The only point having a character in a story make a prophecy is so that it can come true – unless the story is specifically about fake or failed prophecies.
We talked (a lot) last time about Queen Margaret in the First Tetralogy. Her main role in the last play of the cycle, Richard III, is to foretell the future. She predicts, more or less accurately, the fates of all her tormentors. When she tells Buckingham that he will one day rue his alliance with Richard, she tells him:
…remember this another day,
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow,
And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!
…which is, of course, exactly what happens.
In a recursive moment – which anticipates the way the witches in Macbeth turn cause-and-effect into a moebius strip – Buckingham fulfills Margaret’s prophecy by quoting it from his own memory, while waiting in one of Richard’s cells to be executed. The comparison with Macbeth’s witches or weird sisters is apt as, in her role as a prophet of doom, Margaret takes on the role of a witch. Richard calls her “foul wrinkled witch” in response to her accusations. This is ironic, given Margaret’s own history of conspiring with her lover, Suffolk, to dispose of her enemy, Duke Humphrey’s wife Eleanor, by enticing her to indulge in witchcraft and then expose her (see Henry VI, Part 2). Nor is this the only time that Richard – who has issues with the ladies, as we know – uses witchcraft as an accusation for his own political gains. Later in the play that bears his name he disposes of Hastings, an obstacle in his path to the throne, by accusing his (Hastings’) mistress of being a witch and alleging that she and the queen have conspired to put a spell on him (Richard). This is at least partly owing to Richard’s deeply ingrained misogyny as a character. But the discourse and ideology of witchcraft is to hand before he picks it up.
There are reasons why a patriarchal culture would develop and utilise the figure of an elderly woman as a vengeful seer. Amongst other things, and purely in terms of the genealogy of tropes, there is the figure of the tragic and lamenting female that traces a lineage back ancient tragedy. (Richard III is a play particularly influenced by the tragedies of Seneca, which made use of this trope.) That begs the question somewhat, but we’ll leave it there. There are the usual ways in which elderly women are used as liminal figures within texts created within patriarchy. But there’s more. We need to look at some of the political valences of prophecy in Early Modern England. In that time and place, prophecy was linked to both witchcraft and revolution.
It’s widely known that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth partly to appeal to his new king and patron, James I of England and VI of Scotland. It’s a play with Scottish themes, obviously, and James was a Scot. Scottish-themed plays were fashionable in London theatre after James’ accession, but Shakespeare and his company would also perform their Scottish play at court, directly before the king. He was their patron. That was their job. They had become the King’s Men. That was the name of their company. Macbeth represents one of James’ supposed ancestors, Banquo, and changes the history so that Banquo becomes a good guy rather than Macbeth’s fellow conspirator. Shakespeare even adds a scene where the witches prophecy an endless line of kings stemming from Banquo. Which would’ve gone down well for obvious reasons. Macbeth is a play much concerned with royal succession, another theme that obsessed James… though plays on this topic had been a staple of the English stage since day one, what with it growing up in the shadow of a childless queen, competing claims about what would happen after she died, and the memory of the Wars of the Roses lurking in the background. Macbeth is a play which refers (tangentially) to the Gunpowder Plot, something else bound to interest James. Again, ‘Powder plays’ were all the rage on the London stage after the plot was foiled. But, as usual, Shakespeare’s take on things is a good deal more oblique than most. Aside from being about a plot to kill a king, Macbeth contains very little direct reference to the Gunpowder treason, with only some cryptic topical references in the dialogue. (We might pause in passing to wonder how this could be if the play had been written by the Earl of Oxford, who was – inconveniently for Oxfordians – dead before the Gunpowder Plot happened.) But the whole atmosphere of the play seems influenced by the Gunpowder Plot and the subsequent reaction.
