Shakespeare’s Witches and Their Relevance in Present Day

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Shakespeare’s Witches and Their Relevance in Present Day

by – Abhishek Chowdhury, Issue XV, April 2016

Download the paper in PDF

Introduction to the Author:

Abhishek ChowdhuryAbhishek Chowdhury is a Ph.D Research Scholar at Department of English, University of Kalyani.

His research area is Shakespeare in Bengal. His other areas of interest are: Film and Literature, Gender Studies, American Literature, Latin American Literature, Indian Literature in English etc.




Shakespeare’s Witches and Their Relevance in Present Day


Macbeth uniquely features stronger female characters. In fact Shakespeare’s Macbeth exemplifies how women were defined and controlled by the patriarchal society that they lived in, and mirrors issues even back then that women in today’s modern society still have to contend with.

As a product of the Renaissance Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not just the story of an individual, but the story of an age. And the witches are also a part of this age. Elizabeth Sawyer, shortly before she was burnt in 1621 as a witch, confessed: “I have been by the help of the Devil, the means of many Christians’ and beasts’ death: the cause that moved me to do it was malice and envy, for if anybody had angered me in any manner, I would be so revenged of them and of their cattle”. She died at the stakes, defiant and unrepentant to the end. The witches of the Jacobean period were flesh and blood women, marginalized in society, without even a parcel of land to support them or relatives to fall back upon. They were dissatisfied and discontented with the state and refused to fall into the conventional mode. They were a challenge to a patriarchal society and an absolute monarchy. The witches’ Sabbaths, subverted the family, elevated women over men, licensed sexual deviance, subverted orthodox religion. No wonder they were portrayed as being in pact with the Devil!

It is certainly possible that an audience member watching Macbeth in Jacobean London may, at that cultural moment, have linked the visual representation of bearded women on stage with memories of the stories of bearded virgin martyrs, or even with the images of the saints themselves. How, then, would such a cognitive association affect an interpretation of the play?

The presence of beards on both the weyward Sisters and the saints operate as an indication of their relationship with the supernatural, whether diabolical or divine. Both the superstitious beliefs surrounding Saint Uncumber and the tale reported by one of the Sisters contain the connected elements of dispatching husbands and food. The witch recounts an incident with a ‘Saylors Wife’ who refused to share the ‘Chestnuts in her Lappe’ (101; 1. 3. 3). As a result of being turned away, the witch confides that she will sneak ‘like a Rat without a tayle’ (107; 1. 3. 8) aboard the sailor’s ship to exact her revenge. Alternatively, for those wives who ‘cannot slepe but slumber’, to ‘giue oates unto saynt Uncumber’ meant the hope of divine assistance in un-encumbering themselves of their husbands, who presumably impaired their sleep by snoring. The association between food (offered or rejected) and removing husbands (intentionally or inflicted), while shared by both the stories of the witch and Saint Uncumber, is perhaps a tenuous link at best, but it is certainly one that an audience was able to make during the early performances of Macbeth in Jacobean London.

To those members of the audience armed with varying degrees of medical knowledge, watching the three bearded Sisters in Macbeth would have stirred up recollections of tales of women being suddenly transformed into men, or of descriptions of the reported side effects of menopause. Who are these bearded figures? Are they elderly women who have ceased to menstruate? Do they possess bodies that, like men, produce more heat? Are they in some stage of transformation into men? Perhaps, if their beards are an indication that they have stopped menstruating, they are also suffering from melancholic delusions: this would certainly explain Lady Macbeth’s tortured mind after she has sought to ‘make thick [her] blood’, to ‘stop vp th’accesse, and passage to Remorse’ (394–95; 1. 5. 42–43) and (presumably) cease menstruating herself.

In this way, medicine works to demystify what would ordinarily appear to be supernatural: instead of being witches with diabolical powers, the Sisters become menopausal melancholics with symptoms like facial hair and troubled minds. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s later mental instability can be seen as a consequence of her amenorrhea. In both cases medical knowledge offers those members of the audience skeptical of the reality of witchcraft a natural model for understanding the spectacles on display.

