Halloween traditions Shakespeare Samhuin celts Macbeth Merry Wives of Windsor Hamlet witch hunt fire Festival trick or treating apples Bonfires herne the Hunter
Denzel Washington talks Shakespeare. Mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier
If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.
Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.
Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.
I know Halloween is over, but since I am doing a research project on the Salem Witch Trials, I thought I would trace the history of Witch Hunts from Shakespeare’s day to Salem:
Activities for Students and Teachers: Macbeth Escape Room
I made a digital escape room for Macbeth, as part of my Outschool.com class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Educational Experience,” which you can register for at a discount this week only. I’m presenting this digital escape room as an activity for teachers to teach their student’s knowledge of the plot of the play and use their observation and research skills to escape from a “cursed castle.”
What Is a digital escape room?
In a normal escape room, you are locked in a room and have to follow clues and solve puzzles in order to find a series of keys, codes, and combinations to unlock the door and get out of the room. In a digital escape room, you solve online puzzles and use passwords and key codes to unlock some kind of digital content.
My escape room is designed to test your knowledge of the play, give you a chance to learn about the history behind it. Most escape rooms use the a variety of locks such as:
- Standard combination locks
- Direction locks (where the lock has arrows taht you have to push in the correct direction, in the right order).
- Color locks (where we put different colors in a sequence.
A digital escape room uses these concepts and adapts them to work within the context of a website or other digital experience. For example, I made a direction lock based on the direction a dagger points and made a short animation of a dagger with the text of Macbeth’s famous dagger speech.
The student has to surf through five webpages to find the answers to the puzzles, then imputs the answer in a Google form. Once he or she unlocks all six puzzles, they are permitted to leave the witches’ castle. Here’s a preview of the puzzles:
Part I: The Gate
There’s a website called Flippity which allows you to make little online puzzles so I embedded it on one page of my website. In this case, it has six locks that you have to unlock by typing answers to trivia questions related to “Macbeth,” such as “What object appeared to Macbeth before he killed the king?” The final lock requires you to read a short article on the curse of Macbeth, so you can enter it on the website.
Part II: The Magic Mirror
There’s a website called a magic mirror, which if you click on the mirror, it hyperlinks to an image that spells out the next answer for the Google form.
Part III: Birnam Wood
I wanted to teach the students about verse scantion and what an iambic pentamer iine is. I wanted to get the class to learn the pattern of unaccented beats (which Shakespeare scholars mark with a U), and accented beats marked with a /, as in the couplet below:
To get the students to practice making an iambic pentameter line, I embedded a Google Slides presentation in the website which has pictures of unarmed and armed soldiers. A key indicates that you are to count the soldiers and input the U/U/ pattern into the Google Form:
So, there’s a preview of the Digital Escape Room I hope this inspires you to try this type of activity in your class. If you want to use this activity, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a teacher’s guide. Please also consider signing up for my Outschool.com class!
The Plot of Macbeth
This video is part of my Outschool course “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I use it to explain the plot of the play before playing a game and an escape room to test the student’s knowledge. Let me know in the comments what you think of it, and if you like it, please consider signing up for the course on Outschool.com
New Outschool Course: Macbeth
Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:
If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!
I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.
I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.
The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!
If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at Outschool.com. if you take the course, please leave me a good review.
Hope to see you soon!
What Does Shakespeare Say About Ireland 🇮🇪?
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The Emerald Isle has long been a source of illumination for poet’s pens and Shakespeare was no exception. The Bard of Avon is indebted to Mother Ireland not only for the inspiration he took, but sadly for the pain he gave her back.
None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Ireland, but he freely adapted elements from Irish folklore. English poet Edmund Spencer visited Ireland in the 1590s and adapted the folklore he picked up into his opera The Fairy Queen, which Shakespeare adapted into A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Irish created and continue to tell many of the fairy legends and stories that we retell and adapt today. If you go to Lullymore park in Ireland, you can see a place that is essentially a “Fairy preserve.”
