When I first ask a class what they know about Shakespeare and his work, a recurring motif in their responses is the witches and their spells. These scenes seem to echo through my students’ cultural consciousness, playing a significant role in shaping their understanding of a what makes a Shakespearean tragedy. What my students remember from encounters with “Macbeth” in primary school or Key Stage 3 (even if they do not articulate in this way) is the brooding darkness, the unnatural ingredients for potions, the fact that the witches chant, the ambiguous characterisation, and the sense of inevitability that the witches inject into the plot. For those students who have previously explored a different text, as soon as I show an image of the witches on the screen they are able to link it to their understanding of supernatural beings gleaned from films and television – and these modern versions of witchcraft are surely descended from Shakespeare’s weird sisters.* So I have been asking myself: why are these supernatural scenes so memorable?
One response is to consider the poetry of the play’s opening lines: “When shall we three meet again, / In thunder, lightning or in rain?” The consonance and assonance, the rhyme, the lilting “l” sounds, and the triple are the stuff of poetry. Along with the haunting, yet strangely unsettling, stresses of the incomplete trochaic tetrameter, these words sound like an incantation that compels the audience to pay attention. When spoken from the shadows of a dark stage, the lines sound like the speech of an otherworldly being who is inviting us to join them in their plotting (does the “we” momentarily reach out to encompass the audience before the number “three” indicates the witch’s precise meaning?). Whilst we may not sympathise with the witches’ actions, the fact that they are the first characters we meet in the play and that we are privy to their machinations creates a sense of complicity with their plan (the same effect is created by Iago’s soliloquies in “Othello”). This reminds us that it is not just Macbeth who is flawed at the outset of the play – torn between his desire to be a hero and to give in to his relentless bloodlust (Act 1 Scene 2) – but that we are also subject to the imperfections of the human condition.
For me, Act 1 Scene 1 is also memorable because of its ambiguity. Each time I teach or discuss it, I find myself faced with an increasing multiplicity of interpretations – and that is one reason why I love teaching it. This is illustrated aptly in the opening word “when”, as it communicates both certainty (the witches will definitely meet) and uncertainty (the witch who is speaking seems unsure of precisely when this will be). This is echoed through the rest of the scene – they will meet “when the hurly-burly’s done”. The witches are certain that the battle will end, but don’t specify a date or time. Similarly, the modal verb “shall” encapsulates the tension between certainty and uncertainty. On the one hand, to a modern audience “shall” sounds supercilious and commanding. Yet, on the scale of modal verbs in English, “shall” is less definite than “must” or “will”. Perhaps this tiny glimmer of uncertainty suggests that the witches are toying with the choices available to them, which seems to increase our sense of their power: they may have free will, even if they take this liberty away from the humans in their control. The word “again” indicates that they have intervened in human events previously, and are now simply in the process of selecting and deciding on the fate of the next puppet.
In the same way, there is a continual debate about whether the witches are simply able to prophesy events, or whether they can direct them (listen to Dr Emma Smith’s wonderful lecture at https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/macbeth ). For example, they can “untie the winds”, but can they determine the damage this natural force can do? They can tell Macbeth he will be king, but do/can they compel him to kill Duncan? Or is the murder Macbeth’s free choice? What is the origin of the dagger he sees guiding him to Duncan’s chamber? Is it truly the product of a “heat-oppressed brain”, or have the witches sent a vision (they can conjure these in Act 4) to further manipulate their victim? These are the questions which I find bring the study of “Macbeth” to life in the classroom, as each student can form their own opinion and the debate can swirl around the classroom.
Perhaps the witches are also compelling characters because we are keenly aware of their immorality. Like the forbidden fruit in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and the character of Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, we are entranced by them even at the same time as we know that we should not be on their side. This conflict is reflected in Shakespeare’s choice of three witches. For the contemporary audience, the number three would have been associated with bad fortune (just as today we think that bad luck comes in threes), paganism, the three fates of Greek mythology, and the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. Many people interpret the three witches as an unholy trinity (see https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/character-analysis-the-witches-in-Macbeth), a subversion of all that is good and moral in the world, and therefore wee see them as agents of the devil. Our interest in the witches is therefore tempered – and perhaps increased – by our awareness that we should not be fascinated by such characters (imagine a student in a lesson who looks over their shoulder to see the mischief someone behind them is getting up to – they know they shouldn’t look, but they can’t stop themselves).
All of these tensions and conflicts in our response to the witches mean that it is apt that the play’s openings lines are in the form of a question – and questions are another motif that we find throughout the text as Shakespeare reminds us that life is full of uncertainty.
*The thorny issue of what makes a shared culture and of cultural poverty is one that shouldn’t be forgotten; I am writing here of my experience in teaching Key Stage 4 in my school.