How To Write Romantic Poetry Like Shakespeare 

Since this is national poetry month, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s poetry.  Shakespeare wrote 154 short love poems called sonnets. What follows is kind of a do-it-yourself poetry manual that would be great if you want to write a poem for a spouse or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other time, to show that you care. Sonnet writing has been a time honored tradition for showing the people we care about just how much they mean to us.
If you’ve never written a sonnet , don’t worry, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote is pretty easy to write, and it follows just a few simple rules. I don’t want to lie; it takes a lot of patience and thought to craft a sonnet, but the rules are easy to follow. So let’s get to it!

 

analyzing-sonnet-011.jpgWhat Is A Sonnet? A sonnet is a short poem that’s only 14 lines long, written in what is called Iambic Pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred form of poetry. I’ve written before about Iambic Pentameter, but just to be clear it’s a 10 syllable line that goes da-Dum- daDum-da-Dum-daDum-daDum. So all you need is 14 lines that follow a particular rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that in the sonnet above, every other line rhymes except the end. This is called an ABAB rhyme pattern, and it is the trickiest thing about writing a sonnet. One reason Shakespeare has this rhyme pattern is to draw your attention to the last two lines, then draw the sonnet to a close with the simpler rhyme of the couplet.

Sonnet Form A sonnet’s 14 lines are arranged into three short groups or quatrains which are four lines long. Usually around line 9, there is a kind of “turn” or change in the direction of the argument, like at line 9 in Sonnet 8 above, where Shakespeare stops talking about summer, and starts talking about the person to whom he’s writing. If it helps, you can think of this as the “But…” part of the sonnet, because it’s the part where he changes the argument using the word “but,” (and what a but it is). The sonnet then concludes with two rhymed lines of Iambic called a rhymed couplet. These last two lines are a way of wrapping up the main idea of the poem in a short, catchy way.

Step by step Tips and Tricks:

  1. Start by planning out your sonnet.

It’s often useful to consider your sonnet like a speech or a short argument. The three quatrains give you a chance to come up with an idea, then develop the idea, and then come to a conclusion, much like any other form of persuasive writing that you might’ve had to do for English class. For example, Sonnet 8 pictured above, (one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets), begins with the question: “Shall I compare the to a summers day?” He then goes to flatter the person he’s writing about by talking about how much better they are than a summers day, saying that actual summers are too windy and too hot, and the flowers of the summer are all too brief. By contrast, Shakespeare argues that the  subject of the sonnet has beauty that will last forever, particularly if that person goes on to have children. This is the form that Shakespeare sonnets often take and I would advise you to try and make your sonnet into a clear argument.

Example Of Sonnet Writing:  Since Mother’s Day is coming up, if you wanted to write about the mother of your child, and thank her for her for being there for your child, you might want to structure your sonnet by using the three stanzas to express three simple ideas like:

1. Thank you for being the mother of our child(ren) 

2. A specific time she did something awesome for your child (give examples!)

3. Thank you from you, me, and our child(ren).

Tip 2: Plan Out The Rhyming Couplet: As I mentioned before, the last two lines of every sonnet are called a rhyming couplet; two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme together and help conclude the sonnet. Just like a English paper, a good conclusion is very important, which is why it’s it’s often useful to work on this these two lines first before you get into writing the meat of your sonnet. For example, here’s a couplet I wrote about preparing breakfast in bed and doing chores for one’s wife on Mother’s Day.

All chores this day will I do in thy stead

Commence I shall with breakfast in thy bed!

Tip 3: Writing Poetry  Now that you have the ideas you want to express now comes the hard part: putting them into poetry. I often find it helps to just get a piece of paper, write as much as possible to express the three ideas in your sonnet in prose, then get down to translating your ideas into iambic pentameter.

