Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Without his wife to tell him what to do; without the reasoning faculty he has consciously suppressed; without even the imagination that once dominated his actions, he becomes a pitiful figure of contradiction in Act V, unsure of whether he wants to hear news of the army at his gates or not, unable even to decide whether to arm himself. It is a sad, if fitting, denouement for a man who could have achieved true greatness, or at the very least avoided the disaster and damnation that overtakes him.

The Play

Act One: Scene One

The first line of Macbeth indicates a parting: the three witches walk onto the stage only to say farewell to each other. Some spell or charm has presumably been cast – or, at least, some magical business discussed – and an air of mystery and suspense is immediately created.

The Weird Sisters’ speeches throughout the play are generally in rhymed tetrameter, with the first syllable of each line clipped. The technique creates a strong trochaic rhythm, suggesting a constant undercurrent of chant, as well as communicating a strong impression of unity between the three. Indeed, the way they complete each other’s sentences indicates an identity of purpose, almost as though they are three different aspects of a single person. This impression has mythological ramifications: the three who act and speak as one closely resemble the Nordic and classical fates, and, through them, the various ‘triple-goddesses’ of classical paganism (most notably Hecate herself).

Shakespeare clearly wants these characters before his audience as witches first and foremost – there is as yet no reference to Holinshed’s Fates of the ‘elder world’ – but he is already laying the ground for the idea that his three characters are both the stereotypical hags of Jacobean folklore and also the Weirds or Fates of pagan mythology.

In a dramatic sense, Shakespeare’s use of the witches provides an interesting analogue to the choruses of classical tragedy. Admittedly, there are only three witches, not twelve or fifteen chorus members as was the case in Greek tragedy, but other similarities are striking: classical choruses, for example, were always exclusively male or female; they danced and sang – and, even if the additions to the text associated with Thomas Middleton’s The Witch are excluded, Shakespeare’s witches certainly appear to chant and move in a stylised fashion.

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William Shakespeare
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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul