Macbeth’s Weird Sisters
A Psychological Riddle:
Were Shakespeare’s weird sisters real evil hags who seduced the newly-appointed Thane of Cawdor with ambitious promises above his station? If so, could they have been the reason why the brave warrior Macbeth murdered King Duncan?
Points to consider:
* Superstitious Jacobeans believed in magic, and would have readily accepted that Macbeth was genuinely bewitched. Satan was stalking the land in search of souls and his coven of witches found a good, brave man who succumbed to their temptations because he was also human.
* If you were put under a spell, you had no control over your actions. Therefore, once Macbeth was in their power he could not prevent himself from killing the king.
* The Malleus Maleficarum claimed that wicked women have been responsible for the downfall of great men since the time of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Macbeth was following in a long tradition of doomed heroes.
* The three sisters first approach Macbeth. He does not initially seek them out. This implies that Macbeth was intentionally targeted by Satan, which makes him a hapless victim of evil.
* Banquo sees the women too. They were not just a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.
Painting by Henry Fuseli (Public Domain)
Or perhaps the witches were merely a convenient excuse? In other words, did they exist only in the mind/s of the central character/s – as a projection of ambition and desire – or as a psychological attempt to rationalize the ultimate treason?
Points to consider:
* If Macbeth was truly a good man he would not have been so readily tempted by evil. Satan picks targets who are easy to seduce. The witches were the excuse he used to explain away his actions.
* The ambition to be king may have been seeded in Macbeth’s mind even before the witches appeared. It was common to come across poor wise women, gypsies, or cunning folk, who made a living from fortune telling. After the murder they were fashionable targets to blame for the deeds that Macbeth was destined to do.
* Supernatural influences can be used to explain, excuse, and justify horrific acts on the grounds that they are outside of self control. In the same way that mass murderers claim to hear voices that make them commit their crimes, Macbeth blames the popular scapegoat of his (and Shakespeare’s) time.
* If Macbeth was genuinely bewitched he would have killed without deliberation. But he questions his actions, later wrestling with guilt and remorse. Is this because he knows he has done wrong and fears being found out?
* Banquo sees the weird women and also hears their prophecies, in which case he should also fall under their power. But he is content to let fate play out by itself and does not take part in any murders.
I have always been fascinated by Shakespeare’s skill as both a writer and early psychologist. His audience would have accepted these characters as real supernatural influences (which means Macbeth was an innocent man duped by evil). But the bard also knew the human mind. In today’s psychoanalytical society we understand how criminals sometimes project their crimes onto external influences to escape from blame (in which case Macbeth would have been guilty of murder and treason).
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