Some thoughts on Witches and Macbeth

This is not a definitive article, but written to provoke comment and thought from my Year 13s working on the AQA LitB course – Elements of the Gothic.

Witches in Macbeth: thoughts and ideas.

If we are to recognise the damnation of Macbeth, we need to see the original, undamned state – we see a heroic soldier who is led astray by the promptings of the witches. Often held to be embodiments of evil, the witches act more as catalysts than devils, though the perversion of traditional female temptation is clear to see.
NB, not all the scenes are by Shakespeare. Doubt has been cast on the opening and certainly on the long Hecate scenes in Act 4 which must be interpolations to allow for songs to be introduced. The Octosyllable rhymes are weak and do little to enhance the idea of the “weird sisters”.
Are they EVIL?
Spells in Act 4.1 move from the cruel animals of nature to human archetypes which have been unchristened –Turks, Jews and a baby, but this is hardly the same as being instruments of evil per se. Certainly they are outside society (in 17C this might be enough to prove evil and damnation), but whether they actually commit any evil act is doubtful. Macbeth greets the “Black and midnight hags” and links them to evil by this symbolic association – black is the colour of the devil and the use of night reminds us of the events of nighttime which dominate the play. He clearly sees the sisters as evil, but what do they actually do?
Act 1: Stating clearly the “foul is fair” duplicity which might be said to sum up the play, they launch the action by agreeing to meet Macbeth – they have conventional familiars and must be seen to be ungendered – beards though women – and generally hideous to behold – “what are these/so withered and wild in their attire” B, 1.3, yet they do not impose their wills on Banquo and Macbeth. Their prophecies are followed and become catalysts for action, yet at this stage prophecies are all they are – Lady Macbeth’s prompting is required to turn Macbeth into a regicide. It is Macbeth and Banquo who ascribe the evil to them and Lady Macbeth who calls on spirits to “fill her full of direst cruelty”. This is an idea not visited by the witches and seems to be a level of possession suited to a “fiend-like queen”. The story of the ship-boarding and the wind-providing, prior to Macbeth’s arrival is hardly an example of serious damnation. Even the cauldron-brew in Act 4 which seems outwardly so full of ghastly import, is being used to conjure up a vision of the future rather than to cast a spell or seek to harm someone. In short, the witches need to be more than Classical Sibyls yet have also to be seen as evil to an audience in the 17th Century, for whom witchcraft was a common phenomenon.
Witches and Lady Macbeth:
Act 1.3/5 – both open with either women or LM on her own followed by the women on stage practicing witchcraft – LM’s “prayer” to the spirits- before Macbeth appears and has to be tempted or prodded into action. Both the witches and LM show signs of confused gender and seem to be proficient at summoning dark forces as required. Both seem to undermine the Patriarchal society, but it is LM who is clearest here – note the times she insinuates weakness on Macbeth or seeks to openly dispense with her womanhood whilst demeaning his masculinity – “coward”, not “a man”, the responses to Banquo’s ghost for example, whilst he speaks of having a “barren sceptre” 3.1 as a result of the witches (and by association his wife’s) actions.

LM and the witches stand in contrast to the only other woman in the play – Lady Macduff whose perfect family serve to emphasise the unnaturalness of the Macbeth’s union. Duncan, Banquo, Siward and Macduff all have children who appear in the play. The Macbeths do not. They may not fill a pot with “finger of birth strangled babe”, but the lack of family must reflect the lack of humanity in the couple.
Both Lady Macbeth and the witches seem to be ambivalent as the play develops – Lady Macbeth for all her cruelty can not murder a King who resembles her “father” – and at this point provides an impetus for the sleepwalking in Act 5. Here she seems wracked with guilt and the memories heark back to male related episodes – the old man full of blood and finally to the tender concern for her husband as she tries to make Macbeth sleep, recalling act 3. She may be seen as unnatural, but the ideas here presented suggest that she is not totally removed from traditional gender politics after all.
The witches are “imperfect speakers” whose prophecies in Act 1 are deliberately opaque, yet in the fourth act they become increasingly definite. Macbeth misinterprets the equivocation of both the “wood” and the “man of woman born” yet the visions of the Kings are extremely clear to all concerned – as well as the audience! Indeed the truth of their prophecy is visible on the throne of England at the time. Can they be forces of Evil if they tell the truth? They can if Shakespeare wants the audience to focus on Macbeth as the truly evil figure as the play unfolds. The play ends with a father triumphant (albeit one “not of woman born”) and bearing the head of the evil Macbeth to his monarch. By this act, the patriarchal order is restored. The 17th Century King is seen as father of his people and granted his rule by God. The Fifth commandment exhorts believers to “Honour thy father and mother”. In the 17th century the theologian Filmer removed the need to honour thy mother from this mantra as part of his work Patriarcha – a defence of the Divine Right of Kings. Such an indication of the strength of the male and a reduction of the female around the time of writing is hard to ignore. In this play the women lose their strength as the play goes on – Lady Macbeth fades from sight, her death reported and not mourned; the witches lose their mystery and simply become mouthpieces for a convenient political prophecy and thanks to the death of Lady Macduff, not one woman is on the stage to greet the new order at the end of the play. A return to male rule and male order is complete. Women may frighten, but men will always come out on top.

