by Albert H. Tolman

The following essay was originally published in The Views About Hamlet and Other Essays. Albert H. Tolman. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904. pp. 73-103.


There is one person in the world of Shakespeare whose utterances are especially marked by the fine charm of true poetry. At the close of many of his speeches we are compelled to stop our reading to enjoy the musical, imaginative language. Our sympathy goes out instinctively to this instinctive poet. And this poet is that bloody and ever bloodier villain, the remorseless committer of murder upon murder, Macbeth.

In the tragedy of Macbeth two streams are ever flowing -- an unforced stream of exquisite poesy, and a stream of innocent blood shed by ruthless hands; and both of them find their source, their only and sufficient cause, in the soul of Macbeth. May it not be that this strange contrast will help us to interpret the character of the man?

It is clear that the strains of poetry which fall from othe lips of Macbeth are entirely natural. The moment that he begins to make pretenses, to play a part, to say what prudence seems to dictate rather than what he feels, he passes from poetry to rhetoric. True poetry must be genuine, impassioned; must spring from sympathy. When Macbeth depicts the appearance of the murdered Duncan. and pretends that the unexpected sight overpowered him with horror and an irresistible impulse to slay the suspected grooms, we hear these hollow phrases:--

"Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance: there, the murderers,
Steep'd in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech'd with gore: who could refrain,
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make 's love known?"

--II. iii. 117-124.

Later in the play, Macbeth speaks to the physician concerning the illness of Lady Macbeth. Here his words come from the heart, and he says:--

"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?"

--V. iii. 40-45.

What relation does this poetical faculty of Macbeth bear to his real character? Let us analyze his first soliloquy, and see what it teaches us (I. vii. 1-28). He trembles before the danger to himself which attends the killing of Duncan, even though he is willing to "jump the life to come." Then he dwells upon the guilt of the intended murder. He is at once the kinsman, the subject, and the host of Duncan.

"Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off."

--I. vii. 16-20.

There are eight lines more in the same strain. Surely now Macbeth will not murder Duncan! Ah, now he surely will. He has looked fairly and fully at the crime; but the honest impulses of his heart and the awfulness of the coming murder have been treated as materials for thrilling rhapsodies, not as grounds for right decision and for instant action. The moment for a hearty, virtuous choice of good is of set purpose given up to sentimentalizing, to poetizing. Such a moment will not return; and whenever his moral instincts shall again revolt against the crime, though less vigorously, utterance can be given them and their strength can be dissipated by the same process of poetizing.

Macbeth so revels in poetry, in aesthetic harmony, that these things are often more real to him than external dangers. At the close of the soliloquy in which he sees the dagger in the air, just before the murder of Duncan, he says:--

"Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; now witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl 's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear"--

Of what? Of detection?

"--for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it."

--II. i. 49-10.

The whole situation is such an exquisite harmony of gloom, gives to the aesthetic sense of Macbeth such keen pleasure, that, even as he goes to murder Duncan, he fears -- that this his harmony may be disturbed.

When Macbeth, at a later time, gives his wife an intimation of the intended murder of Banquo, he cannot deny himself the pleasure of accumulating about the coming crime a mass of poetic detail:--

"Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister'd flight, ere to black Hecate's summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note."

--III. ii. 40-44.

The connection between words and deeds in any character is easily broken. "'Tis a kind of good deed to say well" has been the flattering unction that has excused many a speaker from trying to live up to his own words. The utterance of fine sentiments easily becomes in any life, not a stimulus, but a soporific. Probably every successful preacher of righteousness could testify that he is constantly tempted in the most subtle ways to take an unlawful part in the world-wide division of labor by becoming, in one form or another, a sayer of the truth, and not a doer. Macbeth allows his conscience to frame his words, partly at least, in order that it may disturb him less in his guilty act.

