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By Jim Cornelius
News Editor 

Double, double, toil and trouble

 

Last updated 10/25/2022 at Noon

Macbeth meets the Weird Sisters. PUBLIC DOMAIN

On Saturday, October 29, my clan will head down to Bend for a Thoroughly Modern Productions staging of my favorite Shakespeare play, “Macbeth.” I’ve seen many a version on the screen, but this will be my first time seeing The Scottish Play as it was intended, as live theater.

It’s just the thing for the Halloween weekend, since “Macbeth” is the spookiest and most supernaturally laden of Shakespeare’s plays. Even people who know nothing else about the play recognize the song of the witches who prophesize Macbeth’s rise to kingship and ultimate doom:

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.

Like all of the Bard’s “history” plays, “Macbeth” is not very historical. If you think Hollywood takes liberties with history, ol’ Will gleefully pillaged the past for propaganda with which to please his patrons — Tudor and Stuart monarchs — and cast shade upon their enemies. Written in 1606-07, not long after Catholic extremists attempted to blow up Parliament and King James I along with it in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth is a meditation on the soul-searing sinfulness of regicide. James I certainly approved of this message.

The presence of the witches is also a nod to James I, who was also James VI of Scotland. James was obsessed with witchcraft — so obsessed that in 1597 he published a book about it entitled “Daemonologie.” The tome was a “scientific” treatise on witches and their work, and as is so often the case in history, the pathology of the great percolated down to rip society apart. During James’ reign, hundreds of women were tortured, hanged, garroted and/or burned. Nasty business.

Witch hunting burnt out for a couple of decades when James died, and his son Charles I suppressed the practice under law. But the chaos and dislocation of the English Civil War in the 1640s, and the rise of Puritan power, led to another bloody spasm — which would echo down the decades and play out one last time in 1692, on the forested frontier of the New World in the notorious Salem Witch Trials.

The Puritan narrative is part of the warp and weft of the American narrative, and the equating of the wilderness (and its indigenous inhabitants) with terrifying satanic doings created a dark thread of paranoia and anxiety that runs through the fabric of the American psyche to this day.

There is a counter-narrative to this thread, of course. At this year’s Sisters Folk Festival, singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson previewed a set of songs she wrote for a production of “Macbeth” in Colorado. The full album of those songs, titled “Built on Bones,” drops on October 28.

She explained her purpose for the songs to the audience at the Village Green, and to an online Americana publication called The Boot:

“The Witches of Macbeth are traditionally cast as scary, ugly, and evil creatures to which we attribute the darker magic of the show and Macbeth’s descent into madness. Our theory was this: What if the Witches were instead beautiful, tempting, sexy, powerful, and playful? What if the Witches held the capacity, just like Macbeth, for both light and dark magic? After all, in the time of King James I and the witch trials in England, the ‘witches’ targeted by the Crown were not supernatural beings — they were folk healers, spiritualists, and teachers.”

It’s best to remember that Macbeth (with prodding from his wife) chose to damn himself to torment, madness, and ultimately death in pursuit of raw ambition. For, whatever the witches may be, it is Macbeth that they see approaching on the moor when one sister proclaims:

By the pricking of my thumbs

Something wicked this way comes.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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