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.
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