A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble


Two impish sprints appeared on my doorway a few minutes ago, lured by an illuminated ghost we had placed on our stoop. Their parents hovered in the background. The sprightly imps sang a threatening song for me and my charmed Japanese wife. We gave them extremely sugary candy. Thus paganism endures in a largely Christian (I speak of North Carolina, if not America as a whole) society.

The witches in Macbeth knew a few things about trick-or-treating that my neighborhood kids have thankfully forgotten (aroint thee means get lost; a rump-fed runnion means a garbage eating hag):

Witch I: "A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched and munched and munched.
'Give me,' quoth I.
'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger,
But in a sieve I'll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,
I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do."

The lady should have given the witch a few of her chestnuts. Now her husband, captaining a ship in distant seas, is going to be seduced repeatedly by a deformed (like a rat without a tail) apparition.

The distinction between godly religion and paganism is not between mono- and poly- as to theism. The pagan Greeks and Romans weren't as polytheistic as we imagine; they acknowledged a unitary force behind the distracted and adolescent three-ring circus playing around on Mount Olympus. The true difference between our religion and theirs is not between many and one but between (A) asking G-d or the gods, and (B) trying to order them around.

In Macbeth, though, the pagan witches more coerce Macbeth than otherwise, laying in wait for him until after his triumphant battle, when his ambition might be appealed to:

WI: "When will we three meet again?
In thunder, lightening or in rain?

WII: "When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won…"
WIII: "There to meet with Macbeth."

In Shakespeare's vision of paganism, oddly, it is the spirits and not the humans who are doing the incantations. The original Old Europe witch hunts in the Middle Ages must have in reality resembled a kind of KKK-style lynching of old spinsters living in the woods, touched off by famine or sexual jealousy. Describing our later, tamer American version of witchcraft, Arthur Miller in The Crucible gave us some all-too-human adolescent girls playing at spells with their slave servant Tituba. Shakespeare cuts through the games and gives us real non-human witches:

"Round about the cauldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw.
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 blindworm's sting.
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

The magic pot will be used when Macbeth visits them, in fact revisits them, seeking further fortune-telling. The witches will pull an armed head, a bloody child and a crowned child out of the pot to make various points about Macbeth's future.

The reason that it's the witches and not the humans casting spells is that Macbeth isn't really about paganism – or religion for that matter. It's about Macbeth and his wife. The witches could be replaced by anything from a rabbit's foot to a strange number "2" seen by satellite photograph in the center of a hurricane. It's Macbeth's credulity and his wife's ambition that make the difference. With Shakespeare the focus is always on us.

Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, by having the humans do the incantations and spells, and attempt to order the gods to do their bidding, are more in the paganism business than Shakespeare. Charming as those shows can be, it's well to remember that paganism – at its heart superstitious and based on power over others rather than ethics or love – has only recently been challenged in the West by Judeo-Christianity, the revolution of spirit under which we are supposed to do His bidding. (Non-Western civilizations, by the way, have evolved their concepts of ethics and love in a separate manner; the pagan - non-pagan dichotomy doesn't apply, or applies much differently, for these different civilizations). For the West, though, this spiritual revolution informs us that you can ask, but you can only ask. You can't force, and you certainly can't threaten.

"Trick or Treat!"

Happy Halloween!

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