The old stories tell that Fairies are magical creatures who live in hollow places in the earth. Some are benevolent and help give rain and pleasant weather to the Earth, Like the king and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania:
And the mazed world,
By their [the tides] increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
— Titania, (Queen of the Faries), A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II, Scene i.
Titania in this speech shows great concern for nature, humanity, and the planet. She believes it is the responsibility of fairies, particularly herself and her husband Oberon, to control the elements and keep humans and fairies safe. Some fairies, however, are cruel and enjoy playing tricks on mortals, just like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet.
This is a short analysis I created of the tricks Puck plays on people in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of my acting course on Ouschool.com. Note the different ways Puck is portrayed in photos as a satyr, a rotund elf, and sometimes as an almost- demon like figure.
Cringe-worthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s only Irish character, captain mcmorris in “Henry V”
When Shakespeare is racially insensitive towards people of color, the cringe-worthy writing is mercifully few and far between. With the exception of Aaron the Moor and Don Armada, there are only a few sporadic derogatory references to non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Sadly though, Shakespeare might have permanently harmed the Irish through his character the Irish captain Macmorris in Henry the Fifth, his only Irish character.
According to The Irish Times, there is a longstanding stereotype that still exists in the British Isles that Irish people are violent, short-tempered, and essentially savages and Shakespeare might have invented this stereotype (or at least popularized it) when he wrote this scene from Henry the Fifth, Act III, Scene ii:
To the mines! tell you the duke, it is not so good
to come to the mines; for, look you, the mines is
not according to the disciplines of the war: the
concavities of it is not sufficient; for, look you,
the athversary, you may discuss unto the duke, look
you, is digt himself four yard under the
countermines: by Cheshu, I think a' will plough up
all, if there is not better directions.
The Duke of Gloucester, to whom the order of the
siege is given, is altogether directed by an
Irishman, a very valiant gentleman, i' faith.
It is Captain Macmorris, is it not?
I think it be.
By Cheshu, he is an ass, as in the world: I will
verify as much in his beard: be has no more
directions in the true disciplines of the wars, look
you, of the Roman disciplines, than is a puppy-dog.
Enter MACMORRIS and Captain JAMY
Here a' comes; and the Scots captain, Captain Jamy, with him.
Captain Jamy is a marvellous falourous gentleman,
that is certain; and of great expedition and
knowledge in th' aunchient wars, upon my particular
knowledge of his directions: by Cheshu, he will
maintain his argument as well as any military man in
the world, in the disciplines of the pristine wars
of the Romans.
I say gud-day, Captain Fluellen.
God-den to your worship, good Captain James.
How now, Captain Macmorris! have you quit the
mines? have the pioneers given o'er?
By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give
over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I
swear, and my father's soul, the work ish ill done;
it ish give over: I would have blowed up the town, so
Chrish save me, la! in an hour: O, tish ill done,
tish ill done; by my hand, tish ill done!
Captain Macmorris, I beseech you now, will you
voutsafe me, look you, a few disputations with you,
as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of
the war, the Roman wars, in the way of argument,
look you, and friendly communication; partly to
satisfy my opinion, and partly for the satisfaction,
look you, of my mind, as touching the direction of
the military discipline; that is the point.
It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captains bath:
and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick
occasion; that sall I, marry.
It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the
day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the
king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The
town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the
breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing:
'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to
stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is
throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there
ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la!
By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves
to slomber, ay'll de gud service, or ay'll lig i'
the grund for it; ay, or go to death; and ay'll pay
't as valourously as I may, that sall I suerly do,
that is the breff and the long. Marry, I wad full
fain hear some question 'tween you tway.
Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your
correction, there is not many of your nation--
Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation?
Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is
meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think
you do not use me with that affability as in
discretion you ought to use me, look you: being as
good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of
war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in
I do not know you so good a man as myself: so
Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.
Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other.
A! that's a foul fault.
A parley sounded
The town sounds a parley.
Captain Macmorris, when there is more better
opportunity to be required, look you, I will be so
bold as to tell you I know the disciplines of war;
and there is an end.
