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Table of contents
2 Women in 16th century England and female characters on the Elizabethan stage
3 Female characters in Macbeth
3.1 Lady Macbeth
3.2 Lady Macduff
4 The Witches
4.1 King James I and witchcraft
4.2 The witches in Macbeth
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play where the evil is of high importance. Macbeth, the central character, is drawn to sinister forces right from the beginning. The tragedy starts with three witches who plan to “[...] meet with Macbeth.“ (1.1.7) It is evident that this will lead to devastation and grief. Macbeth was actually the first play to introduce witchcraft to the stage;1 however, witchcraft was not considered as pure fiction since the belief in the existence of witches was widely spread in Shakespeare’s time. But it is not only the witches who represent the evil. Macbeth’s own wife, Lady Macbeth, contributes to the actions of Macbeth and as a result from that to his and her own (rise and) fall.
Still there are some open questions. Critics discussed if it were really the witches who corrupted Macbeth or if he himself brought his demise about. Is Lady Macbeth the actual culprit or Macbeth? Has he to bear responsibility alone? However, it is also clear that without the “help“ of the witches or Lady Macbeth he probably would not have committed the murder of Duncan.
In this paper I would like to pay attention especially to these questions as well as to the female characters in general. In connection with Lady Macbeth’s character I will focus on her functions within the play and for Macbeth and on how her evil nature is presented. Further I will concentrate on the description of the witches and their “line of action“. I will also try to point out some of the positive features of the female characters.
2 Women in 16th century England and female characters on the Elizabethan stage
The position women held in Shakespeare’s time was very poor. They depended on their husbands and had to submit to them just like the whole nation had to submit to the ruler.2 Since women were not allowed to hold certain offices or to go to university, they were practically excluded from public life.3 By the time Macbeth was performed the first time there were not even actresses on the stages. All parts were played by men; young boys usually played the parts of women. Due to this fact the number of female characters was relative small. In Macbeth there are for example only two actual female parts. This number corresponds with the assumption that there have been about four boy actors in a company (consisting of about 15 actors in all) in the 16th and 17th century. Female characters were only a part of a play if really necessary.4
Various critics pointed out the irony that the actors in Macbeth play women who are at the same time very masculine. Lady Macbeth i.e. makes an ironic reference to her own sex5 and the witches wear beards.
When we have a look at the dramatis personæ of the play we see a hierarchy amony the characters. Duncan, the king of Scotland, is of course on top. He is followed by his successors, Malcolm and Donalbain. Lady Macbeth on the other hand side is at the bottom of the “list“ even though she is one of the main characters! The king’s sons have a relatively small part (they appear in only a few scenes) in contrast to Macbeth’s wife. Even the “Old Man“ is listed above her. It is quite obvious that the hierarchy here represents the rank in the “real“ society in the Elizabethan time. Women were regarded as inferior and held therefore a lower rank.
We will see later that Lady Macbeth is at variance with the social or natural order. Her unfeminine attitudes as well as the murder of Duncan were considered as a violation of the existing order in the Elizabethan time. Due to this fact Lady Macbeth has to die in the course of the tragedy.
Die Tragödie konzeptualisiert einen solchen auf der latenten Annahme von Zweigeschlechtlichkeit basierenden eigenen weiblichen Subjektwillen als ernsthafte Bedrohung und nimmt die Ansätze hierzu sofort in Schach (D. CALLAGHAN). [...] Die biologische Begründung »natürlicher« männlicher Überlegenheit übersetzt sich allmählich in ein Modell »vernünftiger« sozialer Kontrolle durch den Mann, demzufolge das Geschlechterverhältnis immer dann in Ordnung ist, wenn zugestandenes weibliches Subjektbegehren sich auf den privaten Innenraum des Hauses beschränken lässt [...].6
I will go into the aspect of ambiguity about gender roles and the violation of the natural order in more detail later in this paper.
3 Female characters in Macbeth
3.1 Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth is introduced to the play in act 1, scene 5. She is necessary for the tragedy since the main character simply needs an interlocutor, someone he can be open with and a person who is familiar with everything the central figure does. When Lady Macbeth enters with the letter in scene 5 she gets to know of what the witches prophesied Macbeth. Her monologue illustrates right from the beginning her evil intentions.