Macbeth takes place in a murky and unstable world of secrets, treasons, and heresies, in which people’s allegiances are always suspect. Speakers constantly equivocate over meanings and statements, very much like the priest Henry Garnet, who was tried for involvement in the plot, and who famously – to people at the time – tried to play semantic games with his questioners. The porter at the front door of Macbeth’s castle, who drunkenly takes on the persona of the porter at Hell’s Gate, refers to “equivocators” as among those who will surely find themselves on “the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire”. This isn’t just a reference to Hell. Bonfires are not simply a modern association with the Gunpowder Plot. They were lit all across the country to celebrate the failure of the plot. This was partly an adaptation of an older tradition in England, the ancient Celtic pagan festival of Samhainn (pronounced ‘sow-in’), celebrated around late October to early November. According to ancient tradition, Samhainn is a time when the membrane separating our world from other worlds – including the worlds of the dead, of the ancestors, of the spirits – becomes thin and frayed and permeable. Samhainn is the pagan basis of Hallowe’en. By pure chance, because the plotters postponed their plan several times, the Gunpowder Plot, once foiled and publicised, landed in a fuzzy zone of associations, some of them ancient and pre-Christian, and deeply entrenched, still lingering even if only as folk memory and tradition. It was immediately associated with darkness, liminality, spectrality, the uncanny. It was ready and waiting to be linked to the Christian-inflected ideological discourse of Hell and witches, which adapted the pre-existing cultural associations to the political and moral outlook of Early Modern society. It immediately became a tradition, a temporal marker, a haunting. It had little choice but to do so. It was imagined and reimagined in various ways, right from the first, from state propaganda to conspiracy theory to ghost story, until finally becoming the deeply ambivalent and freighted thing it is now. One transitional form in its evolution can be found fossilised in Macbeth.
Macbeth is, like all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, about a world deeply destabilised by massive historical transitions. The Gunpowder Plot was, of course, a product of the oppression of Catholics by the Protestant governments of Elizabeth and James, and therefore of the Reformation more generally. The Reformation was itself a product of the crisis and decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in its place. Changing social relations brought about new ideas, which then themselves dialectically fed back into the system to further provoke social change. As discussed elsewhere, Shakespeare’s importance stems from his position as a liminal figure within a liminal society within a liminal historical moment. It’s this nested set of liminal positions which allows him to tap directly into the main ‘spirit of his age’, which is the overlapping of two conflicting, antagonistic, inextricably interrelated historical epochs, one in decline and the other in ascendance, one growing in the womb of the other, one feeding on the carcass of the other. As in so many of his greatest works, Macbeth derives its power from its intense dramatisation of the conflict between the detumescent past and the onrushing future. As In Hamlet, Othello, etc, its characters try to navigate the savage contradictions of a world in flux, a world that is actually two worlds overlaid upon each other, two contradictory sets of social imperatives trying to coexist. Macbeth is a feudal warlord. As such he is part of the feudal system, which was based upon the idea of fixed position and bounden loyalties. His position relies upon the king just as the king’s position relies upon him. Brutally exploitative as it was, the feudal system relied upon a cascading network of loyalties, with obligations flowing upwards and downwards. Even those at the very bottom were owed a certain amount of protection from and by those above them. The system could not function if these obligations were not fulfilled. Indeed, it was the gradual erosion of such obligations, for various reasons, which did eventually destabilise the system. The people at the bottom had to slave away for life and send most of what they produced upwards in tribute to the classes above them, and they were not supposed to ever move from the position into which they were born.. And yet if the lord did not protect them from outside threats, he would lose the basis of his power. The basis of power was, in formal terms, landholding, but of course the land was worthless without the people who worked it. If you didn’t protect them, there wasn’t much point being a landholder. In return, if you were a peasant you had to toil for the lord, but there wasn’t much point doing so you couldn’t also work some of the land for yourself and rely upon his protection. This sort of reciprocal obligation flowed all the way through the feudal system, with a similar relationship existing between the king and his lords. They had to provide military service for him in return for his granting landholding. Similarly, there wasn’t much point in your having men who could fight for the king if you couldn’t also protect your own fiefdom, and thus your own ability to be useful. A result of this was that the king would help you protect your lordly territory. The social and ideological expression of this system was twofold: a strict hierarchy which was based on inborn and fixed social position; and a multi-faceted idea of bondage which took in both obligations and expectations, i.e. you were bound in position but your position entailed a prototypical version of what we might today call ‘rights’ (sans the ways modernity freights this notion) as well as duties. As ruthless and abusive as it was, the system was based upon the idea that society was reciprocal and unified, albeit also cruelly stratified. You see this reflected in the various ideological expressions and self-descriptions of the system, which tended to see it has a vast pyramidal arrangement of people and things in fixed, inborn, divinely-dictated hierarchical positions, from the animals to the various ranks of humans, up to the various ranks of angels, and thence up to God. The ideology was open and explicit about the fact that the social system was hierarchical. Indeed, this was seen as a good and necessary thing. It worked in such a way that hierarchy could be acknowledged, even celebrated, as sacred, as an ontological fact of the universe, as a guarantee of eternal stability.
