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:—
"Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or season's quality:
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind;
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find."
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." This form of superstition is noticed in I Henry VI. (v. 3) in the scene laid at Angiers where La Pucelle exclaims—
"The regent conquers, and the Frenchmen fly.
Now help, ye charming spells and periapts."
—periapts being charms which were worn as preservatives against diseases or mischief. Thus Cotgrave 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—
"He is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies," &c.
And in the next scene Calpurnia adds—
"Cæsar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me."
Charms.—These, as Mr Pettigrew 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—
"To day how many would have given their honours
To have saved their carcases! took heel to do’t,
And yet died too! I, in my own woe charm’d,
Could not find death where I did hear him groan,
Nor feel him where he struck."
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:—
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and almost could read
The thoughts of people."
And in the same play (i. 1), Brabantio asks—
"Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abused?"
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):—
"Iago. Go to, charm your tongue.
Emilia. I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak."
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—
"Macbeth. Tell me thou unknown power.
First Witch. He knows thy thoughts:
Hear his speech, but say thou nought."
Again in the "Tempest" (iv. 1), Prospero says—
"Hush, and be mute,
Or else our spell is marr’d."
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—
"Shall we think the subtle-witted French
Conjurers and sorcerers, that afraid of him,
By magic verses have contrived his end."
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—
"Hearkens after prophecies and dreams;
And from the cross-row plucks the letter G."
Dreams.—These, considered as prognostics of good or evil, are frequently introduced by Shakespeare. In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 3), Andromache exclaims—
"My dreams will, sure, prove ominous to the day."
While Romeo (v. 1), declares—
"My dreams presage some joyful news at hand."
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, "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; 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—
"Jessica, my girl,
Look to my house. I am right loath to go:
There is some ill a brewing towards my rest,
For I did dream of money-bags to-night."
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; hence Macbeth (ii. 1), exclaims—
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!"
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—
"Go, take hence that traitor from our sight;
For by his death we do perceive his guilt:
And God in justice hath reveal’d to us
The truth and innocence of this poor fellow,
Which he hath thought to have murder’d wrongfully,
Come, fellow, follow us for thy reward."
We may also compare what Arcite says to Palamon in the "Two Noble Kinsmen" (iii. 6)—
"If I fall, curse me, and say I was a coward;
For none but such dare die in these just trials."
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." Butler, in his "Hudibras," alludes to this custom—
"Engag’d with money bags, as bold
As men with sand-bags did of old."
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—
"Like a prophet,
Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,
Either new, or by remissness new-conceived," etc.
Again, Macbeth (iv. f), when "a show of eight kings" is presented to him, exclaims after witnessing the seventh—
"I'll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more."
Spenser 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." Brand, in his "Popular Antiquities," 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—
"Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguiled me to the very heart of loss."
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." 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—
"—The Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders."
In the "Tempest" (iii. 3), Gonzalo relates how—
"When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men,
Whose heads stood in their breasts?"
And after the appearance of Prospero's magic repast, Sebastian says—
"Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phœnix's throne, one phœnix
At this hour reigning there."
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]."
Ascapart, according to the legend, was "ful thyrty fote longe," and was conquered by Sir Bevis of Southampton.
In "Cymbeline" (iii. 3), Belarius says—
"The gates of monarchs
Are arch’d so high, that giants may jet through
And keep their impious turbans on, without
Good morrow to the sun."
In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 1), Mrs Page says—
"I had rather be a giantess, and lie under Mount Pelion."
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—
"What hath this day deserved? what hath it done,
That it in golden letters should be set
Among the high tides in the calendar?
Nay, rather turn this day out of the week,
This day of shame, oppression, perjury.
Or, if it must stand still, let wives with child
Pray that their burthens may not fall this day,
Lest that their hopes prodigiously be cross’d:
But on this day let seamen fear no wreck;
No bargains break that are not this day made:
This day, all things begun come to ill end,
Yea, faith itself to hollow falsehood change!"
Again, Macbeth (iv. 1) says—
"Let this pernicious hour
Stand aye accursed in the calendar!"
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—
"By the almanack, I think,
To choose good days and shun the critical."
At the present day this superstition still retains its hold on the popular mind, and in the transactions of life exerts an important influence.
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—
"Lend thy hand,
And pluck my magic garment from me.—So;
Lie there, my art."
A similar importance is assigned to his staff, for he tells Ferdinand (i. 2)—
"I can here disarm thee with this stick,
And make thy weapon drop."
And when he abjures the practice of magic, one of the requisites is "to break his staff," and to (v. 1)—
"Bury it certain fathoms in the earth."
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)—
First to possess his books; for without them,
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command."
Prospero, too, declares (iii. 1)—
"I'll to my book,
For yet ere supper time must I perform
Much business appertaining."
And on his relinquishing his art he says that—
"Deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book."
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—
"I cannot choose: sometime he angers me,
With telling me of the moldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies;
And of a dragon and a finless fish," etc.
In "King Lear" (iii. 2) the fool says—
"I'll speak a prophecy ere I go;
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
No heretics burn’d, but wenches' suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues:
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i’ the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;—
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time."
This witty satire was probably against the prophecies attributed to Merlin, which were then prevalent among the people.
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:—
"Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him."
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. Thus in "King Richard II." (ii. 4), the following prodigies are selected as the forerunners of the death or fall of kings
"’Tis thought the king is dead: we will not stay.
The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d,
And meteors fright the fix’d stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war:
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings."
Previous to the assassination of Julius Cæsar we are told in "Hamlet" (i. 1) how—
"In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun, and the moist star;
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse."
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:—
"The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesyings with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake."
This idea is further illustrated in the dialogue, which follows, between Ross and an old man:—
"Old Man. Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings."
"Ross. Ah, good father,
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is’t night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?"
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:—
"Let him go, Gertrude: do not fear our person:
There's such a divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will."
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, 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—
"O, gentlemen, see, see! dear Henry's wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh!
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity;
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells;
Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,
Provokes this deluge most unnatural."
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." 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, "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—
"It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood;
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augures and understood relations have
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood."
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."