Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Cauldron Connections

Every year about this time, there is a “it could only happen in Salem” story in the news: this year’s version reports a recent incident of assault and battery by cauldron in a downtown witchcraft shop. Trite but true, and it got me thinking about the association of witches and cauldrons, which I know dates back to the fifteenth century at the very least, and possibly earlier. So I took a little break from my various sabbatical projects and dug in, promising myself that I would devote only one hour to this diversion. It took me away for about 90 minutes, so that’s not too bad. Of course what immediately comes to mind, and is quoted in the newspaper article and all of its variants, is Shakespeare’s quote from Macbeth: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake. But that’s not the source of the connection; Shakespeare’s words and phrases, clever as they are, are generally a reflection. So what is the connection? I think there are three actually: the Hell-Mouth, the image of the concocting witch as an inversion of the nourishing mother, and poison. 

Cauldron Lamb Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare, 1807

There’s nothing too terribly original about the first two connections; the last, maybe. The Hell-Mouth dates back to the early medieval era, when Hell was first personified as demonic monster who tortures and ultimately devours damned souls: the cauldron-like mouth is both the entrance to Hell and the scene of the torture and devouring, but increasingly in the later medieval manuscripts additional cauldrons (and demons) are added to this horrific depiction. As the cauldron is a tool of Satan, so too is the witch, who also utilizes cauldrons to stir up magical concoctions (with the bodies of unbaptized babies as a primary ingredient) in intensely-anecdotal late medieval texts like Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1475). By the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, we can see these witches, encircling and stirring their cauldrons, in Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (Of Witches and Diviner Women, 1489) and Hans Baldung’s various witch woodcuts (c. 1510).

Cauldron Hell-Mouth BL 2

Cauldron Hell-Mouth

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Cauldron BaldungTwo hundred years of cauldrons: British Library MS Additional 47682, the Harrowing of Hell in the Holkham Bible Picture Book, 1327-35; British Library MS Additional 38128, cauldron-like Hell-Mouth, late 14th-early 15th century; the Prince of Hell with his Cauldron Hat in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, 1500, Museo del Prado; Molitor’s Weather Witches, 1489; Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbat, c. 1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the sixteenth-century depictions, which will become increasingly lurid into the next century coincidentally with the intense persecution of witchcraft, I think it’s a hop, skip and jump to the folk-tale witches of the nineteenth century and postcard witches of the twentieth from the early twentieth, but there’s one more connection I think is worth exploring, even though I haven’t quite worked it out. A key contributing cause of the early modern witch hunt was the translation of a particular Old Testament passage, Exodus 22:18, into the vernacular as Thou Shall not Suffer a Witch to Live, a translation which Reginald Scot contested in his early and popular skeptical treatise on witchcraft and its prosecution, The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584–one of Shakespeare’s sources). Scot maintained that the original Hebrew word utilized in the passage, which he referred to as Chasaph but is usually referenced (in its root form) as Kasaph, really meant diviner, seer, or poisoner rather than the “witch” of Christian demonology. Before the seventeenth century, the crime of witchcraft in England was perceived more specifically as maleficium, or harmful magic, rather then devil-worship, and poison was the most pernicious form of maleficium: it required knowledge, and skill (and perhaps a cauldron) and those found guilty of bringing about death by poison were sentenced to death by boiling in a cauldron! A sensational poisoning case in 1531 involved Richard Roose, a cook in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who attempted to murder his master by poison. The bishop was spared but two people in the household did indeed die before Roose was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by “boiling” in a cauldron in Smithfield.  So much inversion tied to the cauldron and the witch beside it: from nourishment, healing and life to poisoning and death, from childbirth and mother’s milk to infanticide and poisonous gall (referenced by Lady Macbeth) before both are transformed into innocent vessels.

Witchal©Historic New England


A Kingdom for a Horse

This is the time of year that every teacher, at every level, is in a back-to-school mentality. I don’t feel like I’ve been out of school this particular summer, but nevertheless I am preparing for my fall classes with that usual sense of expectation–thank goodness. I haven’t taught a graduate course for a while, and this semester I’ll be teaching one of my favorites, a readings course on early modern England. I see some great students on my roster, I’ve chosen some of my favorite books old and new, and I expect that the entire experience will be a welcome weekly escape from my daily chair duties. For those of you who are not familiar with European historiography and chronology (which generally, with some variations and accommodations, incorporates English historiography and chronology), the early modern era begins around the turn of the sixteenth century, which means that early modern England begins with the Tudor Dynasty. And the Tudor Dynasty began today, 530 years ago, when Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and last Lancastrian standing, defeated King Richard III and his force at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard was killed in the battle (the last English king killed in action) and Henry was crowned shortly thereafter, right on the field.

