Shakespeare Saturday: Shakes and the Occult

Welcome, ladies and germs, to the last Shakespeare Saturday before Halloween! Oh…Halloween…how you’re looking mighty Christmas-y in the stores these days. Is the going look this year A Nightmare Before Christmas chic? Because, if so, yay! But…somehow I doubt it. I don’t think retailers are smart enough to do that.

Apparently, my Halloween decorations are supposed to be gleaned from the happy pumpkins and red-leaf decorations strewn about the place at the beginning of Autumn. No, Homegoods, autumnal decorations are not Halloween decorations. Halloween is *not* an autumnal holiday; at its root, it is actually the Celtic New Year and beginning of winter. (Note: this is because the Celts believed the day actually began the night before, so the night always came before the day as opposed to our tendency to begin things with morning.) It is also a celebration to remember the dead at the close of the old year and beginning of the new. But I’ll be getting into that on Monday. I recently read a comment on a Buzzfeed article that–no joke–claimed there was a being named Sam Hain that was a very evil spirit. WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?! DID THIS GIRL GET HER INFORMATION ON SAMHAIN FROM SUPERNATURAL?!?!?!?!?!

*deep breath* OK…sorry. Moving on.

Shakespeare has a lot of the supernatural in his stories, probably most famously with the witches in Macbeth and the ghost in Hamlet. There’s the prophesies in Julius Caesar, as well. Caesar ignores the omens and ends up dead because the prophesies in his story come from above–the gods–rather than below. He ignores legitimate warnings from the Heavens and meets his doom. Hamlet determines that the ghost of his father–and his accusations–are true by staging the play-within-a-play, but until then questions whether the ghost is actually his father or a demon come to use Hamlet’s grief against his everlasting soul. (The more important theme in Hamlet is not really about the ghost being supernatural, but all of the Catholic themes to be found therein. This is the cusp of Jacobean England, mind; there is still a lot of Catholic-based problems–like being arrested–to worry about.) It’s only after ascertaining that the ghost is legit that he goes full force with this plans.

But it’s probably Macbeth that has the most occult-driven of all of Shakespeare’s stories. The three witches meeting in thunder, lightning, or in rain with their fillets of snakes and eyes of newt weaving prophesies that come true only to Macbeth’s ruination. They plague upon his mind, working to twist his ambitions into something dark, violent, and self-destructive. Now, arguably it’s Lady Macbeth that’s the ultimate twister here, pushing him over the edge, but the witches totally knew that. In the end, though, there’s a lot of dead people, Scottish accents, and Duncan’s son is on the throne. Somewhere among the speeches and blood, there’s a hint of history (Macbeth totally was real).

The thing is, though…the witches represent something completely different to us than they did in Shakespeare’s England. They prayed upon Macbeth’s weaknesses, yes, but the ultimate villain in the story is Macbeth himself (and his Lady) for making bad decisions. They bring everything upon themselves, allowing their ambition to o’erthrow their humanity. That’s what the important lesson to take away from Macbeth becomes: check your ambition. The witches, to us, are just a plot device because, duh, they don’t exist. A way to make the story interesting, and to deliver the prophesies that prey upon Macbeth’s weaknesses.

Not so for Shakespearean England. To them, the witches are terrifying, and very real. Very, very real. And they could be any person, from the old woman down the street to the tanner who missed Church that one time because he was “sick”. Anyone at any point could play that role, because Satan and his minions were everywhere, and you could be their next victim. Macbeth could be you if you’re not careful to dismiss the temptations of the Devil. For us, the play is a warning of not letting your ambitions get the best of you; for Shakespearean England, it’s a warning of not letting Satan win. It serves as a warning either way, of course, but one of them leaves us looking around every corner, terrified by demons, and the other thinking about what they’re willing to do to get their way.

I, personally, am glad the witches have been relegated to fun plot point. For the life of me, I cannot imagine worrying if every person telling me I’m destined for great things is secretly a minion of Satan trying to worm his or her way into my soul.

Anyway…that’s all I have for you today. Here’s a couple of cool articles from my backlog of Shakespeare bookmarks to keep you entertained if nothing I’ve said makes any sense:

I’ll be back on Monday for my muse/rant on Samhain. Tomorrow is something silly from A!



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