Monday Muse: Macbeth’s Witches

Hello everybody! It’s the Monday before Stratford and it’s time for our last week of pre-Stratford Shakespeare! This week I have the honor of bringing you Shakespeare’s dark, grisly, and (some say) cursed, “Scottish play”. That’s right! Macbeth! (As a theatre person I’m not supposed to say it, but that’s only if you’re actually in a theatre… And I only wrote it so nothing bad could possibly AAAAHHHH!)

Just kidding.

Anyway, Macbeth is one of four Shakespearean plays that rely heavily upon the supernatural to further the plot. I’ll wait while you figure out which ones they are…. Ok, fine, it’s Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Now, the use of the supernatural in Macbeth becomes particularly interesting when you consider a few underlying factors. Examining Shakespeare’s source material combined with the knowledge of who was sitting the English throne at the time it was written, make Macbeth an unabashed tailored-for-royalty piece.

Shakespeare’s inspiration came from Holinshed’s “Chronicles of Englande, Scotlande, and Irelande”. It was first published in 1577 and reprinted in 1587 and provided historical accounts of Scottish Kings Duncan and Macbeth. James I of England was James VI of Scotland before he inherited Elizabeth’s throne so Shakespeare writing a Scottish play is indubitably a nod to his sovereign.

But that’s not all. No, Macbeth is rich with pandering to the newest reigning monarch. The use of the supernatural as a bringer of doom, a persistent evil, is a drastic change from Holinshed’s “Chronicles” and a direct result of James’s fascination with, and hatred of, witchcraft. Holinshed’s account describes “nymphs or fairies”, while Shakespeare’s three sisters are portrayed as maniacal and ungodly, utilizing sacrificial animals and spelling disaster for Macbeth.

James I had a thorough fascination with the supernatural and, in 1597, published Daemonologie, a treatise which would inspire a new age of witch-hunts. His zeal was sparked by multiple events though none as strongly as the “unnatural” storm that threatened his fleet as he and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, sailed to Scotland in 1589. Macbeth was first performed during a visit from Queen Anne’s brother and Shakespeare repeatedly alludes to magical tempests, thus confirming the wickedness of witches. In his genius, Shakespeare also introduced brand new elements to the stereotypical witch which lives on to this day. This includes the use of familiars, gibberish spoken spells, and the use of cauldrons. 

So Macbeth’s witches kinda created the outline for the stereotypical Halloween-y witches of today. But like, seriously, Macbeth’s witches are intense and their dialogue is so vivid that you can’t help but be drawn into their magic. This is the play I am must looking forward to seeing and hopefully I’ve gotten you hyped for Boozy Plays this Friday. See you then!

-A

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