Witches and Superstition
The witches in our production of Macbeth are conceptually linked to the norns from Nordic mythology. Many scholars note this mythological connection as a likely influence on Shakespeare’s source material. However, the essay by Karen Bek-Pedersen I have linked to below notes that most of what we think we know about norns is based on single sources (individual poems) that are not supported elsewhere. From Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia:
Norns, the Norse Fates. Like the Fates of Greek religion and mythology, the Norns spun and wove the web of life. Belief in the Norns was of great importance in Germanic religion and life. It was said that no one, not even the gods, could escape their fate. The Norns were usually three in number—Urth or Wyrd (the past), Verthandi (the present), and Skuld (the future). The three weird sisters of destiny in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are probably Scottish equivalents of the Norns.
Contradicting the assumptions above, Bek-Pedersen points out that the existence of only three Norns with specific names only occurs in two sources (one quoting the other), and also suggests that Skuld may mean not “future” but “debt”. She argues that the Norns have a clear role in shaping fate; I’ll also note that the verb “shaping” is used consistently in many of the sources referring to the Norns. Therefore, if our weird sisters are Norns, this may mean that they take an active role in determining Macbeth’s fate rather than just predicting it. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the trilogy of Glamis, Cawdor, king hereafter could correspond to past, present, and future if we wanted to try to name each of our three witches. Bek-Pedersen makes a similar argument about the other presumptions here, as there is only one poem that connects the Norns to actions of weaving, which is more of a peculiar anomaly than a consistent factor. In another source, Norns are described as being of three types, related to gods, dwarves, and elves. Of these, the Norns of the gods are those that shape fate. Another dichotomy present in some sources is that of good and evil Norns, which separates them as Norns that do good works and Norns that create tragedies (it should be obvious which type our Macbeth will encounter). At other times, Norns simply are known for doing both good and evil. Bek-Petersen notes a “quasi-legal” element to much of these descriptions, as if the Norns not only determine fate but also are involved with morality and judgment. Importantly for the play, norns are sometimes associated with childbirth, although Bek-Pedersen again argues that this connection is somewhat tenuous. They seem to be present at birth to determine a child’s fate, although this could be as simple as determining whether the child survives and as complex as determining the course of the child’s life. The description that they “separate mothers from sons” could be serving as midwife but could also be taking adult sons away to die in battle. The association with determining when someone dies is also very strong; perhaps we could explore having the witches preside over deaths on stage.
Source: “The Norns: Representatives of Fate in Old Norse Tradition” by Karen Bek-Pedersen in Goddesses in World Culture, edited by Patricia Monaghan.
Superstition in Macbeth
The association between Macbeth, superstition, and witchery dates back to an early 15th century work, Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil. Wyntoun’s entire work is closely associated with Norse and Celtic mythology, so the link between the weird sisters and the norns is even clearer than in Macbeth. Also of note in this source is the usage of the Birnam Wood prophecy. In this case, Malcolm’s motivation for using the branches is quite different:
Then they heard that Macbeth always
In fantom prophecies had great faith,
And had belief in such fantasy,
By which he believed steadfastly
Never discomforted for to be
While with his eyes he should see
The wood be brought from Birnam
To the hill of Dunsinane.
Essentially, they use the branches to freak Macbeth out:
For they thought with such a while
This Macbeth for to beguile,
So for to come in secrecy,
On him or he should warned be.
There is certainly a reading of Shakespeare’s play in which superstition, not hubris, is Macbeth’s tragic flaw; it could be argued that each of Macbeth’s crimes is motivated by supersition. He murders Duncan because he believes the kingship prophecy, murders Banquo (and attempts Fleance) because he fears Banquo’s prophecy, and slaughter’s Macduff’s family because the apparition identified him as a threat. It is difficult to miss how Macbeth incessantly repeats the line about “woman born” throughout the last act, and the sense in which overconfidence brings about his downfall. The Wyntoun version’s treatment of the Birnam Wood prophecy simply brings this out even more because even this prophecy is fulfilled only because of Macbeth’s obsession with it.
Source: Macbeth: Man and Myth by Nick Aitchison
by Tanya Moutray
When James I and Christian IV, King of Denmark, arrived at Hampton Court in the summer of 1606 to be entertained by a production of MacBeth, this was not the first time the two royals had encountered the forces of witchcraft or their power in determining King’s fates. In 1590, a most scandalous case of witchcraft, known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, resulted in the deaths of a “coven” of witches from East Lothian, Scotland, and marked the beginning of more than two centuries of rampant witch-hunting in the country. It is estimated that between 1550 and 1650, 3,000 to 4,000 women in Scotland were executed on charges of witchcraft, many of whom were burned alive. This is more than five times the number of witches executed in England during this period (Thomas).
