The weird sisters
In the cast list for Macbeth as it appears in the First Folio edition published in 1623 the witches are identified as ‘First Witch’, ‘Second Witch’ and ‘Third Witch’, and also collectively as “three weird sisters”. In the main source that Shakespeare used for the story of Macbeth, Holinshed’s Chronicles from 1577, Holinshed describes the “weird sisters” as “goddesses of destiny…endowed with knowledge of prophesy”. At that time the word ‘weird’ meant something different to our connotation of strange or bizarre; rather it denotes fate or destiny, a force that is inescapable.
Shakespeare’s sisters are certainly endowed with a gift for prophesy, which suggests that Macbeth’s future is predetermined. Their power does not necessarily equate to their directly controlling Macbeth’s behaviour, unlike the role of the three Fates in Ancient Greece and other mythologies, who controlled humans to ensure that balance and order in the world was maintained. The Fates generally do not act with any malicious or evil intent, but to maintain stability. So why do Shakespeare’s witches seem to mislead Macbeth into his fate? By urging him to be “bloody, bold and resolute” because “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”, for example, the Sisters help lure him into the very acts and arrogance that will destroy him.
Shakespeare’s figures owe more perhaps to the popular image of witches in his time, and in particular to the belief championed by none other than the King himself that witches were instruments of the Devil who must be hunted out and punished. James VI’s three-volume work Daemonologie, first published in 1597 and reissued when he became King of England in 1603, sought to educate Christians on the existence and practices of witches, and also contained an extract from the famous North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590 over which James presided. The account of the trial enumerated the motives and methods used by the accused witches, including one woman who confessed to having attempted to assassinate the King by casting a spell to sink his ship. The North Berwick witches were tortured and executed.
Shakespeare’s witches employ the kind of ritual practices described in the account of the North Berwick trials, including direct quotes from the witches’ testimonies. Banquo recognises the potential malevolence of the witches when he warns Macbeth that they may be “instruments of darkness” that could mislead them. As Emma suggested in our conversation, however, it is possible that the metropolitan audience at the Globe theatre in London in 1606 would have viewed these figures with more skepticism. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley went as far as to say that the sisters are simply “old women, poor and ragged, skinny and hideous, full of vulgar spite”. He does grant that they may be the recipients of some limited supernatural powers, in particular the gift of prescience. As we’ve suggested prescience can easily be equated with pre-determination, and the witches seem to be part of a larger world view in Shakespeare and this play that believes that our actions are mapped out by greater powers, whether for good or evil. Lady Macbeth seems to suggest that these kind of forces are at work propelling Macbeth’s advancement: “fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crowned withal”.
By Bradley’s reckoning, however, even with the power of prophesy the witches are “an influence, nothing more”. Their words provoke feelings and thoughts in Macbeth that are already there. This leads modern interpreters to portray the witches more as hallucinations or psychological projections, elaborating on Banquo’s doubt that the figures they have seen may not have been real: “Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root,/That takes the reason prisoner?”
The witches represent the latent lust for power within Macbeth. Rather than an external power, evil is internal in human beings – what Bradley labels “the evil slumbering in the hero’s soul” – which doesn’t require much provocation to unleash it. This interpretation clearly fits more easily into our modern understanding of man’s independent agency, compared with ideas of demons and devils. Nonetheless our enjoyment of the witches comes from an apprehension that that all of these possibilities for their role in the play are imaginable together. We will forever be exercised by questions of what powers there are beyond our own, what the sources of evil are, and the indefinable scope of our own imagination and impulses.