Lady Macbeth knows not how firm the purpose of her husband is. She has heard his fine speeches ever since their wooing days, and cannot believe that they mean so little as they do in terms of action. She would fain think that the lips that have called her "dearest chuck" have behind all their utterances the entire personality of the speaker. She knows that Macbeth has ambition, but she thinks him to be without the moral "illness" that should attend it. His profusion of fine words and sentiments misleads her. She does not know -- he does not fully know -- that his compassion and reluctance are only imaginative, while his ambition is real. Lady Macbeth's awful boldness appears to her to be forced upon her by the weakness of her husband. Though he first resolved upon the murder (I. iv. 50-53) and broke the enterprise to her (I. vii. 48), he is glad to play the part of the timid, frightened criminal, whose guilt is due to the mastermind that controls him. Imaginary fears, a deep shrinking and shuddering of the soul in view of the crime, are natural to him, and give him a strange, thrilling pleasure; while the fierce energy which his supposed remorse arises in Lady Macbeth serves, in his view, both to throw upon her a large share of the guilt and to make the death of Duncan more certain. "The weird sisters" are but a personification, a dramatizing, of those dark promptings which swarm in every soul that is secretly inclined to evil. As the sentimentalist sheds tears over imaginary suffering, and is unmoved at real distress, so Macbeth shakes like a reed in the wind before the thought of a murder which "yet is but fantastical"; and then, deliberately, in spite of a vibrating sensitiveness which completely deceives his wife, and which partially deceives both Macbeth himself and the readers of the play, moves on "towards his design."

Like all things else, the death of his wife furnishes Macbeth a theme for poetry; and the last pleasure that he knows, except the savage delight of battle, is the sad joy of singing an exquisite death-song to the faithful partner of his guilt. Having treated the moral realities of life, its most real things, as visionary, as mere materials for poetry, all things seem to be but parts of an unreal phantasm; and he would fain persuade himself that they are so. Having emptied life and death of every good meaning, he longs to believe that they mean nothing.

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

--V. v. 19-28.

Alas, Macbeth!


One function of the chorus in the Greek tragedies was to anticipate and announce the terrible catastrophe which hangs over some guilty soul. The voice of fate, the anger of the offended gods, the instincts of the human heart, which could not come to utterance through the characters in the drama, found in the chorus an impersonal and powerful lyric expression.

The drama of the Greeks had a lyrical origin, and made effective use of the song element, which it ever retained. But the chorus, with all its power, is foreign to the drama; it is a non-dramatic element. The songs interrupt the action, and make it seem unreal.

There are two situations in Macbeth where an effect analogous to the most powerful utterances of the Greek chorus is secured with no sacrifice of dramatic reality. The broken moral law, the anger of Heaven, the coming down of the guilty, find thrilling expression in the very action itself. The acting forms are men, but the voice that speaks to us is the voice of God. These two situations are the knocking at the gate after the murder of Duncan, and the sleep-walking scene.

In commentating upon the knocking at the gate, the writer cannot hope to add anything to the powerful essay of De Quincey which treats of this incident; but he desires to put into everyday language a portion of the thought which has there been expressed in more philosophical form.

We have been conscious during the rapid preparations for the murder of Duncan, and the hurried conversation which follows it, that the voice of conscience has been rudely choked down. Immediately after the deed, to be sure, Macbeth gives poetical utterance to the moral war that is waging within him. Two of the sleepers in the castle have waked for a moment from uneasy slumber, and their drowsy words have stirred the conscience of Macbeth.

MACBETH: I could not say 'Amen,'
When they did say 'God bless us!'
LADY MACBETH: Consider it not so deeply.
MACBETH: But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'?
I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen'
Stuck in my throat.

But words are things to Lady Macbeth, though they are not to her husband, and she tells him:--

"These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad."

Still he continues:--

MACBETH: Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,' the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast--
LADY MACBETH: What do you mean?
MACBETH: Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house:
'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'

--II. ii. 29-43.

