Apr 042013

Richard Westall’s 1802 depiction of Henry IV, Part I (Act III, scene i)

Belief in Magick continued strong in Europe at least throughout the 1500s, and was arguably stronger in the 1300s than in the 14oos, and more widespread throughout the 14oos than the 1500s. A variety of notables were associated with its practice, including the last Welsh Prince of Wales Owain Glyndwr (anglicized as Owen Glendower), who led a revolt against English rule of Wales in 1400. According to George Lyman Kittredge, in Witchcraft in Old and New England (“Wind and Weather”), in August and September of 1402, windy storms practically destroyed the army of Henry IV, with the king’s lance torn up from the ground and impaled in his armor. Kittredge quotes the 1543 Chronicle of John Hardyng: “The king had never, but tempest foule & raine, as longe as he was ay in Wales grounde”; “y witches it made that stounde.” The “great magician, damn’d Glendower” was widely credited with the ferocity of climate.

Glendower is a character in Shakespeare’s History play Henry IV, Part I (Act III, scene i), where his somewhat pompous attitude towards his Magickal ability is punctured by the blunt-spoken Hotspur. According to Glendower, “At my nativity the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, of burning cressets [brass urns, filled with flammable liquid and ignited for illumination]; and at my birth the frame and huge foundation of the earth shaked like a coward.”

Hotspur: “Why, so it would have done at the same season if your mother’s cat had but kittened, though you yourself had never been born.”

Glendower: “The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.”

Hotspur: “O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire, and not in fear of your nativity. Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth in strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed by the imprisoning of unruly wind within her womb; which for enlargement striving, shakes the old beldame earth, and topples down steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth, our grandam earth, having this distemperature, in passion shook.”

Glendower protests that strange portents greeted his birth (a common theme in Shakespeare, and in Elizabethan culture in general), and continues. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”

Hotspur pricks the pin into this boast. “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?”

Title page from the 1598 quarto edition

The exchange demonstrates that- however widespread belief in Magick was in Shakespeare’s time (almost two hundred years after the reign of Henry IV)- a difference of opinion was held, with Glendower’s Magickal faith contrasted with Hotspur’s cynicism. (Hotspur’s observation that anyone can call spirits, but whether or not spirits will respond to the call, is both skeptical and shrewdly observant.) The most fascinating thing about the exchange, however, is Hotspur’s observation of the “teeming earth” (itself a remarkable phrase, implying vast scores of life and activity) being “pinched and vexed with a kind of colic.” These “unruly winds imprisoned within her womb, for enlargement striving” is actually a curiously apt way to describe farting; nothing else in the scene strikes me as much as his characterization of earth as an “old beldame” ["beautiful lady"] and a “grandam” [grandmother]. The perception of earth as an elderly ancestor implies a powerful identification with our planet, incredibly reminiscent of our own conception of “Mother Earth,” reinforcing the vital need for a sense of responsible stewardship towards our galactic home.

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