Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, , at sacred-texts.com
Almanacs.—In Shakespeare's day these were published under this title:—"An Almanack and Prognostication made for the year of our Lord God, 1595." So in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3), Autolycus says—"the hottest day prognostication proclaims; "that is, the hottest day foretold in the almanac. In the xivth sonnet the prognostications in almanacs are also noticed:—
In "Antony and Cleopatra" (i. 2) Enobarbus says—"They are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report;" and in "2 Henry IV." (ii. 4), Prince Henry says—"Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction! what says the almanac to that?"
Amulets.—A belief in the efficacy of an amulet or charm to ward off diseases and to avert contagion has prevailed from a very early period. The use of amulets was common among the Greeks and Romans, whose amulets were principally formed of gems, crowns of pearls, necklaces of coral, shells, &c. The amulet of modern times has been of the most varied kinds; objects being selected either from the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom, pieces of old rags or garments, scraps of writing in legible or illegible characters
in fact, of anything to which any superstitious property has been considered to belong." 1 This form of superstition is noticed in I Henry VI. (v. 3) in the scene laid at Angiers where La Pucelle exclaims—
—periapts being charms which were worn as preservatives against diseases or mischief. Thus Cotgrave 2 explains the word as "a medicine hanged about any part of the bodie."
Ceremonies.—These, says Malone, were "omens or signs deduced from sacrifices or other ceremonial rites." Thus, in "Julius Cæsar" (ii. 1), Cassius says of Cæsar, that—
And in the next scene Calpurnia adds—
Charms.—These, as Mr Pettigrew 3 has pointed out, differ little from amulets, the difference consisting in the manner in which they are used rather than in their nature. Thus, whereas the amulet was to be suspended on the person when employed, the charm was not necessarily subjected to such a method of application. In days gone by, and even at the present day, in country districts, so universal has been the use of this source of supposed magical power that there is scarcely a disease for which a charm has not been given. It is not only, also, to diseases of body and mind that the superstitious practice has been directed; having been in popular request to avert evil, and to counteract supposed malignant influences. As might be expected, Shakespeare
has given various allusions to this usage, as, for example, in "Cymbeline" (v. 3), where Posthumus says—
this passage referring to the notion of certain charms being powerful enough to keep men unhurt in battle.
Othello (iii. 4), speaking of the handkerchief which he had given to Desdemona, relates:—
And in the same play (i. 1), Brabantio asks—
Again, in "Much Ado About Nothing" (iii. 2), Benedick, who is represented as having the toothache, after listening to the banter of his comrades, replies, "Yet is this no charm for the toothache."
Perfect silence seems to have been regarded as indispensable for the success of any charm; and Pliny informs us that "favete linguis" was the usual exclamation employed on such an occasion. From this circumstance it has been suggested that the well-known phrase "to charm a tongue" may have originated. Thus we have the following dialogue in "Othello" (v. 2):—
Thus, on the appearance amidst thunder of the first apparition to Macbeth, after the witches have performed certain charms (iv. i), Shakespeare introduces the following dialogue—
[paragraph continues] Again in the "Tempest" (iv. 1), Prospero says—
Metrical Charms.—There was a superstition long prevalent that life might be taken away by metrical charms. Reginald Scot, in his "Discovery of Witchcraft" (1584), says—"The Irishmen addict themselves, &c.; yea, they will not sticke to affirme that they can rime a man to death." 1* In "1 Henry VI." (i. 1), the Duke of Exeter, referring to the lamented death of Henry V., says—
These "magic verses," to which the death of Henry V. is here attributed, were not required to be uttered in his presence; their deadly energy existing solely in the words of the imprecation and the malevolence of the reciter, which were supposed to render them effectual at any distance.
Again, the alphabet was called the Christ-cross-row; either because a cross was prefixed to the alphabet in the old primers, or more probably from a superstitious custom of writing the alphabet in the form of a cross by way of a charm. In "Richard III." (i. 1), Clarence relates how the king—
Dreams.—These, considered as prognostics of good or evil, are frequently introduced by Shakespeare. In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 3), Andromache exclaims—
While Romeo (v. 1), declares—
It is chiefly as precursors of misfortune that the poet has availed himself of their supposed influence as omens of future fate. Thus, there are few passages in his dramas more terrific than the dreams of Richard the Third and Clarence; the latter especially, as Mr Drake says, 2 "is replete with the
most fearful imagery, and makes the blood run chill with horror."
