Could It Be, Hmmm, I Don’t Know … SEYTON!?!?!

(Does a “Church Lady” impression date me pretty badly?)

Bardfilm wanted some academic discussion on Twitter today, and knowing that it’s very hard to learn anything permanent on Twitter (try Googling for it later!) I’m summarizing in a blog post but you can check to see if the #SeytonSatan hashtag is still active.

Question : In Macbeth, would “Seyton” be pronounced like “Satan”?  And, if so, would that have suggested some sort of desired audience reaction?  When Macbeth calls, “Seyton!” would the audience have been all, “He’s calling SATAN?! Dude’s evil!”   (My paraphrase.  Bardfilm’s original question had more “you betcha”).

There’s much that’s been said on the topic but little of academic note.

On the subject of sounding it out I linked in @BenCrystal, an expert in original pronunciation (OP), who responded, “I’d say them the same in OP, something like [‘sei-tun] with a really soft /t/.” This then led to a discussion about when exactly the Scots burr came into the language (after the arrival of King James) and whether Macbeth would have been played that way.

But what of the whole Satan thing?  Do we think that Shakespeare intended to put Satan in the mind of his audience?

My personal position on this is perhaps too grounded – what happens next?  The audience hears Macbeth call, “Satan!” and then this regular old soldier shows up and starts taking orders.  So either you just get this brief scare where the audience is left thinking, “Oh, phew, for a minute there I thought Macbeth was actually calling you know who!” and then we go about our business.  Or we get something more like “Who’s this guy?  Is that Satan in the form of one of Macbeth’s soldiers?  Oooo, I bet he’s going to do something just off the charts evil.”

I just don’t know enough about the time period to know if this was a think that Shakespeare would even attempt.  Did you get to mention Satan on stage like that?  Would Shakespeare have suggested that Macbeth was so evil as to invoke the big man himself?  And, worse, order him around like a lackey?

Lots of discussion material here.  Show of hands, who’s done the Scottish play and has an opinion from experience?

13 thoughts on “Could It Be, Hmmm, I Don’t Know … SEYTON!?!?!

  1. I think the key is more that, if "Seyton" sounds like "Satan," we get the idea that the forces of evil are symbolically hedging Macbeth in, backing him up in his self-destructive final stand as a deluded tyrant. (In some ways, it is the opposite of Antony being attended at the last by "Eros").

    Depending on how the Doctor is portrayed, there's a potential sight-gag of him crossing himself when Macbeth calls for "Seyton," as if the Doctor thinks the King is invoking the prince of lies.

    When I directed the play, I made Seyton the Third Murderer and Macbeth's most trusted killer (he offed the other two murderers and led the slaughter of the MacDuffs). So even before the audience knew his name, they saw him as this scary, cold-blooded hitman working for the tyrant.

    (captcha: Insurrection. How apropos.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Having taught the play nearly 100 times to seniors over twenty years, I always have this discussion. I like to point out two other things to them: 1)Shakespeare doesn't usually name his characters something and have them act differently (think Malvolio), so why would he here? 2) What if the name is pronounced "See-ton" and not "Say-ton?" I know it is probably not, but it makes for good discussion in the classroom since the character is just following orders and doesn't fit most ideas of what Satan is.

    I like the idea of Alexi of making him the 3rd murderer, giving relevance to the "Say-ton" pronunciation.


  3. The two times I played the Scottish king I yelled for "See-ton". The alternate pronunciation was touched upon but not insisted upon. However, the mere suggestion of the alternate pronunciation always provided a subtext in performance for me. I don't doubt that it influenced my behavior at those junctures, and allowed me to somehow dig deeper into the emotional quality of what was happening to me at the time.

    In a related sense, so much of the not so obvious 'meaning' in Shakespeare can be instrumental to the actor in getting a message across to the audience, even when they don't know exactly what's being said. As long as the actor knows what's happening,the text itself becomes the subtext and allows for greater clarity and "messaging" in performance.