Come, you Spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full Of direst cruelty! (1.5.40-43)
Thus she also fulfills the function to urge Macbeth to commit the crime when he is reluctant. “When you durst do it, then you were a man; [...]“ she tells him later (1.7.49). The tragedy calls for the character of Lady Macbeth since she is the one who drives her husband to the murder of Duncan. She gives rise to Macbeth’s decision to do that crime and deadens all scruples in him. Being his wife she has the biggest influence on him. Her determination and unconcern is of great importance with regard to the commitment of the murder.
Die Figur muß Macbeth nahe genug stehen, um großen Einfluß auf ihn zu haben, muß aber dabei gegensätzlich geartet sein: schnell zum Bösen entschlossen, skrupellos, frei von Visionen und Gewissensbissen, kurzsichtig, was die Folgen des Verbrechens, umsichtig, was die praktische Durchführung angeht. [...] Shakespeare hat die Figur der Lady Macbeth so konstruiert, daß sie diesen Funktionen der Gesprächspartnerin, Verführerin, Tathelferin und Repräsentantin des bösen Prinzips voll gerecht wird, [...].7
It is also clear that Lady Macbeth’s true aim is her wish to be on top of the social order; a rise in the society is therefore her greatest temptation.
Lady Macbeth is (at least until her “illness“) a truly evil character. Right from the beginning of the play we get to know her devilish nature and cruel intentions. She appears with Macbeth’s letter that reports that the witches met him “[...] in the day of success; and [...] they have more in them than mortal knowledge.“ (1.5.1-3) Macbeth calls his wife “my dearest partner of greatness“ (1.5.10-11) and therefore gets the audience the impression of a tender relationship between the couple. Nevertheless it must be kind of astonishing when Lady Macbeth instantly states: “Yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness, To catch the nearest way.“ (1.5.16- 18) “Humanity“ is obviously something she cannot reconcile with her consience. It is striking that the terms “fear“ and “human kindness“ are brought together. One would say i.e. that the witches are something to fear, but Lady Macbeth simply fears a quality which is normally a positive feature! Her plan to have Duncan killed is therefore in her mind right from the start. It is not certain whether Macbeth had this plan in mind as well or not. He is at least very reluctant in the beginning which makes one think that murder was not his initial intention. However, the contrary can be proven as well.
Act 1, scene 5 serves to summarize the preceding events on one hand and on the other hand to characterize and introduce Lady Macbeth. In this scene she shows us that she knows the nature of her husband very well. She is also presented in contrast to her husband who seems to be less cruel (at least up to this point). Her plan to drive Macbeth to the deed is expressed when she intends to “[...] pour my spirits in thine ear, [...]“ (1.5.26). In her famous monologue before the entry of Macbeth she turns her aim to destruction and cruelty:
The raven himself is hoarse, That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements. Come, you Spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood, Stop up th’access and passage to remorse; That no compunctious visitings of Nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th’effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on Nature’s mischief! Come, thick Night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’ (1.5.38-54)
The speech is full of images deriving from a “world of darkness“. The raven i.e. heralds horror and disaster. Words such as “mischief“ or “wound“ foreshadow the murders later in the play. But before she can even keep hold of such “mortal thoughts“ she needs the help of evil spirits to “unsex“ her. She rejects her own nature and is ready to give up all her female qualities in the favour of the killings. In most of the scenes Lady Macbeth actually seems to be more a man than Macbeth is. This “confusion in human gender roles“8 can be found throughout the whole play. Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s manliness in act 1, scene 7. When he decides they “[...] will proceed no further in this business [...]“ (1.7.31), she calls him a coward.
When you durst do it, you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place, Did then adhere, and yet you would make both: They have made themselves, and that their fitness now Does unmake you. (1.7.49-54)
Manhood here is associated with the ability to kill. By equating manliness with killing she demonstrates that compassion and love are something effeminate. Lady Macbeth actually utters what is expressed from a man in a world that values violence.9 Ironically she does not behave like it is expressed neither. Instead of doing justice to her female nature she explains she would even kill her own child to achive royal dignity.
I have given suck, and know How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out, had I sworn As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59)
Soft words such as “tender“, “love“ or “smiling“ are contrasted to the harsh term “dash’d the brains out“. The juxtaposition of these words increases the cruel impression Lady Macbeth has on the audience. The renunciation of all her female qualities lead (in the long term) to the murder of the king. As a result the natural and social order will be destroyed. The crime effectuates unnatural events in the whole kingdom.
