Witches and Jesuits

by Garry Wills
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1767

Garry Wills is well known for his studies of U.S. history, which include Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970), Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (1988), and, most notably,Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1993), an analysis of the Gettysburg Address that received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Turning from the history of the United States to that of early modern England, Wills explores connections between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, a group of papists, who were believed to be directed by Jesuits who received their orders from Rome, conspired to blow up Parliament. The gunpowder was to be exploded during an address by the king to Parliament when the prince and all of the leading members of the court were present.

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To suggest the degree to which this event affected the popular imagination, Wills offers as an analogous situation the reaction that would have occurred had a massive assassination plot been discovered during the Cold War. Suggestively, he questions what would have been the reaction in the 1950’s to the discovery that a communist cell had planted a nuclear device timed to explode when the president was addressing both houses of Congress. The seventeenth century Gunpowder Plot was discovered in time to prevent the explosion, but King James, the Privy Council, and the leading figures of court and Parliament were appalled by the fact that the conspirators had succeeded in planting the gunpowder. According to Wills, in the aftermath of the trials of the conspirators, King James launched a major propaganda campaign to be sure that the failure of the plot would be understood as evidence of God’s providential intervention to protect England from the machinations of papal Rome. The resulting sermons and proclamations contained language, Wills claims, that invested the text of Macbeth with topical meaning.

In addition, he maintains that readers’ appreciation of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy will be enhanced if they consider Macbeth as one of a group of plays that were produced within a year of each other and in direct response to the Gunpowder Plot. These plays include Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon, John Marston’s Sopho-nisba, and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter. Throughout his study, Wills draws parallels between these plays and Macbeth.

Wills is not the first critic to emphasize the importance of the Gunpowder Plot to an interpretation of Macbeth. H. N. Paul discussed the relevance of the Gunpowder Plot to Macbeth in The Royal Play of Macbeth (1950). In fact, the obviously topical allusions to equivocation in the porter’s speech repeatedly have been interpreted as references to the Jesuits who inspired the conspirators. Wills’s methodology, however, differs from that of Paul and other commentators. The deployment of his argument owes much to new historicism, an influential theoretical approach to the relationship between texts and the culture that produced them.

New historicist interpretation emerged as one of the most popular of modern literary theories after the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespearein 1980. In the heyday of new criticism, little attention was paid to the historical context; it was assumed that great works were those that had stood the test of time and that only those elements in the work that contributed to this timelessness were worthy of attention. Topical allusions were to be ignored because they forged relationships between a text and its context, and so detracted from the readability of a work.

New historicism has questioned these premises and insisted upon the relevance of focusing on documents and events external to the literary text in arriving at a satisfactory interpretation of a text. Rather than examining issues of causation and intention—what caused Shakespeare to weave allusions to the Gunpowder Plot into Macbeth—Wills, as is characteristic of a new historicist, offers documentary or historical analogies to events in the play. He is less concerned with what the play “means” than with the specific meanings and associations that it may have had for Shakespeare’s first audience.

Wills, however, frames his discourse on Macbeth by noting the discrepancy between the play’s literary reputation and its modern stage history. If Macbeth is a great tragedy, why, Wills asks, do so many performances fail? Pointing out that superstitious actors use phrases such as “the Scottish play” to avoid naming Macbeth, he attributes the problems that directors and actors encounter when staging Macbeth to the anticlimactic tempo of acts 4 and 5. According to Wills, only Laurence Olivier’s 1955 production of Macbeth managed to handle this problem, and he thinks that Olivier managed this only because he approached the role of Macbeth as though he were playing Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Olivier played the first part of the play with sufficient restraint so that he could unleash his energy in the concluding two acts. The dramatic faults in the play remain, Wills concludes, in spite of Olivier’s anomalous accomplishment in overcoming its flaws.

This preliminary discussion of the difficult stage history of Macbeth leads Wills to infer that the latter part of the play contains historically sensitive material that was more highly charged for Shakespeare’s audience than it is for twentieth century playgoers. With varying degrees of success, he then proceeds to tease out the underlying historical significance of those facets of the play that he regards as requiring commentary.