Quick Tips to help you along:

  1. Make sure the important words are on the right beats. Remember, in a normal Iambic line, every other beat (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are emphasized. This means the important words/ sylables need to be on those beats. You might have to invert the order of a word or two to keep those beats clear. like I did in my couplet when I wrote “will I do” instead of “I will do”
  2. You don’t have to use iambic in every line. Shakespeare was never a slave to a particular verse form, and a whole poem in iambic pentameter can sound a little dull sometimes. This is why, if you really want to, you can change a line or two to emphasize different beats
    • Trochees A clever way to wake up your audience is to start off with a few regular iambic pentameter lines, and then change it to a line where the first beat is the one that’s important. Like a dance or song that suddenly changes tempo, this creates a sense of excitement in the reader.
    • Spondees Sometimes you can emphasize two syllables at the same time, as Shakespeare does in lines 1 and 3 of Sonnet 8. You wouldn’t pronounce “Shall I” as “SHALL I or shall I,” and the phrase “rough winds” demands that both words are important, so Shakespeare is clearly changing the verse a little just to make the poetry more interesting.
    • For More information on other types of Meter, read Sam Rame’s Literary Analysis Blog: http://samrames.blogspot.com/2013/03/william-shakespeares-sonnet-60-like-as.html

Tip 4: Use Literary Devices: I find Shakespeare very often tried to express an idea by using metaphor and allusion to create images in the listeners mind. Sonnet 8 which we’ve been discussing, is structured around creating a contrast between the speaker and a pretty day in summer. You can do this kind of flattering comparison yourself, but, as we’ve seen, it’s often useful to put a “but” in the argument around line 9, to make it clear that you love the person more than for example a warm summer day. Imagine getting a sonnet that claims that someone loves you more than ice cream!

Sometimes Shakespeare uses contradictory images in his poetry for dramatic effect. Romeo often and talks about “Oh brawling love, O loving hate”. He uses this to express the wildness of his passion. This is called antithesis, and it’s very useful when you want to add a little spice to your poetry. Try comparing your beloved to both ice and fire!
Alliteration and assonance: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for the theater not for people reading in the book this is why he often plays with words that sound a particular way and worked very hard to come up with sounds that would grab a listeners attention rather than readers. When a word when several words start the same letter it creates a sense of order and gets the readers attention. Assonance is when consonants are repeated within the middle of a line.

Useful Websites when you’re working

  • Rhymezone.com– a convenient online rhyming dictionary
  • Thesaurus.com– useful if you need another word that fits into iambic better.
  • Kotsheet.com- a website for teachers with lots of useful worksheets to help you organize your sonnet. Useful for writing or teaching sonnets!

I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions, please comment, or email me in the “Ask the Shakespeare Guru” page. If you write any sonnets yourself and wish to share them on this site, let me know and I’ll gladly re-post them!

Till Next Time,

-The Shakespearean Student.

References

  1. The Sonnets Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  2. Shakespeare’s Wordcraft  by Scott Kaiser. Limelight Editions, 2007. Free preview here: https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_s_Wordcraft.html?id=IdVuj0IY2ekC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false 
  3. Literary Devices.net: https://literarydevices.net/
  4. Cummings Study Guide: https://cummingsstudyguides.net/xSonnets.html

How to Throw Your  Own  12th Night Party  

 Part One: The Invitation:

Tradition says the 12th night does not actually start until nightfall on January 5th; it’s the celebration of the night when the wise men finally got to Bethlehem, so make sure you you’re clear on that in the invitation. If you need help on designing clever 12th night invitations, view my previous post on creating Valentine’s Day cards!

Part TwoThe Feast

Traditionally celebrated with, (as Sir Toby puts it), “cakes and ale,” there’s a lovely recipe for a 12 night cake below.

 Picture/ recipe is available here: Jane Austin.com: Twelfth Night cake

A Twelfth Night cake is basically a fruitcake stuffed  with spices and dried fruit, that symbolizes of the three kings that came from the orient to Bethlehem all those years ago. One game you can play with your guests is putting a bean in the center of the cake. Tradition holds that whoever  finds the bean has good luck for the coming year.

The alternative version favored in France and Switzerland, is made of puff pastry, egg, and rum. Here’s a recipe I found on food.com: Swiss Twelfth night cake

Music

Singing is a big part of 12th night as evidenced in this scene where sir Toby, Mariah and Sir Andrew start singing songs: Act II Scene III

I have taken the liberty of putting down all the songs from 12th night and some YouTube clips of my favorite renditions.

Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave (Shakespeare Songbook)

O Mistress Mine (2011)

Come Away Death(2014 Shakepeare in the Park Soundtrack

Hey Robin, Jolly Robin ( Shakespeare Birthplace)

I Am Gone Sir (Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2011)

The Wind and Rain (Alabama Shakespeare Festival)
 
Games
As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts one big part of the Christmas season was appointing a lord of misrule, and ancient tradition that goes back even before Christian times. In the play 12th night Feste basically serves as Lord Of Misrule; he presides over all the games and songs in the house, and he helps Sir Toby baffle   Malvolio. In real life a Lord of Misrule presided over each Twelfth Night celebration, choosing which games and dances everyone would engage in.