Then Lady Macbeth puts a stop to the utterance of conscience, and turns her whole attention, and in a measure his and ours, to the purely practical question, how they shall avoid detection. And now the unwelcome voice of conscience flies from the breasts which refuse to harbor it. Suddenly, through the awful darkness, there comes a summons; the walls cry out. The thoughts, the fears, which through the minds of the guilty pair and of the shuddering spectators, find in the knocking at the gate a weird, a startling, and an adequate expression. This unexpected voice seeming to come from no fixed place, and having no apparent cause except the tragic tension which demands it, stimulates the imagination almost beyond endurance, and heightens the tension that it appears to relieve.

Just before the knocking we have been isolated from the world, and our intellectual sympathy has been given to Macbeth and his wife. Their moral sense and ours is for the moment stifled. What voice shall call us back to the world of moral law, of humane, human living?

The knocking at the gate is, first of all, a sharp challenge from the outer world of everyday life. The morality of that outer world is, indeed, conventional and imperfect; but the sharp contrast between the normal, everyday life of men, their common loves and hates, and the awful crime which has just taken place in the little world of Macbeth and his wife, is brought home to us with a blow by the sudden sound of the knocking.

It is not only to the world of men and its standards, however, that Macbeth, his wife, and we are to be called back. Therefore no human voice can adequately challenge the guilty pair. Macbeth would put on a bold front before any man, and our intellectual sympathy would go with him. Any human words would fail to express the blackness of his guilt; but the knocking, inarticulate, impersonal, having no visible cause -- this can be the very voice of God, and it is.

There is something suggestive in the rhythm of the mysterious knocking. Rhythm is the expression of all life. Our hearts beat out the rhythm of our lives. Day and night, in their alteration, make up the vast rhythm of our universe. "The father of rhythm," says an old seer, "is God."

To the startled apprehension of Macbeth this rhythmic knocking is the throbbing of that moral life of the world which he has refused to regard. To a cold, unsympathetic reader it may seem an absurdity to say it, but Macbeth hears vaguely in the knocking the tramp! tramp! of those moral forces that shall not cease their march until, out of the wreck of this world, there shall arise the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Against these forces, which must win, Macbeth has set himself. Henceforth the "stars in their courses" will fight against him, and he knows it. With a sudden burst of hopeless remorse, which yet is not true contrition, he cries:--

"Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!"

--II. ii. 74.


Hudson comments as follows upon the fact that this scene, "which is more intensely tragic than any other in Shakespeare, is all, except the closing speech, written in prose":--

"I suspect the matter is too sublime, too austerely grand, to admit of anything so artificial as the measured language of verse, even though the verse were Shakespeare's' and that the Poet, as from an instinct of genius, saw or felt that any attempt to heighten the effect by any such arts or charms of delivery would unbrace and impair it.... Is prose, then, after all, a higher form of speech than verse? There are strains in the New Testament which no possible arts of versification could fail to belittle and discrown."

The writer cannot help feeling that these very suggestive words of the accomplished critic, so far as they respect this scene, are somewhat beside the point. Words are only a part of the language of the drama, and sometimes they are but a small part. The plays of Shakespeare, of course, were not written, primarily, to be read. It is not the diction, the literary form, of this scene which impresses us; it is the action, and most of all the situation. It is only scattered fragments of speech that Lady Macbeth utters. Direct, artless prose, moreover, "unbound speech," seems to be the natural and necessary form of her utterances. Nothing else would befit the unconsciousness of slumber.

What is it that stirs us in this scene? Who is acting? The servant and the doctor are but spectators, like ourselves, and Lady Macbeth is locked in sleep. It is the invisible world of moral reality which is made strangely manifest before our eyes. Lady Macbeth would not reveal these guilty secrets for all the wealth of all the world, but in the awful war that is waging in her breast her will is helpless. Her feet, her hands, her lips, conspire against her. In the presence of the awful, unseen Power that controls her poor, divided self, we hush the breath and bow the head.


