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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Shakespeare and Witches

In August 1612, the trials of the Pendle witches were held, and ten people were executed for witchcraft.

It is one of the most famous, and important witch trials in world history, and it occurred towards the end of Shakespeare’s life.
What would he have thought of these trials?
I don’t think he would have been surprised at all.
He was born during the English Reformation, a time of tremendous cultural and religious upheaval, and was commonly referred to as a powerful storm, a tempest.
He may have considered events like witch trials, as shocking as they were, as more likely to happen during such a tumultuous period.

The Lancashire Witches

Shakespeare addressed the religious confusion of the time in his plays, perhaps most famously in his Hamlet play. Hamlet does not know if the Ghost of his father is a Catholic ghost or a Protestant ghost, or is appearing to him because of his melancholy over his father's death. 
Hamlet’s confusion about the Ghost is a metaphor for the religious confusion in England at the end of the 16th century.
King Henry VIII, in the process of breaking from the Catholic Church, had ordered that monasteries should be dissolved, and monastic property should be seized for the crown.
Shakespeare's father John was one of the local officials who was responsible for dissolving the monasteries and seizing these properties, in the Warwickshire area. He was responsible for painting whitewash over Catholic images on the walls inside churches.
An abbey near Pendle was ordered to be dissolved, and there were many who complained that it was the center of the religious life in the Pendle area. But the abbey was closed and the abbot himself was executed.
The people in the Pendle area still clung to their Catholic faith. But by the end of the 16th century, the area had fallen on hard times. It deteriorated into a lawless region. It had lost its faith.
Even though Shakespeare may never have visited Pendle, he was not unfamiliar with such areas in England during his lifetime. He was, like any Englishman at the time, well aware that some parts of England were suffering during the Reformation more than others.
When King James of Scotland became King of England in 1603, the area was ripe for a witchcraft trial.

Daemonologie by King James

King James was obsessed with the subject of witches, ever since he was a child. When he traveled to Denmark to marry his wife Anne, he became increasingly fascinated with the subject. 
There were storms on the seas as he traveled back to England with his new bride, and he was convinced that witches were trying to kill him at sea.
When he came back to Scotland, he personally supervised the trial of the North Berwick witches.
Not long after that he even wrote a book, Daemonologie, about witches and witchcraft.
Shortly after he was crowned King of England, he changed the witchcraft laws.
Shakespeare wrote his Macbeth play, which prominently featured witches, shortly after James came to London. It is often considered a play that Shakespeare wrote to entertain the new King.

The witches in the recent Kenneth Branagh production of Macbeth

I think it's much more than just entertainment. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that Shakespeare was writing Macbeth after decades of moral and social deterioration across England, and he was trying to alert this new monarch that things could get much worse before they got any better.
It would seem that King James did not heed Shakespeare’s warning.
The decay continued across England, and by 1612, the Pendle witch trials began.
Why did they begin? It would seem that there was a renewed effort to discover and punish hidden Catholics in the Pendle area at the beginning of 1612.
In this atmosphere of religious danger and paranoia, neighbor turned on neighbor, and accusations of witchcraft were made. 
What is most disturbing to me is that during the trial, a young girl, a daughter was ordered to testify against her own mother, who was then executed.
This was not the way trials were supposed to be conducted, but the law as King James had written it, was unclear. In his Daemonologie book he made a case for suspending normal rules of evidence in witchcraft trials. 
The judges themselves were ambitious and wanted to please their King, who was the head of the judiciary of England. 
However, they did not know whether they should just convict the witches or have them executed.
The trials resulted in the executions of ten people.
Shakespeare would die, less than 4 years later. He had lived a relatively long life, and his life was full of triumph and success.
He must have been very proud of the accomplishments he had made in his life.
But his life was also filled with fear of the plague, fear of war, and fear of religious violence -- which included witchcraft.
To his very last day, he must have been haunted by such fears, and faced such demons.
I would like to say that our modern 21st century age is better, and less haunted by such fears, but I cannot. We have our own demons, witches and evil to face.

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth, faces the witches

Perhaps that is why his plays, including Macbeth, still fascinate us.
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