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.