« PreviousContinue »
“I have of late (but, wherefore, I know not) lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises : and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a steril promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look yon,-this brave o'erhanging firmament --this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." We can conceive this train of thought to be in harmony with the temper in which Shakspere must have regarded the public events of 1600. We may even believe that those events might have directed his mind to a more passionate and solemn and earnest exercise of its power than had previously been called forth. We may fancy such tragic scenes having their influence in rendering the great master of comedy, unrivalled amidst his contemporaries for the brilliancy of his wit and the genuineness of his humour, turn to other and loftier themes :
“I come no more to make you laugh ; things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
But the influence of time in the formation and direction of the poetical power must also be taken into account. Shakspere was now thirtyseven years of age. He had attained to the consciousness of his own intellectual strength, and he had acquired by long practice the mastery of his own genius. He had already learnt to direct the stage to higher and nobler purposes than those of mere amusement. It might be carried farther into the teaching of the highest philosophy through the medium of the grandest poetry. The epoch which produced “Othello," “Lear,” and “Macbeth,” has been described as exhibiting the genius of Shakspere in full possession and habitual exercise of power, " at its very point of culmination.”+
The year 1601 was also a year which brought to Shakspere a great domestic affliction. His father died on the 8th of September of that year. It is impossible not to feel that Shakspere's family arrangements, imperfectly as we know them, had especial reference to the comfort and honour of his parents. When he bought New Place in 1597, his occupations then demanding his presence in London through great part of the year, his wife and children, we may readily imagine, were near neighbours if not under the same roof with his father and mother. They had sighed over the declining health of his little Hamnet, — they had watched over the growth of his Susanna and Judith. If restricted means had at any previous period assailed them, he had provided for the comforts of their advanced age. And now that father, the companion of his boyhood— he who had led him forth into the fields and had taught him to look at nature with a practical eye-was gone. More materials for deep thought in the year 1601. The Register of Stratford thus attests the death of this earliest friend :
Septembg mo gaganoo Sgabfppan TT
In an elaborate and ingenious paper read to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, by John Anderson, Esq., “On the Site of Macbeth's Castle at Inverness,"* the author says, “The extreme accuracy with which Shakspere has followed the minutiæ of Macbeth's career has given rise to the opinion that he himself visited those scenes which are immortalized by his pen.” This question was first raised by William Guthrie, in 1767. Sir John Sinclair, as stated by Drake, “when speaking of the local traditions respecing Macbeth's castle at Dunsinane, infers from their coincidence with the drama, that Shakspeare, in his capacity of actor, travelled to Scotland in 1599, and collected on the spot materials for the exercise of his imagination.'” Drake doubts the validity of the inference. Malone gives the statement and the
* “Transactions," vol. iii., 28th January, 1828.
conjecture of Guthrie, adding, “ If the writer had any ground for this assertion, why was it not stated ? It is extremely improbable that Shakspeare should have left London at this period. In 1599 his "King Henry V.' was produced, and without doubt acted with great applause.” A subsequent visit of a company of English players to Scotland is detailed in a bulky local history published in London in 1818,
—the “Annals of Aberdeen,” by William Kennedy. This writer does not print the document upon which he founds his statement; but his narrative is so circumstantial as to leave little doubt that the company of players to which Shakspere belonged visited Aberdeen in 1601. The account of Mr. Kennedy has since been commented upon in a paper published in the “Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland," in 1830 ; and in a most lively, instructive, and learned volume -a model of guide-books—“The Book of Bon Accord, or a Guide to the City of Aberdeen,” 1839.
The story of Macbeth was presented to Shakspere in a sufficiently complete form by the chronicler from whom he derived so many other materials, Holinshed. In testing, therefore, “the extreme accuracy with which Shakspere has followed the minutiæ of Macbeth's career” – by which we understand the writer to mean the accuracy of the poet in details of locality, we must inquire how far he agrees with, or differs from, and how far he expands, or curtails, the local statements or allusions of his chief authority. In the tragedy, Macbeth and Banquo, returning from their victory, are proceeding to Forres : “ How far is 't called to Forres ?” In the chronicler we find, " It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres, where the king then lay.” So far there is agreement as to the scene. The historian thus proceeds : “ They went sporting by the way together without other company, passing thorough the woods and fields, when suddenly, in the middest of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparel.” This description presents to us the idea of a pleasant and fertile place. The very spot where the supernatural soliciting occurs is a laund, or meadow amongst trees.* The poet chose his scene with greater art. The witches meet “ upon the heath;” they stop the way of Macbeth and Banquo upon the “blasted heath.” But the poet was also more accurate than the historian in his traditionary topography. The country around Forres is wild moorland. Boswell, passing from Elgin to Forres in company with Johnson, says, “In the afternoon we drove over the very heath where Macbeth met the witches, according to tradition. Dr. Johnson again solemnly repeated, “How far is 't called to Forres ?' &c.” But, opposed to this, the more general tradition holds that the “ blasted heath” was on the east of Forres, between that town and Nairn, “A more dreary piece of moorland is not to be found in all Scotland. ....... There is something startling to a stranger in seeing the solitary figure of the peat-digger or rush-gatherer moving amidst the waste in the sunshine of a calm autumn day ; but the desolation of the scene in stormy weather, or when the twilight fogs are trailing over the pathless heath, or settling down upon the pools, must be indescribable.”I We thus see that, whether Macbeth met the weird sisters to the east or west of Forres, there was in each place that desolation which was best fitted for such an event, and not the woods and fields and launds of the chronicler. From Forres, where Macbeth proffers his service and his loyalty to his king, was a day's ride to his own castle : “From hence to Inverness.” Boece makes Inverness the scene of Duncan's murder. Holinshed merely says, “ He slew the king at Enverns, or (as some say) at Botgosvane.” The chroniclers would have furnished Shakspere no notion of the particular character of the castle at Inverness. Without some
* A laund is described by Camden as "a plain amongst trees."