 Most early Twelfth Night celebrations included a masked ball. In the 18th century, merrymakers  engaged in a sort of role playing game, where they drew a character based on a popular archetype like the soldier Charles Cuttemdown or Beatrice Bouquet, and had to act like that character the rest of the night. Finally, a holiday that encourages you to LARP!

Wassail
.

As I mentioned in my previous post wassail was the quintessential winter beverage and 12 night was not an exception. In this post you can see some photos of me actually making wassail myself in accordance with a trip up recipe I found on the food from the food network’s Alton Brown.

Alton Brown Wassail recipe 


I didn’t have Madeira wine so I substituted port, but otherwise I used all the ingredients he mentioned in the recipe.


Like I said in the previous post, Wassail is derived from an old word meaning “lamb’s wool,” and you can see why when you see the frothy mixture on top.


I served this wassail to my in laws on Christmas night, and the only complaint I got was that the weather was a little too hot to enjoy it. I can personally attest that wassail warms you right down to your toes, which is great if you’ve been out caroling in 17th century England, but indoors during the hottest Christmas on record, it was a little uncomfortable- I was already wearing shorts and I was still too hot. My advice is- if you get a white Christmas, enjoy your wassail, but if it’s 60 degrees outside, stick to ale or Madeira, or some other kind of spicy spirit that you can serve
Well, that’s my advice, happy Twelfth Night everyone!
Sources:

Brownie Locks.com- History of Twelfth Night 

Catholic Encyclopedia: Feast of Fools
Jane Austin.com: Twelfth Night Celebrations
Lost Past Remembered: Twelfth night

Why Christmas.com: the Twelve Days of Christmastime

Shakespeare Spooky Story #3: The Witch’s Sabbath!

This story is my own invention, but it is based on historical fact and some ideas that could be inferred from Shakespeare’s life and career, composed for Friday the 13th, 2015. I hope you enjoy it.

November, 1603.

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The bell tolled in St. Paul’s Churchyard, stopping the bustling crowd in their tracks. A solemn wind blew through the crowd, like there was some dark magic in the air. Though the old queen had died months ago, all god-fearing Englishmen were still in mourning for her death, and spared a thought for the virgin queen as they passed out the long nave of the church into the yard. William Shakespeare was in mourning as well, but  not for the queen; he was worried about the future of his company; without the queen’s sanction and protection, the theaters might be closed for good this time, (not one of these Newsmongers who gossiped at Paul’s Walk seemed to know how the young King James would take to plays and theater. The young man had had a life more dramatic than anything Will hat put to parchment- mother executed, father murdered, fighting off plots and murder attempts his whole life. “They say his mother’s head whispered a prayer when it was cut off” one of the gossips had told Will. “I heard talk his father was killed by cannon,” another whispered.” Shakespeare began to think of his old play Henry the Fourth, where he himself played the character of Rumor, who spoke with a million tongues, and not one of them true. Suddenly, from over the Bard’s left shoulder, came a slow deep voice that overpowered all the rest: “I heard t’other day the king fears being killed by witchcraft.” The voice came from one of the booksellers in the square.

Woodcut from the witch trial of 1597, in which witches supposedly tried to drown King James I.
Woodcut from the witch trial of 1597, in which witches supposedly tried to drown King James I.

As a writer, Shakespeare often came to St. Paul’s to buy books from the stalls at Paul’s Churchyard. He knew many of the booksellers by name, but he’d never seen this one before. His chest and arms were big as an ale barrow and his beard was grizzled and split into two forks, but what the poet marked in the man most was his piercing eyes- ones that stared at him like fire from an oily taper- quick and dancing, with an excitement as fiery as his own. “Tis true, the king were nearly shipwrecked  as a boy by a coven of witches. 13 there were, always 13. They gathered on Fridays for their cursed Witches’ Sabbaths, and summoned up storms to sink the royal barge. The elder witch spoke to the King at Holy Rood house and told his majesty prophesies. She knew all the privy conversations he had with his wife, though she’d never seen him before! His majesty gasped in wonder and had her hanged and burned.” “Fine tale, said the playwright.” “Aye,” said the fire-eyed seller, but the king fears most of all the Wyrd Sisters, who foretold the deaths of his ancestors at the hands of King Macbeth.”