Old M. ‘Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last, A falcon, towering in her pride of place, Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at, and kill’d. Ross. And Duncan’s horses (a thing most strange and certain) Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make War with mankind. Old M. ‘Tis said, they eat each other. (2.4.10-18)
Macbeth recognizes his wife’s ambiguous nature when he says: “Bring forth men- children only! For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.“ (1.7.73- 75) Again being male is equated with courage. During the night of the murder of Duncan Macbeth still seems to be very reluctant and unsure. After the killing he decides to “[...] go no more [...]“ (2.2.49); he is afraid. But Lady Macbeth pushes all his doubts aside. Her cruelty and heartlessness becomes visible in this scene again. Even though Macbeth commits the murder she is the more active one since she keeps driving him on.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has always been regarded as the most “Senecan“ of all his plays.10 Senecan plays were well known in the 16th century. Elements of these tragedies can be found in different Elizabethan plays. The features that connect Macbeth with Seneca are the supernatural elements and the murders as well as the part of Lady Macbeth. A prominent example of that kind is the Medea.
In the first speech, Lady Macbeth rejects her very nature as a woman, turns her aim from creation of life to its destruction. [...] Seneca has one woman whose actions, in spirit if not in fact, is identical, and that is Medea. In the opening scene of her play, Medea invokes Hecate, the goddess of night, hell and magic, to help her revenge herself on Jason by killing the king and the whole royal stock.11
The fact that Medea killed her own children to take vengeance on Jason can be linked with Lady Macbeth’s statement that she would “have [...] dash’d the brains [of her babe] out“ (1.7.57-58). Inga-Stina Ewbank pointed out “the two great thematic speeches which fit Lady Macbeth into this vision [...].“12 Namely the one only just quoted and her invocation of the “Spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts [...]“ (1.5.40-41). The other link that connects the Medea with Macbeth are the incantations of the witches. (This fact will be discussed later in more detail.)
In other words, Lady Macbeth’s connection to the evil is immense. However, Macbeth may recognize this fact but it seems to be doubtless that the other characters do not see this side in her. In the beginning of the play she tells her husband to “[...] look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t.“ (1.6.65-66) She actually advises him to be something he is not and proceeds on this advice herself all the time. When Duncan arrives at Inverness she pretends to be the “honour’d hostess.“ (1.6.10)
All our service, In every point twice done, and then done double, Were poor and single business, to contend Against those honours deep and broad, wherewith Your Majesty loads our house: for those of old, And the late dignities heap’d up to them, We rest your hermits. (1.6.14-20)
In reality she has already decided to have Duncan killed. Paradoxically she talks about love but expects Macbeth to do a loveless deed.
From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour, As thou art in desire? (1.7.38-41)
Lady Macbeth faints after hearing of the murder of Duncan. (2.3.117) One could think that she just plays this fainting since she remained cool when Macbeth committed the murder. Besides that she said “Who dares receive it other, As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar / Upon his death?“ All these aspects can be linked to the motto “fair is foul, and foul is fair“ which is the thread running through the story. The witches utter it first and it seems like they would affect all following events with that saying.
We can see a development in the way Lady Macbeth acts. First she appears to be “courageous“ and strong, but later (before her death) she is weak and but a shadow of her former self. In act 1 she is unconcerned and does not think of the consequences such a deed could have.
Only look up clear; To alter favour ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me. (1.6.72-74)
There is no hesitation or doubt in her. This makes it easier for Lady Macbeth to overcome her husband’s scruples and drive him to the murder. The only thing that makes her hesitate is the fact that Duncan resembles her father (2.2.12-13). After the murder we recognize a change in both persons. The conversation they have is disjointed and the couple talks at cross-purposes. Some of the sentences are extremely short (a few exist of only one word).
Macb. I have done the deed. - Didst thou not hear a noise? Lady M. I heard the owl scream, and the crickets cry. Did not you speak? Macb. When? Lady M. Now. Macb. As I descended? Lady M. Ay. Macb. Hark! Who lies i’th’second chamber? (2.2.14-20)
The crime now seperates them just as it brought them together. Lady Macbeth does not see why Macbeth is so concerned. She advises him not to think of the crime anymore because she fears: “[...] it will make us mad.“ (2.2.33)
Ironically it will be her who really goes mad in the end! Even though it is Macbeth who hears voices telling him “Macbeth shall sleep no more!“ (2.2.42) it is Lady Macbeth later who cannot sleep anymore (cf. 5.1). Both of them here appear to be one person or the other way round two persons with one identity. Sigmund Freud pointed out that Shakespeare often uses a character that is split up into two personalities:
He [Ludwig Jekels] believes that Sakespeare often splits a character up into two personages, which, taken seperately, are not completely understandable and do not become so until they are brought together once more into a unity. This might be so with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. [...] It is he who has the hallucination of the dagger before the crime; but it is she who afterwards falls ill of a mental disorder. [...] she bcomes all remorse and he all defiance. Together they exhaust the possibilities of reaction to the crime, like two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality [...].“13
So Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both change in different ways in the course of the play. She may seduce him into murdering Duncan, but he is responsible alone for the following crimes. Lady Macbeth turns passive whereas Macbeth gets entangled in more and more murders. The image of the babe with the dashed out brain she uses in act 1 occurs again when Macbeth slaughters the son of Macduff (and his wife). Now it is Macbeth who does not even recoil from killing an innocent child. The way he talks to the murderers resembles the way Lady Macbeth talked to him.
