a work of art, in which sublime conceptions, and terrible displays of guilt, overshadow a sense of hideous meanness and deformity. If he could not look into the seeds of time, he could certainly discern distinctly the nature of the ideas prevalent among his contemporaries, more particularly in the brain of the sovereign whom the English people had elected to succeed their great queen.
When the supernatural is brought into collision with the natural, it does not follow that the latter must yield to the shock; the human mind though weak, if compared with the united forces of the invisible world, is not constrained of necessity to succumb to them, although the danger of such a result may
imminent. The conflict is now about to take place; the powers of evil are represented by three bearded women, right and justice by two soldiers in the plenitude of manhood, but intoxicated with ambition by success. The witches behold their prey, and the art of Shakespeare begins at once to give evidence of its potency. On perceiving the strange objects before them, Banquo exclaims :
What are these
In order to take a firm hold on the mind of Macbeth, the witches dazzle him with a sample of their prophetic skill; whence this knowledge of the future came to them is another question, but they possessed it, and, like the seers of old, subdued the existing by the unborn:
Mac. Speak, if you can: what are you? First Witch. All hail, Macbeth ! hail to thee, thane of Glamis ! Second Witch. All hail, Macbeth ! hail to thee, thane of Cawdor! Third Witch. All hail, Macbeth I thou shalt be king hereafter.
In some old book of emblems the idea of Destiny is suggested by part of a chain, composed of bright and huge links, which issues from a black cloud, and after throwing a long sweep towards the earth, rises at the other end to the same cloud and is lost in it again. Within the embrace of this chain, Macbeth now chose to place himself, so that henceforward he can hardly be regarded as a voluntary agent. Once indeed, at a future point in his career, it seems as if he might have slipped out of its grasp; but here at least he yields up, unresistingly, his whole soul to the fascination of a sceptre, and while he is under the influence of his waking dream, Banquo extorts from the weird sisters what they have to say of his fortunes : Ban.
I' the name of truth,
say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
First Witch. Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo !
By Sinel's death I know I am thane of Glamis ;
[Witches vanish. Ban. The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanish'd ? Mac. Into the air; and what seem'd corporal melted
As breath into the wind. Would they had stay'd !