For some members of the audience, the spectacle of three bearded women may have fuelled anxieties about the relationship between costume and sexual identity. That male actors could present themselves so convincingly in female roles was threatening enough, since it raised the unnerving possibility that sexual identity might be merely a performance itself. To add costuming to the mix, as well as the beards—misplaced material signifiers of masculine identity—could only add to the possible anxiety and confusion. To borrow a phrase from David Scott Kastan, ‘the cultural anxiety about the fluidity of social role and identity found shrill voice’ in Macbeth’s bearded Sisters.

Tracing a more authentic etymology of the word ‘barbarian’ to ‘the Greek for a non-Greek speaker’, Highley argues that ‘Macbeth exploits a similar mingling of cultural categories when the witches speak a bestial language’. As such, the witches can be interpreted as ‘conjuring up the archetypal figure of the barbarian’, one that is ‘menacingly instantiated in the Gaelic Highlander at the time of Macbeth’s early performances’.

In light of English perceptions of the Irish, and the Gaelic language and reputation for barbarism they shared with the Highland Scots, coupled with the historical reports of bearded women hailing from the Celtic fringe, it is possible that members of the audience watching early performances of Macbeth may have interpreted the weyward Sisters, ‘stubbled and stammering’, as originating from those uncivilized northern lands.

An audience watching Macbeth during an early performance in Jacobean London brought with them an infinite number of individual experiences, as well as a shared cultural milieu, both of which took part in the construction of meaning they would glean from the play. Some patrons would have brought with them specialized knowledge, such as the physicians, surgeons, and divines. Others may have had access to this knowledge, due to the popularity of such topics at the printing presses and bookstalls.

The importance of Jacobean court culture in understanding the complexities of Macbeth has long been recognized, although critics remain divided as to the precise nature of James’s influence on the play. For some, Shakespeare is seen as toeing the ideological line by engaging in topics close to his patron’s heart: witchcraft, treason, the Stuart myth, and the divine right of kings. Others assert more subversive readings, arguing that instead of promoting the Stuart ideology the play exposes it, stressing the unflattering picture painted by Shakespeare of a Scotland filled with blasted heaths, witches and spirits, barbaric savages, tyrants and traitors, and, to top it all off, cannibalistic horses that ‘eate each other’ (946; 2. 4.18). More recent studies adopt a more sensible approach, demonstrating that these issues are more problematic in Macbeth, and that to characterize the play as simply endorsing Stuart ideology on the one hand, or solely challenging it on the other, is reductive and ultimately a failure to acknowledge its complexities. Jean Howard suggests judiciously that, ‘the intertextual links between Macbeth and the more general ‘matter of Scotland’ are best understood as complex and associative, rather than direct and definite’.

This tempered approach can be applied to the question of why there are bearded women in Macbeth. James was Shakespeare’s patron—his troupe was called the King’s Men—and Shakespeare was certainly aware of James’s interests in witchcraft and demonology, and as such it is easy to account for the presence of the bearded Sisters in the play. But Shakespeare did not only play for his royal patron, but to paying audiences of thousands, many of whom (as we have seen) were at the very least suspicious of the growing numbers of Scots in their midst and at court, not to mention the particularly unflattering individual at its centre. As Richard Helgerson has insightfully shown, English xenophobic attitudes rose during this period, due in large to the Elizabethan project of nationhood, which, in the course of defining what it meant to be ‘English’, demonized and alienated those who did not fit the paradigm. As noted by a number of critics, these prejudiced views of aliens and outsiders often found their expression in popular culture, and were prominent in the drama of the age. With this in mind, it is possible to read the bearded women in Macbeth as participating in this wider movement of English self-fashioning and its strategies of cultural estrangement: the wayward Sisters, ‘stubbled and stammering’, would have not only been perceived as being ‘Scottish’, but quintessentially ‘un-English’. Thus, while his patron was fervently seeking to erode the perceived distinctions between his Scottish and English subjects, Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems only to highlight their differences.

