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Observations On The Tragedy Of Macbeth
by [?]




[Transcriber’s note: There are two footnote systems in use in this section. The numbered footnotes in square brackets, [1], [2], etc, are those of the editor, and are to be found at the end of the section. The lettered footnotes in round brackets, (a), (b), etc, are Johnson’s, and are to be found at the end of each Note.]



Enter three Witches.

In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet, who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability; he would be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the notions, that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove, that Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage, and was far from over-burdening the credulity of his audience.

The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned themselves[1]. These phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world. The time, in which this kind of credulity was at its height, seems to have been that of the holy war, in which the Christians imputed all their defeats to enchantment or diabolical opposition, as they ascribe their success to the assistance of their military saints; and the learned Dr. Warburton appears to believe (Supplement to the Introduction to Don Quixote) that the first accounts of enchantments were brought into this part of the world by those who returned from their eastern expeditions. But there is always some distance between the birth and maturity of folly, as of wickedness: this opinion had long existed, though, perhaps, the application of it had in no foregoing age been so frequent, nor the reception so general. Olympiodorus, in Photius’s Extracts, tells us of one Libanius, who practised this kind of military magick, and having promised [Greek: choris hopliton kata barbaron energein], to perform great things against the barbarians without soldiers, was, at the instances of the emperess Placidia, put to death, when he was about to have given proofs of his abilities. The emperess showed some kindness in her anger by cutting him off at a time so convenient for his reputation.

But a more remarkable proof of the antiquity of this notion may be found in St. Chrysostom’s book de Sacerdotio, which exhibits a scene of enchantments, not exceeded by any romance of the middle age; he supposes a spectator, overlooking a field of battle, attended by one that points out all the various objects of horrour, the engines of destruction, and the arts of slaughter. [Greek: Deiknuto de eti para tois enantiois kai petomenous hippous dia tinos manganeias kai hoplitas di aeros pheromenous, kai pasaen goaeteias dunamin kai hidean.] Let him then proceed to show him in the opposite armies horses flying by enchantment, armed men transported through the air, and every power and form of magick. Whether St. Chrysostom believed that such performances were really to be seen in a day of battle, or only endeavoured to enliven his description, by adopting the notions of the vulgar, it is equally certain, that such notions were in his time received, and that, therefore, they were not imported from the Saracens in a later age; the wars with the Saracens, however, gave occasion to their propagation, not only as bigotry naturally discovers prodigies, but as the scene of action was removed to a greater distance, and distance, either of time or place, is sufficient to reconcile weak minds to wonderful relations.