Dreaming of certain things has generally been supposed to be ominous either of good or ill-luck; 1 and at the present day the credulous pay oftentimes no small attention to their dreams, should these happen to have referred to what they consider unlucky things. In the same way Shylock, in the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 5), is a victim to much superstitious dread—
In "Julius Cæsar" dreaming of banquet is supposed to presage misfortune.
It was also supposed that malicious spirits took advantage of sleep to torment their victims; 2 hence Macbeth (ii. 1), exclaims—
Duels.—The death of the vanquished person was always considered a certain evidence of his guilt. Thus in "2 Henry VI." (ii. 3), King Henry speaking of the death of Horner in the duel with Peter, says— 4
We may also compare what Arcite says to Palamon in the "Two Noble Kinsmen" (iii. 6)—
Among the customs connected with duelling, it appears that, according to an old law, knights were to fight with the lance
and the sword, as those of inferior rank fought with an ebon staff or batoon, to the farther end of which was fixed a bag crammed hard with sand. Thus Shakespeare, in "2 Henry VI." (ii. 3), represents Horner entering "bearing his staff with a sand-bag fastened to it." 1* Butler, in his "Hudibras," alludes to this custom—
Steevens adds that "a passage in St Chrysostom very clearly proves the great antiquity of this practice."
Fortune-tellers.—A common method of fortune-tellers in pretending to tell future events, was by means of a beryl or glass. In an extract from the "Penal Laws against Witches," it is said, "they do answer either by voice, or else set before their eyes in glasses, chrystal stones, etc., the pictures or images of the persons or things sought for." It is to this kind of juggling prophecy that Angelo in "Measure for Measure" (ii. 2), refers, when he tells how the law—
Again, Macbeth (iv. f), when "a show of eight kings" is presented to him, exclaims after witnessing the seventh—
Spenser 2 has given a circumstantial account of the glass which Merlin made for King Ryence. A mirror of the same kind was presented to Cambuslan, in the "Squire's Tale" of Chaucer; and we are also told how "a certain philosopher did the like to Pompey, the which showed him in a glass the order of his enemies’ march." 3 Brand, in his "Popular Antiquities," 4 gives several interesting accounts of this method of fortune-telling; and quotes the following from Vallancey's "Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis:"—"In the Highlands of Scotland, a large chrystal, of a figure somewhat
oval was kept by the priests to work charms by; water poured upon it at this day is given to cattle against diseases; these stones are now preserved by the oldest and most superstitious in the country; they were once common in Ireland."
Further allusions to fortune-tellers occur in "Comedy of Errors" (v. 1), and "Merry Wives of Windsor" (iv. 2).
It appears, too, that the trade of fortune-telling was in Shakespeare's day, as now, exercised by the wandering hordes of gipsies. In "Antony and Cleopatra" (iv. 12), the Roman complains that Cleopatra—
Giants.—The belief in giants and other monsters was much credited in olden times, and, "amongst the legends of nearly every race or tribe, few are more universal than those relating to giants or men of colossal size and superhuman power." 1 That such stories were current in Shakespeare's day, is attested by the fact that the poet makes Othello (i. 3), in his eloquent defence before the Senate of Venice, when explaining his method of courtship, allude to—
In the "Tempest" (iii. 3), Gonzalo relates how—
And after the appearance of Prospero's magic repast, Sebastian says—
Amongst the numerous references to giants by Shakespeare, we may quote the following. In "2 Henry VI." (ii. 3), Horner
says—"Peter, have at thee with a downright blow, [as Bevis of Southampton fell upon Ascapart]." 1
Ascapart, according to the legend, was "ful thyrty fote longe," and was conquered by Sir Bevis of Southampton.
In "Cymbeline" (iii. 3), Belarius says—
In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 1), Mrs Page says—
Lucky Days.—From the most remote period certain days have been supposed to be just as lucky as others are the reverse, a notion which is not confined to any one country. In Shakespeare's day great attention was paid to this superstitious fancy, which is probably alluded to in the "Winter's Tale" (iii. 3), where the shepherd says to the clown, "’Tis a lucky day, boy; and we'll do good deeds on’t."
