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)
‘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)