Richmond crowned after the battle of Bosworth Field. Illustration from History of England by Henry Tyrrell (c 1860).

A rather romanticized Victorian view of the crowning of Henry over Richard’s dead body, from Henry Tyrell, A History of England for the Young (1860)

I don’t like to consign history to big battles but this was a big battle, a definite turning point. And even though Richard’s reputation has been somewhat restored by the recovery of his body from under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 (revealing 10 wounds to his head sustained during the battle) and its ceremonial re-internment this past spring, I doubt that he can ever rise above the characterization bequeathed to him by Shakespeare in his Tragedy of King Richard the Third, written in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty. While watching the dignified re-internment ceremony (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch–apparently a distant relation), I couldn’t help but think: all this for a ruthless child murder? On the other hand, the physical deformity which represented the rot within for Shakespeare only made him seem more human–and therefore vulnerable–when his skeleton was revealed. In any case, one Bosworth anecdotal episode that’s never going to go away, even though it is Shakespeare History rather than History, are his last moments and words, when, unhorsed, his character cries out in frustration: A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a Horse! These words are enduring because they are so Shakespearean universal: I’ve got ALL this but I really need THIS. Even the very biased Bard was willing to give the last medieval English king a bit of humanity/vulnerability at his/the very end.

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Bosworth Forrest LC

Bosworth Jefferson Davis 1864

Bosworth Yost LC

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The fame garnered by David Garrick (1717-1779–buried right next to Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey) in the role inspired many representations of Richard giving his “horse” speech: here are late 18th and early 19th century prints from the collections of the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum; the prominent American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest in the role as depicted in an 1855 print, Library of Congress; obviously such drama inspired satire, as seen in the Lincoln Campaign Dial for November 1864 (available here) portraying Jefferson Davis as Richard III and in George Yost Coffin’s political cartoon from the 1890s, Library of Congress; a neat photomanipulation by George Goodnight, aptly titled “My Kingdom for a Horse”.


Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

Belladonna Juliet-001

L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Belladonna-Pallette

Belladonna BM-001

Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


The Princes in the Tower

As today marks the accession of Edward V in 1483, I thought I would explore visual representations of one of the most popular mysteries in English history: the princes in the tower. My students certainly love this story: everything stops when we get to this moment, and I have to let them indulge in what if history, at least for a little while. The basic facts are these: the 12-year-old prince succeeded his father Edward IV on April 9, but his uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, assumed the head of a regency government. The boy king, along with his younger brother Richard, was placed in “protective custody” in the Tower of London (then more of a palace then a prison), from which they never left. The Regent Richard produced evidence of their father’s prior betrothal in June of 1483, invalidating their parents’ marriage, rendering them illegitimate and enabling his own succession; at some point in August or September they disappeared. Two years later, in the end game of the long dynastic struggle that was later romantically labeled the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor killed Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth and proclaimed himself King. The Tudor Dynasty commenced and along with it, the demonization of Richard III, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, his every own nephews. This was a campaign waged most effectively by Tudor apologists Sir Thomas More in the early part of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare later on. The skeletal remains of two bodies found in the foundation of a Tower staircase in 1674 were interred in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey, marked with the inscription proclaiming that the the young king and his brother were stifled with pillows…by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.

NPG 4980(11); King Edward V by Unknown artist

A Sixteenth-century Portrait of Edward V, National Portrait Gallery, London

And that’s been the standard story ever since, despite continuous Riccardian attempts to point out that there were other perfidious candidates, and other scenarios. And there are. The recent discovery of Richard III’s remains renewed interest in his most famous crime for a bit, but really, curiosity about the princes’ fate always seems to be simmering under the surface: there have been repeated calls for the testing of the urn’s remains which royal and church officials have repeatedly resisted, and Westminster Abbey’s official position is that the mortal remains of two young children widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes in the tower, should not be disturbed.  So that’s where we are with this story, and that is indeed what the princes in the tower has become:  a story about two young children confronted and overwhelmed by evil, close to home. A Grimm tale. While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly contributed to the outline and character development of this story, it was the nineteenth century that filled in all the details, especially in terms of the all-important visuals. It was actually a late eighteenth-century painting, James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower (after Shakespeare’s Richard III) that set the scene which later artists recreated in variants over the next century: young, innocent, blue-eyed angelic boys, increasingly “real”, either sleeping unaware or clutching each other in fear and apprehension, helpless in the face of encroaching evil (which is always more ominous when it is not in the picture).