The power of the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth is due primarily, as has just been noted, to the impressive situation, rather than to the inherant forcibleness of the broken sentences which are spoken by the guilty queen. A strong drama puts before us vivid scenes from real life. But in real life itself, men are continually masking and posing. Not only do we mask and pose to one another, we do it ourselves, and that continually. In this powerful scene, however, more real than real life, the mask falls off, all disguises drop away, and that which confronts us is a naked soul.

But it is also true that the great dramatist has given especial potency to the words of this scene. The few and seemingly chance utterances of Lady Macbeth have an inspired adequacy. The phrases cut like a knife -- like the dagger that stabbed Duncan. Note the fitness of the simple words which come at the end of the second speech of the sleeping queen:--

"Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"

When Lady Macbeth first incited her husband to make away with Duncan, she willed the death of the aged king indeed, but not its shocking accessories. She thought not of them. When Macbeth comes from the murdered one, she urges him:--

"Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand."

--II. ii. 46-7.

But not yet does she appreciate the spectacle that the inner chamber has in store for her. She starts to carry back the daggers, saying--

"If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal;
For it must seem their guilt."

--II. ii. 55-7.

With this thought "If he do bleed" in her mind, she enters the chamber, and views the startling sight which her eyes are to behold forever.

The ordinary peace-loving man is as little prepared to appreciate what she saw as she was to see it. Such an one is unfamiliar with the shedding of human blood, knows not how easily and abundantly it can flow. And the woman's heart of Lady Macbeth was all unprepared to behold the streaming life-blood of the kindly old king, pleading:

"trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off."

The ghastly vision prints itself indelibly upon her brain; and all her womanly sensibilities receive a shock which only the long remorse of coming days and the restless torture of coming nights can adequately measure.

But she is not the woman to turn back now. She dips her hand in the old man's blood and smears the faces of the sleeping grooms. The sight, the feeling of the warm blood upon her little hand, and the odor of it, are strange experiences for her. What if she should find herself unable to wash off the stain? What if Heaven should doom her to carry the mute witness of guilt about with her forever? At least it seems an endless while before the blood is cleansed away. The dreadful memory of all this comes out in the troubled dream of the sleep-walker, in the frightened cry:--

"What, will these hands ne'er be clean?"

Holmes, in the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, calls attention to the intimate connection between the sense of smell and the memory. Most persons can testify that certain odors bring back the scenes of one's childhood with a vividness which is more intense than that caused by any other stimulus. It is largely the odors of the springtime that bind together all the years of the past and the rapture of the present season. It is, in great measure, these pungent odors that make

"the soul's fresh youth with tender truth
Still spring to the springing grass."

Maurice Thompson sings:--

"A breath from tropical borders,
Just a ripple, flowed into my room,
And washed my face clean of its sadness,
Blew my heart into bloom."

This subtle sense of smell can also summon up from the past that which is awful. Listen to the guilty queen:--

"Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!"

It is because of such nights of horror that she dares not face the kindly shadows which God intended for repose. She has given command that light be by her continually.

Thus does Lady Macbeth once more live through, in restless dreaming, the murder of Duncan. Once more by sight and touch and smell has her sensitive spirit been wounded. Through hearing alone among the nobler senses has she received no shock. But hark! again that startling challenge comes through the darkness!


Ghostly forms of the eight Scottish kings of the house of Stuart -- Robert II, Robert III, and the six Jameses -- are made to appear and pass before Macbeth in a dumb show (IV. i.). These are the descendants of Banquo, who are to rule over Scotland. But why is Mary Stuart omitted, who between the reigns of James V and James VI was the nominal sovereign for a full quarter of a century? To be sure the literal promise to Banquo was, "Thou shall get kings"; but Mary was a sovereign, if not a king; and what a fine fitness would there have been in bringing into this drama, though but for a moment, her bewitching form! Macbeth is a tragedy of blood, and in it eager female beings appear, earthly and unearthly, and tempt to evil deeds. Surely the beautiful Queen of Scots would have been a most appropriate and suggestive figure in that dumb show!

