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It's almost Halloween, All Hallows Eve when the spirits of the dead are said to walk among the living. What will you wear to frighten the spirits and keep them at bay? Or will you greet them with offerings of flowers and foods and skulls made of sugar, como el dìa de los muertos, honoring the ones who've died? Do you celebrate Samhain (November), the harvest festival that is known as the Celtic New Year, the start of the dark half of the year? Or recognize Toussaint, the French festival that melds Samhain and All Souls' Day, when families visit the graves and bring chrysanthemums - flowers so firmly associated with death that they are not given as gifts to the living? Beginning with Toussaint (the Black Month) and continuing until Christmas Eve, the next portal between the worlds of the living and the dead, the people of Bretagne (Brittany, France) begin their storytelling. At night, families and friends gathered to tell stories of fantasy and horror, of fairies, forsaken creatures and lost worlds.

Today, I'll be sharing part of a story that's perfect for Toussaint. It's from Macbeth, and it's a departure from his usual iambic pentameter (five poetic feet per line, each foot consisting of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). I'm pulling from Act 4, Scene 1, a scene featuring "the weird sisters," or at least that's what Macbeth calls them. That phrase, "the Weird Sisters" was also sometimes written as "the Wyrd Sisters," and they were norns (Norse versions of the fates, of which there were many, not just the three referred to in Greek and Roman mythology - those interested in learning about the norns are advised to check out the two surviving Eddas written about them).

Shakespeare set the weird sisters/witches apart from others by writing their lines in rhymed couplets (two lines that rhyme back to back) using trochaic tetrameter: Tetrameter means four poetic feet per line (shorter lines), Trochaic refers to trochee (TROkey), a two-syllable foot in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed (DUMta DUMta DUMta DUMta). Only most of the time, Shakespeare lops off that last "ta", so each line begins and ends with a stressed syllable. It makes their speech sound very different from that of anyone else, a completely separate cadence. Their ability to complete one another's thoughts is creepy; their chanting in unison creepier still. And then there's the content of their speech, which many believed to be "actual witch's spells."

    Thunder. Enter the three WITCHES.

First Witch
1Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.

Second Witch

2Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch

3Harpier cries "'Tis time, 'tis time."

First Witch

4Round about the cauldron go;
5In the poison'd entrails throw.
6Toad, that under cold stone
7Days and nights has thirty-one
8Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
9Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

10Double, double toil and trouble;
11Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

    Second Witch
12Fillet of a fenny snake,
13In the cauldron boil and bake;
14Eye of newt and toe of frog,
15Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
16Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
17Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
18For a charm of powerful trouble,
19Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

20Double, double toil and trouble;
21Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Third Witch
22Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
23Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
24Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
25Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
26Liver of blaspheming Jew,
27Gall of goat, and slips of yew
28Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,
29Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
30Finger of birth-strangled babe
31Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
32Make the gruel thick and slab.
33Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
34For the ingredients of our cauldron.

35Double, double toil and trouble;
36Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Second Witch
37Cool it with a baboon's blood,
38Then the charm is firm and good.

**     Enter HECAT and the other three WITCHES.

39O well done! I commend your pains;
40And every one shall share i' the gains;
41And now about the cauldron sing,
42Live elves and fairies in a ring
43Enchanting all that you put in.

    Music and a song: "Black spirits, etc."

    [Exit HECATE.]

    Second Witch
44By the pricking of my thumbs,
45Something wicked this way comes.

You may have noticed that Hecate arrived near the end, there. Hecate was a goddess who came from Thrace, not Greece. The Greeks sometimes thought of her as a Titaness. She was originally a goddess of the wilderness and of childbirth; over the years, she gained a triple face. She's a prime example of the idea of a wise woman/midwife being perceived as a witch, as her reputation altered over time from that of a powerful non-Greek goddess with influence over childbirth and knowledge of wild plants to that of a night-walking, crone-like sorceress.

The last two lines of the scene announce the coming of Macbeth. After all of the "evil" depicted in the scene, Shakespeare makes clear that the truly wicked thing has not yet arrived. The last line quoted has been used in many places, but most famously as a Ray Bradbury title. I can't see the words any longer without triggering the choral performance from the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

In researching Macbeth, I learned that for centuries, it's been considered unlucky by many theatre folk to say the name Macbeth unless it's during rehearsal or performance, perhaps because Shakespeare presumed to use real magic, but more likely because theatre folks are a superstitious lot, the same as athletes and other folk. Others think it's only unlucky to say the name of the play whilst in or near a theatre, but saying it elsewhere (like in a classroom) is okay. It's usually called "the Scottish play" or "the Scottish king" or "MacBee" in order to avoid the curse. The remedy, should one utter the name aloud, is to leave the room, close the door, turn around three times, say a dirty word (or spit, some say), then knock on the door and ask to be let back in. Or you can undo the ill by quoting from Hamlet, act 1, scene 4, beginning with line 39:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Being with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee.