  4. Interesting surmises, but I do not think there can be any certainty about the pronunciation of "Seyton" in Shakespeare's day if one takes into account the vagaries of spelling and the changes occurring in pronunciation around that time (Kokeritz discusses this in "Shakespeare's Pronunciation," Yale University Press, 1953). Theobald, in his edition, actually suggested the spelling "Siton" (paralleling the pronunciation of "eye.") French ("Shakespearana Genealogica, 1869) notes the Setons of Touch were hereditary armour-bearers to the Scottish kings (note the pronunciation of "key.")
    Just playing devil's advocate (pardon the pun).

  5. Setons of Touch. Interesting Carl.

    Macbeth calls for Seyton, then asks for his armor. Seyton replies that it's not needed yet. Macbeth insists, "I'll put it on", then: "Send out more horses", then: "Pull't off I say. Several times Macbeth tells him one thing, then flies off on a tangent to the Doctor, then back to Seyton, "Seyton, send out…then "Come Sir, dispatch", etc. Seyton is reduced to following Macbeth around aimlessly, not knowing WHAT to do. At the end of the scene, Macbeth says "Bring it after me." Then exits, Seyton following. Seton NEVER gets the armour on him in view of the audience. Contrary to being some scary, demonic figure, Seyton is likely there for comic relief or to help point up Macbeth's frenetic state; maybe for both.

    In any event, since Seyton is obviously there for the express purpose of dressing Macbeth in his armor (hence, his armourer) I think the weight leans toward the See-ton pronunciation.

  6. To your point further, Carl ( you inspired a little research):

    In the Chronicles of Scotland, the name is spelled many ways differently, sometimes in the space of a paragraph. The Setons or Seytons, or Seatons, or Seytouns themselves spelled it differently. According to records researched in the book "The Seatons of Western Pennsylvania" 1945: "The name has been spelled 25 different ways, including Setoun, Seytoun, Seyton, Seton, Seaton, and Seeton, depending upon the different localities in which members were settled."
    Those who went to Germany during the trials of the Stuarts [–or Stewarts–] spelled the name Seytoun, those who went to Ireland and England–Seaton; the Scottish branch, Seton or Seaton.
    There are 16th & 17th century maps of northern England bearing place names "Seaton".
    Sir Walter Scott, like Shakespeare, spelled it Seyton.
    Holinshed's Chronicles–Shakespeare's source–spells it Seiton.

    Monsignor Robert Seton, a well known scholar and geneologist of his time (19th century) suggests in his book, "An Old Family, the Setons of Scotland and America" that Setons were of the Scottish Highland and Seatons were of the Lowland, and were related. Setons and Seatons were still living in the British Isles at the time of the book's publication (1899).

    What's that old tune…? You say SEE-ton and I say SAY-ton… 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    I wondered the same exact thing and it led me to the same thoughts but I saw somewhere that it's supposed to be pronounced See-tun. I'm still quite unsure though, but I like your thought process if it were pronounced Satan.

  8. Anonymous says:

    One thing that always stood out for me was that Seyton did not simply enter, but had to be summoned by Macbeth; and not simply called once, but THREE times, at which point he appears. We have seen that calling something by its name has great power as Banquo's ghost only appears after his name is mentioned by Macbeth – twice. Shakespeare always chose character names with great purpose, and it is fitting that the only person to help Macbeth in Act V, and the person who announces the death of Lady Macbeth is Seyton/Satan. Of course he knew she died; he just collected her soul!

  9. -Heroblaze- says:

    In my version of Macbeth I also made Seyton the head murderer, and I gave him the name "Igor G. Seyton" and made him a hunchback since he's Macbeth's helper. He also has a swordfight against Fleance (whitch he loses) at the same time as Macbeth fights Macduff, because Fabio, the actor who did Fleance, wanted another epic fight scene.

  10. -Heroblaze- says:

    In my version of Macbeth I also made Seyton the head murderer, and I gave him the name "Igor G. Seyton" and made him a hunchback since he's Macbeth's helper. He also has a swordfight against Fleance (whitch he loses) at the same time as Macbeth fights Macduff, because Fabio, the actor who did Fleance, wanted another epic fight scene.

