Macbeth

Macbeth Shakespeare’s play about intrigue and murder in the royal court of Scotland is one of the most influential literary works in establishing the stereotype of witches as evil, ugly hAgs. The play, written around 1603 and published around 1623, is drawn partly on raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577).

Three unnamed witches, sometimes called the “Weird Sisters,” are consulted for their prophecies. The play opens with the witches gathered on a barren heath; later, in the famous first scene of Act IV, they stir up a CAuldron full of vile ingredients and conjure the Greek patron goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, and various spirits. macbeth’s ambition to be king, plus the witches’ prophecies, spur him to commit murder. He brings about his own undoing and dies cursing the day he met the witches.

Stated Montague Summers in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926):

There are few scenes which have so caught the world’s fancy as the wild overture to Macbeth. In storm and wilderness we are suddenly brought face to face with three mysterious phantasms that ride on the wind and mingle with the mist in thunder, lightning, and in rain. They are not agents of evil, they are evil; nameless, spectral, wholly horrible.

Act IV, Scene I opens with the three witches stirring in their cauldron. Appropriately, thunder roils outside their cavern:

1st Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2nd Witch: Thrice, and once the hedgepig whin’d.
3rd Witch: Harpier cries; -‘tis time, -‘tis ’ime.
1st Witch: round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and night has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
All: Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
2nd Witch: Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
All: Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches mummy, maw and gulf
of the ravin’s salt-sea shark;
root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab, make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron.
For th’ ingredients of our cauldron.
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
2nd Witch: Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Hecate enters. Hecate: O, well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share in th’ gains:
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
Music and song;
Hecate exits.

The influence of Macbeth on popular opinion about Witches is evidenced in an incident that happened to Sybil Leek in the late 1960s. The English Witch had just written her autobiography, Diary of a Witch, and was a sought-after guest on the media tour circuit in America. She accepted an invitation to appear on NBC’s Today show, then hosted by Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. She expected to have an opportunity to educate Today’s considerable audience on the Old religion. Apparently, the NBC programmers expected to entertain viewers with a bit of theater. Leek recounts in her book, The Complete Art of Witchcraft (1971):

I arrived to do the show in the early hours of the morning, to find that I was expected to stir a cauldron while mouthing the usual “Double, double, toil and trouble” bit out of Shakespeare, and to look as cackling and as evil as possible.

Leek declined to play the stereotype and managed to salvage some of her appearance on the show with a serious discussion of Witchcraft as a religion.

FURTHER READING:

  • Leek, Sybil. Diary of a Witch. New York: NAL Signet Library, 1968.
  • Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology. London: kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1926

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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