Sunday, August 8, 2010

Merry Wives of Windsor - Witchcraft

Jim writes:

Hi Everyone,

I just finished Merry Wives of Windsor and can think a several topics to discuss – most center on Falstaff and how different and weaker he seems in this play than in the histories. But before we get into that I have a question for Randall that relates to his last TSI post on the blog.

The last practical joke played on the fat knight is centered on him dressing as Terne the Hunter and being set upon by Satyrs and Faeries in the forest. Falstaff is beaten earlier in the play when impersonating Mistress Ford’s maid’s aunt, who is not only large enough for the impersonation to work but also considered a witch. Mr. Ford says of the aunt: “A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean! Have I not forbid her my house? She comes of errands, does she? We are simple men, we do not know what’s to brought to pass under the profession of fortune-telling. She works by charms, by spells, by th’ figure, and such daub’ry as this is, beyond our element; we know nothing. Come down, you witch, you hag you, come down, I say!”

My first thought was that this passage is probably a better representation of the common perception of witchcraft and who practiced it in Elizabethan society than Macbeth, though I’d need to do some work before I could back that up.

But it seems to me that the kind of “forest magic” that is being faked in the last practical joke (faeries, satyrs, etc.) is more common in Shakespeare than the type of dark magic seen in Macbeth’s witches. The other thing that struck me is that the “forest magic” elements seem odder and more foreign for modern readers and audiences than Macbeth’s witches. My daughters think that A Midsummer’s Night Dream has a very strange story, with Puck and the Faeries, but Macbeth makes perfect sense to them on the level of magic. The very brief examples of laws you quoted in your TSI entry in the blog made me wonder if you saw evidence that the apparent view of witchcraft changed over time, moving toward the “modern” view that witches were evil, in league with dark forces, dealing with the devil, etc.

Was there a change in what audiences believed about witchcraft during Shakespeare’s lifetime? Or is this more of an American/English divide, with American falling with King James on the Puritan side and viewing all witches as in league with the devil and refusing to believe in faeries, while the English still hold the realm of Faerie in their cosmology (hence Peter Pan….)?

It’s kind of a convoluted question, but I’ve reached the point where I have enough data that I would easily have been able to write the five paragraph essay in college arguing the point but nowhere near enough to know if actually have a sustainable case either way.

Randall, what do you think?

Jim Darling

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