Wills claims that Shakespeare intended his audience to identify Macbeth as a witch, basing his argument upon Macbeth’s willingness to conjure the witches in act 4, scene 1, and upon what he describes as Macbeth’s delivery of a “witch catalog.” In fact, Macbeth does not deliver a witch catalog and, like Medea, boast that he can control the moon and seasons; instead, he challenges the witches to do so: “Though you untie the winds and let them fight/ Against the churches, though the yesty waves/ Confound and swallow navigation up.” Wills describes Macbeth as boasting that he will “fight against the churches,” but the demonic agency is vested in the witches, not Macbeth. Wills’s interpretation does not allow for the obvious fact that Shakespeare intended for his audience to sympathize with Macbeth—at least in the early scenes of the play. It is precisely the audience’s capacity for sympathetic identification with Macbeth that makes the play Macbeth a tragedy, rather than the sordid tale of a criminal who receives his just deserts.

On the other hand, Wills offers an insightful and persuasive interpretation of act 4, scene 3, in which Malcolm engages in verbal fencing with Macduff. As Wills astutely observes, in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s source, Macduff does not leave Scotland until after his wife and children are slain. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, neither Macduff nor Malcolm is aware that Macbeth has had Macduff’s family murdered. Malcolm, in fact, asks why Macduff has left his children behind, since it is all too likely that Macbeth may use them as hostages. Because only the audience is aware that Macduff’s family is dead, Malcolm’s suspicions regarding Macduff’s duplicity seem justified.

Wills calls attention to the ritualistic effect of this scene. Shakespeare portrays Malcolm as making three charges against himself: that he is consumed by an inexhaustible and dishonorable lust, that his vicious avarice will lead him to despoil his courtiers, and that he is intoxicated by evil. To the first and second charges, Macduff responds with formal acquiescence, but he is so alarmed by the third that he erupts in fury, repudiating the idea of supporting Malcolm’s claim to the throne. By the end of the testing ritual, Macduff’s demeanor has satisfied Malcolm that he can be trusted. So Malcolm, the rightful heir to Duncan’s throne, takes back each of the charges that he has made against himself. Wills, however, points out that the testing that ensues during the scene is very complicated. Objecting to modern treatments of Malcolm that depict him as a coward who is afraid to trust Macduff, Wills argues that Malcolm is a portrait of the politic king and represents an image that Shakespeare’s own king would have admired. He points out that the audience is aware that the prince is being tested, and that he, unlike Duncan, is cautious about conferring his trust; in contrast to his father, Malcolm would not have so readily trusted Macbeth. At the conclusion of the scene, Malcolm acts as a physician, prescribing anger to Macduff when he learns that his family has been murdered by Macbeth.

After Wills puts into perspective the ritual testing occurring during this scene, he persuasively concludes that Malcolm has the qualities of statesmanship and judgment to become a great monarch. Quoting extensively from King James’s speeches to Parliament and his advice to his son, Wills demonstrates that James was aware of the need to test men before assuming that they were worthy of trust. Malcolm’s behavior, as Wills observes, thus mirrors the image that James had of himself.

Unfortunately, in his discussion of probable casting, Wills treats hypotheses and speculation as though they were facts. It is possible that the boy actor John Rice played Lady Macbeth and that Robert Armin, who specialized in witty characterizations, played the porter and doubled as one of the witches. The basis for assuming that John Rice played Lady Macbeth and doubled as Lady Macduff, however, seems to have been that in the Trevor Nunn production in 1976, those roles were played by the same actress. There is no evidence that Shakespeare intended these parts to be doubled. It is extravagant to conclude, as Wills does, that the doubling of Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff explains Lady Macbeth’s guilt in the sleepwalking scene. Inferences, even if they have some probability, cannot be treated as fact.

Wills enters imaginatively into the problems of producing Macbeth, making interesting suggestions concerning blocking and the use of stage business to represent magic circles. His discussion of Jacobean politics is informed and informative. Wills’s book, based on a series of lectures that were delivered under the auspices of the New York Public Library and published jointly with Oxford University Press, is carefully and clearly written in prose that will be as accessible to the general reader as to the scholar.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, October 1, 1994, p. 229.

Boston Globe. October 12, 1994, p. 71.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, August 1, 1994, p. 1067.

Library Journal. CXIX, September 15, 1994, p. 183.

Los Angeles Times. November 30, 1994, p. E4.

The New Republic. CCXI, November 14, 1994, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 20, 1994, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, August 8, 1994, p. 410.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, October 30, 1994. p. 2.

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