As we have seen, whether on a male or female body the beard operates as a site of physiological, supernatural, social, and cultural difference. In the case of men, as brilliantly examined by Will Fisher and Mark Johnston, the beard was not simply an object of fashion but an important signifier in discourses of national, class, gender, and sexual identity. On women, the presence of a beard was perceived as an aberration—the result of physiological excess, divine or demonic intervention—or as an index of cultural difference from the viewer. Shakespeare’s construction of the bearded Sisters in Macbeth engages with all of these various meanings. Like Macbeth’s first words, describing the day as ‘foule and faire’ (138; 1. 3. 36), the bearded women are a contradiction: they ‘looke not like th’ Inhabitants o’th’ Earth,/ And yet are on’it’, it is unclear whether they ‘Liue’ or are ‘aught / That man may question’, and while they ‘should be Women’, they are bearded like men (140–45;1. 3. 39–45). In the words of Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin, their beards are the sign of the uncanny, associating ‘sexual ambiguity with the dangers that lurk at the boundaries of the known, rationalized world of sexual difference and sexual exclusion constructed by patriarchal discourse’. Their beards are also emblematic of their other-worldliness and supernatural powers, as the audience witnesses these bearded figures committing acts that were readily identifiable as witchcraft, acts that their new sovereign had recently reaffirmed as illegal by statute in 1604. Finally, the bearded Sisters epitomize the sense of cultural difference that pervades the play, estranging the Scottish characters portrayed onstage from its (mostly) English audience. We have seen how a culture of ambivalence and unease characterized the early years of James’s reign, as the English were confronted with the task of accommodating increasing numbers of Scots—peoples of a nation that many English were old enough to remember being at war with—as neighbours rather than as aliens. While it is unclear whether an audience would have interpreted the bearded women onstage as Scottish, or whether Macbeth was written to gratify or challenge a king, what is clear is the cultural meaning of the beard: difference.

The three witches in Macbeth are powerful and prophetic. They are described as having beards, something that is genetically a male feature. It helps them display a form of masculinity, which allows them to convey their power. They appear to be almost androgynous, non-binary gendered creatures. Though the witches are on the outskirts of society due to their strange behaviour and personalities, at the same time they are heavily connected to nature. Within the play they establish themselves as a source of power. They remain united yet separated from anyone else throughout the play, showing up when they desire and then vanishing once they have shared their warnings.

In the first place, there are some passages in the Weird Sisters’ speeches whose full purport has not been grasped. In Act I. Scene iii the First Witch announces her enmity toward a sailor’s wife who had refused her chestnuts. The Witch refers to this woman as a “rumpe-fed Ronyon” (l. 6). The Witch derisively sees her enemy as a sexual object whose role she intends to usurp, as her later remarks confirm. She states that in retaliation for the slight offered her by the sailor’s wife, she will follow the latter’s husband to Aleppo.

And like a Rat without a tayle,

Ile doe, Ile doe, and Ile doe. (9-10, 18-25)

There are a number of single or double meanings here that contain sexual components referring specifically to witchcraft or demonic practices. The more or less generally accepted interpretation of these lines is as follows: The Witch will assume rat form in order to creep unobserved aboard the Tiger, where she will work evil spells on the ship and its master; she will harass him and waste him away by means of her magic, although she cannot destroy either his vessel or himself. It is possible that Shakespeare’s tailless rat is intended to suggest sexual malignity in the succubus-incubus exchange of roles. The First Witch’s threats are peculiarly specific in comparison with the Second Witch’s generalized maleficence in killing swine. The key statement here is “Ile dreyne him drie as Hay” (l. 18), which undoubtedly refers to her intention of draining the unfortunate man of his semen, through her grossly inordinate exploitation of him as a succubus.

The belief that witches and the demons they served and were served by could experience sexual relations with one another or with ordinary mortals of both sexes was an old one. According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas Demons, being sexless like angels, could assume either the male or the female role in sexual intercourse with humans, , and thus collect as succubi semen from men for later implanting as incubi in women.

