I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the reprehensible actions of the mob that stormed the US Capital Building on Wednesday. They broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia this week. Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.
How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:
Example 1: Julius Caesar
As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:
What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.
Goal: Explore the evolution of magic through Macbeth, contrasting pre Christian magic with 17th century witchcraft. I will also encircle the topic of Halloween, pointing out how the same traditions
Slide 1: What Is Magic?
We will cover the history of Macbeth, the pre-Christian magic that inspired it, then we’ll talk about the extraordinary events leading up to Shakespeare writing it.
1. Background on witchcraft- In its most general sense, Magic is a form of knowledge that tries to fill in the gaps that religion and later science leave in human understanding. When confronted with bewildering or frightening events, people turn to witches, sorcerers, healers, and shaman.
2. Thesis: Shakespeare appropriates the symbols and rituals of many pre-Christian rituals into the magic he portrays in Macbeth. These traditions are a bit ambiguous and have a dark and other-worldly mystique. This magic is both an external motivator for Macbeth, and a symbolic motif that shows how he learns the darkness within his own soul.
3. The GreeksLet’s start with the Greeks- As you know Shakespeare combed through lots of Greco-Roman myths for allusions within his plays and in Macbeth, he goes back to archetypal seers and prophetesses as a base for his witches. In Greek and Roman myths, these prophecies are often vague and don’t immediately make sense, and frequently fortel misfortune and death. Then there is Medea, the demi-god witch who was first wife to Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. She was skilled with poisons and when Jason was unfaithful to her, she poisoned her children and Jason’s mistress. Shakespeare’s most common trope for irredeemable evil is the murder of children, and so he uses this imagery in Macbeth, when the witches use the “Finger of birth-strangled babe,” in their brew, and Lady Macbeth says she would rather dash her child’s brains out instead give up on becoming queen.
Then there’s Hecate, the Greek Goddess of Witchcraft. I say goddess though technically she was a titan who switched side like Prometheus. She was the most mysterious of the Greek dieties, in that she could control the mist that effected mortal’s senses, and she had different shifting loyalties. In the play she is the witches’ master, and seems to be angry at them for telling Macbeth the future.
2. The Celtic myths which were preserved in Scotland, and were tied to the historical Macbeth.
Who were the Celts?
Celts and magic
Blodeuwedd the flower/ owl woman
Pantheon of fairies, ghosts, and witches
“The glittering otherworlds of Celtic myths are the invisible realms of the gods. Some are sparkling heavens and some are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer thin and easily torn. Seers and bards pass in and out on spirit flights or journey of the soul. On the eve of Samhuin all the gates to the otherworld open and wonderous spirits emerge from under the hollow hills.”
Samhuin end of war season and beginning of feasting and rationing
• The setting
• The story
• The witchcraft
3. The shift
1. People turn to magic during the plague, even sometimes Elizabeth herself (Mortimer 105)
2. Not very tightly controlled in Elizabeth’s day
3. James 🤴 cracked down hard.
• November 5th Guy Fawkes Day
• Greenblatt quotes James and makes it clear that he thought 🧙♀️ was the result of the devil who wanted primarily to destabilize the kingdom by striking the king.
• In the pamphlet News From Scotland, it details a “confession,” by a witch named Agnes Thompson about a black sabbath on Halloween 1590.
• If you were accused:
1. Shakespeare had to please the king
• Wrote a play where learning the forbidden damns him and gets him killed. End of part 1
Macbeth and magic
4. Evil within
The Greek word for monster means attractive and repellent. In most of their myths, monsters come from gods or demons or some other far away cultures. Ever since Shakespeare, monsters have started coming closer to home. The modern monsters all begin as human.
• Ambition/ entitlement “The prince 🤴 of Cumberland?”
• Close reading
• Temptations: wife and witch 🧙♀️
• PTSD Fassbender and Sartre.
4. Real witchcraft?
• The weird language
• The curse
5. Play born of legend created legends
Halloween wouldn’t be the same without Shakespeare
The play and Halloween
1. His forbidden knowledge destroyed him and made him a monster
2. This is a common theme in horror (Mad scientist trope)
• Dr. Strangelove
• Creature of the Black Lagoon
• Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
• King Kong
• “During the night she was interested in witchcraft ghosts and tombs. Hecate combined fertility with death.”
• In 16? 🤴 James was greeted at St. Johns by 3 Sybils by Matthew Gwynn.
• James had PTSD afraid of , explosions, and swords
• Demonology- witchcraft is real, and they are a threat.
• 1604 parliament passed an act forbidding necromancy.
