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Something wicked this way comes.
July 21, 2011 4:09 AM   Subscribe

I have some questions about Macbeth, especially the "three weird sisters."

Given that some people today are deeply upset by Harry Potter, I'm trying to imagine how audiences 400 years ago reacted to the witches in Macbeth.

If we accept that people at the time generally believed that witches were real -- King James certainly did -- I'm wondering how people reacted when the witches came out and started doing incantations and black magic in 4.2. Wouldn't this be upsetting to a 17th-century audience? Or at least the church?

I also find it puzzling because the witches basically triumph in the play. They decide to destroy Macbeth and the poor guy ends up widowed and headless in the end. They also correctly predict the accession of Banquo's offspring to the throne (i.e. King James) -- wasn't this a risky thing for Shakespeare to do? To say that witches foresaw (and aided) the rise of the current king? And to show the murder of one of the king's distant relatives? Even the whole theme of regicide would seem risky to me. I have read (online) that King James loved the play and banned the play, so if anyone has any information about what really happened I would love to hear it. Recommendations for books about Macbeth are also welcome!

TL;DR: How did early audiences react to Macbeth? How did King James react to Macbeth? And how risky was the play for Shakespeare?
posted by Ljubljana to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
One thing to remember is that the church in question was the Church of England, which was somewhat less zealous about burning people for heresy than either the Catholic Church or the later Puritans.

Furthermore, note that the witches are clearly evil in Macbeth. The problem with modern works like Harry Potter, from a traditionalist Christian standpoint, is that it makes magic, sorcery, and witchcraft look fun, which could Seduce The Young.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:24 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Years ago, I read George Wills' book Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth and really enjoyed it. Part of his premise was that anti-witchcraft part of the play was hugely important to the dramatic structure, and the reason so many modern productions kind of fizzle out at the end is because that part of the story doesn't really translate to the modern audience.
posted by oh yeah! at 4:32 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


In 1581, the "Ten Tragedies" (attributed to Seneca) was published. This was hugely influential to playwrights in that time, including Shakespeare and especially Macbeth. You can draw comparisons between the Three Witches and Seneca's Medea. All of that is to say that it was not something too novel at the time.
posted by Houstonian at 4:35 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think the audience would have found anything upsetting or out of order about the mere depiction of evil magic. Harry Potter is a bit different - as I understand it people object because he looks like a role model for children, hardly the case for the weird sisters.

The other thing to note is that the witches clearly represent the three fates, traditional goddesses in both Greek and Anglo-Saxon mythology. The three of them individually represent past, present and future, and in Shakespeare each speaks only of her own time.

I think this means they would have slotted into the 'classical' part of the Elizabethan mind-set, not the 'Christian' one, so questions of heresy etc would not arise. Educated people at the time were far more aware of Roman and Greek influences than we are these days. Shakespeare himself put relatively few Christian references in his work: I haven't counted, but my impression is that his characters are far more likely to mention a Greek god than a saint. So I think the witches would have struck an audience as relating to the ancient gods, which (somehow) were always acceptable.
posted by Segundus at 4:45 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Westerners are terrified of terrorists, and yet every second movie or television show seems to have a metric shittonne of terrorists in it. Likewise, we see tonnes of text with modern heads of state assassinated, tortured, etc.

Human beings - whether now, five hundred years ago, or five thousand - use narratives to engage with, explore and understand things that threaten them in a safe way. It's a source of tension and makes narratives interesting.

The witches ddn't win; the role of fates, norns, or wise crones is as old as narrative itself. They are not characters in the play, more like a chorus.
posted by smoke at 4:57 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


While I don't disagree with Segundus's take on the three sisters as classical references, I think they'd also fit perfectly into the audience's Christian thinking and suspect that element probably would have loomed a bit larger than the classical reference for mainstream Elizabethans. The two actually dovetail quite nicely IMO.

The essence of tragedy is that the hero is brought down by his own inner flaws, and that's what happens to Macbeth. The sisters don't just blow Macbeth to bits with a thunderbolt. They tempt him with ideas of greatness and power and, by not rejecting them but going for what they seem to be offering him, he ends up bringing about his own destruction.