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8 Comments

Filed under AQA LitB, Shakespeare

8 responses to “Some thoughts on Witches and Macbeth

  1. Allegedly! Not sure I agree with the final statement but some interesting points to consider. Interesting also to contrast with Shakespeare’s occasional feminist leanings perhaps?

    • Final comment refers to the need to establish the male-dominant status quo to mirror events in Britain at the time, and to allow thoughts to develop the idea that the witches and women in general do not dominate this play in the way that they might dominate Gothic Lit, where the focus on the evil woman is likely to be much stronger…

  2. As you suggest, the witches are temptresses. Setting aside the question of who wrote the scene, when Hecate confronts the witches (3.5), she charges them with poor judgment. They trifled with a man who is self-serving in the extreme and now deserves destruction. What stands in the final scene may be male, but they are men who demonstrate selflessness, men embodied by Macduff who serves the greater good, losing everything dear to his heart, except Scotland, in the process.

  3. Sandy

    Yet it’s Malcolm the runaway who rules in the end–not MacDuff the he-man and avenger.

  4. Henry21

    I believe that “beards” could be reference to garments rather than in physical sense, he has already referenced their “withered” and “wild” attire. If we assume the “beards” are garments, it is possible that if look at them from the Germanic pagan mythology, they may be wearing furs of animals and Macbeth is giving them animalistic qualities. Thus they could be seen as beasts rather than as human. We know the witches have an affinity with animals as seen with the “Grimalkin” and “Paddock” speeches and later on they refer to particularly Nordic beasts such as the “scale of a dragon” and “tooth of a wolf”. However I agree, the witches are essentially harmless but I believe that Shakespeare draws on elements from Norse mythology as well as, as you’ve reference the Roman Sibyls and the Greek Grey Sisters who as we’ve seen in Shakespeare’s interpretation are likewise horrifying, sharing one decaying tooth and a yellow eye between them. Shakespeare is playing on 17th Century prejudices to make them appear more horrifying than they really are which keeps the audience hooked but also encourages them to think, creating an air of mystery and suspense. I agree with you that Lady Macbeth does summon dark forces as she actively calls to be filled with “direst cruelty” and to “stop up th’access and passage to remorse”. There is no question that the Witches ingredients list is questionable to say the least but there is little reference to actual dark and evil powers. They merely show Macbeth the future which cannot necessarily be considered evil. I also agree that the lack of a child for the Macbeth’s does convey a lack of humanity because to be infertile in the 17th century would be considered to be evil or to be possessed of some evil spirit, reinforced further on in the infamous sleep-walking scene, the doctor himself calling them “unnatural troubles”. I think Shakespeare may be trying to make a point about the patriarchal society. He tries to show that the strong Lady Macbeth, despite her evil summons, is way out of her depth and she shows the audience her new found subservience and meekness to Macbeth “To bed…come, come…what’s done cannot be undone”. As you suggest, she is clearly racked by guilt and she in the end cannot handle the pressure of the patriarchal and male-dominated society, as shown by the lack of any female by the end of the play having either vanished by some unearthly power, been murdered or unceremoniously killed themselves.

