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The history of the witches in Macbeth

  Hovering through the fog and filthy air of Macbeth, the weird sisters are a terrifying chorus to the action of the play

4 minute read

Magic and devilry were on people’s minds in 1606, the year Macbeth was first performed. England’s new Scottish king James was known to his subjects as a committed opponent of witchcraft and a scholar of black magic. And less than two years after James’s succession, and perhaps six months before Shakespeare started writing Macbeth, the country was profoundly shaken by the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot, the failed attempt by a group of English Catholic dissidents to assassinate the king and all the members of parliament in a huge explosion. Preachers were quick to detect demonic encouragement behind the plot.

An old book with brown pages has black text on it

Macbeth, Act I, scene 1 in the Munro First Folio.

The dread of supernatural horror hangs over Macbeth, and Shakespeare was very aware that his play would be taken as a comment on the Scottish king’s escape from devilish treason (it’s even been suggested that the smell of the sulphurous gunpowder used at the Globe to simulate lightning flashes would have reminded the audience of their monarch’s near miss).

But if the witches are the central focus for this atmosphere of terror, Shakespeare never lets his characters refer to the prophetic threesome as ‘witches’, although they’re termed as such in the speech prefixes and stage directions. For Macbeth and Banquo, the two characters who encounter them, they are ‘weïrd women’ or ‘weïrd sisters’, that unfamiliar umlaut indicating how early modern people said this ancient word (with two distinct syllables). In fact, in the First Folio, the earliest surviving text of Macbeth, the word is variously spelled ‘wayward’, ‘weyward’ and ‘weyard’, all of which would have been pronounced the same way in 1606: ‘WAY-rrd’.

Billy Boyd, Cat Simmons, Moyo Akandé and Jess Murphy as Banquo and the witches in Macbeth, 2013. Photographer: Ellie Kurtz

Shakespeare took this unusual word from his main source for Macbeth, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, in which the historical ‘Makbeth’ and ‘Banquho’ encounter ‘the weird sisters’, as Holinshed describes them, ‘goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, endowed with knowledge of prophecy’. In the play, the witches’ primary role is the provision of ambiguous fortunes which stir the ambitious Macbeth to action despite the fact that the details of his promised fate are decidedly sketchy (when will he be ‘king hereafter’? By what means? For how long?).

By the Renaissance, the word had lost its folkloric association but retained the broad meaning of ‘destiny’

So one interpretation of the weïrd women is less as traditional witches and more as potent prophets. In 11th century England and Scotland, a person’s fortune was determined by the workings of wyrd, a mysterious force that was both unavoidable and inexplicable. By the Renaissance, the word (now spelled ‘weird’) had lost its folkloric association but retained the broad meaning of ‘destiny’. Also in play in early modern England was the classical notion of feminised ‘Fates’, goddesses like the Morai of ancient Greece who dictated the scope of a person’s life.

A cloaked man raises his hand to a lit candle.

Kirsty Rider in Macbeth, 2018. Photographer: Johan Persson

Early modern audiences would have heard another meaning in ‘weïrd’, too, as the First Folio spellings suggest. To them, the word sounded the same as ‘wayward’, an insulting term meaning ‘disobedient’ or ‘perverse’. ‘Wayward’ was frequently applied to women who were perceived to be outspoken or quarrelsome (cardinal sins according to the misogynistic theories of Shakespeare’s England). Women who asserted their wisdom and knowledge might well find themselves castigated as ‘wayward’, and if they were vulnerable and unlucky that ‘waywardness’ might be interpreted more darkly as sorcery or witchcraft.

Moyo Akandé, Cat Simmons and Jess Murphy as the witches in Macbeth, 2013. Photographer: Ellie Kurtz

Which bring us back to the weïrd sisters. Their ‘weirdness’ was, from Shakespeare’s perspective, both ‘wyrd’ and ‘wayward’, powerful and marginal. For Shakespeare’s first audience, they were figures who represented England’s ancient past and the mysterious magic of prophecy. But the ‘withered’ and ‘wild’ sisters were also examples of what was becoming a familiar stereotype in an England newly attuned to the ‘risks’ of sorcery: poor, disregarded and insulted old women whose wisdom, if acknowledged at all, could be understood only as witchcraft.




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