With what crimes were the Lothian coven accused? The story relates directly to James and the potentially perilous return voyage to Scotland from Copenhagen after securing his bride, Anne, the sister of Christian IV. Because of turbulent weather, the couple was waylaid in Norway for months. Upon arrival in Scotland, more than a hundred wome n were arrested and some confessed under torture that they had conspired with the devil to harm the royal family and kill the King. According to Alvin Kernan in Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright, the accused witches confessed that “pieces of dead bodies had been tied to cats, who were thrown into the sea; threads were prepared and unknotted to raise tempests; a black toad had been roasted, hung up for several days, and the juice from it collected in an oyster shell.” A more powerful practice that the witches performed—and which complicated matters further—was the construction of an image of the King to which they encanted: “This is King James the Sixth, ordained to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis Earl of Bothwell” (85). The witches implicated the warlock Richard Graham who confessed that Bothwell had asked him to cast a spell over the King. In the image below, published in a contemporary pamphlet, the Lothian witches meet in a churchyard. James’ ship can be seen on its voyage in the upper left-hand corner.
James involved himself directly in the torturing of the witches of Lothian in order to further ascertain the role of the Earl of Bothwell, James’ cousin, and whose father had been one of his mother’s lovers and was likely responsible for the murder of James’ father. Bothwell, “a very wild and dashing Border Scot, more than a little crazy,” according to Kernan, had threatened James’ life more than once (86). Though Bothwell was tried and the witches used as witnesses against him, he was not convicted. The five witches of Lothian and Graham, the warlock, were burned alive.
One of the witches, Agnes Sampson, an elderly woman respected in her community, refused to confess until she had endured extremely cruel torture at James’ Holyrood palace. A witch’s bridle, also known as a scold’s or brank’s bridle, was used to secure her against a wall (see below). This device, used mostly against women, was a kind of muzzle, securing the head while projecting prongs into the mouth to compress the cheeks and tongue. Some even had spikes, making any movement of the mouth incredibly painful (Walsall Council).
Though the North Berwick Witch Trials had taken place more than fifteen years before Shakespeare’s play was performed at Hampton Court, James continued to take an active role in investigating accusations of witchcraft after he became King of England. Kernan reveals that, as King of England, James tended to pardon witches and passed them off to doctors at Cambridge University for further study, “he liked to play his Solomon role with accused witches, amusing himself at his hunting lodge by questioning and trying to trip them up.” In one case, he brought a woman out of a trance by pulling up her skirt (84).
Upon accession to the throne of England, James passed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which maintained Elizabethan-era statutes defining witchcraft as a felony. This Act went even further, depriving the accused of any member of clergy during the process of conviction though burnings at the stake were mostly replaced with hangings. Matthew Hopkins used this Act to justify a career in witch-hunting during the English Civil Wars. It is estimated that within two years he was responsible for the conviction and deaths of 300 women.
It is likely that the North Berwick Witch Trials inspired James to write his magnum opus on the topic, his Daemonologie (1596), outlining the causes, practices, and origins of witchcraft because these “divelish artes have bene and are.” A second edition, published in London in 1603, made the King’s views available to the reading public, including Shakespeare. In the work, James clarifies why the numbers of women involved in witchcraft are far greater than men: “the reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer then man is, so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devill.” Such power for women, it seems, has far more to do with their innate vulnerability than their innate strength.
James spills some ink on the topic of apparitions, a plot device used in MacBeth, and which James attributes to evil spirits or the devil himself. These demons “have assumed a deade bodie, whereinto they lodge themselves, they can easely inough open without dinne anie Doore or Window, and enter in.” Gliding effortlessly through spaces, a staging challenge in the play, they “trouble certaine houses” and are a “sure token either of grosse ignorance, or of some grosse and slanderous sinnes amongst the inhabitantes thereof.” From this perspective, Banquo’s post-mortem reappearance bespeaks MacBeth’s guilt through a devilish impersonation.
Furthermore, demons have the power to possess individuals both internally and externally. In the former instance, they can cause mental mania and imitate a natural sickness, possibly resulting in death. In the latter, they “follow and trouble persones or haunt certaine houses, and affraie oftentimes the inhabitantes: as hath bene knowen to be done by our Witches at this time.” These two very different ways of experiencing possession are suggestive of Lady Macbeth’s deteriorating psychological state and MacBeth’s hallucinatory hauntings.
James I, Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogie, diuided into three bookes (1597).
Kernan, Alvin. Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1791).
Walsall Council, “Museum Talk Sheds Light on Witch’s Bridle.” Walsall Council 2014. 11 May 2009.