  5. James

    I agree with your comment about the witches acting as catalysts rather than symbols of evil. I view them more as neutral characters in the play, having no influence or persuasion over Macbeth. Their purpose is to provide information and prophesize whilst neither pertaining to good or evil. Perhaps their neutral standpoint is reflected in their neutral gender – being “bearded”, “withered” and “looking not like the inhabitants of the earth”. For reasons such as this, witches would have been considered evil in the 17th century, shown more evidently in the late 17th century by the Salem Witch Trials. However I do not believe that Shakespeare’s intention for including them in the play was to symbolize evil, or to scare society. They could have been included as homage to King James I, to support and praise him as a ‘good’ King. Society would have been aware of the King’s interest in witchcraft and therefore would have judged him as evil, possibly compacting with the Devil. I feel that Shakespeare as a well respected figure of society chose to use the witches as a method of restoring belief in the King.
    In the play, the majority of the female characters are defeminised, except for Lady Macduff. Her femininity contrasts Lady Macbeth’s strongly and this is possibly the one sign of Lady Macbeth’s “unsexing” and becoming “bold”. However it is not evident through actions, only character comparison. In the end, as you mentioned, Lady Macduff is murdered at the orders of the King; a man desperately trying to fulfill his patriarchal position but not succeeding – perhaps due to having a “barren sceptre”. An idea like this could be Shakespeare’s way of reflecting the context of the 17th century in his play. It could either represent the patriarchal society’s views because all femininity in the play is removed or it could show the need for restoring a patriarchal monarchy – Queen Elizabeth, who had no children replaced by King James represented by Macbeth (who also had no children) replaced by Malcolm.
    Women, especially Lady Macbeth, are the most striking characters in the play; however in the end they are either disregarded (witches) or dead (Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff). This could represent the strong patriarchy and the idea that females are not ‘supposed’ to have power, remaining subservient to males. But in regards to the play, Lady Macbeth makes Macbeth an interesting character whilst also being interesting herself. If it wasn’t for her, Macbeth wouldn’t have committed regicide and therefore continue following the prophecy. Conceivably, Lady Macbeth could be compared to Anouilh’s Antigone as a personification of the ‘spring’ – “Now the spring is wound. The tale will unfold all of itself. That’s the convenient thing about tragedy – you can start it off with a flick of the finger”. Lady Macbeth winds the ‘spring’ quite early in the play when she persuades Macbeth to kill Duncan by questioning and challenging his masculinity (perhaps this also shows her to be ‘unsexed’ as she seems more of a ‘man’ than he does), but after this point she has no further participation in any of the murders, therefore she has wound the spring and can just watch the rest of the story unfold.

  6. Aneil

    I agree also with the notion that the witches act as catalysts as opposed to evil due to their words being louder than their actions. The prophecies are true, yet, the witches don’t cause them to develop. Instead, through Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s own doing, evil of: ‘direst cruelty’ is used to accomplish their vaulting ambition. As a result, the witches can’t be evil as the evil shown in the play was a cause of this underlying lust for power…instead, the witches change the weather in: ‘thunder, lightning, or in rain.’ During the 17th century however, many unfortunate women were denounced as witches; and tormented and killed as a result. Hence, witchcraft was associated with evil and was frowned upon in society. Therefore, it’s quite ironic that if the three ‘weird sisters’ weren’t deemed to be evil, why did Shakespeare go against society’s view? I feel that perhaps this is because Shakespeare wanted his play to either emphasise the ‘tragedy’ of Macbeth through showing the protagonists: ‘downfall’ (Seneca) or make it appealing to audiences, who, although, would have detested the witches, also would have been excited by the viewing of it.

  7. Mustapha

    I agree with your comment about the witches acting as cayalysts rather than being clear cut symbols of evil.
    Considering the play in its entirety, the Witches don’t actually do anything evil which is why I believe that the name they are referred to, the ‘Weird Sisters’, seems appropiate becuase theri position in the play is ‘Weird’ in that it is not cearly defined. It can be argued that they maybe seen as evil because Macbeth associates them with evil. He refers to the as being ‘Black and midnight hags’ which we immediately asscoiate with the devil aand other ‘unatural’ evils. Also, to a 17 century jacobian audience, they would have been seens as evil due to the witch trials taking place at the time.
    However, they do not impose their will, which we would expect from a witch, on an unsuspecting Banquo and Macbeth in Act 1 nor do they summon spirits or other possible tools of evil when they appear. All they bring with them is ‘tunder, lightning or rain’. The witches prophecies even are not evil, they are just prophecies or truths. It is the way Macbeth interprets them that leads to his eventual downfall [kills Macduff’s children as they are of ‘woman born’, this in turn strengthens Macduff and the others will to kill Macbeth]
    instead, they present Macbeth with a statement and Macbeth acts on it the way he feels just and therefore can be seen as catalysts for Macbeth’s downfall. Intresting is the way Macbeth chooses to act on these statements, which is with ‘blood’, possibly showing his evil nature.
    I also agree with your comment about how women in this play seem to be cast aside by the end of the play. It can be argued that this is an attempt made by Shakespeare to pay homage to King James. Having an English Queen on the supposedly male throne must have caused great tension for a deeply patriarchal society. I think Shakespeare in this play reflects how, with the ascension of King James to the throne, order has been restored with a male leader, Malcolm who is related to King James and so the kingdom will flourish.

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