Kit’s Crit: HEIR TO A PROPHECY (Mercedes Rochelle)

Any one fascinated by Shakespeare’s Macbeth will love the question behind Mercedes Rochelle’s debut book: How do the sons of Banquo come to rule Scotland?  The three weird sisters tell Macbeth’s companion that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” – a promise that sets in motion the deadly events of the famous play.

Heir To A Prophecy (Hampshire: Top Hat Books, 2014) follows a fragmented trail through Scottish history –  tracing the line from Banquo’s son Fleance to King James Ist of England – with a similar mix of fact, fiction, and supernatural interference as found in the original tale.  We know that Banquo is murdered on Macbeth’s orders, but that his son Fleance escapes.  In Rochelle’s version he goes into exile in Wales at the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, where he woos and impregnates the king’s daughter, Nesta.
Nesta bears an illegitimate son called Walter, who enlists in Harold Goodwineson’s service and ends up fighting at Dunsinane and Hastings.  Along the way he befriends Prince Malcolm, King Duncan’s heir to the Scottish throne.  Years later, Walter settles in Malcolm’s court and is rewarded for his services, becoming the first Steward of Scotland.  This legitimizes his position, and prepares the way for future descendants of the royal house of Stuart.

Rochelle’s portrayal of the three witches is particularly interesting.  They appear at various points in her story to advance their original prophecy, but rather than being the weird old hags of Shakespeare’s era they are associated with the Norns of Scandinavian mythology – fates who control mankind’s destiny.  But aside from this nod to the bard, Rochell wisely does not attempt to imitate one of the great literary masterpieces with a sophisticated, high-brow response.  Instead she writes a plain, rollicking tale that should have broad appeal for those readers who like a fast-paced romp through history.

This novel is nicely edited and presented.  The setting, however, is too broad a time-period to examine and explore the various situations in any great depth.  Heir[s] To A Prophecy could well have been a whole series, with each book focusing on one central character – Fleance, Walter, and so on!

Hecate

Hecate

How did the Greek goddess, who once blessed Athenian homes, change from being the protective “Mother of Angels”  into Shakespeare’s grand witch, the medieval “Queen of Ghosts”?

Hecate was a pre-Olympian earth spirit and the counterpart of the Roman Goddess Trivia.  Her name suggests “The Distant One”  because she was a liminal deity who stood at the threshold of other worlds.  For this reason she was often depicted at the crossroads holding torches (to light the way), keys (to open doors), or accompanied by daggers and serpents (to protect the entrance).  Legends claims that Hecate embraced solitude.  And like the moon she came and went through the nighttime, appearing and disappearing at will.

According to Hesiod, Hecate was the only child of Perses and Asteria.  She was a virgin who remained unmarried, kept safe under the protection of Zeus.  Aeschylus described her as a great goddess who ruled over the earth, sea, and sky.  She was responsible for storms, yet she also looked after women in childbirth.  Some mythologies present Hecate as a triple goddess with three heads who could see in all directions.  Her wisdom extended into the past, present, and future – and also into the mystical realms of the sleeping and the dead.  In this way Hecate became associated with those who live on the margins of society, and those who wander in the spectral space between life and death.

Hecate’s reputation started declining when Sophocles and Euripides made her the mistress of magic.  Thereafter, she was aligned with ghosts and herbal lore – perhaps as the result of helping Demeter in her search for Persephone in Hades.

But on the cusp of the Dark Ages, Christian Romans began persecuting pagans, demolishing temples and statues, and destroying all symbols of female power, intellect, and influence.  Hecate suffered in this purge and was turned from a goddess into a witch.  From that time on she was cast as the “she-dog” or “bitch,” and was portrayed with either a polecat or canine familiar spirit, a sign that she was in league with demons.  Her herbal lore focused on poisons and she became associated with garlic, yew leaves, and cypress trees – common symbols of death and the underworld.  And then she began demanding blood.

Shakespeare put Hecate in command of the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth.   This cemented her popular medieval image as the evil sorceress famed for human sacrifice, who gave birth to Medea and Circe.  And that was where she remained – far removed from the “Mother of Angels.”

But modern Wiccans have reclaimed this goddess as a symbol of female emancipation.  Hecate is now called upon for wisdom, protection, power, prophecy, and guidance in the world beyond.

And so, ironically, it appears that the Bard’s words have finally come true:

“Witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate’s offerings” (Macbeth 2:1).

 

Picture: Campamento Mestizo

Three Real Shakespearian Witches

When someone mentions Shakespeare’s witches we naturally assume they are referring to the three weird sisters from Macbeth.  Yet around the same time as the Lancashire Witch Trials were taking place in Northern England, another sinister plot was unraveling closer to King James’ court.  Ironically, it involved a nefarious character who moved in the shadows of Shakespeare’s own circle – a cunning man by the name of Simon Forman (1552-1611). Two years after his death, Forman was implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury through his relationship with two former female patrons, Countess Frances Howard Carr (1590-1632) and Mistress Anne Turner (1576-1615).

