The play Macbeth tells the story of an honourable Scottish soldier who turns into an ambitious murderer in conquest of the Scottish throne over the course of the play. The opening scene of the play introduces three witches also known as the three Weird Sisters. The sisters are believed to be the cause of Macbeth’s downfall. By uttering their prophecy at the beginning of the play, stating that Macbeth will first be made a thane and then become king of Scotland, they set in motion the action of the play. The witches role is crucial to the play as they continue to deceive Macbeth and lure him into committing several serious crimes. Ultimately it is debatable if they are the ones responsible for his downfall or if his interpretation of the prophecies and the way that he acted according to them was the deciding element, but this should not be the topic of this paper.
This paper focuses not on the role of the witches in the downfall of Macbeth, but on the nature of the witches themselves. During the Early Modern period when the play was written, the belief in witchcraft was still an actual part of people’s lives. The weird sisters in Macbeth bear resemblance to the witches persecuted all over Europe during Shakespeare’s time. It is important to understand though that they represent much more than just a gruesome copy of those witches. The function and presentation of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth is multifaceted and ambiguous.
Therefore the main focus of this paper is to display and contrast the different interpretations of the nature of the three Weird Sisters. There are different opinions as to what the inspiration for Shakespeare was when he created them. One of them is that the three Weird Sisters represent the three Fates that can be found in different mythologies, like the Moraie in Greek mythology or the Norns of Norse mythology. These figures are supposed to have the ultimate knowledge about man’s destiny and control over his fate. Another one would be the characterization of the witches as typical and contemporary English, Scottish or Continental witches according to their presentation in the play.
This paper will show the justifications for both of these theories. I maintain the view point that Shakespeare disguised the Weird Sisters as witches in order to make them more familiar to his contemporary audience, an audience for which the belief in witchcraft was real. Their function in the play is therefore that of the Fates, uttering prophecies of his future to Macbeth, but their appearance and behaviour let them look like ordinary witches. Shakespeare’s reasons for this masquerade will also be outlined in this paper.
2. The Witches
This paper will first identify the main characteristics for witches during this period and then examine how these apply to the witches portrayed in Macbeth.
There was a definite stereotype of witches during this period. Two factors that are very noticeable when describing this stereotype are gender and age. Witches were likely to be female, as the weaker sex would give into satanic temptations more easily, and also old. This is due to the fact that it often took years to build up a reputation as a witch and sometimes senility could have explained the strange behaviour witnessed by neighbors (cf. Levack 129). Witches were likely to have a lowly social and economical status. They were often poor and living on the margins of society. At times they would have to beg to supplement their small income and in order to survive. This poverty made them more amenable for the proposals of the devil (cf. Levack 134).
In Macbeth, Banquo describes the appearance of the witches when they first encounter them. First he comments on their age calling them “withered” (1.3.38) which leads to the conclusion that they are of old age. Their clothing is probably in a bad state since he says that they look “wild in their attire” (1.3.38) and generally states that they do not look like they are alive and belong in this world (cf. 1.3.39-41). He attributes to them “choppy fingers” (1.3.42) and “skinny lips” (1.3.43) which would both indicate that they are rather ugly. Lastly, he says that he believes them to be women, but questions their gender by pointing out that they have beards (1.3.44). All these characteristics correspond to the contemporary stereotype of witches.
Witches were often associated with brewing “portions and unguents” that could be harmful to their enemies and neighbours. Levack says that “witches are often portrayed standing over cauldrons, for it was such vessels that many of the agents of sorcery were in fact concocted” (127). This stereotype was used in Macbeth, the stage directions say “A cavern. In the middle a boiling cauldron.” (5.1).
As far as their personality is concerned, witches are described as “sharp- tongued, bad-tempered and quarrelsome” (cf. Levack 136). This kind of behaviour can be observed in Shakespeare’s witches. In Act 1 Scene 3, when the witches talk about what they have been doing, one of them says that she had met a sailor’s wife which refused her some of her chestnuts and told her to go away. This causes the witches to plan revenge on her by causing her husband to encounter a storm, stating “his bark...shall be tempest- tossed” (1.3.23-24). This behavior clearly shows the bad-tempered and quarrelsome character traits that were mentioned above.