These days we still live in a brutally hierarchical social pyramid, but the capitalist system is reliant upon various forms of radical mobility and flux, owing to its constant need to revolutionise itself. Capitalist society is consequently more open in real terms, while still being based on a ruthless hierarchy. As a result, capitalist ideology hides the pyramidal arrangement as best it can, while employing doublethink to present it as an unavoidable fact of life, a consequence of the social expression of relative individual merit, etc. Capitalist ideology admits the existence of hierarchy but depicts it as a structure of snakes and ladders. You can climb or fall, but if you do either it’s because of chance, or luck, or your own merit and skill, your own facility at gameplay. Snakes & Ladders is based on the ancient Indian game of Moksha-Patamu. When it was appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist culture of Victorian England, the squares representing spiritual virtues and vices were, to quote the Online Guide to Traditional Games, “renamed according to Victorian ideals. So Penitence, Thrift and Industry elevated a player up a ladder to squares labelled Grace, Fulfilment and Success while Indolence, Indulgence and Disobedience slid a player down to Poverty, Illness and Disgrace”.
The irony of Snakes & Ladders is that it is a game about virtue and vice which is powered by random chance. This is actually a central feature of many games in modernity. They are, literally, the packaging of life in modernity in ludic form. Like Wonderland (and I thank Eagleton for that comparison), they are simultaneous acknowledgments of life in bourgeois society as both intensely chaotic and tyrannically structured. A game is, of course, a system of rules to which it is pleasurable to submit oneself, and which generate uncertain outcomes through competition. The game can thus be used to suggest, dishonestly, that rules themselves are inherently pleasurable, or a necessary precondition of pleasure. Also that they are egalitarian, or at least meritocratic. Note how many games openly present themselves as metaphors for life, from the court intrigue of chess to the imperialism of Risk, from the chase through our memories of a life of media consumption that is Trivial Pursuit to the openly capitalistic urban psychogeography of Monopoly. This is pure ideology. But if we needed any further convincing, notice how utterly such games are concerned with offering ultimate victory as a consolation of subjection to the rules. The game reassures and flatters us with the idea that willing subjection to the rules is the way to win, as long as we’re better than the others who are playing. That’s where vice and virtue come back in. A moral dimension creeps in so naturally we barely notice. A game is a form of narrative, and narrative is (as I hope to establish elsewhere, in another post, in a different series) inherently, structurally, unconsciously, unavoidably about questions of justice and injustice. The idea of justice and injustice is thus slaved to the idea of victory. Might making right, or success equalling desert, seems baked-in, so much like hegemonic ideology that it is taken for granted without comment, accepted even without agreement. And yet the rules are still there. And cheating ruins the fun. One of the essential paradoxes of life in capitalist society: the rules of the system must be obeyed, and the winners do so, but the winners are also the canniest and best, implicitly the most deserving, so the rules don’t guarantee everyone equal opportunities or results. Someone is always at an advantage, and they get to take credit for the final manifestation of that advantage: victory. Yet the source of victory is obscure, occult, incoherent. It is supposed to be deserved and creditable despite stemming from random chance. It is hidden in the random dictats of the dice. It is dictated by some unseen power. Probability… and yet, in the life metaphor, doesn’t that start to look like divine dispensation or favour? And yet, once again, we are supposed to believe in the fairness of the rules being submitted to. The point isn’t that games offer a solution to these paradoxes. The point is that they represent the paradoxes, unresolved, as constitutive of life, unavoidable, so natural and inevitable that they are not worthy of question, they are simply The Rules. And, as everyone who’s ever played a game of this kind knows, The Rules are The Rules. You don’t question where they come from.