In "King John" (iii. 1) Constance exclaims—
Again, Macbeth (iv. 1) says—
In the old almanacs the days supposed to be favourable or
unfavourable are enumerated, allusion to which occurs in Webster's "Duchess of Malfy," 1623—
At the present day this superstition still retains its hold on the popular mind, and in the transactions of life exerts an important influence. 1*
Magic.—The system of magic which holds such a prominent place in the "Tempest" was formerly an article in the popular creed, and as such is frequently noticed by the writers of Shakespeare's time. Thus, in describing Prospero, Shakespeare has given him several of the adjuncts, beside the costume, of the popular magician, much virtue being inherent in his very garments. So Prospero, when addressing his daughter (i. 2), says—
A similar importance is assigned to his staff, for he tells Ferdinand (i. 2)—
And when he abjures the practice of magic, one of the requisites is "to break his staff," and to (v. 1)—
The more immediate instruments of power were books, by means of which spells were usually performed. Hence, in the old romances the sorcerer is always furnished with a book, by reading certain parts of which he is enabled to summon to his aid what demons or spirits he has occasion to employ. When he is deprived of his book his power ceases. Malone quotes in illustration of this notion Caliban's words in the "Tempest" (iii. 2)—
Prospero, too, declares (iii. 1)—
And on his relinquishing his art he says that—
Those who practice nocturnal sorcery are styled in "Troilus and Cressida" (iv. 2), "Venomous wights."
Merlin's Prophecies.—In Shakespeare's day there was an extensive belief in strange and absurd prophecies, which were eagerly caught up and repeated by one person to another. This form of superstition is alluded to in "1 King Henry IV." (iii. 1), where, after Owen Glendower has been descanting on the "omens and portents dire" which heralded his nativity, and Hotspur's unbelieving and taunting replies to the chieftain's assertions, the poet makes Hotspur, on Mortimer's saying, "Fye, cousin Percy! how you cross my father!" thus reply—
In "King Lear" (iii. 2) the fool says—
This witty satire was probably against the prophecies attributed to Merlin, which were then prevalent among the people. 1
Formerly, too, prophecies of apparent impossibilities were common in Scotland; such as the removal of one place to another. So in "Macbeth" (iv. i), the apparition says:—
Portents and Prodigies.—In years gone the belief in supernatural occurrences was a common article of faith; and our ancestors made use of every opportunity to prove the truth of this superstitious belief. The most usual monitions of this kind were, "lamentings heard in the air; shakings and tremblings of the earth; sudden gloom at noon-day; the appearance of meteors; the shooting of stars; eclipses of the sun and moon; the moon of a bloody hue; the shrieking of owls; the croaking of ravens; the shrillings of crickets; night-howlings of dogs; the death-watch; the chattering of pies; wild neighing of horses; blood dropping from the nose; winding sheets; strange and fearful noises, &c.," many of which Shakespeare has used, introducing them as the precursors of murder, sudden death, disasters, and superhuman events. 2 Thus in "King Richard II." (ii. 4), the following prodigies are selected as the forerunners of the death or fall of kings
[paragraph continues] Previous to the assassination of Julius Cæsar we are told in "Hamlet" (i. 1) how—
More appalling still are the circumstances which preceded and accompanied the murder of Duncan ("Macbeth," ii. 3). We may also compare the omens which marked the births of Owen Glendower and Richard III. Indeed, the supposed sympathy of the elements with human joy or sorrow or suffering is evidently a very ancient superstition; and this presumed sensitiveness, not only of the elements, but of animated nature to the perpetration of deeds of darkness and blood by perverted nature, has in all ages been extensively believed. It is again beautifully illustrated in the lines, where Shakespeare makes Lennox, on the morning following the murder of Duncan, by his host, "Macbeth," (ii. 3), give the following narrative:—
This idea is further illustrated in the dialogue, which follows, between Ross and an old man:—
Supernatural authority of Kings.—The belief in the supernatural authority of monarchs is but a remnant of the long supposed "divine right" of kings to govern, which resulted from a conviction that they could trace their pedigrees back to the deities themselves. 1 Thus Shakespeare even puts into the mouth of the murderer and usurper Claudius, King of Denmark, the following sentence:—
This notion is by no means confined to either civilized or semi-civilized nations. It is, says Mr Hardwick, "a universal feeling among savage tribes." The ignorant serf of Russia believed, and indeed yet believes, that if the deity were to die the Emperor would succeed to his power and authority.