This seems to me to fit nicely alongside the Christian idea of the Devil as a figure who tempts you with lies and if you believe his false promises and do his works you will be destroyed and rightly so. As far as I can see, that's quite in line with the broad period narrative about witchcraft and how it is a horrible danger to the immortal soul of anyone who gets anywhere near it.

As a side note, even in the 20th century, our moral censors were okay with depiction of crime and evildoing in cinema - with the stipulation that the wrongdoer always had to be punished so the story could serve as a moral example that stepping off the path of accepted norms brings quick and horrible consequences.
posted by Naberius at 5:50 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Definitely read Garry Wills' book that oh yeah! links to above. In Wills' close analysis, the witches represent the Catholic Jesuits who were behind the Gunpowder Plot to kill James and his sons the year before the play was published. So, witchcraft is real, and evil, and conspires against the King.

Wills' larger point is that without this context, the play is often performed without the witches' scenes in the later acts and loses much of its suspense after the murders.
posted by nicwolff at 6:00 AM on July 21, 2011


I also find it puzzling because the witches basically triumph in the play. They decide to destroy Macbeth and the poor guy ends up widowed and headless in the end. They also correctly predict the accession of Banquo's offspring to the throne (i.e. King James) -- wasn't this a risky thing for Shakespeare to do? To say that witches foresaw (and aided) the rise of the current king?

Two things to consider:

1. The witches may have decided to destroy MacBeth, but he also chose to go along with it. The witches didn't force his hand any -- they simply said something like "you're going to be King one day! Honest!" and it was MACBETH who decided to make that happen by committing regicide. If MacBeth had instead decided "well, maybe it's something that happens years and years in the future, so I need to just be patient until it does," then....MacBeth would have been innocent of wrongdoing, and the witches would just have been three looney women who were imagining things.

The thrust of the play isn't about the witches so much -- it's about how MacBeth's own ambition jumped upon a suggestion and ran with it to a really horrible place. That suggestion that he would make a good king could have come from anyone -- it was what MacBeth DID with that suggestion that drives the play.

2. This was also seen as a "history" play -- something that happened a few centuries ago -- so that also may have placated the minds of some: "in MacBeth's day they believed more in witches, but we in the 16th Century are ever so much more enlightened."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the great answers so far. I've already ordered Wills' book and am looking forward to reading it anon.

I agree with Naberius that Macbeth's ambition is his undoing. However, would he have undone himself without the sisters' interference? They do tempt him, but they also already know that he will succumb to the temptation... he doesn't have a chance. They're ten steps ahead of him from the very beginning. It's like an execution. That's why I see them as the prime mover of the tragedy. And that kinda opens up another can of worms: if Macbeth didn't kill Duncan et al., would Banquo's heirs still take the throne? If Macbeth is basically just a pawn of destiny, then it's the witches who set everything in motion and thus helped put James (as "heir" to Banquo) on the throne(!)

Speaking of which, is anything known about the reaction of the king? The Straight Dope mentions the "unverified" story of James banning Macbeth for 5 years, allegedly because he thought the witches’ curses were "too realistic."
posted by Ljubljana at 6:56 AM on July 21, 2011


I agree with Naberius that Macbeth's ambition is his undoing. However, would he have undone himself without the sisters' interference? They do tempt him, but they also already know that he will succumb to the temptation... he doesn't have a chance.

No, he has a chance because he has free will. The witches know the future so they know he chooses to do evil by his own free will. It's like being able to use a time machine and travel in the future and check to see what someone has done, you know what they did but they still had free will to do or not do it.

I don't see why Shakespeare would have any particular problem with depicting witches in the play. People back then were just as capable as they are now in telling apart what is done as a part of play on the scene and what is really happening. Shakespeare, if questioned, would have a legitimate response that he's doing a cautionary tale of a man's downfall partly caused by witches, and this would be all the more important if people believed witches are real and their influence can be countered with morality plays like Macbeth.
posted by rainy at 7:20 AM on July 21, 2011


I agree with Naberius that Macbeth's ambition is his undoing. However, would he have undone himself without the sisters' interference? They do tempt him, but they also already know that he will succumb to the temptation... he doesn't have a chance. They're ten steps ahead of him from the very beginning. It's like an execution. That's why I see them as the prime mover of the tragedy.