They’re a bit like the script in another system of rules it is pleasurable to submit to, and which shares an interesting etymology with games: the play. It is fairly obvious how all this connects directly to Macbeth. Macbeth is an early product of the same culture which will commodify the ludic and make it an unparalleled cultural expression. The play is a cultural product of this fulcrum period when the old rules were cracking apart and new ones being forcibly rewritten. The story is a palimpsest of social relations and regulations, as are so many of Shakespeare’s plays. And, as in all the tragedies, the uncanny effects are caused by the overwriting of clashing sets of rules, one over the other simultaneously. Macbeth himself is, as noted, a feudal warlord, directly dependant upon the support and patronage of a king, whom he himself props up in return with military service. And yet the world has changed. There is a fracture running down its spine. Cracks have opened up in it, and spectres are seeping out. The membrane between our world and the other worlds has become frayed and thin and permeable. The ghosts, not of the past or the future but rather of abstract History itself, are speaking to Macbeth. The tell him to obey the new imperatives and seize the new opportunities. Abandon feudal bonds and obligations in favour of ruthless competition, self-interest and self-advancement. Grab the dice and make a move. Climb a ladder. Rise in the social system, despite its old basis being fixity. There is chance involved, but taking the chances is how you show your meritocratic fitness. As Richard says in his play, “I have set my life upon the cast and I will stand the hazard of the die”.
James did something similar when he made the risky move to take over the English throne as well as that of Scotland. James I was preoccupied with witches and witchcraft. He was chronically nervous, and it wasn’t just paranoia. He knew he was seen by many as an interloper on the English throne. There were Catholics in both Scotland and England who would be happy to see a Protestant ruler dead. His father had been murdered by disaffected nobles. His mother – Mary, Queen of Scots – had been entrapped and judicially murdered by Elizabeth’s security state. In life she’d been accused of being a witch. There had been attempts on his life even before the Gunpowder Plot. He was especially worried about witches and prophecies.
This wasn’t a new fear. There had long been prohibitions on necromancy, witchcraft, etc, with special emphasis on the evils of prophecy and prognostication. Aside from the clear potential of prophecy to be politically incendiary, telling the future was seen as potentially influencing it. Foretelling how long a monarch would live might just affect their lifespan in reality. Elizabeth was only able to avail herself of the politically-useful services of John Dee when she made it clear that his magic was white magic. She knew this because he’d prophesied Mary I’s fall and Elizabeth’s accession. Presumably she felt that, if he was influencing events with his maths (sums were seen by many as hardly different from spells), then he was at least influencing them in the right way. This sort of paranoia about prophecy – from scrying to horoscopes – was directly connected to a wider paranoia about speculation of any kind. Pamphleteers frequently found themselves persecuted and mutilated by the forces of law and order for thinking out-loud and in print about the unfolding national game of thrones. This is understandable enough, but when you introduce the supernatural element… and then the devilish element… and then the baggage of prophecy going back to ancient times, when prophets (like Isaiah and John the Baptist and Jesus) were more millenarian/utopian malcontents and agitators than seers… and then the paranoia endemic through the era of primitive accumulation about anybody poor or nomadic or workless, anybody who refused to integrate into the coagulating bourgeois society… well, you can see how the ruling class anxieties merged and accreted.
James, who fancied himself an intellectual and theologian, had written and published a book of his own on witchcraft in 1597, before his accession to the English throne. His Daemonologie was reprinted in London after his accession, and was a best seller. His actual theories are of less interest than the fact that he considered the issue important enough to write about. Suffice to say, he fails to show what we today would call an acceptable degree of scepticism, and concludes that witches are not only real but also, to use modern parlance, a clear and present danger. James had been personally involved in the torture and interrogation of women suspected of using witchcraft to whip up storms which would prevent his bride to be from crossing the channel. Unsurprisingly, under the extreme sanctions of the dungeons of the state, the women had confessed. Some of them had confessed directly to James in ways he found intensely flattering, and therefore entirely believable.
Biblical warrant was found not only for the belief in witches but also in the political form of their condemnation. “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” says Samuel 15:23.
But the witches, or weird sisters, in Macbeth are not just there to pander to James’ interests. Terry Eagleton wrote that, to unbiased outside observers (of which Shakespeare seems to have been one), the witches are plainly the heroines of the play. From the margins, they exact revenge upon the Scottish state that has oppressed and marginalised them by exploiting its contradictions to make it feed upon itself. They achieve this through the medium of prophecy. It is well known that some of the prophecies of the weird sisters are self-fulfilling in that they can be seen as triggering the very events they claim to disinterestedly presage.
