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TOPIC: Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches?

Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 10 months ago #240

  • akfarrar
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The opening of Macbeth is a classic case of, "Will we ever be able to understand what Shakespeare originally intended?"

Quite frankly, the answer is no – but we can take a trip along the path in the right direction.

Let's think about one of the aspects of 'witches'.

Most people follow the argument that Shakespeare's audience would have believed in witches and therefore the opening of the play meant something much deeper to them than it does to us.
Their reaction would have been an instinctive, emotional one - as well as intellectual. They would take it much more seriously than we do.

The first thing we need to get our heads around is the nature of Evil – as personified by the witches.

Germaine Greer, in her ‘SHAKESPEARE: A Very Short Introduction’ makes a couple of interesting points about evil when she is discussing Iago:

‘The point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated, inconsistent,’ (pg. 53/54)

and

‘Iago’s behaviour cannot be explained in terms of personality, but rather in terms of force,’ (pg. 56).

(Before anyone goes for my throat, she does make the point that Iago is a much more complicated manifestation of Evil than the witches in Macbeth)

And Greer ties Iago to the earlier stage representation of Vice.

Several issues rise in my mind at this point – but maybe the most important is how is the Globe’s audience expecting evil to be portrayed physically on the stage?

Are they actually linking into the tradition of a comedic evil – absurd to the spectator, easily seen through? The Vice and Devils of the mystery plays? Characters played by the comedians!

In which case, our ‘wasn’t funny in those days’ isn’t strictly accurate.

And who actually acted the witches? Was it boys? What are we to make of the beards? So men! If it was the comedy actors - ? Not funny? Remember, Shakespeare has a set of around 16 male actors to use – if the witches are not played by the comedians, who is? We have the Porter – but that’s a short scene only. Some seriously under used personnel in this production.

And what about costume?

The Elizabethan ‘dress code’ was fairly strict – rules about who could wear what, uniforms (nicer word, livery, used at the time) for everyone and no problem interpreting them. What is traditional ‘witch wear’? (Not the black pointy hat for certain – incidentally has anyone ever seen a production with witches dressed in black pointy hats?).

Women’s clothes – yes (mentioned in the text).

What social class? – Real witches could come as easily from the middle classes as from the poor (Pendle witch trials a little later in the century).

I suspect (or rather speculate) Macbeth’s witches are actually going to dress ‘outside the regulations’: Which would speak volumes to his audience – these are a force for disruption, a force against stability, for chaos.

Which brings me back to Germaine Greer’s point – Evil is a force.

Modern Western Society lives indoors. Natural forces are diluted in our day to day existence – wind, rain, sun and snow barely affect us. The occasional disaster might break through, but it is just that, a disaster, a special occasion – and it takes only days to get back to the electricity, the shelter and the Internet.

In several of Shakespeare’s plays nature is present as unchallengable power – Titania’s speech in Act 2 of A Midsummer Nights Dream being one notable example sometimes cut in modern productions as unintelligible.

In this opening scene, natural forces are summoned into the audience’s imagination – thunder, lightening and rain: Crop destruction, hunger, starvation, ruin to an Elizabethan.

The performance most likely had sound effects – rolling cannon balls for the thunder – possibly battleground noises and trumpets. War and weather – what bigger forces are there – and what have these witches got to do with it? Are they in control?

If we put all of this together we get a very complicated set of meanings.

The witches are not reducible to a single meaning.

Yes, they are “Evil” – but they are also stage representations of evil linking into a tradition – funny, absurd and disruptive. All the World’s a Stage – and a play is what you are watching.
These are not witches, these are actors pretending to be witches: But the world is only an illusion – so what is the truth?

Macbeth is a play about the struggle for Macbeth’s soul.

