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Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Garry Wills's book on Macbeth tries to solve an old problem: why is the play such a failure in performance? It is a question that has a good deal to do with supernaturalism; recent productions have resorted to scary normality, to homeless bag-ladies forging in garbage heaps, to the supernatural replaced by the psychological.

Wills argues that Shakespeare's original audience was most interested in the witches as witches. The key to his argument is the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and James's ensuing propaganda, which muddled together witches, diabolic powers, Catholics and Black Masses. Wills's chapter on the Plot is the finest of the book: describing its effect on England, he hypothesizes the discovery of a nuclear device in the 1950s under the House of Congress. The President himself deciphers the clue and thwarts godless communism. The first part of Wills's book is an entertaining and informative discussion of the Plot and four plays performed the following year, which share references to gunpowder, apocalyptic destruction of a kingdom, and witches. Wills argues that England's obsession with necromancy made the second half of Macbeth (Hecate's jazzy witch songs) as interesting to the Jacobeans as the first half is to us. But Wills's reading of Macbeth itself is far more problematic. Macbeth becomes a "male witch," who has sealed a pact with the devil; Lady Macbeth is a "repentant sorceress"; and Malcolm (perhaps most oddly) is a "great counter-witch." Unfortunately, Wills falls into the trap of wrenching the play's language into alignment with these ideas. Hecate's comment "and you all know, security / Is mortals' chiefest enemy" is read as evidence that Macbeth has a pact with the devil (a "security"), a reading only possible if one ignores the previous two lines: "He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear" (III.v.30-3). Macbeth's wish to tear up "that Great Bond / Which keeps me pale" is tied to baptism, signaled by a white ("pale") baptismal gown. Lady Macbeth's damned spot is not blood but the devil's mark left from sealing her pact. Wills's production suggestions are equally dicey: for example, he proposes that the Porter should trace witches' circles on the stage because (through a series of extremely fanciful connections) Wills has linked the Porter to a reverse conjuration of an executed Gunpowder Jesuit, Garnet. Yet, as he himself points out, the fact that these ideas won't work in production does not invalidate his argument about a Jacobean fashion for necromancy.

The problem, I would say, is that furbishing Malcolm, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth with sorcerer's robes pushes the play from a plot including the supernatural to one focusing only on the supernatural. Wills would argue that the other three "gunpowder" plays from the 1606 season explicitly underline the evils of conjuring, suggesting that Shakespeare joined Dekker, Marston, and Barnes in a united dramatists' warning against trifling with diabolic forces. But these are not the only plays on the London stage in 1606. The anonymous play The Puritan was also produced that year; it too has a scene of conjuring. Two tricksters retire into the parlor and lay down their circle; it thunders; they conjure: "Flowste - kakao pumpos - dragone." Witches, conjuring, and devilry were theatrically in fashion, but it is reductive to argue that necromancy must swallow up every character, from the Porter to Macbeth. The Puritan's foolish citizens, who are afraid the Devil will singe their curtains, are heartily laughed at. Even in the season of 1606, conjuring was ridiculous as well as scary; Macbeth does not have to hold a wizard's staff in order to be a terrifying example.

Witches and Jesuits is best when Wills describes the political scrambling that follows governmental crises, for instance, when he compares the Gunpowder Plot to Pearl Harbor. This is a fascinatingly ambitious book - a promise to make Macbeth work by turning its weaknesses into strengths. Wills's forte is historical synthesis, and if his literary analysis is implausible, his skillful description of England's hysterical fear of witches and Jesuits is not.

MARY BLY Washington University, St. Louis
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Author:Bly, Mary
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Previous Article:The Gift of Fire: Aggression and the Plays of Christopher Marlowe.
Next Article:Shakespeare in Performance: Macbeth.

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