The catalyst is not the reaction, though. They may have been the spark that set off the powder keg, but a) if the powder keg hadn't been there, their spark would have been pointless; and b) if they hadn't lit the spark, something else may have. The powder keg is the real issue.

Also: note that they didn't tell MacBeth "you'll be king, but the only way to get there is to kill a shit-ton of people." They just said "you'll be king." It's plausible, in the world of the play, that HOW MacBeth became king could have been because he was such a great guy that the King named him his successor as a reward. It was MacBeth who decided "the way I have to become king is by killing a shit-ton of people."

There's actually a similar kind of story in Greek myth: King Croesus was considering going to war against Persia, and went to visit the Oracle at Delphi to ask whether or not he should. The Oracle said "if you go to war with Persia you will destroy a great empire." So Croesus thought "great!" and went to war with Persia. But he got his ass kicked and lost. He escaped and went back to the Oracle to complain: "I thought you said that if I went to war with Persia, I'd destroy a great empire!" And the Oracle said, "You did. You destroyed YOUR OWN empire."

Most people interpret the outcome of that story to be Croesus' fault -- the kind of soothsaying the Oracle did, which is the same kind that the witches do, is usually kind of cryptic and has multiple meanings, and there's a sort of assumption that "how you interpret this is pretty much your own responsibility." The prophecy itself is one thing -- how the questioner interprets the prophecy is a bigger piece of the puzzle.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Segundus is right about the witches' nod to classical storytelling, though their role is closer to that of the Greek Chorus, the narrative stand-in between the audience and the stage.

At the time of Shakespeare's First Folios, theather attendance was more frequent, and more accessible to a wider array of social backgrounds. it wasn't unusual for viewers of live performances to be familiar with a variety of themes and sources, nor for the performances to be subject to direct feedback from the crowds, as the attendees might interject in a manner not unlike hecklers of today. As a playright, Shakespeare knew this repartee was an inversion of the more revered tone of the Greek dramas, and employed the sisters not as authorative figures - surrogate narrators who would clearly provide the moral - but as a suppliment of conflict and tension. Macbeth's own machinations, unpleasant as they would later be evident, would initially be seen as more just, particularly in contrast to the mistrust of soothsayers in Shakespeare's day. The dramatic twist of a self-fufilling prophecy would've appealed to moral-minded viewers to a more ethical extent than the (traditional) Chorus' role, while the sisters' presence could alternately (and more immediately) be seen by others as a cue for more sinister outcomes.
posted by Smart Dalek at 12:13 PM on July 21, 2011


I disagree that the witches "choose to destroy Macbeth." At least based on what little text they're assigned in the play, their power can be understood best as something, for lack of a better word, disinterested. They're like nature, or, if you believe in such a thing, fate: they don't care which way things turn out. So they may be malevolent in that they are the embodiment of evil, but they are not personally spiteful.

Then again, the witchy sections of the play are short and underwritten, indicating perhaps that Shakespeare, like Val Lewton, intuited that horror is more frightening when it is only sketched in, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps with imagination. Because the characterization of the witches is so vague, it's possible to play many different readings that are consistent with the text.

Just at a guess, I would think that the more educated portion of the audience would regard (real life) witches as people today think of psychics or astrologers, i.e., a broad range of reactions from "utter nonsense" to "how did you know so much about me?" But even the more superstitious in the audience would be unlikely to think of witches as wielding huge power.
posted by La Cieca at 12:37 PM on July 21, 2011


It's worth noting that Shakespeare's predecessor and (at the least) greatest contemporary influence, Christopher Marlowe, wrote a play involving witchcraft and black magic - Doctor Faustus - still popular today, that has a long history of controversy in its depiction of the supernatural, and since its inception.

Shakespeare would have been aware of this (he referenced Faustus in The Tempest - Prospero is the Italian name equivalent to Faust, and there are other similarities referencing the earlier play). He would have been keen to evoke similar 'stage magic' to Marlowe's piece, while avoiding the negative sensationalism associated with Faustus - and Marlowe.

One of Shakespeare's great skills was to present contentious ideas (witchcraft, gender play, royal scandal) with an artistry that somehow avoided the censorous, unforgiving state and public values of the time.
posted by iotic at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2011


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