Songs and versions

Yesterday, I tossed around a few ideas and questions about the witches–er, Weird Sisters–in Macbeth. We meet those three, as well as their boss(?) Hecate, an additional three singing witches (“spirits” in my text–and as per usual, I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare edition, edited by Stephen Orgel) and some “apparitions.”

And the edition here actually is important.

The Pelican uses as its basis the so-called Davenant text. Published in 1664, it was an adaptation of Macbeth by Sir William Davenant…with songs. Yup, a quasi-musical version of the play. Of course, these songs belong only to, you guessed it, Hecate, the spirits, and those additional witches. While Davenant was a poet and a playwright (and according to some, a godson to ol’ Willy himself), he did not write those witchy songs.

So where did he steal them from?

Thomas Middleton, and a little play he wrote titled The Witch. Which (see what I did there?) was written around 1610. And that was after Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in or around 1606.

So what exactly are the differences between the two texts? The scenes in question are the supernatural ones near the center of the play: Act Three, Scene Five, and Act Four, Scene One. In both scenes we find stage directions to sing songs:

Have I not reason, beldams as you are?
Saucy and overbold, how did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death,
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never called to bear my part
Or show the glory of our art?

I’ll catch it ere it come to ground,
And that, distilled by magic sleights,
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace, and fear.
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
Music and a song.
Hark! I am called. My little spirit, see,
Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me.
Hecate exits.
Sing within “Come away, come away,” etc.

It appears that Davenant raided Middleton for both the “song” and the “etc.” in the stage directions. In the Davenant text, there’s a whole interaction and (I suppose) a song just after the “Music and a song” (III.v.33 s.d.), 32 lines of less than Shakespearean verse. Then we get the “Hark!” couplet, followed by the First Witch saying, “Come let’s make haste, she’ll soon be back again” (III.v.66) and the Second Witch chiming in, “But whilst she moves through the foggy air, // Let’s to the cave and our dire charms prepare” (III.v.67-68).

The second case comes in the warning scene, Act Four, Scene One. After the opening potion making, in the Folio text, Hecate enters, delivers her five-line “O, well done!” speech, followed by the stage direction, “Music and a song: ‘Black Spirits,’ etc. Hecate exits.” Again, Davenant fills the “etc.” with Midleton’s interplay between Hecate, the three witches, and two more witches to boot, ending the 21-line section with “Exeunt Hecate and the three Singers” (IV.i.65 s.d.). Both texts then continue with the Second Witch’s “By the pricking of my thumbs, // Something wicked this way comes” (IV.i.66-67).

So a total of 53 additional witchy lines.

That do absolutely nothing to drive the plot forward.

Was this padding for was was already (by far) the shortest tragedy in the Canon? I can completely see that being the case given that Macbeth has nearly 300 less lines than the next shorted tragedy, Julius Caesar (only three plays have fewer lines–The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest).

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