Garry Wills. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP / NY Public Library, 1995. 223 pp. ISBN 019510290 Paper.
Michael T. Siconolfi
Gonzaga University
siconolfi@gonzag a.edu

Siconolfi, Michael T. "Review of Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 11.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_sic1.html>.

  1. The paperback version of Wills' book on witches, Jesuits, and Macbeth has been printed cheaply -- not an auspicious omen. While there are many tidbits in this critical cauldron, there are also things that will never please.

  2. It is difficult to know just how to interpret Wills, a genuine polymath "with attitude": classicist, conservative journalist, intellectual historian, adjunct professor, and former Jesuit. He has written on Nixon, Lincoln, and Jefferson, but that success has led him to have more confidence than he need have in dealing with untidy theatrical and political matters four centuries distant. His formidable skills do not consistently serve him well in this reworking of lectures for the New York Public Library. He often overreaches his material by trying to discern Shakespeare's intentions for "performable meaning."

  3. Although trained in classics, Wills' tortuous explications of the text of Macbeth teeter on shaky editorial hypotheses. For example, he believes much of the Hecate material was regarded by the King's Men as Shakespeare's merely because of its inclusion in the Folio. Surely most modern editors, while granting that the King's Men may have regarded the material as traditional in the received text, would be less sanguine to the suggestion that Shakespeare either wrote or approved of these songs and dances. What seems more likely, of course, is that (as the Oxford editors have pointed out) Middleton revised the play if only to capture the courtly interest in the subject generated by the re-printing of James I's Demonology.

  4. Moreover, Wills feels no scruples in revising traditional textual cruxes, dismissing, for example, Pope's emendation of Tarquin's "sides" to "strides," and inserting "sights" as justified because it is a "near-homophone." Nor is Wills plagued by self-doubt in altering punctuation -- always a dangerous area with which to tinker given the vagaries of its application by typesetters in general and the particularly sloppy work done on the text of the play in the first folio. Such tenuous revisions of punctuation are used to substantiate a somewhat tortuous reading of the porter scene.

  5. Wills also tinkers, without much justification, with the traditional dating of not only Macbeth and its "revisions" but other so-called "Powder Plays" to reinforce his conspiratorial case. His reader is constantly driven to the inconveniently placed notes where the text is at one moment treated as canonical holy writ and at other times as something conveniently dispensed with.

  6. It is difficult to discern for whom Wills is writing. He seems, at times, more the journalist as he breathlessly explains the Scottish play's "curse." Scholars, who might endure Wills' pedantic tendency to weigh down his prose with Latin adages, might also balk at his use of rather dated secondary material on the gunpowder treason and on governmental regulation of the drama such as W.J. Lawrence's Shakespeare's Workshop (1928) and V.C. Guildersleeve's Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Drama (1908). But even veteran Shakespearean scholars would be hard pressed to recite "Poel's Rules" without some recourse to their reference books.

  7. In his section on the Gunpowder Plot, Wills' method lurches toward anti-Catholic "eisegesis" rather than methodical exegesis in analyzing both texts and events. He argues, by way of limping analogy, that references to the Plot would be as accessible to Shakespeare's audiences as references to the "grassy knoll" would be to JFK conspiracy buffs. Several contemporary plays are mined for allusions that supposedly demonstrate that "plot" language lurked in every tavern and that Macbeth was embedded with code-words familiar to Jacobean audiences. But it does seem a bit of a stretch, for example, to link Macbeth's "The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees / Is left this vault to brag of" to the Powder Conspiracy: "Vault," Wills postulates, "was the 'grassy knoll' of Gunpowder writings . . . . Fawkes meant for the blood of the nation to be blown out of the upper hall of Parliament, leaving only the lesser breeds in the vault to inherit England."

  8. But if political buzz-words lurk everywhere in Shakespeare's play, then it is curious that Wills does not find other major events embedded in the text as well. Just how far does one go with coded readings of the text? Are there codes to be found regarding the glut on the grain markets in 1605 and 1606 (another Jesuit plot?), or the conjecture that Judith Shakespeare's husband may have had distant connections with some of Guy Fawkes' sad co-conspirators?

  9. The author fares somewhat better with his treatment of the English Jesuits and the Jacobean politics of religious conformity. He provides cogent analysis of the celebrated Jesuitical "equivocation" by comparing it with religious freedom and freedom from self-incrimination. But Jesuits are stereotyped as always skulking about political and moral back-alleys. Yet the virtual omission of the undercover work of Father Robert Persons, S.J., a skulker if there ever was one, is egregious even though he was hugely influential at the time.

  10. It is surprising that Wills pays so little attention to the crafty agendas of earlier politicians like Cecil, Topcliff, and Walsingham. Indeed, some have called the Elizabethan/Jacobean era the "regna ceciliana" and with good reason. Wills also naively believes all of Sir Edward Coke's courtroom cant or Lancelot Andrew's pulpit posturing on Guy Fawkes. Furthermore, it is odd that someone with a penchant for political intrigues mostly ignores how Powder Day hysteria served the government's needs so conveniently: just who authorized the rental of the vault under the House of Lords that fateful November day and why? And just how did the prosecution of Fawkes' fringe group allay rumors about the new king being soft on Catholicism?

  11. The sections dealing with witchcraft are less convincing in part because the reader never quite gets a clear definition of witches. Wills finds them everywhere. And one expects the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy to be brought in by the author's analogical method to conduct hearings on the omnipresent "witch menace. " But Wills fails to note that in spite of theological or political spin-doctoring or royal treaties on the subject, lurid witches, like sensational ghosts, filled ticket boxes on the Bankside.

  12. Moments of brilliance do float up in this cauldron to reward the patient reader, especially the examination of equivocation, and the astute observation that Macbeth's language often blows "linguistic fuses." Moreover, Wills keenly observes, but does not develop, the idea that "governing was itself a form of theater in Shakespeare's day."

  13. In the end, the book does what all criticism should do: it sends the reader back to the text to test these somewhat shopworn hypotheses as conjectured keys for unlocking the play. Yet most readers will come away from this book still believing that the play means what it more or less says it means and what the vast majority of its critics have believed it to mean over four centuries. The "wariness is all" when confronted with secret code-words based on highly selective and problematic stage performances of weird sisters or skulking Jesuits.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996; rev. Feb. 3, 1997)