Friday, October 26, 2007

By the pricking of my thumbs -- a Poetry Friday post

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.


Shannon said...

Wow! I posted the Three Witches too and just learned so much from your post! Thank you. Love the Simpson's clip...

jules said...

Great entry (I'm slow in getting to it). LOVE that Simpsons moment.

Kelly Fineman said...

Shannon and Jules: So glad you enjoyed the Simpsons clip!