My family is quickly falling in love with the hugely popular online gaming sensation “Among Us,” which if you don’t know, is a strategy game similar to the game “Werewolf,” where a lone player, (known as The Impostor), tries to ‘kill’ a group of people without arousing suspicion. Just like the kids game in “Among Us,” whenever someone gets murdered, the others try to figure out the identity of the murderer.
The fun and drama of the game definitely comes from the paranoia that the players inevitably experience, not knowing whom to trust. Is the murderer over there? Was she the murderer? Is she lying about where she was just now? And most importantly, who is next?
Shakespeare’s Macbeth taps into the paranoia not just of people afraid of being murdered, but even the paranoia of the murderer himself!
After Macbeth kills the king and he and his wife cover up the blood, there is a council meeting where Ross, Macduff, Malcom, and Donaldbane try to figure out what happened. Macbeth and Lennox accuse the sleeping guards, but not everyone is sure. Watch this “interview” with the character Malcom, the crown prince, who suspects foul play: https://youtu.be/LIWjh59oBS4
While Malcom is nervous and suspicious, Lady Macbeth is the picture of composure, and grief (at least, while in public): https://youtu.be/yFJ5HYWdeMo
Macbeth’s strategy is pretty clever: blame someone else, then get them killed before anyone can question them. Very similar to the strategy I’ve seen impostors try in the game. In fact, there’s even a player who goes by the username: “King Macbeth.” He then justifies killing the guards by claiming that seeing them there threw him into a murderous rage, and he killed them to avenge Duncan’s death:
Macbeth O, yet I do repent me of my fury, That I did kill them. Macduff Wherefore did you so? Macbeth Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man. The expedition of my violent love
Outran the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan, His silver skin laced with his golden blood; And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature For ruin’s wasteful entrance — there, the murderers, Steeped in the colors of their trade, their daggers Unmannerly breeched with gore. Who could refrain That had a heart to love, and in that heart Courage to make’s love known?
I’m giving a lecture Sunday about “Macbeth” and its relation to real magical traditions. Accordingly, I’ve looked up records of real witchcraft trials. Below is a database of cases from 1602-1635. “Macbeth” was supposedly written around 1605, so these cases are pretty close to the time period. It’s a fascinating, and sometimes gruesome look at the methods used to try people (mostly women) for an “invisible crime,” around the same time Shakespeare was dramatizing that crime onstage: http://witching.org/production/brimstone/detail.php?mode=city&city=London%20(Newgate%20Prison).
Happy Midsummer everyone! Wednesday June 24rth is the Midsummer festival, which means as you go to sleep that night, I wish you all Midsummer Night Dreams! Before that though, I welcome you to party like it’s the court of King Oberon, and here are some ideas:
Background: What Are Fairies?
The story of Fairies has many authors that come from multiple folkloric traditions. The Greeks had nymphs, the Romans had cupid, and the English and Germans had…
1. According to Paracelsus, fairies are elemental spirits that help control the Earth’s four elements: Silfs (air), gnomes (Earth), Salamanders (fire), and Undines (water). 2. In some versions, they are household creatures that interact with humans 3. Some cultures call them demoted Angels, not good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell.
So you can see there are lots of traditions that contribute to our modern concept of the fairy, and plenty of ideas to adapt into your party!
Part One: The Invitation:
There’s a ton of free fairy clip art and fairy designs online. Below is an invitation I created for free with an app called Canva and a parchment background picture I found online.
1. Pixie invitations 2. Immortal Longings
You probably also know that I am a huge fan of the website Immortal Longings because of their excellent Shakespearean art and they sell cards too. You can buy the cards or download the pictures on their website.
Part Two: Decorations Fairy
Fairy Dens Right now the Royal Shakespeare Company is making DIY Fairy decorations including a Fairy Den that you can share with your family and friends:
What is a Fairy Den? Fairies in folklore are closely tied to the Ancient Celts and Druids, who believed that Fairies live in hollow places underground. A fairy den is a homemade den that imitates the ancient fairy hollows.
2. Love potion: Similar to follow the leader or musical chairs. A group of people lie down and pretend to sleep. Then someone plays Puck by putting a real or pretend flower in one of the player’s hands. The Puck then yells “Awake,” and sets a timer or plays some music. The object of the game is for everyone to chase after the flower and get it before time runs out.
Make some printable donkey masks for Bottom, flower crowns for the fairies, and don’t forget your wings!
While I am just as sad as everyone else that the theaters are closed due to coronavirus, I’m happy to report that a number of Shakespearean theaters are putting up recordings of their shows online for free! Give them a watch if you can:
As the thumbnail shows, this is a staged reading of the play by actors over Zoom. I enjoy staged readings because you can hear Shakespeare’s words and use your imagination to create the show in your head.