Shakespeare began to smell a devise- to appease the king, he would write a play honoring James’ noble ancestors and condemning this Macbeth as a villain. Shakespeare knew this kind of historical flattery would work; his tragedy of King Richard III had been a great success and the old queen had made him a courtier soon afterwards. Now he just needed to get his hands on some Scottish history to concoct a new play for the King. “Have you a copy of the Chronicles of England and Scotland?” “Nay, me press be not ready yet for the latest edition. But the best story of King Macbeth is an ancient tome written by the Elder Witch herself. Few have seen it, and fewer live to tell its secrets. If ye travel to Scotland, look for the book in the hands of a woman with hair red as flame, and eyes sea-storm blue.” Shakespeare thanked the man, wrapped himself in his cloak, and left the shop in a huff. The bookseller pondered the poet and smiled: “Wicked flame from wicked smoke. Envy burns black beneath thy cloak.”

Holyrood House or "Holy Cross Palace" as it looked in Shakespeare's day from Calton Hill in Edinburgh.
Holyrood House or “Holy Cross Palace” as it looked in Shakespeare’s day from Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Over the Christmas holiday, Shakespeare’s company received a summons to court to perform some entertainments before the new King! The Chamberlain’s Men were delighted and Will was quite relieved. The King ordered the players to perform at Holy Rood house in Edinburgh, as his court was still in procession from Scotland to England. “Masters,” Will shouted, “Let us give the new king a taste of our quality, and may he pay handsomely for it!” Will and the other shareholders in the company decided on a series of plays to perform for the king, and began the journey to the wilds of Scotland. On Christmas morning they set up their temporary Tiring house within the great banquet hall for the performance, placing props and costumes behind a series of tapestries.

At suppertime the chamberlain gave word to light the candles within the hall, and signal the actors to perform the play, which Will had selected as King Henry the Fourth; a clever choice by Will since it depicted an old king passing the crown to a young and energetic monarch. As the king and courtiers processed, Will spied through the tapestry a haunted looking young woman at King James’ elbow, dressed in courtly gowns with a green veil on her head. The chamberlain directed everyone to their seats and announced the start of the play. To Will’s annoyance, he addressed the company “Mr. Shaxberd and company,” but there was no time to be annoyed or intrigued. “The play’s the thing,” Will muttered, and took his place backstage.

End of Part I.

Part II

The performance was a terrific success! The king himself applauded and promised to patronize the entire company. All of Will’s dreams seemed to be coming true! That night, as he and the other players were packing their belongings into a wagon and preparing to leave the castle in search of a nice, cheap inn for the night, a pale breathless messenger arrived and informed Will that the King wished to meet with him to commission work for their next court performance. Will dutifully walked back up the battlements and entered the castle.

"The Murder of David Rizzio" by William Allen, 1883.
“The Murder of David Rizzio” by William Allen, 1883.

The servant directed him, not back into the ante-chamber of the Great Hall, but up one of the staircases on the North East tower. This tower housed the royal bed chambers! What on Earth was a mere poet from Stratford doing up here? The servant’s candle cast strange shapes upon the walls and the flame blazed upward like some bronze blade. Shakespeare knew from the gossips that the King’s mother had watched her lover David Rizzio be murdered in this very tower- he was stabbed 56 times by jealous Scottish nobles who wished to marry the queen and take the throne. Gruesome images flickered in the poet’s mind. At last, they came to an archway with four adjacent chambers. Three were heavily guarded by English soldiers with halberds but the fourth was unprotected. Slowly, ever so slowly Shakespeare nodded to the servant, and stalked along the pathway. Before he could nock, the door swung open. Pausing a little, The Bard stepped inside.

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The room looked like a mix between a library and a crypt with a cold stone wall, a small altarpiece that looked barely used, and several oak bookcases piled high to the ceiling. Once the playwright entered the room, the door shut without warning. He couldn’t see who shut it and the shock put something cold in his blood. Shakespeare’s eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room.Moonlight gave the place a silvery glow, until a shadow came out of the darkness and revealed itself as a woman’s face. Shakespeare could barely make out her features but it was clearly the woman he’d seen in the procession. The Moon made her red tresses shimmer and gleam, as if she were a fairy from one of the dark pools of legend. “I am Princess Elizabeth,” she replied in a voice that seemed more solemn than proud of her royal title. Recovering from his initial shock, the poet bowed low and counterfited his best courtier’s smile. “I am Master Will Shakespeare, at your service.”

