Something Witchy This Way Comes…
Well, you know what people say. It’s all fun and games until somebody murders a king. Ok, maybe that isn’t quite what they say; but I am quite enjoying my time in rehearsal for another of my favorite Shakespeare plays (which I do, admittedly, have a lot of): good old Macbeth. And, as ought to surprise absolutely noone, I find myself cast as one of the three witches that appears to the title character and forever alters his fate. Typecasting, amIright?
No, think about it for a second. I’m interested in all manner of bizarre, occultish things; I often write and speak in conspicuously spell-like verse; I tend towards solitude and keep odd, nocturnal hours; and I spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out with my black cat. Face it, everybody: there is no sister out there who could be much weirder than me.
But, in slightly more seriousness; the witches do indeed play a pretty pivotal role in the unfolding of this particular tragedy, if a rather inscrutable one. Neither the ordinary laws of nature nor the ordinary laws of morality seem as if they apply to these three women of mystery; and though they certainly facilitate the doing of evil acts, to describe the witches themselves as evil also doesn’t quite seem right. After all, unless someone offends them personally, they seem less particularly malicious than unconcerned with taking sides in messy human affairs, instead having allied themselves with the higher forces of fate.
And as for what a triad of supernatural beings might be doing in an otherwise realistic tragedy? For one thing, as I’ve learned after going on a bit of a dramaturgical witch hunt of my own that, back in Shakespeare’s time, the idea that witchcraft could cause serious harm was not some absurd proposition but a notion that many people took incredibly seriously. But beyond that basic fact, I also found a more in-depth story about why it is that the iconic witches likely ended up part of the matrix of Macbeth, which is rooted in the play’s unique historical context.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth signaled the end of the Tudor dynasty, next up in the line of succession was King James I of England, who already held the title of King James IV of Scotland. This development is one that became important to Shakespeare as this new monarch would eventually take over patronage of the playwright’s acting company, who would then change the troupe’s name from The Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men in recognition of their royal benefactor.
So, as all y’all starving theatremakers will likely understand, staying in the good graces of this King James became a pretty big priority for Shakespeare, and it is thought that Macbeth is the play this priority had the biggest influence on. Aside from the obvious inspiration for the choice of setting, it also seems the play was very loosely based on an actual historical account of an ancient Scottish king also named Macbeth, though enough key details are changed to make the resemblance negligible. James’ influence is also more directly visible in the fact that the virtuous character of Banquo is implied to be one of his ancestors, with the word of who else but the witches seeming to give the descendants of said character like the king himself a preternatural claim to the throne.
Ironically enough given his benefit from this witchery, King James was also a dedicated scholar of the supernatural who had a strong paranoia of both his natural enemies and potential more-than-mortal ones. In particular, his terror of witches was in fact so great that he was one of the primary forces behind some notable witchcraft-related panics that took place in Scotland and England, and which led thousands of presumably innocent women to be tried and killed.
Thus, it is thought that Shakespeare included witches in Macbeth to appeal to James’ fixation on them, and even drew on a book authored by the king to inform their characteristics. So, as this video explains, you’ll see basically every common belief about witches that James noted reflected in the play, such as that they could fly, could control the weather, and often kept company with “familiars,” evil spirits who took an animal form that would aid them in their magical practice.
Furthermore, it’s even been rumored that, in his effort to portray the witchiest witches he could, Shakespeare used curses devised by an actual coven of practicing witches in the play’s dialogue. Allegedly, the witches in question responded to the playwright’s thievery by cursing the play itself, which some have posited as the cause of the legendary bad luck that seems to have haunted the show since its very first performance.
On the other hand, at least part of the preponderance of unusual injuries and even deaths that have been associated with performances of Macbeth is probably explained by the fact that the show usually calls for a few potentially dangerous technical elements as well as numerous battle scenes and other assorted stunts. And the show’s association with other types of misfortune, like theaters going bankrupt, may have a similarly logical explanation— because the popular show tends to draw large audiences, it has been a tempting choice of title for playhouses that have grown desperate to fill seats.
However, especially after considering how many genuine tragedies resulted from witch hunts fueled by misogyny, I think I’d rather believe that some actual witches got the last laugh and a bit of revenge where Macbeth is concerned. Either way, the aura of unease surrounding the play inspired the superstitious idea that it was bad luck to so much as say Macbeth in a theatre unless you were putting on the show in question, hence the development of The Scottish Play as a less odious euphemism.