Since most schools are still closed due to Covid 19, many parents, teachers, and students are learning online. In this time of crisis, I want to try and help, so I’m asking for advice from you on what Shakespearean resources you want me to make/ review on this blog:
What plays do you need resources for but can’t find?
Want to know if a site or app is any good? Let me know and I’ll review it!
Need lesson plans or study help? I’ll post some links.
For now, you can check out my activities teachers and student pages which includes lesson plans and ideas for specific plays, as well as reviews of educational apps and websites. You can also check out my plays of the month pages, which helps analyze plays for students and teachers.
Just today I found an activity for finding figurative language on the seesaw app:
This is just a start, I know, but I want this blog to help people enjoy and understand Shakespeare and if I can ease the burden of teachers and parents who are already struggling during this difficult time, I can think of nothing more worthwhile.
My purpose with this post is to provide some hope and comfort by showing how Shakespeare and other Elizabethans dealt with epidemics and survived. The thing to remember is, although we are dealing with a pandemic, we are still far better prepared for it than any time in history. Furthermore, I want to draw on lessons from the past to offer hope and wisdom for people going through an epidemic.
Side note: Shakespeare refers to several diseases in his plays including “The plague,” (Bubonic Plague), “The Pox,” (syphilis), “Dropsy,” (edema), and “Falling sickness,” (epilepsy). I will mainly focus on the plague because of its strong connection to both Shakespeare’s life and career, as well as the continuing anxiety it causes to this day. I am also focusing on the plague to try and make parallels with Covid 19, a disease that, while less lethal and harder to detect, is still a pandemic that like the plague has transformed much of daily life since its inception, and could continue to grow, abate, and revive if we as a society aren’t careful.
Shakespeare’s plays also frequently allude to plagues and plague imagery, especially his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet. First of all plague is an important plot element; an outbreak of plague prevents Romeo from getting the message that Juliet is alive, so plague inadvertently kills them both. Furthermore, plague serves as a motif for the destructive forces that lead to the plays tragic conclusion. After Mercutio curses “A plague on both your houses,” his death sets the events in motion that kills most of the principal the characters, as if his curse somehow infected all of them with a deadly virus.
Shakespeare exploited a unique cultural knowledge of plagues to help his audience engage with Romeo and Juliet. If you click on the link to my presentation above, you’ll see that Elizabethans believed that four liquids called humors controlled health and behavior. A humorous man was someone who was out of ballance with the humours and thus was ridiculous for failing to control his emotions. The humor choler was associated with anger and in dangerous imbalances was thought to cause terrible fevers and even plague. Hence, when characters like Romeo and Tybalt get angry, his audience knew that one way or another, that anger will kill them.
Shakespeare also uses plague as a metaphor for the hate of the two families that infects and kills the young lovers, as well as Tybalt, Paris, and Mercutio.
The play was first published in 1595, two years after a plague outbreak so bad that the theaters were all closed, so Shakespeare’s audience had a visceral reaction to this plague imagery when they saw it in the theater, especially after a year of being quarantined away from the theaters because of that exact same disease!
“Scourge and minister”: some of Shakespeare’s plays mention plague indirectly in relation to its perceived nature as a divine punishment. In Hamlet, the prince calls himself a scourge, which meant both a plague designed to destroy the wicked, and also a group of people who voluntarily scourged (whipped) themselves in the hope that God would end the disease as a result of their suffering.
Richard the Third is Shakespeare’s embodiment of this kind of plague scourge. In Shakespeare’s first cycle of four history plays, we see the families of York and Lancaster take turns usurping the throne, and committing numerous acts of murder, treason, and blasphemy. In the play that bears his name, Richard kills the Yorkist royal family and then is murdered himself by Henry Tudor, systematically destroying the families of York and Lancaster. Thus, in Shakespeare’s propaganda version of history, he depicts Richard as a scourge who purges the throne of usurper and traitors, and paves the way for the “virtuous,” Henry Tudor and his dynasty.
The Real Plague The black death, also known as Bubonic Plague, was first documented in 1347. Like Covid 19 it was first discovered in China, though it might not have originated there. Some historians argue that the Huns might have carried the plague into China and trade routes from the East carried it into Europe. By 1349 it reached England. Everyone knew what to look for from those infected with the plague: first came fevers and chills. The next stage was the appearance of small red boils on the neck, in the armpit or groin. These lumps, were called buboes, (hence the term Bubonic Plague)
The buboes grew larger and darker in colour as the disease grew worse. From there the victim would begin to spit blood, which also contaminated with plague germs, making anyone able to spread the disease by coughing. The final stage of the illness was small, red spots on the stomach and other parts of the body caused by internal bleeding, and finally death.