According to Greer, we have to meet the witches, his tempters, before we meet him – and we have to know what they are, what their nature is – she says they have the power of fallen angels – but the fallen angels as presented in popular mediaeval drama, the imps of Satan. ( Pg. 68/69)
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #877

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Though the sisters are of a malevolent nature, I believe we can agree there is no reason to believe that they have enchanted Macbeth, or taken control his will. Rather, they seem to sense a character weakness (Hamlet's "vicious mole of nature") in this otherwise courageous and intrepid warrior, and compromise him with predictions of greatness.

I remember reading an early (circa 1610) diary comment by a viewer of the play that described the sisters as 'nymphs or fairies' rather than as witches. So early costuming and behavior may have more benign than extravagant.
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #878

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Total agreement - they don't enchant - that would take away his choice!
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #881

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I wonder if you'd care to join the conversation that seems to have run out of steam at:

http://www.shakespearehigh.com/cafeteri ... opic=108.0

If you read the entire thread (which actually started in "Chit Chat" and then moved to the "Macbeth" section) I'm sure you will find it interesting. Your thoughts might revitalize the discussion.
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #884

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Macbeth - the play - was almost certainly written in order for Shakespeare and his company to ingratiate themselves with the new King James. The play is suited to his sensibilities from beginning to end, and this also explains the witches, which James specifically believed in. Common people were probably less sure about their existence - some would have believed, some would have doubted -, but the general audience would certainly be thrilled to see witches on stage in any case (witches which, being supernatural creatures, wouldn't belong to any social class).

But of course I don't mean to imply that there is nothing more to say about the witches than that. They are intriguing characters, and their function is to upset the status quo so some (important? necessary?) transition can take place. I don't think they are unambiguously evil. They do lead Macbeth to his ruin, but maybe Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth) represents some distortion of human nature which should be purged?

As for evil; well, the difference between evil in fiction and evil in reality is that fictional evil characters often know that they are evil and villainous, whereas in reality nobody actually thinks of themselves as evil. Hannah Arendt said that evil is probably just thoughtlessness; a lack of knowledge or a failure to think things through. A character like Iago, on the other hand, intellectualizes his villainy in the extreme (and Aaron in Titus Andronicus is even more articulate!). This is only possible for an entity which comprises a symbolical representation of something that can be seen, somehow, as "evil". Shakespeare is probably exploring the basic mechanisms of human emotion, and how positive and negative emotions work in our minds. Maybe a more advanced science of neurology would be able to make fuller sense out of some of Shakespeare's more complex characters! :-)
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #887

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"All the World's a Stage - and all the men and women merely players."

This is a truism of the time - and the stage was seen not as 'fiction' but as a representation of some aspects of reality - even if these aspects were illusion.

As for the 'common people' - they were quite happy to see the execution of witches several years after Shakespeare exited the stage (whoops, sorry, world).

(By the way, Shakespeare didn't need to ingratiate himself - he already was well in! King's players - holding the canopy over the head of the King as he entered London (great chunk of red material given to him to make himself some royal livery). The play undoubtedly was popular with James - but the real money came from the groundlings.)

You do raise a very good point though in that modern productions and interpretations of the play are more like to treat the witches as symbols rather than characters.
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #888

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akfarrar wrote:
(By the way, Shakespeare didn't need to ingratiate himself - he already was well in! King's players - holding the canopy over the head of the King as he entered London (great chunk of red material given to him to make himself some royal livery).

Ah, but that's apocryphal - no evidence beyond hear-say. In fact plays and playhouses were intensely controversial in Shakespeare's day, and it would have been of paramount importance for the company to ensure the support of the new monarch. And they succeeded by sucking up to him with Macbeth, bulldozing across and leveling out any doubts he may have had.
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #892

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Actually, not apocryphal, the court record exists of the issue of the material and Macbeth was performed much latter!
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Act 1 Scene 1 - Why the witches? 9 years 4 months ago #955

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Kenneth Muir, in the Arden Macbeth, concludes that the play was written sometime between 1603 and 1606. Perhaps it was not written as an outright attempt to ingratiate the company with James, since they were already under his patronage, but it was certainly written to *please* him! Perhaps at his specific request, even. Or as thanks for his patronage.
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