Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and in keeping with the Halloween theme, I thought I’d share some thoughts on Shakespeare’s Witches, and why they are so iconic.
1. Are The Witches male or female?
At the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the fear of witchcraft was rife, and this perpetuated many stereotypes that we still have today. Mainly, it continued the belief that witches are old women, with a warty complexion and a companion of some kind, usually a black cat or a toad.
Interestingly, we can’t assume that Shakespeare intended his Witches to be female. Although certain pronouns and descriptions could suggest they were female, plays were performed by all-male casts, making it more difficult to work out the intended gender of certain characters. Furthermore, Banquo himself says in in Act 1 Scene 3, “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.”, emphasising how difficult it was to pin down gender.
Personally, I don’t believe it matters whether The Witches were meant to be male or female. However, it is really fascinating to watch various adaptations of Macbeth, and see how different directors choose to portray the appearance of The Witches, so if you’re interested, I encourage you to compare different versions for yourself.
2. How powerful are The Witches?
After reading the play, it is clear The Witches have a lot of different powers: they can control the weather, they can see the future, they can create potions and spells, they can cause sleep deprivation and madness, and communicate with animal familiars.
There are numerous interesting theories that it was The Witches who granted Lady Macbeth her lack of remorse, and sent Macbeth visions of the dagger, to indirectly influence both characters and lead them to their downfall. Indeed, there are even theories that The Witches are not even real, but merely hallucinations and symbolic of the evil and sin in the world, which would have resonated with Shakespeare’s Jacobean, strongly Christian audience.
3. Who is Hecate?
We only meet Hecate once in the play, in Act 3 Scene 5.
She is essentially the Goddess of Witchcraft, and she can be seen as the leader of The Witches. However, I take issue with this: if Hecate is such a powerful character, why does she only really appear once? Why is it the 3 (lesser) Witches who cause Macbeth’s downfall, rather than Hecate?
Furthermore, we don’t really experience any of her powers, making it curious as to what her significance is. In addition, there is a theory that Hecate is not even Shakespeare’s creation, due to the rhyme and rhythm of her lines, so it is believed Hecate was added afterwards by another playwright. Again, this is just another theory and I don’t believe it adds or detracts from the play either way.