+ See “Illustrations of Macbeth," Act I.
local knowledge the poet might have placed it upon a frowning rock, lonely, inaccessible, surrounded with a gloom and grandeur fitted for deeds of murder and usurpation. He has chosen altogether a different scene :
“ Dun. This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
This guest of summer,
Such a description, contrasting as it does with the deeds of terror that are to be acted in that pleasant seat, is unquestionably an effort of the highest art. But here again the art appears founded upon a reality. Mr. Anderson, in the paper which we have already quoted, has shown from various records that there was an old castle at Inverness. It was not the castle whose ruins Johnson visited, and of which Boswell says, “ It perfectly corresponds with Shakspeare's description;" but a castle on an adjacent eminence called the Crown—80 called from having been a royal seat. Traditionary lore, Mr. Anderson says, embodies this opinion, connecting the place with the history of Macbeth. “Immediately opposite to the Crown, on a similar eminence, and separated from it by a small valley, is a farm belonging to a gentleman of the name of Welsh. That part of the ascent to this farm next Viewfield, from the Great Highland Road, is called "Banquo's Brae. The whole of the vicinity is rich in wild imagery. From the mouth of the valley of Diriebught to King's Mills, thence by the road to Viewfield, and down the gorge of Aultmuniack to the mail-road along the sea-shore, we compass a district celebrated in the annals of diablerie.” The writer the ngoes on to mention other circumstances corroborating his opinion as to the site of Macbeth's castle: “Traces of what has been an approach to a place of consequence are still discernible. This approach enters the lands of Diriebught from the present mail-road from Fort George ; and, running through the valley, gradually ascends the bank of the Crown Hill; and, the level attained, strikes again towards the eastern point, where it terminates. Here the
pleasant seat' is rumoured to have stood, facing the sea ; and singularly correct with respect to the relative points of the compass will be found the poet's disposal of the portal 'at the south entry.”
The investiture of Macbeth at Scone, and the burial of Duncan at Colmes-kill, are facts derived by the poet from the chronicler. Hence also Shakspere derived the legend, of which he made so glorious a use, that “a certain witch whom he had in great trust had told Macbeth that he should never be slain with man born of any woman, nor vanquished till the wood of Birnane came to the Castle of Dunsinane." From Holinshed, also, he acquired a general notion of the situation of this castle : “He builded a strong castle on the top of an high hill called Dunsinane, situate in Gowrie, ten miles from Perth, on such a proud height that standing there aloft a man might behold well near all the countries of Angus, Fife, Stirmond, and Erndale, as it were lying underneath him.” The propinquity of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane is indicated only in the chronicler by the circumstance that Malcolm rested there the night before the battle, and on the morrow marched to Dunsinane, every man “ bearing a bough of some tree or other of that wood in his hand.” The com
manding position of Dunsinane, as described by the chronicler, is strictly adhered to by the poet :
“As I did stand my watch upon the hill
I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought
The wood began to move."
“Within this three mile may you see it coming ;
I say, a moving grove." This minuteness sounds like individual local knowledge. The Dunsinane Hills form a long range extending in a north-easterly direction from Perth to Glamis. The castle of the “ thane of Glamis” has been made a traditionary scene of the murder of Duncan. Birnam Hill is to the north-west of Perth ; and between the two elevations there is a distance of some twelve miles, formed by the valley of the Tay. But Birnam Hill and Birnam Wood might have been essentially different spots two centuries and a half ago. The plain is now under tillage ; but even in the time of Shakspere it might have been for the most part woodland, extending from Birnam Hill to within four or five miles of Dunsinane ; distinguished from Birnam Hill as Birnam Wood. At the distance of three or four miles it was “a moving grove." It was still nigher to Dunsinane when Malcolm exclaimed,
“Now, near enough, your leafy screens throw down.” These passages in the play might have been written without any local knowledge, but they certainly do not exhibit any local ignorance. It has been said, “ The probability