Witches and their power are linked to necromancy, the use of body parts of corpses for their spells and portions (cf. Purkiss 126). This also occurs in Macbeth. The witches use several body parts among them also “the finger of birth-strangled babe” (1.5.29). This is yet another connection to the contemporary stereotype of witches. Death during birth or at a very young age was a common occurrence in medieval times but for the people at that time often inexplicable. They were looking for someone to blame and this blame was often directed against midwives. They were accused of killing the children, using them for satanic rituals and sacrificing them to the Devil (cf. Levack 127-128).
As one can see there are more than a few parallels between the witches of Shakespearan times and those that Macbeth encounters in the play. They fit into the stereotype according to their outward appearance, their character traits and behaviour as well as by conducting typical rituals while using stereotypical means of sorcery.
3. The Weird Sisters
It has already been stated above that the Weird Sisters, based on their characterization and behaviour in the play, could have been a copy of contemporary witches. There is another theory which favors them to impersonate first and foremost the three Weird Sisters and says that “the Wyrdes, the Norns, the Fates, the Moraie, the Parcae and the Sibyls are all part of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters” (Shamas 98). All these mythological figures have knowledge about the future and utter prophecies about the destiny of man.
The first indicator of this theory is that the Weird Sisters are not actually called witches in the play. The stage directions refer to them as witches and their speech headings are First, Second and Third Witch. In the play itself though they are only called witches once, when the First Witch encounters a sailor’s wife and she says “Aroint thee,witch” (1.3.5). When they talk to each other, they address themselves as sisters and Banquo and Macbeth also use the word sisters, not witches, to refer to them (cf. Whalen 60). Whalen concludes this argument by saying that “if priority is given to the spoken words of the play, these characters are primarily the prophesying Weird Sisters with alter egos as Scottish witches” (60).
Another interesting fact is that the word “weird” itself had a different meaning in Shakespeare’s time than it does today. Today we would associate it with strange, bizarre or freaky which would favor an interpretation of the Weird Sisters as witches since these are attributes that one would assign to a witch. In Old English the word “weird” or “wyrd” meant “destiny” or “fate” and this was the meaning that Shakespeare would have been familiar with at the time (Whalen 61). Tolman remarks that in “Anglo-Saxon literature “Wyrd” is the name of the personified goddess of fate” (89). Therefore it can be said that the Weird Sisters can be linked to the goddesses ofFate by the meaning of their name.
One of Shakespeare’s sources for Macbeth were Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland” which were published in 1577 (cf. Tolman 90). In this publication, the story of Macbeth is described and his encounter with the Weird Sisters as well. Holinshed states the women that they encounter are “the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries indued with knowledge of phrophesie by their necromatnicall science” (Tolman 91). This description of the Weird Sisters does not align with the presentation of them as witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
There is also a picture of the Weird Sisters in Holinshed's Chronicles “depicting them as the supernatural Fates, not as witches” (Whalen 61). This picture shows them as well dressed and elegant women, not the ugly and bearded witches that occur in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In conclusion these arguments indicate that the Weird Sisters were originally Fates, powerful creatures with knowledge of the future and Shakespeare changed their appearance in his play.
Tolman argues that the Weird Sisters can be identified with the Norns of Norse mythology. These women are called Urthr, Verthandi and Skuld whereas these names signify that they represent the Past, Present and Future. Therefore they have extensive knowledge about every man’s destiny. He further elaborates that it becomes clear in Macbeth that the Weird Sisters impersonate the Norns while they utter their first prophecy to Macbeth. Urthr, the Past, addresses him as the Thane of Glamis which he was before the battle. Verthandi, the Present, addresses him as Thane of Cawdor which is the title that he has now earned with his achievements on the battlefield.
- Quote paper
- Saskia Schäfers (Author), 2014, The Weird Sisters in Macbeth. Supernatural Fates or Common Witches?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/429932