There is one reason, however, for the omission of Mary Stuart which perhaps constitutes a sufficient explanation. In A Midsummer Night's Dream (II. i. 155-64), Shakespeare had paid a honeyed compliment to Elizabeth, the great antagonist of the lovely Stuart queen; but he was now, in 1606, the loyal subject of James I. He naturally felt, we may suppose, that it would be unpleasant and impolitic to remind his sovereign and his audience of the character and fate of the king's mother, the unhappy Mary. Her interesting figure may well have been excluded from the dumb show for this reason, irrespective of artistic considerations.


Strangely enough the word weird has come into modern English entirely from its use in Macbeth. The word occurs six times in this play as usually printed: five times in the expression "weird sisters" (I. iii. 32; I. v. 8; II. i. 20; III. iv. 133; IV. i. 136) and once in the phrase "the weird women" (III. i. 2). Stranger still, weird does not appear at all in the only authoritative text of the tragedy, that of the First Folio. In that edition the word is weyward in the first three passages in the play, and weyard in the last three. It was Theobald, the dearest foe of Pope, who saw that this rare word had been changed because of "the ignorance of the copyists." Modern editors accept the suggestion of Theobold; but I believe that the full force of the word weird is often unapprehended, even by special students of the play.

An Anglo-Saxon literature, "Wyrd" is the name of the personified goddess of fate. Wyrd is "the lord of every man." The word is also a common noun; each man has his own wyrd, or destiny.

In Chaucer we find these lines:--

"But O, Fortune, executrice of wierdes [fates, destinies]."

--Troilus and Criseyde, III. 617.

"The Wirdes, that we clepen [call] Destinee."

--The Legend of Good Women, 2580 (IX. 19).

In the second of these lines we have a personification, but the conception is of more than one Wyrd.

A passage in the Scotch translation of Virgil's Æneid, written about 1513 by Gawin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, translates "Parcæ" (Book III. 379) by the phrase "the werd sisteris."

Shakespeare's source for the story of Macbeth was Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1577. The evidence of this work is decisive in favor of changing weyward and weyard to weird. The following passage from Holinshed will especially concern us:--

"It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores, where the king then laie, they went sporting by the waie togither without their companie, saue onelie themselves, passing thorough the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whome when they attentiuelie beheld, woondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said; All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The second of them said; Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder. But the third said; All haile Makbeth that heereafter shalt be king of Scotland.

"Then Banguho; what manner of women (saith he) are you, that seeme so little favourable unto me, whereas to my fellow heere, besides high offices, ye assigne also the kingdome, appointing foorth nothing for me at all? Yes (saith the firt of them) we promise greater benefits unto thee, than unto him, for he shall reign in deed, but with an unluckie end: neither shall he leave anie issue behind him to succeed in his place, where contrarilie thou in deed shalt not reigne at all, but of thee those shall be borne which shall govern the Scottish kingdome by long order of continuall descent. Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediatlie out of their sight. This was reputed at the first but some vaine fantasticall illusion by Mackbeth and Banquho, insomuch that Banquho would call Mackbeth in iest, king of Scotland; and Mackbeth againe would call him in sport likewise, the father of manie kings. But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken."

In the Scandinavian mythology, as it was preserved in Iceland, "Urthr" was the eldest and the most prominent of the three Norns, or sister-Fates. The loss of an initial w disguises the identity of the word with the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fate, "Wyrd." Both words are to be connected with the Latin vertere, the German werden, the Icelandic vertha, and the Anglo-Saxon weorthan. Apparently because the name "Urthr" is made from that form of the verbal stem which appeared in the plural of the past tense, this goddess came to be looked upon especially as the fate of the pase (des Gewordenes). Professor E. Mogk thinks that it was bungling word-play (junges, isländisches Machwerk) of the twelfth century which first gave to the two sisters of Urthr, the fates of the present and future, the names "Verthandi" (pronounced werthandi--die Werdende_, the goddess of that which is now coming to be--from the same verb as "Urthr") and "Skuld" (allied to shall, soll). The three Norns guard one of the three roots of Ygdrasil, the great Ash-tree of Existence. Urthr and Verthandi, the Past and Present, stretch a web from east to west, "from the radiant dawn of life to the glowing sunset, and Skuld, the Future, tears it to pieces."