  11. Luis Saldanha says:

    i think its irrelevent if the character fits the role of the king of lies. It's just for a moment to 'scare' the audience, that Shakespeare might have used this device, as na invocation, or allusion to evil itself.

  12. anonymous says:

    I have been reading it as Satan too. I think it makes great reference to religious imagery which is a continutation to the rest of the play. It probably would have been pronounced See-ton (Think Scottish), Shakespeare was very smart, he would have known that we would be having this discussion today.

  13. Peter Benson says:

    Geillis Duncan was a teenage maidservant of bailiff David Seton who would become embroiled in a brutal episode in Scottish history known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

    The trials, the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, were the result of Geillis Duncan’s forced confessions, that implicated dozens of others in being responsible for conjuring up terrible storms which had forced King James VI, and his new bride Princess Anne of Denmark, to delay his journey back across the North Sea from Scandinavia.

    The royal ship had been forced to turn back after nearly being capsized in a great storm. It would be weeks before James and Anne could set sail again. Rumours began to circulate that the storms were the product of witchcraft in an attempt to kill the king.

    Back in Scotland, David Seton was beginning to question the fact that, despite her lack of education and tender years, his young employee seemed to possess a knack for alleviating the pain and suffering of those with incurable diseases.

    It was also noted that Geillis would regularly wander off in the middle of the night for unknown purposes, further arousing the suspicions of her master, who was now making a link with the North Sea squalls that had threatened to take the king and queen’s life.

    Seton, along with his son, also named David, was regarded among Scotland’s big wigs in the crusade against witchcraft, which was entering its most potent years since the enactment of the Scottish Witchcraft Act three decades earlier.

    Convinced there was more to this maid of his than she was letting on, Seton began to interrogate Geillis in November 1590.

    The young woman, who is believed to have been in her mid-teens at the time, was initially unresponsive to Seton’s accusations of witchcraft, but she soon became vocal.

    Determined to extract a confession, the deputy bailiff, aided by several male accomplices, proceeded to sadistically torture the girl, crushing her fingers until they splintered by use of the “pilliwinks”, otherwise known as the thumbscrew, and “thrawed”, with rope twisted and turned round her head.

    Duncan was also stripped naked, shaved of all body hair and subjected to an intense physical examination, which modern academic Susan Dunn-Hensley describes as “tantamount to rape” and displaying the “most extreme and brutal form” of ill treatment towards women that a patriarchal society is capable of producing.

    It was during this process of examination that Seton and his fellow tormentors claimed to have identified the “Devil’s mark” on Duncan’s throat, at which point the maid finally succumbed to making a confession.

    A lengthy period of incarceration followed in which torture continued, resulting in Geillis reeling off a long list of others supposedly guilty of practising witchcraft.

    As many as 60 alleged witches and warlocks from across Edinburgh and East Lothian were implicated, including Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thompson, Doctor Fian, Robert Grierson, Barbara Napier and Euphame Macalyean.

    Most or all of the accused were tortured into confessing witchcraft, with the Devil’s mark found on their necks. The presence of Satan at a gathering that the accused had attended had also been recounted; a man dressed in black had allegedly instructed the witches that the king should be killed, an oath that was sealed by a kiss on the Devil’s buttocks.

    A contemporary pamphlet, Newes from Scotland, details that Geillis claimed witches formed covens in North Berwick and Edinburgh where, through sorcery, they planned to bring about the demise of King James.

    Geillis and others are said to have appeared in front of King James, who reportedly took an active role in the witch trials and even questioned the accused himself. His motivations for doing so are thought to have been at least partially political, with the king accusing Francis Stuart, the 5th Earl of Bothwell of plotting with the North Berwick coven to kill him. The earl was arrested for treason.

    On the day of her execution on Edinburgh’s Castlehill, Duncan and another alleged witch, Bessie Thomson, retracted their accusations (to no avail), each declaring that Seton and his accomplices had obtained their confessions by use of extreme force and torture.

    The North Berwick Witch Trials gained widespread infamy in the decades that followed. Shakespeare adapted elements of the trials for use in Macbeth, with many of the rituals, including the three witches’ spells which purposefully created storms to destroy ships, being directly inspired by the East Lothian incidents.

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