1 Mur. We are men, my Liege. Macb. Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; As hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, [...] are clept All by the name of dogs: [...] (3.1.90-94)
The change in Lady Macbeth’s character is abrupt. We had the impression that no cruelty in the world can harm her, but in her last appearance she is broke.
She thought that the deed would not affect her. In act 2 she seems almost naive when she argues: “A little water clears us of this deed: How easy is it then!“ (2.2.66-67) She is carefree here but shortly before dying she is full of worries. The crime catches up to her (she cannot get rid of the blood stains). After her fainting in act 2 which showed us maybe the soft part of her nature she seems to be indifferent to what happened.
How now, my Lord? Why do you keep alone, Of sorriest fancies your companions making, Using those thoughts, which should indeed have died With them they think on? Things without all remedy Should be without regard: what’s done is done. (3.2.8-12)
The crime cannot be undone indeed. The stains on her hands will remain and keep torturing her until death. It looks like she even has a guilty conscience in act 5:
The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? - What, will these hands ne’er be clean? - No more o’that, my Lord, no more o’that: you mar all with this starting. (5.1.39-42)
The sleep-walking scene grants a view of Lady Macbeth’s wrecked psyche. She has to suffer hell since this is the adequate form for a devilish person. With her help Macbeth “murther’d Sleep“, but it is her now that “shall sleep no more“ (2.2.40-42). She did not behave like it was expected from a woman; instead she violated the natural order. Now she has to pay dearly for that violation. She is crushed by denying her female nature. Lady Macbeth’s barrenness emphasizes this aspect: She is - like the witches - no real woman. Sigmund Freud saw a connection between her barrenness and her breakdown.
It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of the talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of generation - if Macbeth could not become father because he had robbed children of their father and a father of his children, and if Lady Macbeth suffered the unsexing she demanded of the spirits of murder. I believe Lady Macbeth’s illness, the transformation of her callousness into penitence, could be explained directly as a reaction to her childlessness, [...].14
In fact, Macbeth’s exclamation “Bring forth men-children only!“ (1.7.73) can be seen in connection with that.
However, after Lady Macbeth’s death her husband cannot show any sympathy for her anymore. His feelings for anyone in this world are now simply non-existent. All the blood-shed corrupted him.15
3.2 Lady Macduff
Lady Macduff is the only woman in the play besides Lady Macbeth. Her only appearance is in 5.2 where she and her son get killed by the murderers. The audience can merely get a small impression of her; still it is a positive impression. Her character contrasts with the evil nature of Lady Macbeth. The most prominent distinguishing mark is the fact that Macbeth’s wife is an un-sexed, barren fiend; Lady Macduff on the other hand is a loving mother. Roy Walker finds that her character in the play illustrates “[...] the full horror [...]“ of Lady Macbeth.16 Lady Macduff is not like Lady Macbeth at all. While Macbeth’s wife thinks that her husband is “too full o’th’milk of human kindness“ (1.5.17), it is Lady Macduff who does not find any kindness in Macduff at all. She says:
Wisdom! To leave his wife, to leave his babes, His mansion, and his titles, in a place From whence himself does fly? He loves us not: [...] All is the fear, and nothing in the love; [...]. (4.2.6-12)
She does not know why Macduff left his family and she calls him therefore a traitor. Macduff thinks his wife’s and son’s innocence will protect them.