Irish History and Shakespeare: The tempestous relationship between england and Ireland
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
Henry V, Act V Chorus
James Shapiro in his excellent book, A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599, posits that contemporary affairs in Ireland might have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays in including Richard II, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. In 1594 the Earl of Tyrone began a rebellion in Ireland against the English, and in 1599, Queen Elizabeth dispatched the ambitious and chivalrous Earl of Essex to quell it. As you can see in the quote above, Shakespeare mentions Essex’s fight in his play of Henry V, which probably premiered at around the same time Essex was in Ireland.
The audience may have been watching Henry conquer France, but many would have been thinking about Elizabeth’s struggle to conquer Ireland.BBC Radio 4 Extra – Shakespeare’s Restless World, Ireland: Failures in the Present – Transcript – Shakespeare’s Restless World – Programme 7
Though King Henry successfully conquered and united England and France, Essex failed spectacularly, and Elizabeth was deeply embarrassed by the whole scenario. She was also deeply alarmed by the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard II, which shows onstage the deposing and killing of a king who had no children and failed to quell a rebellion in Ireland.
Elizabeth was worried about her subjects but she was also very worried about Essex overseas. Everyone, (including Shakespeare), remembered that 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar went from him the Senate’s Consul General to dictator by amassing an army, then threatening to invade Rome under the pretense of helping to quell a foreign invasion. Caesar made his name by subjugating tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), and the Senate was worried that he would come home and use his army for a military coup. Look at the expressions on the faces of Cicero and Brutus when they see Caesar coming home in triumph in this scene from the HBO series Rome.
Elizabeth repeatedly attempted to curb Essex’s power while he was fighting in Ireland; she refused to give the Earl more troops for fear that he might be staging a potential coup. Her fears would later be proven right when in 1602, Essex attempted to head a rebellion and take the Crown for himself, but not before one of Essex’s friends commissioned Shakespeare’s company to portray the deposing and killing of King Richard II. Essex was trying to turn himself from a failed Henry V to a victorious Henry IV, and his queen into Richard II.
Shakespeare might have been inspired to write Julius Caesar after being an unwitting pawn in the political drama between Essex and the queen, and might have even created the character of Cinna the Poet as an analog for Shakespeare himself. In the play, Cinna the poet is mistaken for one of the conspirators by an angry mob and is murdered in the street. Perhaps Shakespeare created Cinna the Poet as a way of coping with the fear he must have had that people might mistake him for a radical, after his play Richard II briefly made him a walking target for those opposed to Essex’s rebellion. In any case, Julius Caesar eloquently documents the kind of anxiety of not knowing who could be trusted when it comes to politics, whether it be a populist warrior like Julius Caesar or Essex, or the Queen, privy council, or indeed Roman senate, and the whole thing started from a failed attempt to quell a rebellion in Ireland.
In summation, even though Shakespeare sets no plays in Ireland, Irish history and Irish culture are everywhere in his plays. England and Ireland are I are indeed separate islands but the cultural exchange between England and Ireland has inspired Shakespeare and many other great writers for centuries. After all Shakespeare’s most famous honorific, ‘the Bard of Avon’ comes from an ancient Irish tradition of semi-mystical poets, who in Irish folklore, were able to see the future and glimpse worlds that are unseen to ordinary mortals. What Shakespeare really felt about Ireland we don’t know but we do him but he does owe the Irish people a lot of thanks, and on this Saint Patrick’s day, I honor their contribution to him and to him all the world
Shapiro, James. A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599. Chapter 6: Things Dying and Things Reborn.
How did Shakespeare Celebrate Halloween?
Let me begin by admitting that this post was harder to write than my Christmas post because pre Christian traditions are harder to pin down. In addition, to give you my standard disclaimer, I don’t believe it’s really possible to definitively know how or if Shakespeare celebrated Halloween, but since the history of Halloween is long and fascinating, and since Shakespeare’s plays influenced that history, I feel it’s worth exploring.
Part I: Origins of Halloween
Almost every culture on Earth has a middle fall celebration that calls to mind the bounty of the harvest, and the inevitable approach of winter. Most of our Halloween traditions are based on the ancient European festival of Samhuin.
