The first play in the syllabus in the second term is Macbeth and my fist lesson on it focuses on the witches. I think it is fair to say that most of us are, to a certain extent fascinated by the witches. They are everywhere: in almost every culture on the planet is one for or another; from pagan folklore, to Shakespeare, to popular culture. One of the issues I explore with students is the question of predetermination vs agency. Do the witches predict or control Macbeth?
First of all, I think our reading of the ‘witches’ has been historically influenced by or cultural perceptions of the word itself. As Smith points out in her podcast for the Oxford Approaching Shakespeare series, the word witch is only used once in the whole play while Holinshed, Shakespeare’s main source for the play, refers to them as the wayward sisters, or Fates. On the other hand, the word witch is loaded with associations that come from the times of the Inquisition and the concept of the weird elderly women living at the margins of the mediaeval society (Ginzburg, 2004, 2013). Shakespeare himself was almost certainly truly aware of James I’s own views on witchcraft and this is likely to have influenced his description of the witches and the constructions of the scene (Bate and Thornton, 2012). However, I still struggle to see the ‘witches’ in Macbeth as malevolent and intrinsically evil creatures.
There seems to be plenty of evidence in the text that the witches are revengeful (1.3. 1-27) and capable of deceiving predictions (4.1). Yet, many have already questioned the extent to which they are in fact the driving forces behind the Macbeths’ crimes (e.g. Braunmuller, 2008; Watson, 2002). The problem may reside exactly in our attempt to decide whether they are the ones who lead Macbeth to murder or whether they are manifestations of the Macbeths’ already disillusioned minds. An alternative is to see them as a representation of both ‘the elements that clip us round about’ and the scorpions in our own minds because with Shakespeare things are never posed in terms of absolute opposites. Evil can come from the outside but also from the inside.
Discussions of how much the witches predict or control always makes me remember the vase scene in the Matrix. There is some dialogical tension between predestination and free will at play that cannot be ultimately resolved unless one resorts to theological explanations that will always be inherently personal and open to contention.
- Bate, J. and Thornton, D., 2012. Shakespeare: Staging the World. London: British Museum Press.
- Braunmuller, A.R. ed., 2008. Macbeth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ginzburg, C., 2004. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Translated by R. Rosenthal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Ginzburg, C., 2013. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by J. Tedeschi. and Translated by A.C. Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Watson, R.N., 2002. Tragedies of revenge and ambition. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, pp.160–181.