Macduff is wise and generous enough to leave his wife and children, knowing well that it may be for the last time, without a word; to let his dear wife think that he loves them not.17
Lady Macduff sees that running away is not the solution: “Whither should I fly? I have done no harm.“ (4.3.72-73) But then she remembers that she lives in a world which is ruled by evil. In other words, she has to act on the principle of “fair is foul, and foul is fair“ to be able to live on. But since she is innocent and no fiend like Lady Macbeth (or Macbeth of course) she must die. As long as Macbeth is king there is no place for her and her son in this world. Only when Macbeth dies the natural order will be again like it is supposed to be. But until then everything is upside down.
4 The Witches
4.1 King James I and witchcraft
King James VI of Scotland and I of England succeeded Elizabeth I after her death in 1603. As a lover of the theatre, King James became patron to the troop of William Shakespeare, known as the “King’s Men“. Shakespeare likely wrote Macbeth for the king, and it was James I who wrote a book about witchcraft called “Daemonologie“. Various critics assume that Shakespeare therefore extended the part of the witches in the tragedy in favour of the king. The “Weird Sisters“ played a much smaller part in Holinshed’s work.18
The existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare’s time. The practice of witchcraft was seen to subvert the natural order of religion and society. The “Malleus Maleficarum“, a textbook for witch hunters, describes the power witches have over men.
Weiße Magie [...] bot praktische Lebenshilfe und unterschied sich grundsätzlich von schwarzer Magie, oder Hexerei. Zentrales Charakteristikum der schwarzen Magie ist das »maleficum« - die böse Tat oder der materielle Schaden, den eine Person davonträgt. Im orthodoxen Hexenglauben, wie er sich im Mittelalter entwickelte und in den Werken wie dem Malleus Maleficarum, dem »Hexenhammer« (1486), ausformuliert wurde, bildet der Verbund mit Satan das eigentliche häretische Moment; [...].19
Several million women were killed during the time people had an obsessive belief in witches. James I encouraged this with his work. In the preface of the “Daemonologie“ he points out the witches’ “alliance“ with the devil and their power to weaken men.
My intention in this labour, is only to prove two things, as I have already said: the one, that such divelish artes have bene and are. The other, what exact triale and severe punishment they merite: and therefore reason, what kinde of things are possible to be performed in these arts, and by what naturall causes they may be, not that I touch every particular thing of the Devil’s power, for what wer infinite: [...]. And such like in the second booke of Witch-craft in speciall, and fift Chap. I say and prove by diverse arguments, that Witches can, by the power of their Master, cur or cast on disseases: Now by the same reasones, that proves their power by the Devil of disseases in generall, is aswell proved their power in speciall: as of weakening the nature of some men, to make them unable for women: and making it to abound in others, more then the ordinary course of nature would permit.20
The other great work of that time that may have influenced Shakespeare was Reginald Scot’s “The Discovery of Witchcraft“ from 1584. Contrary to James he does not believe in the power of witches. In his work the author argues that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft is contrary to the dictates of religion. Scot provoked King James’ anger with that work. In the “Daemonologie“ James says that “[...] the one called SCOT an Englishman, is not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft: and so mainteines the old error of the Sadducees, in denying of spirits.“21 One of the arguments Scot points out is that the belief in witches means not trusting in God.
[...] neither is there any mention made of these kinds in the Bible. If Christ had known them, he would not have pretermitted to inveigh against their presumption, in taking upon them his office: as, to heal and cure diseases; and to work such miraculous and supernatural things, as whereby He Himself was specially known, believed, and published to be God; His actions and cures consisting (in order and effect) according to the power of our witchmongers imputed to witches. Howbeit, if there be any in these days afflicted in such strange sort, as Christ’s cures and patients are described in the new testament to have been: we flee from trusting in God to trusting in witches.22
Further he asks “What an inept instrument is a toothless, old, impotent, and unwieldly woman to fly in the air? Truly, the devil little needs such instruments to bring his purposes to pass.“23 The image of a witch we get here might remind us of the witches in Macbeth.
The belief of whether or not the witches actually exist or have power over men might influence the interpretation of whether Macbeth’s actions result from a personal choice or from the witches’ forces.