“I know who you are. They call you the Bard of Avon. You’ve written sad stories of the deaths of kings, and woven yarns of the fairy queen,” the princess said in a hollow voice that chilled the poet to the core. “When I was little,” said the princess warming slightly, “My mother spoke of how Irish Bards could change their forms, and speak with the spirits of the dead. Sometimes they even outmatched witches who danced with the devil on Friday nights. You seek my family’s patronage?” “Yes”, said Shakespeare tentatively, “And may I prove worthy of such an honor.” “Beware your ambitions,” Elizabeth went on.

“My family has been torn apart by ambitious men. You know I take it that the chamber we stand in was where my grandmother watched her servant die. She lost the crown, and never saw her son again. Death stalks ambition in Scotland. Some say the Devil tempts men to dance with him on nights like this, and signs their name in his book. My ancestor Malcolm fought armies from Hell to keep his crown.” “From King Macbeth,” replied Shakespeare, (his breath finally returned). “I am the keeper of a history of that damned king, but I will not share it with anyone. He sold his soul to a witch to get the crown, and his book is full of spells that curse the reader. I brought you here so that you can lift our family’s curse with your writing. When you get my father’s patronage, do not feed his fears with stories of witches and prophesies or the curse will envelop the throne. Heed my warning, and do not look for the story of King Macbeth.”

As mysteriously as it had closed, the door opened again. The Bard bowed politely and left the chamber. As he left, he saw the Princess kneeling at the shrine at the corner of the room, eyes closed and meloncholy.

End of Part II.

Stay tuned for the final chapter tonight.

Happy Friday the 13th!

Remember, Remember GUY FAWKES DAY!

Hi Everyone!

For most of us Shakespeare geeks, November the Fifth isn’t just the day where we celebrate the move/comic book V For Vendetta, it’s also a celebration of one of the most infamous plots in English History, the GUNPOWDER PLOT, where 13 Catholics including Guy Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament and kill King James of Scotland. To this day, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on November 5, and little children chant:

   The Fifth of November

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!
    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.
    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.
    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.
    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

The plot went down in 1605, the same year Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth! A lot of scholars believe that a plot to assassinate the rightful king of Scotland gave Shakespeare the inspiration to craft his most paranoid, frightening, and topical play, similar to the way he chose to write Romeo and Juliet right after the plague closed the playhouses of London and wanted to write about the ancient plague of family vendettas.

Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.
                          Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.
Other scholars suggest that Shakespeare chose to write “Macbeth” to show support of James’ right as king. Shakespeare definitely needed to do this, after all, James was his royal patron and he needed to make sure that he was on the king’s good side. More importantly, Shakespeare’s family was on thin ice when it came to their loyalty to the crown. Remember, Shakespeare’s father and mother were both lifelong Catholics, just like the conspirators who tried to blow up the king! Not only that, but Shakespeare’s father was friends with Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the whole plot! Even worse, Shakespeare’s favorite bar the Mermaid Tavern, was a meeting place for Catesby and his gang! So Shakespeare might have written “Macbeth” as a way of proclaiming the king’s legitimacy, and his allegiance to the crown.

So let’s be thankful that the king never suspected Shakespeare, because I for one wouldn’t want to live in a world without Macbeth.

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Enjoy this quiz on the history of Guy Fawkes Day: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/how-well-do-you-know-what-happened-during-the-gunpowder-plot-a6721096.html 

Finally, a little video about the gunpowder plot from “Horrible Histories,” which also includes some useful tips on internet safety.

The Witches Of Macbeth

Happy Halloween everybody!

Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.

1. Who are they?

Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?

I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.

"Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches," Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
“Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches,” Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters.  This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.

What Do They Look Like?

Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.

BANQUO
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.


MACBETH
Speak, if you can: what are you? (
Act I, Scene iii).

The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:

“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).

and

Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.

Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).

For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:

The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.

Witches and mythology

Illustration from William Blake's  "Europe a Prophecy," 1794.
Illustration from William Blake’s “Europe a Prophecy,” 1794.
1. During the reign of King James,  the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.

2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!

Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.