"The weird sisters," therefore, is a phrase which means "the fate sisters," or the Sister Fates. Schmidt's explanation of weird, in his "Shakespeare-Lexicon," as "subservient to Destiny," fails to bring out the dignity of the word both in Holinshed and Shakespeare. The weird sisters are not subservient to Destiny; they are Destiny.

The commentators have not noticed, apparently, that the weird sisters speak to Macbeth and Banquo in character, as the Norns of the Past, Present, and Future. This fact, which seems to be true in a general way of their speeches in Holinshed, comes out very clearly in Shakespeare.

Macbeth. So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
Banquo. How far is't call'd to Forres? 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.
Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?
1. [Urthr, the Past.] All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
2. [Verthandi, the Present.] All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Cawdor! [This title the king is now bestowing upon him, perhaps at this very instant. In Holinshed, it is 'shortlie after' the three women meet the two warriors that the king honors Macbeth by making him thane of Cawdor.]
3. [Skuld, the Future.] All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

I. iii. 38-50.

It is not so plain that the three sisters speak in character in what is said to Banquo in the tragedy, but I do not think that we force the meaning if we interpret these speeches in the same way as the previous ones.

Banquo. If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
1. Hail!
2. Hail!
3. Hail!
1. [The Past.] Lesser [by birth] than Macbeth [the cousin of the king], and greater [in integrity, because he has been harbouring a wicked ambition].
2. [The Present.] Not so happy, yet much happier ['i.e., not so fortunate [as Macbeth in securing a present mark of honour], but much more blessed.' -- Schmidt].
3. [The Future.] Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none: So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
1. Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!

I. iii. 58-69.

It may be that Shakespeare's exact division of the rôles into Past, Present, and Future, is in a measure accidental, being suggested by Holinshed in the case of the speeches to Macbeth, and simply repeated in the words addressed to Banquo. It seems probable, however, that the careful distinction observed here between the three Norns is intentional. That "the weird sisters" are those "creatures of elder world," the mighty goddesses of destiny, can hardly be questioned. They are not called witches in the play itself, but always "the weird sisters" or "the weird women"; though one of them tells of the circumstances under which a sailor's wife said to her, "Aroint thee, witch!" (I. iii. 6). The only other use of the word witch in the text of the play occurs when a "witches' mummy" is mentioned (IV. i. 23) among the many uncanny things which, in the cauldron,

"Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

The word weird, as has been said, was taken into modern English from Macbeth. Its significance, however, has not been understood. The word in its present use is an adjective, and has a range of meaning indicated by the words wild, mysterious, uncanny, unearthly, ghostly; weird in Macbeth was vaguely felt to express this combination of ideas. In the Scotch dialect of English the word has not died out, and retains the older meaning, fate, destiny. The word is common in Scott; for example, Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering speaks often of the "weird," or destiny of Harry Bertram.


The powerful conception of the three Fates, "the weird sisters," is not maintained throughout the tragedy of Macbeth, as every reader knows. In the opening scene of the play, and in that part of Scene iii. Act I which precedes the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo, we have simply three witches -- witches of exceptional power and malignancy, but not the great goddesses of destiny.

In Scene v of Act III, the sisters are degraded still farther to inferior and disobedient witches. Their queen Hecate reprimands them for acting without informing her and allowing her to play a part. This distressing scene reaches a climax of unfitness when Hecate suggests that Macbeth has pretended to be in love with the hags:--

FIRST WITCH: Why, how now, Hecate! You look angerly.
HECATE: Have I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles of affairs and death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call'd to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you."

--III. v. 1-13.

