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People that lived during the Elizabethan period were very superstitious. They feared the power of witches the most. The hate stemmed mostly from the “. . . supposed satanic beliefs of the witches and their heretical partnership with the Devil” (Papp and Kirkland 43). Others thought of witches only when something of value had been damaged. They automatically assumed that a witch or one of her familiars must have done it, and “the one thing everyone [knew] about witches [was] that they were women” (Briggs 259). Because of the rigid social rules for women during the Elizabethan period, it was very difficult for a woman during that time to always do as she was supposed to do, and because of the strictness of these rules, many times she failed. Unfortunately, the consequences of not being the perfect example of femininity meant the possibility of being labeled a witch. Because Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters are far from being perfect examples of proper Elizabethan women and because they do not attempt to conform to their society’s rules and expectations, they are often classified as being witches.
Older women were the easiest targets for witch-hunters because of their haggard appearance. Reginald Scott describes witches as being “‘. . . leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them’” (Jorgensen 118). Macbeth’s Weird Sisters carry these characteristics of witches. Banquo describes them as being ” . . . So withered and so wild in their attire, / That [they] look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth” (1.3.40-41).
Many stereotypes were established for what a witch actually looked like. The Weird Sisters carry most of those stereotypes. One of the most common things that was said about witches was that they were women of ” . . . unbridled feminine sexuality” (Briggs 259), meaning that they did not conform to the Elizabethan idea of what a woman should be. An Elizabethan woman’s ” . . . outer appearance was merely a reflection of inner condition” (Papp and Kirkland 74). To be considered beautiful and desirable, a woman was to be very feminine and have ” . . . Ivory skin, rosy cheeks, a round face, rounder hips, and yielding flesh . . .” (Papp and Kirkland 75). Women labeled as being witches were the opposite of a beautiful Elizabethan woman. The Weird Sisters are described as not even looking like women at all. They are so skinny and unfeminine that on seeing them Banquo says, “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (1.3.45-47). “The beard, also, . . . was the recognised characteristic of the witch” (Dyer and Oxon 28). Women that were thought to be witches were ” . . . without sex or kin” (Dyer and Oxon 27).
A woman’s appearance was not the only thing that classified her as a witch. Her actions also made her appear to be a witch. The primary means of travel for a witch was by flying through the air on her broomstick and the only way that she could do this without being detected was if she could ” . . . hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12). The Elizabethans believed that witches had power over the atmosphere. The giving and selling of winds were thought to be a practice of witches. They were ” . . . supposed to have the power of creating storms and other atmospheric disturbances . . .” (Dyer and Oxon 31). Macbeth reveals the Weird Sisters’ power of being able to do all of those things when he says,
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown
Down . . . answer me
To what I ask you (4.1.52-55).
It was believed that to become a witch, a woman had to sell her soul to the devil, ” . . . who later presented each new witch with a familiar, a devil in the form of a . . . small animal” (Eaton xxxiv). An animal with no tail was the distinguishing mark of a witch’s familiar. In the play, the First Weird Sister says, “And like a rat without a tail / I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.8-10). It was the job of the familiars to carry out tasks for the witches and help them in their daily chores.
The Witches’ familiars are named in the play. The First Weird Sister’s familiar is called Grimalkin, and in Act 4, Scene 1, she makes it clear that Grimalkin is a cat, when she says, “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d” (4.1.1). “The cat was said to be the form most commonly assumed by the familiar spirits of witches . . .” (Dyer and Oxon 30). The Second Sister has a toad for her familiar. It is named Paddock. The Third Sister’s familiar is called Harpier, which suggests that her familiar is a raven because the Elizabethans often called a raven “a harpy, a food-snatcher” (Wills 82). The raven is also associated with Lady Macbeth. After hearing a raven outside of her castle, she says, “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements” (1.5.39-41). Ravens were popular familiars for witches, at that point in history, because it was thought that they gathered body parts off of corpses and carried them back to witches for their spells and potions.
Lady Macbeth is a woman that is independent and has a dominating personality. What Elizabethan men feared most were independent women. They were attracted to women that were quiet, passive, and did what they were told. A woman that was bold and headstrong was considered unfeminine. A characteristic of a witch was a woman that had unsexed herself, or someone that had taken from herself the traits that made her a woman. Lady Macbeth verbally unsexes herself when she says,
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
Come to my woman’s breast
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, . . . (1.5.40-48).
