The Three Weird Sisters from the 1948 film ‘MacBeth’ directed by Orson Welles
It is arguable that William Shakespeare holds that unassailable position of being regarded as the greatest English language dramatist of all time. Other greats such as Wilde, Shaw, Pinter, Potter and numerous others are regarded as being ‘a lesser genius’ although still very much a genius.
From the perspective of the Craft, Paganism and the Occult there are two books that deal with the folklore and supernatural themes found within the works of the Bard that may be of interest to contemporary practitioners and folklorists.
One is ‘Shakespeare and the Supernatural: A Brief Study of Folklore, Superstition, and Witchcraft in Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest’ by Margaret Lucy and William Jaggard. Another is ‘Folk-Lore of Shakespeare’ by T. F. Thiselton Dyer. Both works are now quite old as the latter work is a Victorian one for example. Both are however still available, as budget price reprints via Amazon and other sources.
Robert Cochrane was of the opinion that Shakespeare was ‘of the Craft’ as the wealth of folklore and symbolism contained in his work, betrayed in Cochrane’s opinion, inside knowledge. This is of course un-provable but that possibility, together with the contents of the plays, opens up a vista for speculative study.
Recently Michael Howard produced an excellent article for Pagan Dawn (issue 182 Imbolc – Spring Equinox 2012 pp42-44) simply entitled ‘Witchcraft in Shakespeare.’ In his article Howard has reminded us that the Bard depicts Witchcraft or makes reference to sorcery, in several plays and not only the famous Scottish play. He further reminds us that these references reflect the common held belief and perceptions of Elizabethan culture. In that respect Shakespeare is doing what all playwrights do, holding up a mirror and reflecting the trends and beliefs current within society at the time of writing. Shakespeare provides us with a window into the psychology of his own times.
Shakespeare however, does more than simply chronicle the Elizabethan and later Stuart perspective on Witchcraft and sorcery as his plays also contain other references of interest. These include folklore, country medicine and ghosts, together with the exploration of several other supernatural themes. Hence my mention of the two books above.
In late 2012 I had the great delight of attending a performance of the ‘Scottish Play’ in Derby, presented magnificently by the Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company. Chris Scott in the lead role built upon his previous outstanding performances which have included Hamlet; to give an exceptionally sensitive interpretation of the usurper King of Scotland, which was a true pleasure to experience.
The play as per the norm opened with the Three Weird Sisters upon the heath. The opening words however were not those of the Bard. Rather we had an interpolation in the form of a paraphrased closing of the quarters taken from the Alexandrian Book of Shadows and provided in this instance, by the director’s assistant Miss Elke-Loiuse Crump. The supernatural theme and the question of the role of Fate were therefore, emphasised from the beginning in this interpretation of the story and the choice of words, in that now well known mock ‘old world English’ fitted perfectly with the traditional cauldron scene that followed.
The three unusually young women that played The Weird Sisters all wore similar apparel and obviously used similar mannerisms, this together with the Shakespearian dialogue emphasised their own ‘continuity’ throughout the play. This ‘triplicity’ was itself later emphasised with the appearance of Hecate, played by three women of more mature years in a clever juxtaposition to the perceived youth of The Weird Sisters. The Three Hecate like The Sisters appeared in near identical costume with leafy crowns, no Wiccanesque Maiden, Mother, Crone but a traditional neo-Classical interpretation of The Queen.
Does Shakespeare still have relevance today? Without a doubt and seeing a live performance is very much to experience a putting of flesh upon the bones. The plays of Shakespeare like his Sonnets and the stories of our ancestors, were never meant to be read but were instead, meant to be seen, performed and heard.
Supporting theatre companies such as the Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company is one way of seeing the words of the Bard and the themes he is expressing take on a new life and speak to us through the voices of our ancestors.
As stated the ‘Scottish Play’ is just one example of the work of the Bard that explores the themes of Fate, the supernatural and folk-tradition. One famous Shakespearian example of what may be an archaic hunting custom is found in "As You Like It" Act IV Scene 2:
"What shall he have that kill'd the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home:
(The rest shall bear this burden).
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn,
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father's father wore it,
And thy father bore it;
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn,
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn."
What is the origin and meaning of this custom? That we may never know for certain but the significance of the symbolism will speak to us via our subconscious. There finding a deep resonance within and calling to us on a primeval level, to recognise the Hunted as one with the Hunter, a manifestation of one facet of the Divine Masculine as the Antlered God and a philosophical concept of great complexity that many, including myself, will struggle continually to fully understand. That is the nature of the Mysteries.
The title of this piece, ‘The Rediscovery of Shakespeare’ is in truth an anomaly. Shakespeare does not need to be rediscovered as he was never truly lost.
“This above all; to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Speech of Polonius from “Hamlet” Act 1, scene 3.
The Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company
More details on this highly talented theatrical company can be found here: