Tag Archives: Witches


The hurlyburly’s done, and just as they promised, the Witches are back in 1.3 to wait for Macbeth. The actors can hardly have been off the stage for more than a couple of minutes, but the Witches have been busy. And notice how we’re carried along by the action to feel that they have been wreaking havoc all over the world in just those few minutes. We don’t really know how much dramatic time 1.2 takes, but it is so short that we feel the Witches have been gone only for minutes in dramatic time as well as real time. This is the first example we’ve considered of how Shakespeare plays with time for dramatic effect. We’ll see many more, and more famous examples, as we continue through the plays.

The Second Witch has been “killing swine” (1.3.2), and the First Witch has been rebuffed by a “rump-fed” woman whose chestnuts she coveted (several interpretations of “rump-fed” have been offered; I like “fat-assed” myself), and plans to take revenge on her sea-captain husband: “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail/And like a rat without a tail/I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.7–9). The other Witches offer their help: “I’ll give thee a wind . . .And I another” (10, 13). I can’t help but think this is a fart joke. As they finalize their plans, a drum sounds: “Macbeth doth come” (31), and they recite a little chorus:


The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace!—the charm’s wound up.


I quote this to give you the flavor of the Witches’ language—singsongy, in tetrameter (four beats rather than the pentameter, or five beats, of blank verse) couplets, distinguishing them from any other character. This seems to be one of the reasons some scholars regard much of the Witches’ scenes as spurious—as if Shakespeare would never conceive of varying his language to suit his characters, or perhaps as if he would never write about anything so infra dig as witches. (The influence of the folk and fairy tale traditions on Shakespeare is greater than I see generally recognized; I’ll be pointing it out throughout.)


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The previous scene opened with a bloody man, a soldier literally covered in blood. This scene gets going with the entrance of a man metaphorically covered in blood; a man whose soul is bloody and who soon will have blood on his hands in more ways than one.

Enter Macbeth.

Note well his first line:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Nobody could possibly miss this callback to the Witches’ first appearance, but what does it mean? One scholar’s suggestion that Macbeth refers to the foulness of the weather contrasted with the fairness of his day of victory is surely accurate; it’s certainly what Macbeth must be thinking. But it is too literal to exhaust the meaning.

Shakespeare must have had a reason for making this first line a callback. The most obvious reason is to signal that we are back in the realm of the uncanny, where everything is turned on its head. But why does Macbeth rather than his comrade-in-arms Banquo make this observation? There is plainly some connection between Macbeth and the Witches. But what is its nature? Should we agree with the nineteenth-century critic Edward Dowden, who wrote that “although Macbeth has not yet set eyes upon these hags, the connection is already established between his soul and them. Their spells have already wrought upon his blood”? That would imply that he is already lost. (Those of you who are reading this to write your term papers on whether Macbeth is evil or just weak, take note. But I’m not writing that paper for you.) But that seems to me to go too far.

Think yourselves back, once again, into the world premiere audience. No more than Macbeth do you have any idea what is about to happen, apart from one huge advantage; you know what the Witches said earlier. Macbeth doesn’t. He doesn’t know he is echoing what you heard them say. He does not know they are specifically waiting for him (not Banquo); you do. You, as an attentive listener in the Jacobean audience, can already sense that this is going to end in tears. If Macbeth did, he would run the other way.

Macbeth is shot through with the form of situational irony that perhaps made its first, most memorable appearance in Western literature in Oedipus Tyrannos. Oedipus flees Thebes to thwart the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and ends up unknowingly doing both. Irony flourishes in the gap between the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance. The famous examples in Macbeth, as we’ll see and you probably already know, relate to Macbeth’s trust in the Witches’ prophecies; here we see it at work even before he meets them.

Fair Is Foul

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?
Second Witch:
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.