Hecate.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”

"The Triple Hecate," by William Blake, 1794.
“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).

In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.

Visions Of Lady Macbeth

One of the greatest icons of female villainy, Lady Macbeth has been portrayed onstage by our greatest actresses, and immortalized in many alluring and terrifying works of art. Here are some of my favorites:

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02053
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906. Tate Modern Gallery: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02053. More Info Here.
For commentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/ideal-portrait-of-lady-macbeth-97937
An Ideal Portrait of Lady Macbeth by John Francis Dicksee, 1870. View gallery information here: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=190776
FMI: http://en.wahooart.com/@@/8Y3AD3-Henry-Fuseli-(Johann-Heinrich-F%C3%BCssli)-Lady-Macbeth-with-the-Daggers
“Lady Macbeth and the Daggers” by Henry Fuseli, 1812. Tate Modern Gallery: 

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fuseli-lady-macbeth-seizing-the-daggers-t00733 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1068192/lady-macbeth-watercolour-cattermole-george/
Lady Macbeth observes King Duncan  by George Cattermole, 1850. Victoria and Albert Museum: 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1068192/lady-macbeth-watercolour-cattermole-george/

http://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/lady-macbeth-somnambule
Johann Heinrich Fuseili, “Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene.”(1741). Louve Museum in Paris: 

http://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/lady-macbeth-somnambule

http://aworldelsewhere-finn.blogspot.com/2012/03/dante-gabriel-rossetti-death-of-lady.html
The Death of Lady Macbeth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1875). Gallery info here: 

http://aworldelsewhere-finn.blogspot.com/2012/03/dante-gabriel-rossetti-death-of-lady.html 

Shakespeare Spooky Stories 2: The Voodoo Macbeth

In 1936, famed director Orson Welles, (known for his iconic film Citizen Kane), produced an equally memorable production of Macbeth. At the time, Welles was a theater director, working with a government-funded theater group called The Federal Theater Project. The goal of the FTP was to help support the theater during the Great Depression. Welles also found a way to have his production help black actors by, and casting exclusively African Americans.

Opening night of Orson Welles' "Macbeth" outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.
Opening night of Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.

Although Welles kept Shakespeare’s text, he changed the setting to a tribe in Haiti instead of medieval Scotland, and changed the witches into Voodoo priestesses. Below is the only surviving footage of the production, the final scene in which (spoiler alert), Macduff carries Macbeth’s head and sets it on a pole, proclaiming Malcolm the new king. You can see the witches taking a wicked joy when Macbeth’s cursed head is impaled, implying that Welle’s witches had vengeance on their mind when they drove him to kill Duncan.

Eric Burroughs as Hecate.
Eric Burroughs as Hecate.

Notice also the actor who screams “Peace, the charm’s wound up,” at the end of the play. He is playing the part of Hecate, the goddess of magic who appears before Macbeth in Act IV. According to legend, Actor Eric Burroughs was a real Voodoo priest, as were the drummers Welles used to spectacular effect during the show. Many critics called the frenetic drumming that occurred during the show and in scene changes an experience that they’d never forget.

Welles’ innovations helped black actors and theater in general survive during the Depression, but not everyone praised his efforts. Journalist Percy Hammond criticized the merits of the performance, arguing that the government shouldn’t pay for artistic projects. The next day when he returned to the theater, he was greeted by a rhythmic thumping underneath the stage that intensified until the critic abandoned his seat and left the theater. The next day, he fell suddenly ill and died! Was his illness a voodoo curse? We may never know, but this story clearly illustrates the effectiveness of Welles’ staging, and the dark occult appeal that lurks beneath the text in any production of Macbeth.

Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).
Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).

Works Cited:

1.     Dunton-Downer Leslie and Alan Riding.The Essential Shakespeare Handbook: Macbeth p.367. New York: DK Publising Inc, 2004.

2.    Rippy, Marguerite. Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective pp 75-76. Retrieved 10/21/15 from Google Books.

3.  Smith, Wendy. The Play That Electrified Harlem. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftsmth00.html

4. Digital Public Library: The Show Must Go On! American Theater In the Great Depression: Impact On African American  Theater. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/the-show/african-american-theatre-impac 

5. The Juggler (online publication): “The Voodoo Macbeth.” Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://culture.pagannewswirecollective.com/2011/04/orson-welles-and-the-voodoo-macbeth/