Witchcraft and the supernatural seized the imagination of people in the 17th century, just as much as these themes have inspired contemporary authors and directors today. King James 1 contributed to the ongoing debate of the period by writing a treatise on witchcraft, Of Demonology , in which he affirmed his belief in witches. The Tragedy of Macbeth contains powerful references to spells, apparitions, darkness and the shrieks of night owls; it opens with the one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes and opening lines, "When shall we three meet again?", where we are first introduced to the witches.
Although they are never actually called witches in the play Macbeth (they are only known as the Weyard sisters), this threesome certainly exhibit characteristics commonly associated with witches: women who have male attributes, such as facial hair, that are able to conjure up images of people and curse them, and accompanied by familiar spirits--in the forms of Grey Malkin the cat and Paddock the toad. In Shakespeare’s day, the term “weird” was linked with the Fates and prophecy, recurring themes in classical tragedy. So, the exact nature of these characters remains elusive. Nevertheless, this has not stopped directors of the play from letting their imaginations run riot in the portrayal of the three sisters on the stage.
Two examples from 20th century stagings of the play show are the RSC’s 1986 production directed by Adrian Noble and the RSC's 1996 production, directed by Tim Albery. Adam Mars-Jones, reviewing the 1986 production for The Independent, comments that the “reading of the cauldron scene” where the “powers of darkness are the ones who refer most specifically to the Christian ritual” restores the shock value of a scene that has been “furred over with familiarity”. In 1996, the witches are described as “primly dressed” and “school-ma’amish with wispy beards with nothing like a cauldron in sight”.
Many more images of the Weyard Sisters in productions of Macbeth may be found in the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archives photographic collections.
This week the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust houses are holding events with a supernatural theme to celebrate Hallowe’en. Please come along and join in the fun.