Many students of Shakespeare are convinced that Macbeth has not been preserved for us in the exact form in which Shakespeare wrote it. The evidence for this view is very strong, almost conclusive; yet no passage need be surrendered that lovers of Shakespeare care to claim as his. The author of the un-Shakespearean portions of Macbeth has been thought to be Thomas Middleton, principally because the two songs called for in the unfitting Hecate parts of the play -- of which songs the opening words are only given (III. v. 33 and IV. i. 43) -- were found in full in Middleton's play The Witch, discovered in manuscript about 1779.

Since it is believed that the play has been tampered with, some scholars have been inclined to say that the portions in which the weird sisters act as witches were probably not written by Shakespeare. Hudson takes this view for the most part, but he cannot deny the genuineness of the powerful cauldron scene, although witches are here presented, engaged in the practice of witchcraft. I quote his striking defense of the fitness of this passage:--

"Is there any way to account for the altered language and methods used in the cauldron business, without dispossessing the Weird Sisters of their proper character? Let us see.

"The Weird Sisters of course have their religion; though, to be sure, that religion is altogether Satanic. For so essential is religion of some kind to all social life and being, that even the society of Hell cannot subsist without it. Now, every religion, whether human or Satanic, has, and must have a liturgy and ritual of some sort, as its organs of action and expression. The Weird Sisters know, by supernatural ways, that Macbeth is burning to question them further, and that he has resolved to pay them a visit. To instruct and inspire him in a suitable manner, they arrange to hold a religous service in his presence and behalf. And they fitly employ the language and ritual of witchcraft, as being the only language and ritual which he can understand and take the sense of: they adopt, for the occasion, the sacraments of witchcraft, because these are the only sacraments whereby they can impart to him the Satanic grace and efficacy which it is their office to dispense. The language, however, and ritual of witchcraft are in their use condensed and intensified to the highest degree of potency and impressiveness. Thus their appalling infernal liturgy is a special and necessary accommodation to the senses and the mind of the person they are dealing with. It really seems to me that they had no practicable way but to speak and act in this instance just like witches, only a great deal more so."

We naturally feel that it not only degrades the weird sisters to put them before us as witches, but that witches make vulgar and unfitting characters at the best in a serious drama. Let us attempt for a moment, however, to identify ourselves with Shakespeare, the actor and playwright, seeking to impress an Elizabethan audience.

To the men of that day witches were a reality. The world of witchcraft was dark and mysterious, but it was real. Macbeth seems to have been written about the year 1606. Nine years before this, King James VI of Scotland published a "learned and painful" treatise to prove that every Christian must necessarily believe in witchcraft, and in this work all the minutiæ of the subject were duly expounded. In March, 1603, he became king of England also, by the death of Elizabeth. During the first year of his reign over the double kingdom, and perhaps partly in compliment to his convictions and expert knowledge on the subject, a new statue against witchcraft was passed, which remained in force until 1736. Listen to the solemn utterances of this law:--

"If any person or persons shall use, practice, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose, or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone, or any part of any dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or shall use, practice, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed in his or her body or any part thereof," every such offender is a felon without benefit of clergy."

In 1665, at the trial of some Suffolk witches, Sir Thomas Browne, the well-known author of Religio Medici, testified as an expert in favor of the reality of witchcraft. Sir Matthew Hale, afterward lord chief justice of England, presided at the trial; and in summing up the case, adduced Scripture in support of his own belief in the real existence of witches.

Shakespeare had been dead seventy-six years when the witchcraft delusion of 1692 broke out in Salem village. The prosecutions were brought under the statue of James I; but undoubtedly the command which, in the mind of the colonists, seemed at the time to justify the executions was that in Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Professor Henry Ferguson well says:--

"It should always be remembered that belief in witchcraft was not a peculiarity of New England, and that the reason the colonists there have been judged so hardly for their panic is that men have felt that they had claimed to be superior to the men of their generation, and thus should be measured by a higher standard."

More than a hundred years after Macbeth was written, Addison describes for us Sir Roger de Coverley, who, though the leading squire of his county and a model country gentleman, "would frequently have bound "poor old Moll White" over to the county sessions, had not his chaplain with much ado persuaded him to the contrary."