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Mordecai

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Delaroche

Princes in the Tower Ward

Princes in the Tower Millais

James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), 1786, National Trust, Petworth House; Joseph Mordecai, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery; Charles Robert Leslie, The Two Princes in the Tower, 1837, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Paul Delaroche, The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and the Duke of York), mid-19th century, Tower of London; Henrietta Mary Ada Ward, The Princes in the Tower, 1861, Touchstones Rochdale; John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower, 1878, Royal Holloway, University of London. The work of Millais, setting the boys before the staircase where their supposed remains were later uncovered, has been a particularly influential image.


The Ides of March

Supposedly the word “ides” refers to the middle of the month, any month, but we never hear about the “Ides of July” or the “Ides of October”. We only hear of the Ides of March in reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15 in the year 44 B.C., a conspicuous date because of Shakespeare and his sources (primarily Plutarch). Beware the Ides of March says the soothsayer to Caesar, but he did not, or could not. In somewhat of the same way as we would use the phrase 9/11, the phrase was used afterwards to refer to the cataclysmic event and its impact: Caesar’s murder and the consequential (though short-lived) restoration of the Roman Republic. But Julius Caesar was also remembered as a martyr by some, and a brilliant commander and conqueror by all (I do not remember him fondly in this capacity, having struggled for so many years with Latin lessons based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars). I always find it interesting to see lavish medieval manuscripts devoted to Caesar’s life and death. There is a noticeable emphasis on his birth (giving rise to the myth that he was the product of the first “Caesarean section”) as well as to his military exploits: like Alexander the Great, he becomes an “acceptable” pre-Christian hero. A bit later, he is always found among the “three worthy pagans” or “three heroic heathens’ of Renaissance histories.

Ides of March Bl MS Royal

Ides of March Hopfer

Ides of March Negker

The medieval Ides of March, from British Library MS Royal 16 G VII, 14th Century(Les anciennes hystoires rommaines (A compilation of ancient history in two parts); and the Renaissance Caesar in Daniel Hopfer’s “Three Worthy Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar”, c. 1516, and Hans Burgkmair’s “Three Heroic Heathens”(also on the right), c. 1516, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tragedy of Julius Caesar inextricably linked the iconic man with his assassination–and the date thereof. When you read histories of England from his era, the same histories that Shakespeare would have read, you can see why he would have wanted to add a play about Caesar to his English history plays: for the Elizabethans, English history begins with the Roman invasions of 55 and 54 BC, and this would be the framework for several centuries. And during this time Britain would become an Empire, like Rome, with democratic ideals, like Rome: the life and death of Julius Caesar could serve as reference points for the emerging pax Britannica.

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A 1684 edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar; William Sharp print of the death scene of the play, with an avenging Antony kneeling over Caesar’s slain body, 1785, British Museum.

Ultimately it is the mutability or adaptability of Caesar (and his death) that explains his (ever-) lasting appeal: he represents triumph and tragedy, power and corruption, reach and over-reach. There are many romantic contradictions in Caesar’s story, which is why I think the French classical painters of the nineteenth century depict him most effectively–they certainly had their Caesars! But a Caesar could appear at any time, in any place, bringing forth another Ides of March.

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Ideas of March Death of Caesar Gerome 1867

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Ideas of March Puck-001

Alexandre Denis Abel de Pujol, Julius Caesar Proceeding to the Senate on the Ides of March, 19th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes; Jean-Leon Gerome, Death of Caesar & sketch, 1859-67, Walters Art Museum; Puck cover from June, 1908 with a Caesar-like Theodore Roosevelt rejecting the crown of 1908 while that of 1912 hovers nearby, Library of Congress.


A Conspicuous Courtesan

Narrowing in on the subjects of Tudors and trials of my last post, I am presently working on a scholarly paper about the famous/infamous Jane Shore (née Elizabeth Lambert), a favorite mistress of King Edward IV (r. 1461-83), who, after his death, was accused of conspiratorial witchcraft in collusion with Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and the powerful courtier Lord William Hastings by King Richard III. Hastings lost his head, the Queen emerged unscathed under the protection of the ascendant Tudors, and Jane was compelled to undertake a barely-clothed (“save her kyrtle”) public walk of penance through the streets of London for harlotry–not witchcraft. Perhaps you can perceive my challenge: Jane Shore’s life reads like a novel or a play, and consequently she has received far more attention from novelists and playwrights than historians. Jane’s walk of shame, in particular, has been the focus of dramatic and visual representations from at least the eighteenth century onwards.

