Shakespeare’s Witches

“Double, double, toil, and trouble…

Fire burn and cauldron bubble”

The Witches of Macbeth

I well remember the first time I saw Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, performed on stage. I was fourteen years old, it was a windy October day, and our English class headed out for a “field day” to a theater in Kansas City.

We’d read the play in class, of course, so we knew what to expect…more or less. I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect from a live performance until they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.

My friends and I were seated in the auditorium, chatting away as only fourteen-year-old females can do, when suddenly the lights went out. In a flash — literally — smoke filled the air, a thunderous BOOM shot through the theater, and our attention was captured by the seemingly-magical appearance of three old crones on the stage.

From that moment, I was hooked.

Macbeth became my favorite play, so much so, that I even memorized it at one point in my life.  Even though I’ve forgotten a lot of it,  I still, from time to time, go around quoting bits and pieces. Lots of little phrases do come in handy!

My fascination with Macbeth comes from the witches. We meet them first on the heath where they make plans to meet again later. They’re instruments of prophecy, predicting that the valiant general, Macbeth, will ultimately become King of Scotland. Their prediction seems improbable to the man, but in time leads him to a tragic end.

Shakespeare’ s source for the “Three Witches” — or “Three Weird Sisters” as they are more correctly titled — is an account from Holinshed‘s Chronicles from the late 16th century.  According to Holinshed, Macbeth and his companion Banquo encounter “three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world” who hail the men, recite prophecies, then vanish from sight.

In one of my favorite passages, Shakespeare puts it thusly:

What are these?

So withered and so wild in their attire

That look not like the inhabitants of the earth

And yet are on it?

After the sisters disappear,  Banquo comments:

The earth has bubbles, as the water has

And these of of them.

Wither have they vanished?

Macbeth’s reply is that they have disappeared…

Into the air

And what seemed corporeal melted

As breath unto the wind

But who were these strange supernatural beings? According to Holinshed, these creatures (who looked like women yet had bearded faces) were perhaps the same “Wyrd Sisters” known as the goddesses of destiny, or perhaps they were faerie creatures imbued with wisdom and prophetic powers through necromancy.

Shakespeare’s use of witches in Macbeth was very much a reflection of the times. Witchcraft was a topic of interest in England. The country’s new king, James I, considered himself an intellectual and well-versed in knowledge of the theology and the supernatural. In 1597, he had published a book titled Demonology. 

In 1604 (two years before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth) laws were passed in England making witchcraft a capital offense. Upon evidence of a relationship with evil spirits, a suspect could be executed by hanging, burning, or drowning.

Did Shakespeare believe in witches and witchcraft? While no one can answer that question, we can say with certainty that many people in that time and place did believe in witches, seeing them as evil servants in league with Satan. The concept of “the devil” was very real. The commonly accepted belief was that the devil sought to trap men and women with his power, luring them in and using them to do his will and serve his evil purposes.  Shakespeare capitalized upon this belief, using the familiar figure of “witches” as potent symbols in his masterful tragedy.

When the king’s men arrive upon the scene soon after the witches have visited Macbeth and Banquo and proclaim new honors for Macbeth — as previously predicted by the sisters — Banquo immediately identifies the witches as agents of evil with his remark:

What? Can the devil speak true?

Yet earlier, during the visit by the sisters, Banquo was not afraid to challenge them, demanding that they speak also to him.

If you can look into the seeds of time

And say which grain will grow and which will not

Speak then to me

Who neither beg nor fear

Your favors nor your hate

I’ve always found this passage intriguing, especially when contrasted to Banquo’s recognition of the weird beings as instruments of “the devil”.  Taken together, Banquo’s different speeches speak eloquently of one of our most conflicting desires: to know the future, yet also to be spared from knowing.

Each year as Halloween approaches, my thoughts wander back to that Scottish moor, to a well-fought battle, and to the man who would become the King of Scotland.

And whenever I see a witch’s cauldron, I hear voices stirring inside my head, reciting those magical, mystical words:

Thrice to thine

And thrice to mine

And thrice again to make up nine.

Peace!

The charm’s wound up.

May your hauntings this All Hallow’s Eve be happy ones, and may peace prevail in all you do.

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4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Witches

  1. Hi Christina! Thanks for the reference to my Macbeth post. BTW – I thought your post was excellent and your blog looks great. It seems we have similar interests. I look forward to following your blog and reading your future posts. Cheers, and happy hauntings.

  2. My grade school class read selections of Macbeth. My buddy and I so loved the bombast we declaimed more Macbeth back and forth to each other. We didn’t know what half of it meant, it didn’t matter, we loved the clamor.

    • Shakespeare will do that to you. Especially Macbeth. I had the whole neighborhood rehearsing the play…which was more like a comedy than a tragedy the way we performed it. Or, wait! Maybe that was the tragedy of it. I still distinctly remember one young girl (about 7 or 8) proclaiming the line…”And the victory FELL on him?” She couldn’t figure that one out. Meanwhile the rest of my cast and crew were convulsing in laughter. Yes, the memories!

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