But more illuminating for us is the opinion of Addison himself, who declares after a careful and serious argument: "I believe in general that ther is, and has been, such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time can give no credit to any particular instance of it."

The Encyclopedia Britannica gives, as the last trial for witchcraft in England, that of Jane Wenham in 1712. She was convicted, but not executed. The statute of James I was repealed in 1736.

Although the modern drama permits many conventional departures from actual life, its cardinal quality is vivid realism. The most exalted hero of history or epic tradition when put upon the stage becomes completely human, stands upon a level with the spectators, and appeals to their sympathy. Cæsar, Macbeth, Hamlet, each seems to be the humblest auditor to be but an extension, an enlargement of his own personality, a second self; each appeals to him entirely by virtue of a common nature.

The sense of reality is essential to a serious drama of the highest type. A Midsummer Night's Dream is sportive; but Julius Cæsar, Hamlet, and Macbeth set forth what the spectators for whom they were written accepted as portrayal of real life. Shakespeare in appealing to his audiences made use of the general conceptions and beliefs that filled their minds, just as he made use of the Elizabethan form of the language; nevertheless, he was careful to employ the agency of the supernatural, as Professor Moulton expresses it, only "to intensify and to illuminate human action, not to determine it." The supernatural was not allowed to be really causative. Because of this wise method, his plays, which fascinated the men of his own day, appeal with equal power to us, who hold opinions decidedly different from theirs concerning supernatural manifestations.

It must be admitted that there is a lack of harmony, even a decided clash, in uniting in the same persons the imperturbable goddesses of destiny and malignant witches; but if the weird women were to have rôles of any length, it was necessary that they be made completely real, that they be humanized in some form. If they remain upon the stage, they must do something, something which human beings do, or which, when this play was written, human beings were supposed under some circumstances to do. The Greeks had a similar difficulty, though their drama was far less realistic than is ours. Says Freytag:--

"Whenever the gods had to play a real part upon the stage, and not simply to utter a command ex machina, then they were of necessity either entirely transformed into men, with all the pain and anger of men, as was Prometheus, or they sank below the nobility of human nature, without the poet being able to hinder it, down to blank generalizations of love and hate, like the Athene in the prologue of Ajax.

We see that, when Macbeth appeared, the entire English people, king and subjects, believed in the reality of witchcraft. The usual manner in which the emissaries of Satan actually did lure men to evil was thought to be known, in a general way. If the weird sisters were to do that work, they would naturally do it in that way; they would use the apparatus of witchcraft. They must submit to dramatic necessity and be humanized; but they were humanized as witches -- creatures dwelling on the very confines of humanity and holding commerce with the devil -- "secret, black, and midnight hags," doing deeds "without a name." Shakespeare yields to dramatic necessity, but gives to the cauldron scene all possible poetic impressiveness; he takes the supposed facts of witchcraft and raises them to the nth power.

It is not probable that the "commonplace and vulgar" quality which Hudson finds in the opening portion of Scene iii, Act I, was painfully evident even to the more sensitive persons in Shakespeare's audiences. The passage may well be Shakespeare's, although it it not his best work; and it may be in some degree a concession to the delight that the audience was sure to take in the witches. So long as witchcraft was thoroughly believed in, effective use could be made of it upon the stage. "Killing swine" and "sailing in a sieve" were believed to be common occupations among witches; probably the first of these opinions sprang from the account of the destruction of the herd of swine by the devils, as told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and was felt to have some degree of Scripture authority. Such forms of activity naturally seem commonplace and vulgar to us; but they would not if we believed in witches; and while we are reading Macbeth, we must believe in them.

In view of these considerations, I do not care to question the genuineness of any of the supernatural portions of the play except the rôle of Hecate and a few lines closely connected therewith. Her presence in the drama is a distinct blemish.

Back to Macbeth

Home · Theatre Links · Monologues · One Act Plays · Bookstore · © 2006