A second superstition is that the play is unlucky to performers, and can be deadly, with actors suffering illnesses and injuries. Fans of The Simpsons no doubt remember the episode called The Regina Monologues, featuring Ian McKellen:

(That particular episode also featured cameos by Tony Blair and J.K. Rowling.)

To check out Amiko Hirao's snowflake and to get the links for the other snowflakes featured in the blogosphere today, click on the Robert's Snow button to the left, which will direct you to the listing over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.

While you're at 7-Imp, don't miss their monster post for Poetry Friday.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 26th, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
trick or treat, indeed!
What a stew!

With that collection of ingredients, I think I'll eat at Debbi's today -- the tomato soup looks good!
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
Re: trick or treat, indeed!
Her soup looks far better than any of the stuff mentioned here sounds!
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC)
Re: trick or treat, indeed!
I've certainly heard the "chorus" to this poem a million times...and even some of the ingredients....but to read all you posted...a Witches' Brew, for sure!
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
It was intereseting to read this again, many years after studying Macbeth in high school--the only part of this that I remember reliably is "eye of newt and toe of frog" (so benign compared to the third witch's bit, which I obviously repressed for good reason)...and I certainly didn't remember live elves and fairies dancing around at the end :)!

Oct. 26th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
I only remember the "double double toil and trouble" with any certainty. Perhaps even the newt and frog were too much for me? And even though I read it today, and did copious coding to post it, the presence of live elves and fairies didn't register until you said something about them!
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)
TadMack says:
Oh, THIS is so much fun. We did it at grad school -- in costume -- with props -- just because we could, for our Shakespeare course. The undergrads were a little alarmed, I think, because we were having WAY too much fun. Cackling and all.

The liver of the Jewish person thing, though -- that we all had to kind of go, "What!?"
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says:
It has bits of Turks and Tartars as well. And to be fair, they did require a blaspheming Jew, which is to say, one who had sinned. The Turks and Tartars appear to have been presumed bad all on their own!
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
Heeeheee! Cackle, cackle.

I've never heard the tidbits about the theater superstitions. Why is it, do you think, that there were so many superstitions among theater folk--could it be they thought there was something magical in acting--"becoming" someone they were not?
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:53 pm (UTC)
Dunno. Athletes have the same kinds of superstitions, involving hair growth, bathing and the changing of apparel, among other things. I'm not quite sure why, though. Did you watch the video?
Oct. 26th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
I love the Simpsons! I do recall that episode. :)
Oct. 26th, 2007 03:55 pm (UTC)
I saw a fabulous performance of "the Scottish play" by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival company several years ago. It surprises me how Shakespeare can scare me out of my wits after so much familiarity and so many years. I think it's because all the real evil, as you say, lies in his humans. The combination of the naked look at human evil with the glorious language of his poetry rivets me every time.

Sara Lewis Holmes
Oct. 26th, 2007 04:00 pm (UTC)
The witches, horrible as their chant are, are closer to comedic relief in some ways. The real evil is in Macbeth and his Lady. And oh, the wonderful, wonderful quotes that come from this play. Not just "out, out, damn spot" but "'Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" and on and on.
Oct. 26th, 2007 04:15 pm (UTC)
Wow, it was great to read the witches again. While I was reading it, I felt the power of the incantation, and got spooked! Centuries later, Shakespeare still reigns supreme. Very interesting bit about the theatre superstition, too. All this talk of spells (Sara Lewis Holmes) and enchantment! (My brother's name is "Newt"!) Yeooww!
Oct. 26th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
Stay away from his eyes!

I was so happy to find the Simpsons clip to add in. Too funny.
Oct. 26th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
Now me, I'd love a gift of chrysanthemums. It's day lillies that seem funereal.
Oct. 26th, 2007 11:31 pm (UTC)
Day lilies smell funereal, too.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 26th, 2007 11:31 pm (UTC)
Oct. 26th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
Ah what a treat! The classic witch scene and a Simpson clip.

I had forgotten the darker elements though, most notably "finger of birth-strangled babe". Yowzers.

-John Mutford
Oct. 26th, 2007 11:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks!
Not just any birth-strangled babe either: must be "ditch delivered by a drab".
Oct. 27th, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)
Something wicked
I'm doing my evil laugh. Mwahahahaaaaa.
Oct. 27th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Something wicked
Eek! Scary!!
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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