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«Brief Chronicles IV (2012-13) 59 The Scottish/Classical Hybrid Witches in Macbeth Richard F. Whalen T he three witches in Macbeth play a significant, ...»

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Brief Chronicles IV (2012-13) 59

The Scottish/Classical Hybrid

Witches in Macbeth

Richard F. Whalen


he three witches in Macbeth play a significant, double role that has not

been recognized or fully appreciated by critics. They are not only Scottish

witches, who are comical; they are also, and primarily, the three “Weird

Sisters,” that is, exemplars of the Roman Parcae, the three supernatural Fates of

classical mythology and drama. Sometimes they switch roles in mid-scene. They

begin as witches who perform outlandish, comic rituals, only to become the classical Parcae, the Fates who prophesy Macbeth’s future. Their deceptive prophecies, however, are ambiguous; they fuel his ambition to be king of Scotland but lead him to his downfall. Focused on his ambition, Macbeth hears from the Weird Sisters what he wants to hear. With their prophecies, they personify and dramatize his selfdeception, misleading him to imagine that he can seize the throne and be an effective ruler. To a large extent, his willful self-deception and consequent failure to grasp the ambiguity of their prophecies are defining characteristics of his personality.

Macbeth’s self-deception was recognized long ago by two Shakespeare scholars whose insights have typically been long forgotten. Denton J. Snider, author of two volumes of essays on the Shakespeare plays, noted in 1877 that the “utterances,” that is, the prophecies of the Weird Sisters, “are the internal workings of Macbeth’s own mind in an imaginative form, which, however, he himself does not recognize as his own.”1 And Albert H. Tolman of Ripon College suggested in 1906 that the Weird Sisters “are but a personification, a dramatizing, of those dark promptings which swarm in every soul that is secretly inclined to ‘evil.’”2 Their insights about the dramatist’s intentions have not received the consideration they deserve.

Also generally underappreciated by modern critics is the significance of the comedic elements of the witchery scenes. The witches’ bawdy banter and comical antics are entertaining, but at the same time they subvert the reliability of their own alter egos as the prophesying Weird Sisters. The usual commentary on the comic role Whalen - Scottish Witches in Macbeth 60 of the witches misses their significance, diminishing the richness of the author’s creation and his darker intention. Snider, however, did recognize how the comical witches can shape the audience perception of Macbeth’s character. He observed of the witches/Weird Sisters and Macbeth that “when the audience stand above the hero and are made acquainted with all his complications, mistakes and weaknesses, the realm of Comedy begins.”3 Through his weakness of discernment, Macbeth falls for the deceptive prophecies of the Weird Sisters, even though they are undermined by the antics of their alter egos, the comic witches. Othello is another foolish hero of a Shakespeare tragedy when that play is understood as inspired by commedia dell’arte.4 In like manner, the Porter scene in act 2, often called “comic relief,” conveys a darker meaning. The Porter’s drunken ramblings depict the gates to Macbeth’s castle as the gates to Hell. In the hellish castle, Duncan and his grooms will be slain, Macbeth will suffer an agony of indecision and remorse, and Banquo’s ghost will terrorize him. Critics rarely mention the ominous subtext of this farcical scene.

The significance of the witchery scenes in Macbeth arises from the duality of their personae. The comical witches’ alter egos are the prophesying Weird Sisters, and the Weird Sisters’ alter egos are the witches. They are the “other self” of themselves.

This brilliant conflation drives Macbeth’s fatal self-deception; he fails to recognize the folly of taking witchcraft seriously and acting on the prophecies of the Weird Sisters, who personify his dark, innermost impulses.

In their final words in the play, the Weird Sisters will merge with the Scottish witches to entertain Macbeth (and the audience) and solicit his gratitude for letting him be duped by their ambiguous prophecies. Their cynical sarcasm when they dance to music to “cheer we up his spirits” (4.1.127) can be devastating dramatic irony for discerning audiences watching Macbeth go to his doom.

Even the play’s nomenclature conflates the Weird Sisters and the witches.

