Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

Dostoevsky said that if there was no God, everything would be permitted. If this sounds like freedom to our contemporary ears, it may be a symptom of the depth and breadth of our depravity. In losing the fear of God we may lose something of our respect for our own humanity as well. After all, why isn’t the dignity of human life just one more superstition to be dispelled? Members of the Frankfort school have suggested that the Enlightenment road leads to the efficiency of twentieth-century totalitarianisms, where human beings get reduced to instruments of Fascist states. On this account, the sanctity of the human spirit must go the way of the other religious and cultural superstitions and must logically yield to the progressive disenchantment and rationalization of the world. Like witches, ghosts and gods, human rights and authors must yield to our enlightened contemporary sensibilities.

It is my contention that we should check the disenchantment of the world whenever we can. This brings us back to the witches in Macbeth. We should be very careful before we scoff at witches. We have come to recognize the importance of checking the extinction of species in order to preserve the diversity of the gene pool. It is probably important to preserve the ontologies of diverse worldviews for similar reasons. You never know when a witch, god or author might come in handy. But more importantly, apart from any utilitarian usefulness, we should check the extinction of species and respect diverse ontologies for their own sake—out of a simple sense of wonder and awe.

Hamlet warns his rationalistic friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Throughout Shakespeare’s work he makes visceral the connection between fearing God and respecting our own humanity. Most of his villains tend to be cold-hearted rationalists who dismiss in one fell swoop fantastic supernatural beings and tender human sentiments. Iago mocks God and the love Othello feels for Desdemona. Octavius thinks he is a god, and he mocks the human doubts and passions of Antony and Cleopatra. Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (I.v.18) and taunts him for his moral scruples. In one of the most dramatic and disturbing passages in the play she boasts of her own willingness to even defy the natural bond between mother and child in order to carry out her reasoned resolve:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.54-59)

On another occasion Lady Macbeth tires of Macbeth’s hesitations and dismisses his moral qualms as little more than the superstitions of children:

Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers.
The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures.
‘Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. (II.ii.51-54)

This is the voice of rationality untempered by a proper sense of human finitude. Lady Macbeth, like Iago and Octavius, trusts reason without limitation, and the result is that she neither fears God nor respects humanity.

Personally, I do not believe in witches any more than the rest of you. But this is where Shakespeare exercises authority and makes his reality as an author felt. Shakespeare can help us take the witches seriously. Shakespeare captivates us with his language, and against our reason he takes us into a world where the reality of witches is inescapable. When the witches first appear to Banquo and Macbeth they are not certain whether they are real:

Banquo. The earth hath bubbles as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Macbeth. Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted
as breath into the wind. Would they had stayed!

Banquo. Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner? (I.iii.79-85)

The witches haunt the play, and challenge our rational expectations, from their appearance in the first scene to the final fulfillment of their ambiguous prophesies at the end. At first we may doubt their reality and treat them comically, but the issues they raise reign throughout the action. Gradually their prophesies come true, and they prove to be connected in one way or another to the fundamental powers governing the universe. They are not to be trifled with or taken lightly. Macbeth may be more sensitive to the horror of his abominations than Lady Macbeth, but he does not grasp the full reality of the witches until he dies at the hand of Macduff, “the man who was not of woman born.” Macbeth strives to bring some of the prophesies to pass through his own initiative and struggles to thwart others, but he fails to recognize the magnitude of the forces which are arrayed before him, the interconnected totality that the witches represent. Nor does he see how his complicity in bringing about his success guarantees his complicity in his own downfall and destruction. The witches represent a cosmos in which Macbeth is simultaneously fated by the nature of things and yet also responsible as the author and instrument of this fate.

However irrational and ethereal in appearance the witches may be, they represent, like the ghost in Hamlet, those fundamental forces that bear down upon and sustain us, and by the end of the play they prove to be the most real part of Macbeth’s world. Shakespeare’s language reaches out, grabs us by the entrails and jerks us bodily into this world, a world saturated with supernatural beings and human passions. Laugh if you can, but this is the way the world is, and these are the hopes and fears of human beings. Laugh if you can.

As for me, when I read Macbeth, I can begin to understand the reality of witches, as Hamlet once showed me the reality of ghosts. With wonder and awe I come to realize something of the fear of God and the frailty and dignity of human life. Yes, in time we could destroy these realities. But I ask again, would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?


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  One Response to “Macbeth’s Witches”

  1. i love macbeth at the age of 10

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