Conspicuous Courtesan Penny

NPG D19938; Called Jane Shore by Edward Scriven, published by  Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, after  Walter Stephens Lethbridge

Jane Shore Doing Penance through the Streets of London between Two Monks null by British School 19th century 1800-1899

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Conspicuous Courtesan Plaidy

Penitential Jane: Edward Penny, Jane Shore Led in Penance to Saint Pauls, c. 1775-76, Birmingham Museums Trust;  British School, Edward Scriven stipple engraving after Walter Stephens Lethbridge, published by Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1821, National Portrait Gallery London; Jane Shore Doing Penance on the Streets of London between Two Monks, 19th century, Tate Museum; Victorian penny novel and the first (of many to come) cover of Jean Plaidy’s The King’s Mistress/Goldsmith’s Wife, 1952.

You can see where this is going…the Jean Plaidy cover is quite something!  After Nicholas Rowe’s “she-tragedy” The Tragedy of Jane Shore appeared in 1714 Jane was resurrected as a dramatic character, but she had played that role before. As a new dynasty, the Tudors had a vested interest in emphasizing the tyranny of Richard’s brief reign, thereby rationalizing and legitimizing their own. Consequently Richard’s victims, whether the completely innocent “princes in the tower” or the not-so-innocent Jane, were presented as overwhelmingly sympathetic figures. In his History of King Richard III, even the priggish Thomas More (who was acquainted with Jane in her old age–yes, she survived the walk of shame) characterizes her as soft, pleasant, witty, merry, and above all, tender-hearted, using her power over Edward to help others rather than herself: she never abused to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief; where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon. More’s characterization proved consequential, and she persists (always as “Shore’s wife” even though her marriage to goldsmith William Shore was annulled in 1476 on the grounds of his impotence!) as the subject of ballads, plays and poems in the sixteenth century and after, by more Thomases (Churchyard, Deloney, Heywood) and their peers. Even Shakespeare references “Mistress Shore” in his Richard III, though he does not put her on the stage.

The visual depictions of Jane continue as well, and my favorites are portraits rather than those of her penitential walk. For his Shakespeare illustrated by an Assemblage of Portraits and Views appropriated to the whole suite of our Author’s Historical Dramas (1789-93), the artist and publisher Sylvester Harding produced two contrasting portraits of Jane–as harlot and lady–clearly taking his inspiration for the former from the earlier portraits of another conspicuous courtesan:  Diane de Poitiers, mistress of the French king Henri II. A morphing of mistresses!

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 51 (Jane Shore)

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 52 (Jane Shore)

Sylvester Harding, Portraits of Jane Shore, after 1790, Folger Shakespeare Library.


Poison Vessels

News of the discovery of a late medieval poison ring in eastern Europe has intrigued me; I know that “poison rings” (alternatively called “pillbox rings” with built-in receptacles) were popular in the Renaissance and after, but very few of them actually served to contain or convey poison–more likely the held articles of remembrance. But this Bulgarian bronze ring, with its little channel, looks like the real thing! It instantly reminded me of one of my favorite (also late medieval) woodcut illustrations of a woman poisoning her husband–through a much larger pipeline–and set me off on a hunt for more man-made vessels for poison, besides the proverbial poison arrow.

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Book of Wisdom of the Ancient Sages, 1481; The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 83, German Book Illustration before 1500: Anonymous Artists, 14811482.

Well of course the most obvious vessel is a cup:  whether medieval depictions of Socrates drinking his hemlock or later prints of supposed royal assassinations, the poison is generally conveyed in a cup, or, more seriously, a chalice, as in Shakespeare’s This evenhanded justice Commends thingredients of our poisoned chalice (Macbeth). Somehow a chalice is more reverent, and at the same time menacing, than a mere cup. John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (1563) shows King John being poisoned by English monks offering his majesty a chalice of wassail, of all things. The chalice and the mortar and pestle become the two most “medieval” vessels associated with poison, as in the line from Danny Kaye’s Court Jester (1955): the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!

Poison Cup Socrates

Poison Cup BM

Poison Cup MET

National Library of the Netherlands MS RMMW, 10 A 11 (c. 1475), John Foxe, Acts and Monuments  (1563); NYPL Digital Gallery.

Another English monarch who was threatened with assassination by poison (and other means) was Elizabeth I: a Jesuit-inspired French plot involving a poisoned saddle is illustrated in George Carleton’s Thankful Remembrance (1627). This might or might not be the basis of the purely fictional poisoned dress scene in the 1998 film Elizabeth. In any case, it was foiled.

Poison Saddle BM

George Carleton, A Thankful Remembrance of God’s Mercy, 1627.

Things seem to get more straightforward in the modern age, when poison was contained in boldly labeled and brightly colored apothecary bottles, dispensed collectively in war and from planes, self-induced through various addictive substances, and trivialized by mid-century modern “name your poison” bar sets. But obviously the most effective poisons would have no vessel at all.

Poison Sign

Name Your Poison Glasses Etsy


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