Garry Wills notes in his book Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (p. 35), that a number of plays from roughly 1606- by Marston, Barnes, and Dekker- have Witches in them, admitting that Witchcraft “fascinated Renaissance audiences- it figures in many plays, directly or indirectly. In fact, there is not a single play by Shakespeare that does not have some reference to witchcraft, some metaphor based on it, some term associated with it in a technical sense.” But Wills feels that there is a difference in the way that “Witches” (a controversial 17th century issue) are treated in the period of 1606: which he dates as reaction to the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James, in 1605.
James I of England (formerly King James VI of Scotland, successor to Elizabeth I as the son of her first cousin, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots) was a monarch uniquely troubled by Witches- an example (as Mr. Wills points out) of how the possibility of 17th century Witchcraft could turn into an affair of state (what Wills calls “political witchcraft”): “most of the major conspiracies against [James'] life involved witchcraft.” (p. 42) The North Berwick Witches of 1590 supposedly cast spells against him; Bothwell’s 1593 rebellion brought an indictment for Witchcraft; and Magick formulas were found on the body of the man who tried to kill the King, after the failure of the 1600 Gowrie Plot. Small wonder that (as King of Scotland), James wrote the anti-Witchcraft book Daemonologie, calling Witchcraft a pernicious crime and grave social concern. But it was in the wake of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, that “Witches” as agents-of-evil gained new fascination. Unsurprising, then, to find that “Witchy Women,” in dangerous and shivery ways, figure in at least four of the plays conjectured to have been put up by Shakespeare’s acting company during the Court Christmas Season of 1606.
By the time that James is ready to assume Kingship of England following Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it is clear that the acting troupe with which Shakespeare is associated, both as a writer and as an actor, is thought the best in London; they are honored by His Majesty’s patronage, performing thereafter as the King’s Men. Clearly as well, they are charged with providing a large degree of entertainment during the midwinter festival (which apparently was not thought concluded until Candlemas). This included a heavy court celebration during the Twelve Days of Christmas proper, during which the company performed King Lear on December 26. As much a meditation upon “good kingship” as anything else (and upon the folly of being a King who divides up his kingdom), it is one of Shakespeare’s more self-consciously “Pagan” plays, being set in pre-Christian (Romanized) Celtic Britain. An example of the type of language that Mr. Wills talks about, in identifying the “Witchy” characteristics of the “Gunpowder Plays” written in the aftermath of the Plot, is when Edmund calls his brother a “villain,” claiming that “here stood he in the dark, his sharp sword out, mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon to stand [as his] auspicious mistress.” (Act II, scene i, line 41) The Witch-like image that Edmund the Bastard “conjures” of his brother- standing in the dark, utilizing his sword as some sort of Magickal instrument, mumbling “wicked charms,” “conjuring the Moon” to be his Fortune-granting Protector- helps to poison their father’s mind against Edgar.
The concluding play presented by the King’s Men, on Candlemas 1607, is one of the more Protestant and anti-Catholic works of the period. The Devil’s Charter (by Barnabe Barnes) purports to cover the “Life and Death” of the notorious Borgia Pope Alexander VI- father, for instance, to the infamous Lucretia, and a Pope singularly said to have owed his papacy to a bargain struck with the Devil. Therefore, this play (presented before the Protestant head of the Church of England) depicts the future-pope conjuring demons from out of the Pits of Hell, in a Magickal Ceremony that, for all that demons and hell’s forces are involved, looks so much like a modern Wiccan or Ceremonial Magickal Circle-Casting, as to dispel suspicions as to the genuinely medieval origins of Circle Invocation. However, since the Catholic Jesuits were heavily implicated in the Gunpowder Plot against James, this play of Italianate plotting and intrigue ends with demons dragging poor Alexander (kicking and screaming, ‘natch) to the eternal torments of Satan’s realm. One thing about the Jacobeans- they were not subtle in their political allegory.
Lucretia is one of the women presented in the plays of the 1606 Christmas Season as “Witchy” (according to Mr. Wills). For being the daughter of a “male Witch” (as Mr. Wills puts it), Lucretia would be expected to have Witch-Blood in her, as a Jacobean audience would think of it- a fact underscoring any moment that, say, Lucretia is seen with poisons, in a display of the dark Witches’ Arts of Venefica.
Another play by Shakespeare that Garry Wills believes was presented during this Christmas Season was Antony and Cleopatra. Noting thematic similarities between The Devil’s Charter, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth (namely, their use of “Witchy Women,” and “Witchy” characteristics in general, as well as the evident availability of a teen-aged actor talented enough presumably to play all three “Witchy” roles: Lucretia Borgia, Cleopatra, and Lady Macbeth), Garry Wills believes that all three must have been written at approximately the same time, and in reaction to the Gunpowder Plot. An air of “Witchiness” undoubtedly permeates the air around the Egyptian Queen in Antony and Cleopatra, including references to her as a “Gypsy,” well-associated with Magickal Craft in the Middle Ages. The play opens in Act I, scene ii, upon an episode of fortune-telling and soothsaying in the Egyptian court (Soothsayer: “In Nature’s infinite Book of Secrecy, a little I can read.”) In what must have been to Jacobean audiences a very “Pagan” instance, one of Cleopatra’s ladies then prays to “sweet Isis, good Isis” to avert a comic misfortune predicted to befall her. Antony describes Cleopatra as a “grave charm,” a “right gipsy,” “thou spell,” and finally outright as “Witch,” in Act IV, scene xii, and Pompey describes her allure in Act II, scene i, line 22: “Let Witchcraft join with Beauty, lust with both!”
Through a complicated series of analyses (in addition to the thematic similarities between the three leading actress roles- Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Lucretia Borgia- suggesting that they were all written for one particular boy-actor), Mr. Wills places the probable date of Macbeth’s writing at close enough to the Christmas Season of 1606, that he feels certain it must have been performed then (if nothing else, for the interest of King James, at seeing Banquo- Macbeth’s victim after Duncan- portrayed onstage, as the Stewart Line of Scottish Kings descended from Banquo). Something to remember: although Elizabeth passes in 1603, it takes awhile to move a King from Edinburgh to London, so it is (in 1606) a fairly new situation, James being King of England. The King and his people are getting to know one another, as it were, and it is interesting to note that two plays here (Lear and Macbeth) address very serious issues about kingship. Kind of like the Fool in Lear, I guess that Jacobean acting companies could say things to monarchs that others could not. For the record: I disagree with just about every one of Garry Wills’ interpretations of the Witches (although his take on Lady Macbeth is brilliant). He interprets the Witches as Evil (kind of from a Catholic point-of-view). I see the Witches much more from a Pagan point-of-view, which I think is how Shakespeare saw them as well. (I believe that Shakespeare tends to respond more readily to things of the country and the folkloric past, than to doctrinal things like Protestantism and Catholicism.)
But still in all: isn’t it interesting that 406 years ago, they were celebrating such a Witch-intensive dramatic Christmas Court? Blessed Yule, Pagans!