What is Samhuin?
Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts inhabited much of the British Isles. They believed in many gods and spirits that controlled nature and the seasons. To thank the gods for the harvest the Celts gave them offerings like apples, and threw parties to celebrate the gods’ bounty.
When the Romans conquered the Celts, they co-opted some of their religious practices. For instance the tradition of giving apples as offerings to the Roman goddess Pomona. This tradition of course, evolved into our modern Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. Honoring the harvest also went hand in hand with darker traditions; ones inspired by fear of death, decay, and evil spirits.
With the Sun dying and the Earth growing cold in late October, cultures like the Celts and the Romans feared that evil fairies and ghosts could cross over into our world. In particular the Celts believed that around the night of October 31st, the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest.
Samhuinn was a liminal time between our world and the Otherworld. It’s a night when the souls of dead loved ones as well as spirits and fairies – the aos sí in Irish mythology and aes sídhe or sìth in Scottish mythology – could come through to visit. Deceased family members were honoured with seats at the evening feast, and offerings of milk and baked goods were left at the front door for the Fairies. Source: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/edinburghs-samhuinn-fire-festival-and-the-origins-of-halloween/
At some point people decided to dress up as the spirits to ward them off, and this evolved into our modern day trick or treating.
These traditions did not die once England became Christian, (after it was conquered by the Romans), they simply translated into a different form. Halloween actually translates as “All Hallows Eve, a Catholic celebration of of dressing up as pagan spirits and giving offerings of the harvest to honor Catholic saints as well as departed love ones.
Part II: What might Shakespeare have done?
Although Shakespeare never directly mentions Halloween, he lived in a world that kept many of these folk traditions alive. Shakespeare was the grandson of a farmer and his father was a devout Catholic, so he probably was brought up in these ancient Halloween traditions. He probably would have attended some kind of harvest festival to celebrate the bounty of the summer, and might have put food out for his departed family members.
Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his ‘cuckold’ horns as he returns to his kingdom in the otherworld. On the Isle of Man in the Irish sea, the Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, which is a celebration of the original New Year’s Eve and children dress as scary beings, carry turnips and go from home to home asking for sweets or money. Source: https://theancientweb.com/2010/10/the-origins-of-halloween-part-1/
Call me a softie but I really like the idea of Shakespeare baking treats like soul cakes for neighborhood kids or telling scary stories about a bonfire. The kornigou is more commonly known as the Soul Cake, and it’s still popular today. It’s even been immortalized in song: https://youtu.be/j35dvmdse9k You can even make it yourself: www.cardamomdaysfood.com/recipe/soul-cakes/
Another tradition was dancing around ancient Celtic burial mounds. According to tradition, these mounds were home to spirits and Fairies, and could be portals to the land of the dead. In Irish folklore, poets and storytellers had the power to pass between these two realms. Maybe Shakespeare himself visited such a mound in his youth and was inspired to write about the fairy queen Titania and the hobgoblin Robin Goodfellow. Archeologists are still learning about these ancient mounds today:
The most tantalizing ancient Halloween tradition is mumming, a kind of amateur theater practiced by the ancient Celts. Like modern Sunday school plays the plays were a religious ritual designed goal to honor the gods and the harvest.
Mumming, a type of folk play, was used to tell traditional Samhuinn stories about battles or the winter goddess Cailleach (meaning “old hag”), who began winter by washing her hair in the whirlpool of Corryvreck.
For a modern example of this of these traditions you can look at the Edinburgh fire festival which preserves the kind of mumming that the Celts might have done on Samhuin and Shakespeare might have seen. It’s highly ritualistic, immersive, and the characters have spooky similarities to some of Shakespeare’s plays.
To give you an idea of how mumming might have influenced Shakespeare, watch this trailer for the 2017 Edinburgh Fire Festival:
• What you can see in the trailer:
1. Keening- the wild women screaming as a way to lament, honor, and guide the dead. Characters like Constance in King John have many similar qualities.