But if the idea that witchcraft might have power IRL remains regrettably hypothetical, the undeniable power wielded by the witches in Macbeth is especially interesting to consider given how central the main character’s quest for power is to the rest of the play. And now that I’ve approximated an answer to the historical question of “why witches,” I seem to have arrived back at an inexplicable need to puzzle out what exactly the witches are adding to the play in a dramatic sense.
For one thing, their creepy ways and cryptic prophecies definitely set a mood, and they also set a rather palpable precedent—their arrival in the play’s first scene is the first hint that some weird shit is about to go down. Accordingly, for more or less the rest of the play, weird shit DOES. After the witches plant the idea of potential kingship in Macbeth’s head, he slays the existing king to assure himself the title. The ploy works, but only at a cost. Especially given that the king was a trusting guest in his home at the time of the killing, this crime was not only morally wrong but fundamentally unnatural, upending the understood order of the world and, eventually, throwing the entire kingdom into chaos.
But while most interpretations of the witches basically stop at “they live for chaos” because they offer this initial temptation— I now find myself contemplating a counterargument. Namely: the two things the witches communicate to Macbeth with the help of some handy apparitions during their second scene actually serve the opposite purpose—to help bring about the end of Macbeth’s now-chaotic reign.
Furthermore, the promises the witches offered him in the first scene were relatively straightforward summations of what was to come. But the misleading nature of the promises they make him in the second scene almost seems to suggest a greater agency: to assure his downfall, they led him to falsely believe himself invulnerable and overconfident without telling any technical untruths.
That is to say; they seem more invested in restoring the natural order than they do in subverting it. I’m imagining, now, the way in which someone who incites a revolution may appear to be inciting chaos, as they are really making an effort to shift their society back to how it was always supposed to be.
Another recognized theme of Macbeth; appearance vs reality. Cloaked in their polite facade and the social roles of virtuous lord and lady, Macbeth and his wife are literally capable of getting away with murder. And while the weird sisters would presumably have no hope of fitting in at a royal dinner party, Macbeth still trusts their judgment innately, easily sensing their supernatural authority.
And this observation is one I can only seem to associate with the thought that, nine times out of ten, I would trust the judgment of someone I consider a “fellow weird” over that of someone who seems able to easily blend in with any crowd. When I see people who seem too polite, too polished, I often find them to be at best boring in their unwillingness to challenge convention, and at worst, downright sinister—because who knows what that polish could conceal?
Alright, maybe in this analysis I’m conveniently ignoring the witches’ more genuinely sinister qualities—such as the fact that they seem quite willing to slaughter innocent animals and procure human body parts if they need either as potion ingredients. But perhaps we’re actually supposed to think of the witches as something more like a force of nature than as actual people at all. Maybe it’s not just that they control the weather; maybe they are a kind of weather, or at least something as utterly uncaring and as bound to a set path.
On the other hand; maybe the witches are simply women who chose to ally themselves with fate’s unseen forces after all of their unholy rituals brought them in touch with some great divine. And should that be the case: I’m not sure that I’d actually call that decision unwise. As we see in Macbeth’s arc, seizing and maintaining power through pure brutality will likely only amass you enemies; but learning to tune into the world’s intuitive wisdom might allow you to exercise dominion over things beyond your wildest dreams. And while we see the play’s “hero” and countless other characters slaughtered in just revenge or reward for foolish bravery, we can only presume that the witches’ remain alive and well even after their final vanishing, continuing their efforts to keep the world in balance wherever the next wind blows.
In any case: I’m not sure whether this happens to everyone else or is a witch-specific phenomenon, but I often seem to find an odd synergy between the emotional “weather” of whatever theatrical project I’m most involved with and the energy of my life offstage. For example, in this case, I find myself in this play, in this part, as I also find myself increasingly obsessed with the concept of intuition and the idea of destiny. Now, you’ll probably hear a more extensive rant about all this in a future post, but in the meantime I’ll just say that trusting my intuition has led me on some quite chaotic but ultimately rewarding adventures over especially the past year or so; and that I find the idea that there is a destiny to be more of a comfort than a constraint.
And while this Macbeth life-art overlay luckily hasn’t seemed to have brought any murder or mayhem into my vicinity, I have been noticing a theme of things that seem not to proceed in the manner of their usual pattern or in the way in which I expected they would go. And since explaining any of that any further would probably take me at least another few paragraphs I don’t really have time to write and you probably don’t have time to read, I’ll just conclude with a handy-dandy link to details about the show in case anyone wanted to see me try to be like, an actor or something. Catch all the toil and trouble from Aug 17th–20th and 24th –27th in downtown Lake Worth at Hatch 1121–if you dare, that is!