4.2 The witches in Macbeth
The play opens with three witches that meet in thunder and lightning in an open place. The way they speak drop a hint to the fact that they are supernatural creatures. They talk about a battle that is at the same time lost and won and about Macbeth whom they plan to meet. All three of them have the same part in the dialogue: The first witch asks a question, the second one replies to that question and the third witch comments on the response. Finally they all speak together: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.“ (1.1.11-12) The reversal of norms as stated in this verse is expressed in the whole appearance of the witches. For example, they are called by their pets (Graymalkin and Paddock) instead of calling them;24 the battle, they say, will be lost and won. There is disorder and chaos when they meet. The natural phenomena (thunder, lightning, rain) can be connected to the “hurlyburly“ that is taken place. Strangely enough the first witch compares three phenomena that usually appear as one.25 The disruption of the natural order is foreshadowed with this. This image occurs again later when the king is killed. Of the night of the murder of Duncan Lenox reports:
The night has been unruly: where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, Lamentings heard i’th’air; strange screams of death, [...]. (2.3.53-55)
The Weird Sisters have the ability to look ahead. The battle that is lost and won recurs in Duncans statement “What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.“ (1.2.69) The witches are nameless and therefore hard to identify. The incantatory structure of the verses and their ugly looks cause a feeling of astonishment and horror. Macbeth asks them “What are you?“ (1.3.47) but he does not get a clear answer. Terence Hawkes noticed that the witches “[...] never achieve the proper purpose of poetic language, communication. In fact, [...] they mystify and horrify rather than inform.“26 They are “imperfect speakers“. (1.3.70) Surprised by the witches’ appearance Banquo wonders what he sees.
What are these, So wither’d and so wild in their attire, That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth, And yet are on’t? Live you? Or are you aught That man may question? You seem to understand me, By each at once her choppy finger laying Upon her skinny lips: you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so. (1.3.39-47)
Both Banquo and Macbeth seem to be not sure of what to make of them. The witches create confusion with what they say and how they look. Their sex is actually ambiguous since they wear beards. In other words, the witches’ appearance is deceitful.
The motto “fair is foul, and foul is fair“ is apparent from the theme “deceitful appearance“. The witches are “foul in looks“ and “fair in promise“.27
The first thing Macbeth says when he enters in act one is: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.“ (1.3.38) He repeats what the witches just said almost with the same words. This fact shows the disastrous connection between him and the Weird Sisters that already exists at this point. Depending on the interpretation of what the witches are one could either say that Macbeth is possessed by their spell or that he is an evil character himself. However, he seems to have difficulties realizing that such devilish creatures might try to fool him.28
There is in fact more than just the repeating of the witches’ saying that connects Macbeth to them. On the heath the second witch reports she was “killing swine“. (1.3.2) There can be drawn a link to the slaughter committed by Macbeth on the battlefield before the play starts and to the murders later in the tragedy. The atmosphere of the whole play is expressed in the witches’ words “fog and filthy air“. (1.1.12) In fact, it forms a contrast to the “[...] air / Nimbly and sweetly [...]“ (1.6.1-2) that surrounds the castle. But it is here Duncan who is deceived because he will be killed in this place. Again, something that appears to be fair is in reality foul.
In act 4 the Weird Sisters appear for the third and last time. The odd number three turns up several times: there are three witches, three murderers and three apparitions.29 All these characters and elements are therefore marked as evil. The happenings of act 1 are now repeated. The witches come together to prophesy Macbeth’s future. This time, however, they will bring his fall about once and for all. Standing around the cauldron they prepare a “hell-broth“ (4.1.30) with ingredients such as “fillet of a fenny snake“ (4.1.12) or “finger of birth-strangled babe“ (4.1.30). There is a connection between those things and some of the previous events: The birth-strangled babe for example may remind us of some of Lady Macbeth’s statements concerning the murder of babes. All the crimes committed by Macbeth and his wife now catch up to them:
Was die Hexen da zusammenbrauen, ist eigentlich gar nicht ihr Kochrezept. Es ist vielmehr, in ein anderes Idiom übertragen, auf gut deutsch die Suppe, die sich Macbeth und seine Frau selbst eingebrockt haben und nun werden auslöffeln müssen.30
The whole scene can be compared to the “Medea“ again. According to that story she put “a screechs owl’s head and wings“, “the entrails of a wolf“, “shells of tortoises“ etc. into the cauldron.31 The incantations of Medea remind of those of the witches in Macbeth.
The broth is prepared and the following apparitions make Macbeth think he is invincible. The prophecies are “foul“ in reality, but he only recognizes them as “fair“. His trust in them is fatal therefore.
Still it is not easy to decide if it were really the Weird Sisters who caused his downfall. I already pointed out the fact that their influence on Macbeth depends on how one interprets the power of witches. One could say that they actually plan to fool Macbeth since they come together with the intention to “meet with Macbeth“ on the heath. (1.1.7-8) In the scene after next the witches greet Macbeth calling him Thane of Cawdor and king.