The stage directions in the First Folio call them witches, and their speaker names (or speech headings) are First Witch, Second Witch, Third Witch, but they are never called witches in the dialogue. Macbeth and Banquo refer to them as the Weird Sisters, and they call themselves sisters. The Elizabethan audience would have heard the characters being called the Weird Sisters, not witches, but would have recognized them as witches when the same actors performed, albeit in parody, like contemporary witches were accused of acting. The word “witch” appears only once in the dialogue, when the First Witch quotes a sailor’s wife telling her to go away: “Aroint thee, witch!” (1.3.6). 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.

The three Weird Sisters in Macbeth are the supernatural beings from Greek and Roman mythology who knew one’s fate or destiny and could control it. In ancient Greece, they were the Moirae, three goddesses who controlled one’s destiny.

In Roman mythology, they were the three Parcae or Fata from Fatum, meaning a prophetic utterance; hence in English, the three Fates, who could prophesy.

“Weird” apparently was something of a rare word in Elizabethan English, at least for printers and probably for most readers. In the First Folio play text, they Brief Chronicles IV (2012-13) 61 are called the “wayward” or “weyard” sisters, but that must have been typesetters’ mistranscriptions of “weird,” and all editors change the two words to “weird,” as in the chronicles of Scotland. The word “weird” itself comes from the Old English, meaning “fate” or “destiny,” its primary meaning for Elizabethans, not today’s “strange” or “bizarre.”5 Chaucer (c.1343-1400) would write of “The Wirdes that we call destinies.”6 A decade or two later, Andrew of Wintoun (c.1350-c.1423), a Scottish poet, added the three prophesying “Werd Systyrs” to the story of Macbeth as it had been told in Latin in the first chronicle of Scotland, by John of Fordun (died c.1384). In his essay on “The Weird Sisters,” Tolman notes that “a passage in the Scotch translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, written about 1513 by Gawin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeid [Scotland], translates Parcae (Book III, 379) by the phrase ‘the werd sisteris.’”7 In the sixteenth century, Hector Boece’s chronicle of Scotland in Latin (1527) carried the Weird Sisters over from Wintoun’s Scottish vernacular chronicle, and Holinshed translated Boece into English for his chronicle of Scotland in the massive Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577. The Macbeth story, now more legend and serial invention than history, was essentially unchanged in the second edition of 1587. In Holinshed’s translation of Boece, Macbeth and Banquo suddenly meet three women resembling “creatures from the elder world,” that is, antiquity. “These women,” he continues, “were either the weird sisters, that is, (as you would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies imbued with knowledge of prophesy by their necromantic science.”8 The story of Macbeth in the Holinshed edition of 1577 includes an illustration depicting the Weird Sisters as the supernatural Fates, not as witches.

They are wearing fairly elaborate gowns, each with a different pattern, not the rags of witches. One wears a necklace. Another has a peaked cap with a decorative streamer attached as in some paintings of Elizabethan aristocratic women. The three are quite elegant in their personae as the Weird Sisters, who are about to prophesy to Macbeth and Banquo. The engraving is the only contemporary illustration of the scene, and it shows them as the Weird Sisters, the Fates.

Ultimately the word “weird” and the three supernatural sisters may also derive from the three sister Norns, the goddesses of destiny in Norse mythology.

Tolman and other scholars suggest that “weird” comes from the name of the senior Norn, “Urthr.”9 The Norns may have been influenced by the Fates of classical Greece and Rome. Significantly, however, they could be harmful,10 as are the Weird Sisters, whose ambiguous prophecies ostensibly help Macbeth achieve his ambition but also lead him to his downfall. In The Wheel of Fire, G.K. Hunter says that “the Norns had been suggested by Fleay (1876) and by Miss Charlotte Carmichael (1879); later the suggestion was lent great authority, when it was adopted by Kittredge (1939).”11 The good/evil duality of the three Weird Sisters suggests that the author of Macbeth was familiar with the good/evil nature of the three sister Norns in Norse mythology.