This soliloquy that she makes appears to be an attack on her reproductive system. The thickening of the blood represents her menstrual cycle, and her reasons for stopping up of remorse ” . . . suggest[ed] that she imagin[ed] an attack on the reproductive passages of her own body, on what [made] her specifically female” (Adelman 111). The blood of a menstrual cycle is compared to a woman’s seed and is thought to nourish a baby in the womb. By asking the spirits to take her reproductive abilities away, Lady Macbeth is taking her woman hood away and becoming like a man. It is unnatural for a woman to request that her menstrual cycle be stopped. Jenijoy La-Belle writes, “She abjures her womanhood in order to impregnated with cruelty . . .” (La-Bell 383
There is proff that Lady Macbeth succeeds in having herself unsexed. Not only does Lady Macbeth renounce her womanhood so that she can be cruel, but in doing that, she also causes mental ailments tha tshe did not expect to happen. Jenijoy La-Belle writes that Lady Macbeth faints, swoons, has melancholy passions, and is fearful because of her defeminization. These are alls ypmtoms of a woman that has an inactive womb. She faints in Act II when Duncan is found murdered. Fear and melancholy are apparent all through the play with Lady Macbeth’s worries of being caught as an accessory to Duncan’s murder.
Because of Lady Macbeth’s tendency to be melancholy, she she is affiliated with being a witch. Draper writes, ” . . . Melancholy was thought to make one subject to demonic agencies . . .” (Draper 80). Elizabethans believed that witches sold their souls to the devil for their power. Since Lady Macbeth was melancholy, then in her weakened state, she can easily be tempted by the devil to sell her soul. Therefore, it is logical that Lady Macbeth could be the fourth witch of the play through her weakened state of mind.
Another characteristic of Lady Macbeth that put her in alignment with the witches is that she offers to nurse the spirits from her own breasts. “Witches nursed their familiars from their ‘marks,’ considered as teats of diabolic nourishment” (Wills 80). When Lady Macbeth says, “Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall” (1.5.47-48), she was telling her familiars ” . . . to take her milk as gall to nurse from her breast and find in her milk their sustaining poison” (Adelman 112). There is also another theory that she is telling her familiars to exchange her milk for gall. This is another example of Lady Macbeth’s unsexing herself. This was ” . . . imagining in effect that the spirits empty out the natural maternal fluid and replace it with the unnatural and poisonous one” (Adelman 112). She was taking her maternal gift and exchanging it for malice.
The Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth take on dominating roles in the play. Because of their domination, there is a role reversal in the sexes between them and Macbeth. The women take on a masculine role and use Macbeth as the female that is being controlled. Although the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth never actually meet and plan the destruction of Macbeth in the play, they do, unconsciously, work together to undo him. They demonstrate the power that a female has over a man, but they do it in different ways. “The witches work[ed] on Macbeth’s image of himself as king; Lady Macbeth work[ed] on his image of himself as man” (Dusinberre 283). Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have an agreement that he will kill Duncan in order to raise Macbeth’s political status. When Macbeth tries to get out of his agreement with Lady Macbeth, she challenges his courage and strength as a man when she says,
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 (1.7.55-60).
The Weird Sisters work on Macbeth by addressing him as the ” . . . Thane of Cawdor!” (1.3.50), and later they explained that he is nor yet, but soon will be the Thane of Cawdor. By telling him this, the Weird Sisters made Macbeth greedy, and he decides to take the role of king through murder, rather than waiting for it to be given to him legally. After killing Duncan, Macbeth obsesses over the crime that he has committed, and then he is tormented by the question of what the apparitions foretold for his future as king. By showing Macbeth what the future would hold for him, the Weird Sisters display the powers that they actually have. Because the Weird Sisters welcome this power, they are accepting a masculine trait because power and authority was something only men had at that time. It is their transformation into maleness that classifies these women as witches.
Gary Wills states, in Witches and Jesuits, that Lady Macbeth is a witch because of the man that researchers believe was cast in her role. His name was John Rice. Some researchers think that he had a history of playing the part of witches. It is believed that he played the role of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Lucretia in The Devil’s Charter, and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. All of these plays were probably performed in the same season, and each of these characters that Rice played had similar traits. All of these women have been associated with being witches. “A remarkable feature of all of these plays [was] their fascination with witchcraft” (Wills 78). Antony compares Cleopatra’s power to the power of a witch. Lucretia’s father is a ” . . . conjuring male witch . . .” (Wills 78), and when she wants to murder her husband, she asks for aid from hell. Lady Macbeth asks to be unsexed and offers to nurse spirits from her breast. “All of these heroines ask to be made ‘indurate’ for their evil tasks” (Wills 79). All of these things were characteristics of a woman that would have been classified as a witch. Wills shows that since John Rice played such similar characters that were witches, then there is a good possibility that Lady Macbeth is a witch also.
It was not difficult to become a woman that was labeled as a witch in Elizabethan England. An old woman, a woman that was a little too masculine for the fashion of that day, or, simply, a woman that stated her own opinions and could think for herself could have easily been thought of as a witch. The loose interpretation of what a witch was at that time was unfortunate because if the title was being handed out freely, then it also meant that the consequences were also handed down with ease. Unfortunately, the consequence of being a witch was usually death.
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