Tag Archives: A fly in the ointment

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.


Filed under AQA LitB, Shakespeare

Fly in the Ointment (V.S. Pritchett) Essay give back

Prepared for a specific class at school. Based on the section immediately following the episode with the fly and prior to the offer of money.


Filed under IGCSE support

A fly in the ointment: teaching notes

FLY teaching

A fly in the ointment: V.S. Pritchett.

someone or something that spoils a situation which could have been successful or pleasant

Outline: Younger man visits bankrupt father who is depressed following the collapse of his business. The son is a disappointment to the father who looks down on him since his work – a university professor is viewed as a poor career.
The father seems strong until a fly enters the room. Perhaps moved by the visible weakness of his father, the boy offers him money. At once the passion returns and the father brutally demands to know why the offer had not been forthcoming at an earlier date.

Harold: University lecturer (so a successful man), loves father but is resentful of father’s attitude to him. Opening suggests the urgency of his wish to be involved by the short sentences “I must see him”. Son is quiet at first an physically unimpressive – “round shouldered and shabby” 113.5, and described 113.8 as irritated by father’s incessant questions. Father turns these to focus on himself – “Haven’t lost sixpence and found a shilling have you, because I wouldn’t mind doing that.” Son’s irritation might stem form father’s curious reversal of the common phrase…
He is embarrassed and tries to be tactful, “bad luck”. This irritates father. The confrontation sees the son as being nervous – he “stammers” 114.2 and “leans back” away from the fight 114.5 Eventually he snaps and is rude – “you’ve thought big until you bust”. Narrator explains that his “pride is touched”.
After the fly the father becomes even more EMBARRASSING – the son hates to see signs of weakness in the father. 117.5 repeats the negative imperative as though revealing the son’s feelings. This embarrassment continues when he is forced to offer charity. The writing becomes fragmented as his difficulties grow- 117.8 His offer of financial help is seized and father becomes the dominant physical specimen once again as the story closes.

Father: the focus of most of the description in the story, the father is arrogant and demanding, yet also shows his age and frailty before responding to the son’s offer by returning to his prior demeanour. The descriptions are often physical: “his soft rosy face” 113.8, “his eyes went hard too” 114.4, his father had two faces… soft warm and innocent daub of innocent sealing wax…shrewd, scared and hard” 114.5, “warm flood of triumphant smiles” 114.8, “the big face smiled and overflowed on the smaller one” 115.5, “an expression of apology and weakness” 116.4, “like a fox looking out of a hole of clay” 118.3. Idea of two faces existing at the same time suggests the duplicity of the businessman and supports the nervousness of the son.
The father is at first charming, once he has got the usual rites of welcome and the snide “come in professor” out of the way. The questions irritate, probably because Harold knows them to be a prelude to the attack which will develop. Once roused the father uses his hands like “ a hammer at an auction” and presents a physically dominating impression to the son. On 114.5 the change happens and we see the real? Father. There is a link between scared and hard as though the father’s brutish ways come from an inner fear, nevertheless he is focused on justifying his position and putting his son down. Father’s mood swings, but we see a proud, self-made man who is struggling to come to terms with his current position and sees the son as trying to prove his own superiority. He resorts to physical abuse – “your hair’s going thin” 114.9, before the son snaps. After this, the father’s bigger face reasserts itself – the public face?- and he shows his pride and relates his position to the other firms in the city – here is speaking as though at a press conference.
The fly shows father at his weakest and he responds by criticising the son freely, before the memory of the employees finally draws a tear from him. There is a suggestion in the moon simile that the father knows clearly that this will affect the son and that will work to his advantage. His face “shone” up at his son carries overtones of interrogation in it.
At the end, the urgency of the questions reveals the business man back in control.

Setting/description: 112.5 Opening paragraph is full of images relating to death and destruction and old age so a mood is created that will pervade the story: “tombstones, dribbling, desert, patch”. 112.8 the new painting and polished knocker suggests pride and reflects the father’s personality. ON 113.4 the firm is metaphorically described as “becoming a ghost” which links with the tombstones.
By 115.7 the description reflects the father as a prelude to the fly – the focus is on weak light, the “frosted window” and the “few bars and panes”. There is a focus on the father’s physical appearance which moves Harold but raises the thought that his father is actually guilty, as has been suggested.
Pritchett seems to use setting/description to predict or foreshadow the attitude of either the son or the father. As a signal of the final change, a “silver topped pencil” appears, as though by magic in his hands.

Language of description: show don’t tell
page quotation Effect on the reader
113.5 “round shouldered and shabby”
114.2 “stammers” “leans back”
114.4 his father had two faces… soft warm and innocent daub of innocent sealing wax…shrewd, scared and hard”
114.8 “the big face smiled and overflowed on the smaller one”
118.3 “like a fox looking out of a hole of clay”

What do these phrases suggest about character and how is the effect achieved?

Language of setting – foreshadowing:
112.5 “tombstones, dribbling, desert, patch”
112.8 “The name of the firm, newly painted too… newly polished”
113.4 “becoming a ghost”
115.8 “frosted window”
“few bars and panes”
118.2 “somehow a silver-topped pencil was in his hand”
What might these phrases suggest either about specific characters or about the mood of the story?



Filed under IGCSE support