Margaret does the same thing in Richard III. Does she plant seeds of doubt in the minds of the characters, perhaps even in Richard’s mind, which grow into flowers of disaster? Margaret is, as noted, almost a witch herself in her great age, her outsider status, her liminal position, her moral ambiguity, her seemingly supernatural foreknowledge, the power of her words to shape reality, and to shape it towards disaster for her enemies, while she remains (paradoxically, as ever) helpless and powerless. It is perhaps even encoded deep down within the character of Margaret that her quasi-witchy power comes from her having been the victim of injustice, from her legitimate grievances against a world that has marginalised her, exploited her gender, and stripped her of almost everything. Whatever else they are, the witches in Macbeth are not rich or noble. They are the lowest of the low, female, physically weak, of no good birth, utterly destitute and powerless in the social system. Whereas Margaret is paradoxical and contradictory but still a high-status individual despite having been laid low, the witches are so far down the pecking order that they are not even on it, and yet their immense power stems from their nature as radically transgressive of almost all categories… age, gender, social roles… they even mix up all opposites around them, making foul fair and fair foul. (Again, see Fintan O’Toole more a superb discussion of this.) They are free to violate all lines and boxes and stratifications, all definitions and stable descriptions, precisely because they are so far down they’re no longer even part of the superstructure anymore. They even transgress time itself, they’re so free in their abjection.
But these witchy women are not just politically dangerous, even revolutionary, in their prophetic trangressiveness… they’re also, more fundamentally, symptoms of history itself. Their special relationship to history is illustrated by their knowledge of the future, of how history will work itself out, of how the wheel will turn.
SF thinks it’s terribly clever, with its bootstrap paradoxes, but they’re just a reiteration of something already inherent in every story about prophecies and their fulfillment. In a sense, all such stories, even the ones that are firmly pre-modern and pre-SF, are time travel stories. It is simply knowledge which travels back to meet us rather than us skipping forward to acquire it. But then one of the things SF does with time travel is to open up prophecy. Admittedly, this is usually done to open up a space where writers can place satirical and allegorical discussions of the present rather than actual attempts at prognostication… and yet isn’t that the modern version of (or one of the modern versions of) that older form of prophecy that is connected to agitation? It may not be literally utopian in that it depicts a utopia, but it is at least attenuatedly connected to the utopian project, the project of trying to bring a better world into being in the future, by being a critique of the present. Such critiques of the present, couched in terms of utopias or dystopias, could easily be seen as echoes of popular pre-modern and early modern discourses of struggle. They begin to show a family resemblance to the millenarian prophetic agitation of the kind that rulers have been so scared of. The dystopias of 20th century SF are at least partly influenced by some of the elsewhereplaces of 19th and 18th century literature. William Morris wrote News from Nowhere about a time traveller from the 19th century who slips forward to visit a communist society of the future. He also wrote The Dream of John Ball about a time traveller from the 19th century who slips back to visit the radical priest John Ball just before the Peasant’s Revolt. John Ball was a descendant of the great prophets of old, with his contingent prophecy that “things will never go well in England… until all things be held in common, and the lords are no greater masters than ourselves”. John Ball is just the kind of itinerant, unintegrated, radical voice of prophecy that they were still scared of in Elizabeth’s time, and James’… indeed, they were even more scared, as the escalating crisis of feudalism, and the dispossession and discontent caused by primitive accumulation, made the figures of the vagabond, the tramp, the rebel, and the prophet even scarier.
To imagine a new world, to predict it, to dream of it, is to create the actuality of the possibility, to make the possibility imminent, to announce the imminent possibility as something that could be acted upon. It can be seen, positively or negatively, as an act of magic. Bringing something into being by speaking it… which is really just the entry of human agency into the dialectic of history. And this is precisely the reason for the terror of radical, prophetic speech. This is precisely why the witches in Macbeth, and indeed almost every other major character, speak events into occurrence. But the witches are especially revolutionary, which is why they’re prophetic, and why they’re witches.
In all Shakespeare’s tragedies, spectres like the witches are generated in the liminal space between historical epochs. The ghosts of Hamlet’s father, the ghost of Caesar, the prophecies which foretell his murder, the ghosts which torment and accuse Richard before Bosworth, the prophecies which foretell the advent of Richmond, the prophecies of doom uttered in the ceremony which seals the doom of Dame Eleanor, the portents and occult communions in Macbeth itself… they’re all, in their way, revolutionary signs and moments, actively or passively, because they are generated by the revolution of the wheel of history. So Samhainn seems so pertinent to Macbeth for reasons beyond the mere coincidence of dates. Macbeth, like so much Shakespearean tragedy, is about two worlds overlaid, negating each other yet co-existing, the membrane separating them fraying, harbinger spectres escaping, and sometimes sucking us back through with them, or at least opening up fissures into which we can tumble.