The opening scene of Macbeth introduces the iconic Three Witches (called “witches” only in the stage directions and dialogue tags—in the play itself they are the “Weird Sisters”), so familiar they are a cliché—especially these very first lines of the play. In this post I’ll ask you to get beyond that familiarity, to try to imagine yourself back to the Jacobean premiere to feel how their very unfamiliarity sets the tone for the whole play.
I find it bizarre that some scholars think Shakespeare didn’t write this scene. I believe they are influenced by the presence of Act 3, scene 5, in which the goddess Hecate appears to lead the witches, and there’s a song from Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch. (Hecate also appears very briefly in Act 4, scene 1 (the “Double, double toil and trouble” scene), and there’s another song from Middleton, but most don’t reject the whole scene). Most scholars conclude that Shakespeare didn’t write 3.5. But that doesn’t show that 1.1 is “un-Shakespearean” or “a poor scene and a pointless scene,” as the once-famous critic Harley Granville-Barker put it. (Granville-Barker was a late-nineteenth- early-twentieth-century actor, director, playwright, and critic; to be fair to him, his stagings were influential and his plays are still occasionally performed. But his criticism, still popular in my student days, was the sort of soporific that made me loathe Three-Last-Names’s class—as you can tell from the diction of that seven-word quote above.)
The witch scenes are the counterpart in Macbeth to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet; elements so encrusted by subsequent associations that we have to make a heroic effort to see their significance in Shakespeare’s actual play. Consider what you think of first when you hear the word “witch”: perhaps women persecuted and executed in the middle ages and at Salem, perhaps today’s benign Wiccans, but more likely Broom Hilda, the Wicked Witch of the West (or of Wicked), Samantha from Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, the girls of Charmed, Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—mostly defanged, unthreatening figures, feminine in the worst sexist sense. (And yes, I suffered through season six of Buffy; did you really believe Willow as Big Bad? I didn’t think so.) Figures of fun. In Shakespeare’s time, “witch” would have had very different associations. The word would have referred to a malevolent being who wrought evil through the use of magic. All the more so for Macbeth, a play written with the recently crowned King James I, the author of a treatise on witchcraft, in mind. Put Elizabeth Montgomery aside. These witches are forces of evil; not human, maybe not even gendered (or multiply gendered; they appear female, but have beards). Bear that in mind when Lady Macbeth exclaims “Unsex me here.”
By the way, we’ll see the same problem sharply in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Today our concept of “fairy” is so strongly molded by Disney that we must make a conscious effort to recover the sense of spirits who meant humans no good, the sense that prevailed in Shakespeare’s time. Oberon and Puck are no Tinkerbells!
So once again, think yourself back to the Globe. You are attending the world premiere of Macbeth. You probably don’t know much about this quasi-legendary Scottish king unless you’ve read Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Shakespeare’s main source. Even if you have read your Holinshed, you have no idea what to expect when three figures come on stage to initiate the action:
Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES.
First Witch: When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch: When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch: Where the place?
Upon the heath.
Third Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch: I come, Graymalkin!
Second Witch: Paddock calls.
Third Witch: Anon!
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
And then we move into the main action, right at the end of the “hurlyburly”—there really was a battle going on. Thus, even though it isn’t designated as such, this little scene is a prologue (at twelve lines, it’s shorter than the prologue to Romeo and Juliet). As such, it’s Shakespeare’s signal to us about what we should be watching for in the play to come. What have we gleaned from it, careful Jacobean listeners that we are?
- This is a play in which weird, unnatural things are to be expected.
- Those things are sure to be evil; it’s general knowledge at this time that “Graymalkin” and “Paddock” are the names of witches’ familiars, so these three are certainly witches. They are, at the very least, not to be trusted.
- On that note, consider the most important line in the scene: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This clearly signals that we are in a world turned upside down, where nothing is certain, where one thing can turn into another, where every utterance—especially from this trio—has two meanings. A world, in short—to use a word so important to the play I’m going to have to give you a fairly high-level Lit-Crit post on it somewhere down the line—of equivocation.
- A world in which everything “hovers in the fog and filthy air.” Not only can we not see our way to the true and the good, we are shrouded in a miasma of evil.
That Scotland is of course beset by fog just underscores how beautiful this line is. It works naturalistically and on two metaphorical levels.
And speaking of metaphor, we’re clearly justified in taking the witches not solely as malevolent external entities, but as metaphorical projections of states of mind. We don’t need to go all Freudian to see this (and given Freud’s terrible essay on Lady Macbeth, we would be ill advised to do so). We just need to keep in mind that, equivocators that they are, these Weird Sisters have multiple dimensions.
Put all this together and what do you get? Something familiar to us in 2014 to the point of cliché, but totally novel to the world premiere audience: Macbeth may well be the first true horror story. (Folk tales of witches, vampires, and so on certainly have horrific elements; I can see an argument that Beowulf is a horror story; but horror fiction as we know it did not get started until the Gothic era. Look at it as a horror story and Macbeth doesn’t really have any precursors. Thus, it looks like Shakespeare has founded yet another genre. And since this is a parenthesis, I’ll note that this could allow us to see Roman Polanski’s bloody 1971 adaptation in a new light.)
Consider yourselves warned.