Forman

But Simon Forman was neither the fool nor evil magician that Stuart history suggests.  Much more likely he was a self-trained quack whose chief sins concerned the numerous illicit sexual conquests he recorded in his diaries.  Forman was a charismatic, intelligent seducer who dabbled in apothecary, astrology, and the occult arts.  His clients included Emilia Lanier (possibly Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady) and Mrs. Mountjoy, the bard’s landlady.  Interestingly, Macbeth is one of the plays Forman mentions seeing at the Globe Theatre (April 20, 1610).  Yet as Barbara Howard Traister’s biography comments, Forman appears much more interested in the note-taking doctor than in the supernatural characters, which is intriguing for a man who had already been imprisoned on charges of witchcraft.

 

Although Forman died in 1611, his reputation and influence lived on.  He was accused of having supplied the poison that killed Overbury in a diabolical plot hatched by the two femme-fatales – Carr and Turner – and of providing the countess with the magical means to be rid her former husband (Robert Devereux) in order to win over the king’s favorite courtier, Robert Carr.

Countess

At the center of the controversy stood Countess Frances, a virgin child-bride wedded to the Earl of Essex who had since fallen in love with the dashing Earl of Somerset.  Frances wanted her political marriage annulled so she could marry her beloved, but Carr’s mentor – Sir Thomas Overbury – disapproved of this match and stood in their way.  A plot was hatched to discredit Overbury, and he suddenly found himself confined to the Tower of London on trumped-up charges.

Some years earlier the countess had apparently contacted Simon Forman for a love potion.  It was stated at her trial that the cunning man also supplied her with a range of poisons, that were later mixed with tarts and jellies before being fed to the imprisoned Overbury by his jailor.  He died in September, 1613.  A few weeks later the Devereux marriage was officially annulled leaving Frances free to wed Carr.  But over the following months rumors of the murder plot began circulating at court, finally forcing the king to pay notice and address them.  Under the weight of the overwhelming evidence presented the countess confessed to poisoning her enemy, was found guilty at trial, but eventually received a pardon.  She was released from the Tower in 1622, having served due sentence for her crime.  Her accomplice, however, was not so fortunate.

Turner

 Anne Turner was rumored by some to be the illegitimate child of the conjurer, Simon Forman.  She was widowed from Dr. George Turner in 1610 and then became the mistress of Sir Arthur Mainwaring.  Somehow or other she befriended the countess, perhaps in her capacity as a sought-after dressmaker.  Anne held the patent for the saffron starch that dyed fashionable ruffs and cuffs yellow, a more flattering color for many complexions than the usual ivory white lawn.  She was also an independent business woman who ran houses of ill-repute in Hammersmith and Paternoster Row.  But because she was not of noble birth, the accomplice became the scapegoat for Overbury’s death.  Anne Turner, convicted of being a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murderer, was hanged at Tyburn in 1615.  She was sent to execution in her own fashionable yellow ruff, by a man wearing the same saffron ruff and cuffs – denouncing the color of her dye and putting an end to that particular fashion.

Of course these were not the three evil ones Shakespeare envisaged when writing Macbeth.  Yet he does add a final statement to the scandal in later versions of All’s Well That Ends Well by having  Parolles mocked for wearing a big ruff starched with “villainous saffron.”

Jacobean witches came in many shapes and guises!

 

Sources:  

The Casebook Project: “Sinon Forman (1552-1611)” (Cambridge: U of Cambridge, 2013)

Downing, Sarah Jane. Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Shire, 2014)

Traister, Barbara Howard. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001)

Wikipedia: “Simon Forman,” “Anne Turner(Murderer)” and “Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset.”

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into some of the magical beliefs of that time.

 

out of; (c) Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights hast thirty one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.”

The Jacobean audience believed that witches brewed such diabolical charms, and seeing this dramatic scene live on stage they would likely have been terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let us take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to The Globe Theatre in London. Therefore it is not surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed that all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression, and that explains why the majority of witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – get added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It did not matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  Much more important were the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

Witch Circle

Sources:

Beale, Nigel. “Macbeth and what was in the Witches Brew” (Literary Tourist) http://literarytourist.com/2009/10/macbeth-and-what-was-in-the-witches-brew/ accessed 2/2/2015

Foy, Catt. “A Witch’s Brew: Recipe by Shakespeare” in Witches & Pagans #29 (Oregon: BBI Media, Spring, 2014) pages 24-26.

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie Books, 2010)

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987)