Saturday, June 02, 2007


Not everything you think, is true.

Does Makbeth meet fairies or witches?

In a previous post I explored Shakspear and the connection with King James and his little work on Witchcraft.

Now I have the picture of Makbeth's first meeting with the 'witches'. It is from the ‘source’ Shakey would have used for the main elements of the plot – Holinshed’s Chronicles (need to check that – that is what it said on the Internet site I borrowed the picture from).

Now, I don't know about you, but the rather refined looking ladies greeting the Elizabethan 'gents' in the picture above don't quite fit my 'vision' of Macbeth and Banquo's 'black and midnight hags'.

What worries me is that the woodcut might be much closer to Shakspear’s image, and possibly the original production’s costuming, than I would like.

Part of the problem is that I am not sure how to read the picture – there is an iconography here which I am not a party to.

The gent closest to us – Makbeth I’d guess by the way the witches are looking to him – has no armour on – or rather has one symbolic piece, the helmet (possibly a breastplate – but it looks more doublet to me). If he is the victorious body splitting general of Shakspear, he’s had a jolly good wash and got the grooms to work on his horse too. Is the helmet enough to tell the Elizabethan reader this is a military hero? If it is, would it be enough for the Globe’s groundlings?

I notice behind his head is a castle – with some active birds – must be Macbeth’s castle – although they don’t look like Martins to me, more like crows: Does suggest Shakspear looked closely at the picture though.

More crows flying around the ‘castle’ on the top of the head of one of the ‘witches’ too – although these could be clouds. Is that Elizabethan headgear? Maybe not – old fashioned hat? And this one is pretty ugly – broken nose by the looks of it.

Wouldn’t say the others were ugly though – and they don’t look particularly old either – quite smart, upright, well shaped.

I am reminded of Alice Nutter.

For those of you not familiar with the local history of the Pendle area of Lancashire, Alice was hanged for being a witch in the early 17th century: She was something of a lady – comparatively wealthy in fact, and not at all the ‘typical’ Halloween figure. She also just happened to be a catholic, which might have had something to do with the hanging. There were a number of other people (male and female) hanged at the same time – none of them quite of the same social standing.

The clothing on the witches is interesting – looks exotic – the woodcut cutter has taken pains over the patterns on the material – each different, each looking expensive, possibly silk or damask? This would make them stand out to the Elizabethans.

So, ‘from the farthest steep of India’? Spirits of some sort – hence the fairies.

Shakspear gives them beards – there is the slightest suggestion of such in the picture, from the attempt to create shadows. He has us meet them in weather very unlike that of the woodcut – which is quite pleasant. Certainly he takes us further – but how far would he have gone in production?

Nowhere near the broomstick riding cacklers of popular imagination I’d guess.

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