1 Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
2 Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
3 Witch. All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be King hereafter. (1.3.47-49)
They stir his interest and after hearing he will really be appointed Thane of Cawdor he starts reflecting about the truth in the witches’ words. One could even take into consideration that Macbeth is under their spell and drawn to the wrong side. Without any help from the witches (or Lady Macbeth) the following crimes probably would not have happened. Nevertheless we must also see Macbeth’s own faults.
The fact that he calls them “imperfect speakers“ (1.3.70) should show him that they are not to be taken serious. He (and Banquo) recognize them as “the Devil“ (1.3.107) but he puts too much trust in them anyway. Macbeth should know that devilish creatures in fact cannot speak the truth. Another passage (before Lady Macbeth gets to know the prophecies) is striking:
The Prince of Cumberland! - That is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires; The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.48-53)
It is without question that he already thinks about murder here. This fact might also mitigate Lady Macbeth’s guilt. The biggest mistake Macbeth makes, however, is that he misinterprets the prophesies. The second apparition tells him that “[...] none of a woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.“ (4.1.80-81) He wrongly assumes that he does not need to fear Macduff therefore. The third apparition makes him think that he “[...] shall never vanquish’d be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.“ (4.1.92-94) We will see that “[...] Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d“ (5.8.15-16) and the soldiers fighting against Macbeth will cut down branches from Birnam wood and hide behind them while approaching the castle. So one must say that the witches’ indistinct prophesies make the restoration of the order possible. They enable the rise of Macbeth and make him fall at the same time. Regarding the story from this point of view one could actually see some good traits in the witches; but only a few critics think they are really positive characters. Terry Eagleton i.e. pointed out that side of them, saying that the “[...] positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches.“32 He says that the true evil is the society itself because it is based on oppression and warfare. It is “foul“ since the political order in that society is dependent on bloodshed.
The witches contrary to that live in their own world remote of that society. They are “radical separatists who scorn male power.“33 Eagleton describes the chaos they represent as “creativity“: They mock boundaries and order rather than insisting on them by means of war.
The evil in Macbeth is present in all kinds of characters - Macbeth, the witches, Hecate, the murderers, Lady Macbeth - so it is hard to solve the question of guilt and to say whether the witches and / or Lady Macbeth are the true culprits. The audience in Shakespeare’s time may have perceived the witches as the incarnation of evil and therefore as the ones who are able to control the actions of Macbeth. Thus he would be innocent. Besides that one could assume that the witches extend their power on Lady Macbeth as well. In fact, in a lot of scenes she seems to be a witch herself, at least according to the standards of Shakespeare’s day. In the same way that the witches subvert the natural order of religion and society, Lady Macbeth subverts the order of the sexes and the family by trying to have more power than Macbeth. Several of her statements (as shown) imply that she is witch-like. If so, this fact might mitigate her husband’s guilt.
The character of Lady Macduff forms a contrast to the unfeminine nature of Lady Macbeth. She is the classic example of the loving wife and mother. Her part shows how women were supposed to act in the Elizabethan time.
However, we also see a change in Lady Macbeth’s character in the end. Her frailness (illness) in the sleep-walking scene portrays the other side of her nature. She seems to feel guilty and remorse. But besides this there are also positive traits in her, regardless whether her character changes in the end or not. Several critics underlined the good nature of Lady Macbeth since she is a woman who suffers for her husband’s career. She wants to see him as king and therefore puts all her energy into pushing him to that aim. She encourages and supports him. One could even say that Lady Macbeth is the examplary wife. It can be argued that it is not really her who is to blame for the murders. She may have forced Macbeth into doing these crimes but it is a fact also that he was willing to listen to her! Macbeth contrary to her shows no remorse. Nowadays we may say that Macbeth is the only true villain of the play because it was not the Weird Sisters who killed the king, and it was not Lady Macbeth either.
The crime of committing the murders lies in Macbeth alone. The witches only produce the idea of killing the king which may have been in Macbeth’s mind before they even met. Like I said before, the question of guilt cannot clearly be answered. It really depends on the audience’s assessment of the power of the witches. However, it is undoubtly the help of the evil female characters that contributes to Macbeth’s deeds and demise. Without their actions the crimes would not have happened. It is the evil of all the bad persons involved that cause the disastrous events of the play.
1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996.
2. Drakakis, John, ed. Shakespearean Tragedy. London, New York: Longman, 1996.
3. Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. Oxford: 1986.
4. Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare and the Reason. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.
5. Jorgensen, Paul A. Our Naked Frailties - Sensational Art and Meaning in
6. Berkely, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1971.
7. Muir, Kenneth and Philip Edwards, ed. Aspects of Macbeth. Cambridge, London,New York, Melbourne: Cambridgy University Press, 1977.
8. Schabert, Ina, ed. Shakespeare - Handbuch. Stuttgart: Kröner, 2000.
9. Schlösser, Anselm. Shakespeare - Analysen und Interpretationen. Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau, 1977.
10. Suerbaum, Ulrich. Shakespeares Dramen. Tübingen, Basel: Francke, 1996.
11. Wain, John, ed. Shakespeare Macbeth - A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1994.
12. Walker, Roy. The Time is free - A Study of Macbeth. London: Dakers, 1969.
13. Bulfinch’s Mythology - Chapter XVII: The Golden Fleece-Medea. http://www.webcom.com/shownet/medea/bulfinch/bull17.html.
14. His Majesty’s King James VI & I Page. http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/kjdaemon.htm.
15. Reginald Scot - The Discovery of Witchcraft. http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/260scot.html.
1 Jorgensen, Paul A. Our Naked Frailties - Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: 1971, p. 116.
2 Klein, Bernhard: “England in der frühen Neuzeit.“ In: Schabert, Ina, ed. 2000: Shakespeare-Handbuch. Stuttgart: Körner, p. 25.
3 Ibidem, p. 27.
4 Suerbaum, Ulrich. Shakespeares Dramen. Tübingen, Basel: 1996, p. 113 f.
5 Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare and the Reason. London: 1964, p. 134.
6 Mahler, Andreas: “Das ideologische Profil.“ In: Schabert, Ina, ed. 2000: Shakespeare-Handbuch. Stuttgart: Körner, p. 320.
7 Suerbaum, p. 130.
8 French, Marilyn. “The Late Tragedies”. In: Drakakis, John. Shakespearean Tragedy. London, New York: 1992, p.265.
9 Marilyn French noticed that “[...] Macbeth lives in a culture that values butchery. Throughout the play manhood is equated with the ability to kill. Power is the highest value in Scotland, and in Scottish culture, power is military prowess. Macbeth’s crime is not that he is a murderer: he is praised and rewarded for being a murder.“ French, Marilyn. „The Late Tragedies“. In: Drakakis, John, ed. 1992: Shakespearean Tragedy. London, New York: Longman, p.265.
10 Ewbank, Inga-Stina. “The Fiend-like Queen: A note on Macbeth and Seneca’s Medea“. In: Muir, Kenneth and Philip Edwards (ed.) 1977: Aspects of Macbeth. London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, p.53.
11 Ibidem, p. 55.
12 Ibidem, p. 54.
13 Freud, Sigmund. “Some character-types met with in psycho-analytical work“. In:Wain, John (ed.) 1968: Shakes peare Macbeth. A casebook. London: Macmillan, pp. 145 f.
14 Ibidem, p. 143.
15 Lady Macbeth’s demise is besides that just functional for the play. After having fulfilled her dramatic purpose she must leave. She simply is not needed anymore for the end of the play.
16 Walker, Roy. The Time is free - A Study of Macbeth. London: 1969, p.153.
17 Ibidem, p. 155.
18 Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) were the major source Shakespeare used.
19 Klein, Bernhard: “England in der frühen Neuzeit.“ In: Schabert, Ina, ed. 2000: Shakespeare- Handbuch. Stuttgart: Kröner, p. 17.
20 His Majesty’s King James VI & I Page. http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/kjdaemon.htm (I adopted the spelling as used on this site)
22 Reginald Scot. The Discovery of Witchcraft. http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/260scot.html
23 Ibidem, chapter 6.
24 Witches were said to keep devils in the form of pets.
25 “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?“ (1.1.2) (Italics are mine)
26 Hawkes, p. 130.
27 Jorgensen, p. 118.
28 At least Banquo compares the Weird Sisters to the Devil. (cf. 1.3.7)
29 There are in fact four scenes where the witches appear. 3.5 was probably not written by Shakespeare.
30 Schlösser, Anselm. Shakespeare - Analysen und Interpretationen. Berlin, Weimar: 1977, p. 426.
31 Bulfinch’s Mythology - Chapter XVII. http://www.webcom.com/shownet/medea/bulfinch/bull17.html.
32 Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. Oxford: 1986, pp. 1-3.