We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me for the shilling in the armpit. . . It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.-Jevan Gethin, poet who died from plague in 1349.
John Flynn, an Irish Friar described the plague in apocalyptic terms, writing a journal for posterity, but expressed doubt that ” Any of the race of Adam would even survive.” With the horrifying spread of the epidemic, it is not hard to understand why Flynn felt that way: In 1348, there were 100,000 people living in London, but after the plague spread, the city lost 300 people every day!
Quarentines: The word quarantine is Italian for 40 days. It refers to the Venetian practice of taking suspected plague victims to an island for 40 days before allowing them to enter Venice or other populated areas. The rationale was that in the Bible, the number 40 occurs many times when a person or group of people require some form of purification; the 40 days of flooding in Genesis, the 40 years that the Jews journey to the promised land, and the 40 days of fasting Christ endured before he began his ministry to name a few examples. Bubonic plague has an incubation period of less than 40 days so the quarantine actually worked- people would go to the island, then the disease would run its course and not spread out as long as it was contained. The problem was that these quarantines were also essentially leper colonies and without treatment, the infected were basically sent to die.
Social distancing in Elizabethan England–
By 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, there had been several outbreaks, but also a system designated to contain the disease. The rich went to the country. Plague bodies were burned. Theaters were closed to keep the disease from spreading. There were also body inspectors, (similar to coroner’s or death investigators today,) who inspected the bodies to look for the cause, then burned them and the clothes. Funerals for plague victims were held at night, to discourage crowds from attending, similar to our own practice of encouraging people to shop and go outside during non-peak hours.
“Treating” it: The biggest comfort I can give here is to remind people that although like the plague, we are dealing with a disease with no known cure, we still have a much better understanding of how to treat viruses than our Elizabethan forebears. Some of the “cures,” from Shakespeare’s day are downright silly, when they aren’t expensive, dangerous, and above all, ineffective.
Real plague “cures” • Kill cats and dogs • A poultice made of Marigold flowers and eggs • Arsenic powder (which is highly toxic) • Crushed emerald powder. • Pluck a chicken and place its butt on the patient’s buboes.
To bring the aftermath of the plague into a modern context, I’d like to allude to some comments from the news. Recently a few Republicans have alluded that the cost of people staying home from work would cause irreparable harm to the American economy, and alluded to the notion that a few deaths might actually benefit the economy as a whole, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Republican pundit Glenn Beck. Now at first glance these comments are gruesome and heartless, but they have a veneer of historical precedent: some people did prosper because of the black death. Laborers could charge more from their landlords simply because most of them had died, and some younger men managed to skirt the laws of primogeniture and inherit their families’ wealth because of the death of their oldest siblings. Shakespeare himself was the third child of Mary and John Shakespeare, but his elder siblings both perished due to plague. Again, to be fair to these Republicans, there is a historical facet to their arguments, however this is a very narrow and very incomplete version of history.
Looking forward from the first century after the Black Death, the loss of life and resources was devastating for the workforce and caused a series of catastrophes for centuries to come. Though some peasants benefited from the lack of serfs, the depleted workforce meant work became harder and more expensive, and the coming centuries were plagued again by revolts, wars, and famine.
Just 30 years after the first outbreak of plague in England, the peasants rose in revolt against their lords for the first time in 300 years, in no small part, due to the hardships caused by the plague. The king who
The king who punished the peasants was Richard Richard the Second, whom Shakespeare famously dramatized as an arrogant, egomaniacal, incompetent man-child who was eventually deposed and executed in the Tower of London. I think certain people who are tempted to “make sacrifices,” to protect the American economy would do well to look at this historical tragedy and avoid the political consequences of this kind of thinking.
In conclusion, though we are dealing with a frightening pandemic that we currently don’t know how to treat, we can take comfort from the fact that our forebears faced far worse diseases and survived. History has shown that social distancing works and that basic sanitation and the tireless work of healers and scientists can slow a disease, cause it to ebb, and eventually irradicate it. But until science discovers a treatment for Covid-19, it is up to all of us to flatten the curve for the sake of our country, world, and our future.
Like I have said, the working poor as a whole, suffered greatly because of the plague, especially since they were denied the means to avoid it. They lived in tightly packed, unsanitary environments and were unable to leave them without their lord’s permission, whereas we have a choice. This why it is crucial that we all do our part by staying away from crowds, observing proper hygiene, and offering support to our healthcare workers who are on the front lines of this war against coronavirus, and for whom we all pray for to stay healthy in turn.