2. The fight between the Summer King and the Winter Lord. Many Celtic stories dramatize the change of seasons from summer to winter as a battle. Even the duel between King Arthur and his young son Mordred could be seen in this context. In another interesting interpretation, Jennifer Lee Carroll in her book Haunt Me Still, interprets this mummers play as a pagan retelling of the story of Macbeth.
3. You can see brightly colored figures some designed to honor the changing of the seasons, and wild, animalistic people, presumably playing the roles of the Fairies, goblins, or other creatures that appear on Samhuin. It’s not much of a stretch to see these figures as the Fairies of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the witches of Macbeth.
Part III: What did Shakespeare mention about Halloween?
Ghosts appear in five of Shakespeare’s plays. We see reference to all kinds of Fairies, goblins, and spirits and even a couple times people dressing up to ward off evil. In Titus Andronicus, the queen of the Goths disguises herself and her sons as spirits of revenge and go to Titus’ house to torment him, and then the old man Titus tricking them into coming to his house, where he takes his revenge.
One Shakespeare play that I think perfectly encapsulates the Halloween traditions of the English countryside is Merry Wives Of Windsor, specifically the scene in which Falstaff is tormented by a ghost story.
In the play, the fat, drunk knight Sir John Falstaff has been trying to seduce two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Page devises a plan to scare and humiliate Falstaff, by dressing up her husband as the terrifying ghost of Herne the Hunter:
• 4.4 MISTRESS PAGE
• There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.
Herne the Hunter is a real medieval legend about a man who was hanged for poaching deer in Windsor park and now haunts the forest with horns on his head. Not only does Master Ford dress as Herne, The witty housewives dress the neighborhood children like Fairies and instruct them to pinch the fat knight and burn him with lit candles. Essentially this scene is a Shakespearean trick or treating moment with a ghost story to boot. Plus as Mistress Page mentioned, the ghost haunts Windsor towards the the oncoming of Winter, so it’s not entirely unlikely that it would be that this scene was originally played around the time of Halloween.
How did Shakespeare contribute?
Scholars describe Shakespeare’s mind like a magpie, taking myths, legends, history, and books to come up with his own plays. As you have seen, the ancient traditions of Halloween had a powerful effect on Shakespeare’s plays. But, did he contribute to those traditions himself? I would say yes in a big way. First of all the image of Hamlet holding a skull has inspired many other Halloween images:
David Tennant in Hamlet, RSC 2008
Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993.
But I think Shakespeare’s greatest contribution to how we celebrate Halloween are centered within the witches of Macbeth.
Though Shakespeare by no means invented the concept of witchcraft, he did popularize the idea of the wicked witch, and helped form our modern view of what a witch is. The image he created in Macbeth
More than that, I would argue that the modern wicked witch would be all but silent without Shakespeare. When you think of what a witch might say, besides a series of high pitched cackling, what do you think of? Probably you think of this:
Shakespeare’s bizarre and cryptic language helped inspire countless other interpretations of witches, and thus, a way for audiences to deal with the temptations that lurk in our hearts.
In conclusion, we don’t know how Shakespeare celebrated Halloween or even if he did to begin with; Halloween and Shakespeare’s life are both frought with mystery and legend, but one thing is dead certain; Halloween would not be the same without him. He absorbed the ancient rituals of the Celts and Romans and crafted some modern Halloween ideas and images that endure to this day.
Thanks very much for reading! If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my new “Macbeth” online class via Outschool.com. One really fun part of the class will be an escape room where you use your knowledge of Macbeth to escape a cursed castle:
The Witches Of Macbeth
Happy Halloween everybody!
Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
1. Who are they?
Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?
I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters. This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.
What Do They Look Like?
Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
Speak, if you can: what are you? (Act I, Scene iii).
The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:
“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).
“Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.
Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).
For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:
The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.
Witches and mythology
1. During the reign of King James, the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.
2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).
In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this posting, please consider signing up for my online class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I tell you the story of Macbeth and you get to play through an escape room, where you must solve the witches’ puzzles or be added to their Cauldron!