Sources: part two

A couple of days back, we took a look at the major (historical) sources for Macbeth: Holinshed’s Chronicles, and two other Scottish histories, Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae and George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia. Those are fine for the human elements of the story, but what about the not-so-human elements?

If you took advantage of the link I posted yesterday to a really cool blog post by the Oxford University Press regarding witches, you will have found a quick discussion of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft.

Despite The Discoverie of Witchcraft‘s overall skeptical tone–many see it as a refutation of the practice of witch-hunting, and an attempt to prove that a belief in witches and witchcraft simply could not stand up to reason–it became a kind of go-to reference book for those contemporaries who wanted to learn about witches at the time, or those who want to know about the common beliefs on the supernatural during that period.

It’s of the former use that we’re most interested here, as it seems that Shakespeare used it for that very purpose.

When we discussed sources earlier, I mentioned that there is a mention of the weird sisters in Holinshed’s story of Macbeth. In that story, however, they are called not witches but rather wood nymphs or fairies. If not outright attractive, these entities are usually at least cute. Scot’s depiction of witches is closer to the now stereotypical: ugly withered hags.

There’s probably one more supernatural text that bears mention. Shakespeare was undoubtedly aware of a 1599 book on the subject entitled Daemonologie. Its author? King James I of England. He was fascinated by the subject and saw himself somewhat of an expert, even attending witch-trials. It’s unclear if Shakespeare appropriated any of the book’s text for Macbeth (James’ witches are spiteful and can cause storms…which is seen in the play), but the inclusion of not only witches but of James’ legendary ancestor–Banquo–seems to point to some kind of knowing nod by the King’s Men to the king himself.

There’s one more text that looks to have a connection…but I’ll wait to discuss that one until we get to the (spoilers) Porter scene.

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