Although the Weird Sisters are essentially the Roman Parcae, or Fates, who can prophesy the future, a few commentators suggest associations with several other classical mythological figures, including the three Furies. The Furies were fierce and Whalen - Scottish Witches in Macbeth 62 ruthless goddesses who avenged crimes by pursing the perpetrators to drive them mad. So the witches/Weird Sisters might be interpreted as Furies seeking revenge for Macbeth’s victims, as suggested by Arthur R. McGee in his article, “Macbeth and the Furies.”12 The witches, however, do not express or demonstrate a desire for revenge, nor do the Weird Sisters. Nor did the Furies prophesy the future, as did the Fates in mythology and as the Weird Sisters do in Macbeth. McGee associates the witches solely with the Furies, not the Weird Sisters.13 The witches, however, are comical, entertaining characters lampooned by the dramatist.

For G. Wilson Knight the Weird Sisters, the Fates, become the Furies in their last scene, the apparition scene. In The Wheel of Fire he suggests: “The Weird Sisters who were formerly as the three Parcae or Fates, foretelling Macbeth’s future, now, at this later stage of the story become the Erinyes [the Greek Furies], avengers of murder, symbols of the tormented soul. They delude and madden him with their apparitions and ghosts.”14 Knight does not elaborate on this, his only comment on the Fates and the Furies in his book. He does recognize the deception of the Weird Sisters and some kind of duality with the witches but not their dual personae, as proposed in this article. Also, it is difficult to see how the Erinyes/Furies “madden” Macbeth. In their last scene together, he readily, almost joyfully, accepts the first three prophetic apparitions.

The play opens with the three witches preparing to meet Macbeth after his victory as the leader of the Scots against the invading Norwegians. Alone in the first scene, their launching the play calls attention to their significant role in it. The opening scene is often immensely important in Shakespeare’s plays. In Macbeth it sets the tone of witchery and the theme of ambiguity and deception. “When the battle’s lost and won,” they say, and “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” The witches identify Macbeth as their target, whom they will meet on the heath. The twelve-line scene tells the audience to pay attention to these witches and their alter egos, the Weird Sisters. At the end of the scene, the witches say they will “hover through the fog and filthy air,” exiting by flying off stage, perhaps via ropes and pulleys and perhaps to the amusement of the audience. English witches, as it happens, did not fly, but witches on the Continent did.15 The dramatist knew about them.

There was, of course, nothing funny about witch hunts, witch torture, witch trials and witch executions in the sixteenth century -- all of it based on malice, hysteria, and coerced testimony. Thousands of unfortunate women (and a few men) were tortured, imprisoned and in many cases cruelly executed in a textbook illustration of social hysteria. Most of the witches were older, poor women, hags who were accused of witchcraft and outlandish behavior. Not a few probably suffered from mental problems. The reputation of the witches was not for prophetic powers.

They allegedly cast malevolent spells or blights that were always harmful. In Macbeth, however, the dramatist’s bawdy humor in the witchery scenes renders ridiculous the unfounded belief in witchcraft, which was fairly widespread, even among the upper classes.

Later in act 1, the three Weird Sisters appear in their alter egos as witches.

As Scottish witches, they are having a good old raunchy time, which has no apparent Brief Chronicles IV (2012-13) 63 connection to prophecies, personal destiny, Macbeth, Banquo or the plot. The passage

is a prime example of the bawdy in Shakespeare:

–  –  –

The passsage is packed with bawdy innuendo. A chestnut has two large seeds in its husk, and “chestnuts” was almost certainly slang for testicles.16 “Munched” means chewed audibly by moving the jaws, 17 but in Scottish it also meant mumbling with toothless gums,18 as might an old woman. The witch wanted the chestnuts from the sailor’s wife, but the wife balked: “‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.” “Aroint” probably means “be gone.” Its origin is unknown, and its first appearance is here and in Lear, also addressing a witch: “And, aroint thee witch, aroint” (3.4.124).

This is the only time anyone in Macbeth says “witch,” and it’s the sailor’s wife who’s quoted as saying it. “Rump-fed” is fat-bottomed and well fed, and “to feed” was slang for grazing amorously.19 “Ronyon” is slang for the male sex organ.20 It’s also an abusive term for a woman in Shakespeare, here and in a wildly comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor when an outraged Frank Ford shouts at Mistress Page: “Out of my door, you witch, you rag, you baggage, you polecat, you runnion” (4.2.184-86).

“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master of the Tiger” is a topical reference to a 1583 voyage from London to Aleppo by merchants with a letter from the queen.

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