Sympathetic Indications.—According to a very old tradition, the wounds of a murdered person were supposed to bleed afresh at the approach or touch of the murderer. This effect, though impossible, remarks Nares, 2 except it were by miracle, was firmly believed, and almost universally, for a very long period. Poets, therefore, were fully justified in their use of it. Thus Shakespeare in "King Richard III." (i. 2) makes Lady Anne, speaking of Richard Duke of Gloster, say—
Stow alludes to this circumstance in his "Annals" (424). He says the king's body "was brought to St Paul's in an
open coffin, barefaced, where he bled; thence he was carried to the Blackfriars, and there bled." Matthew Paris also states that after Henry the Second's death his son Richard came to view the body—"Quo superveniente, confestim erupit sanguis ex naribus regis mortui; ac si indignaretur spiritus in adventu ejus, qui ejusdem mortis causa esse credebatur, ut videretur sanguis clamare ad Deum." 1 In the "Athenian Oracle" (i. 106), this supposed phenomenon is thus accounted for—"The blood is congealed in the body for two or three days, and then becomes liquid again, in its tendency to corruption. The air being heated by many persons coming about the body, is the same thing to it as motion is. ’Tis observed that dead bodies will bleed in a concourse of people when murderers are absent, as well as present, yet legislators have thought fit to authorise it, and use this trial as an argument, at least to frighten, though ’tis no conclusive one to condemn them." Among other allusions to this superstition may be mentioned one by King James in his "Dæmonology," where we read—"In a secret murder, if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the murderer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were crying to heaven for revenge of the murderer." It is spoken of also in a note to Chap. V. of the "Fair Maid of Perth," that this bleeding of a corpse was urged as an evidence of guilt in the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh as late as the year 1668. An interesting survival of this curious notion exists in Durham, where, says Mr Henderson, 2 "touching of the corpse by those who come to look at it is still expected by the poor on the part of those who come to their house while a dead body is lying in it, in token that they wished no ill to the departed, and were in peace and amity with him."
We may also compare the following passage, where Macbeth (iii. 4), speaking of the Ghost, says—
[paragraph continues] Shakespeare perhaps alludes to some story in which the stones covering the corpse of a murdered man were said to have moved of themselves, and so revealed the secret. The idea of trees speaking probably refers to the story of the tree which revealed to Æneas the murder of Polydorus (Virg. "Æneid," iii. 22, 599). Indeed, in days gone by, this superstition was carried to such an extent that we are told, in D’Israeli's "Curiosities Of Literature," "by the side of the bier, if the slightest change was observable in the eyes, the mouth, feet, or hands of the corpse, the murderer was conjectured to be present, and many an innocent spectator must have suffered death. This practice forms a rich picture in the imagination of our old writers; and their histories and ballads are laboured into pathos by dwelling on this phenomenon."
475:1 Pettigrew's "Medical Superstitions," p. 48.
475:2 "French and English Dictionary;" see Dyce's "Glossary to Shakespeare," p. 316; Nares describes it as "a bandage, tied on for magical purposes, from περιάπτω;" see Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. pp. 324–326; Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, pp. 305–307.
475:3 "Medical Superstitions," p. 55.
477:1 See under rat a similar superstition noticed.
477:2 "Shakspeare and his Times," p. 355.
478:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. pp. 127–141.
478:2 See p. 266.
478:3 See Malone's "Variorum Shakespeare," 1821, ii. p. 90.
478:4 See Singer's "Shakespeare," vi. p. 167.
479:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," ii., p. 765.
479:2 "Faerie Queene," bk. iii., c. 2; See Singer's "Shakespeare," ix. p. 82
479:3 Boisteau's "Theatrum Mundi," translated by John Alday (1574).
479:4 1849, iii., pp. 60, 61.
480:1 See Hardwick's "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore," 1872, pp. 197, 224.
481:1 The addition in brackets is rejected by the Editors of the Globe Edition.
481:2 Cf. "Measure for Measure," ii. 2, iii. 1; "Much Ado About Nothing," v. 1; "Love's Labour's Lost," iii. 1.
482:1 See Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1879, i. pp. 44–51; Jones's "Credulities Past and Present," pp. 493–507; Hampson's "Œvi Medii Kalendarium," i. p. 210; see an Article on "Day Fatality" in John Aubrey's "Miscellanies."
484:1 See Kelly's "Notices illustrative of the Drama and other Amusements at Leicester," 1865, pp. 116, 118.
484:2 Drake's "Shakspeare and his Times," p. 352.
486:1 "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore," p. 81.
486:2 "Glossary," ii. p. 974.
487:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. pp. 229–231.
487:2 "Folk-Lore of Northern Counties," 2849, p. 57.