The Weird Sisters have characteristics of both witches and demons, so that there is nothing incongruous in the First Witch’s avowed intention of acting as succubus to the sailor, although the treatises on demonology mostly discuss this practice as the work of devils. In the colloquy between the Sisters in Act I, scene iii there is a mingling of the motifs of unnatural evildoing and of lust that are to recur later in the play with reference to Macbeth and his wife. The expression “Ile dreyne him drie as Hay” refers to sexual impotence.

The First Witch seeks to render the master of the Tiger impotent by sexual exhaustion, so that his wife, too, may be “Depriv’d of kindly joy and natural delight.” The Witch’s motives are purely those of revengefulness and malice. The Weird Sisters’ proposed vengeance on the sailor’s wife embraces another maleficent activity that witches were alleged to practice. This is the prevention of lawful sexual relations between man and wife, technically labelled ligature or, more picturesquely in English witchlore, “tying the points.”

The Weird Sisters’ proposed sowing of discord between the spouses looks forward both to Macbeth’s murderous acts of disorder and to their ultimate issue in barrenness and estrangement between his wife and himself. The Witch’s course of revengeful action for a trivial gesture of exclusion–the sailor’s wife’s refusal of her chestnuts–is a parodic anticipation of Macbeth’s murderous wresting of the crown from Duncan who had named as his heir not Macbeth but Malcolm. Here, too, the witchcraft theme coalesces with the themes of fruitfulness and offspring, which are associated particularly with Duncan and Banquo, and of unfulfillment, sterility, and the destruction of progeny, associated with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The latter, in her disillusioned fretting after the attainment of her goal, voices her baffled sense of failure to achieve fulfillment through destruction. Her language is markedly sexual.

Nought’s had, all’s spent,

Where our desire is got without content:

‘Tis safer, to be that which we destroy,

Then by destruction dwell in doubtful joy. (III.ii.4-7)

Here “had” includes the idea of satisfying carnal possession, “all’s spent” suggests a useless discharge of sexual energy (literally, of semen), and “our desire is got without content” further implies failure to achieve sexual satisfaction. And “destruction”–the murder of Duncan–has earlier in the play been envisaged with growing emphasis as a quasi-sexual act. Baffled desire is a recurring motif of Macbeth.

The power of witches to assume animal shapes is frequently asserted by several critics. The familiars addressed by the Witches in the opening scene of the play, “Gray-Malkin” and “Paddock” (ll. 8, 9), may be incubi as well as attendant spirits. From the beginning, the connection between inverted sexuality and the turning upside-down of moral categories is established. Certainly the thrice-repeated verb doe has sexual meaning, besides denoting more general maleficence. Do in the sense of “copulate with” is a common Shakespearean usage.

The sailor will be subjected to the Witch-succubus’ unremitting coital exactions day and night for a year and a half; he is to “liue a man forbid.” While forbid doubtless has as its primary meaning “under a curse,” the secondary sense of “forbidden [to have conjugal relations with his wife]” seems also to be present. Then “dwindle, peake, and pine” refers to the Witch’s use of a waxen image to make the sailor waste away; more probably it alludes to the debilitating effects of the prolonged sexual assault she plans for him. The “Barke” seems to be both literal and figurative; at the figurative level its significance is plural. In general terms of supernatural maleficence it indicates the Weird Sisters’ limited powers: the Witch cannot destroy either the body or the soul of the master of the Tiger, but she will give him a rough time. As critics have noted, there is here a proleptic parallel, and contrast, with Macbeth, whose bark will be lost. The particular significance of the tempest-tossed ship draws a further parallel, and implies an added contrast. When the Witch says that the sailor’s “Barke cannot be lost,” she is also expressing the demonologists’ contention that while witches could successfully practice ligature upon married couples, they could not undo the sacrament of marriage.

Similarly, the First Witch in Macbeth cannot destroy the sacramental bond between the sailor and his wife, whereas the crimes of Macbeth and his lady eventually result in an isolation of one from the other that mutely points to the self-destruction of their relationship.

Addressing the Weird Sisters, Banquo says “you should be Women, / And yet your Beards forbid me to interprete / That you are so” (I.iii.45-47). In Elizabethan-Jacobean folklore a woman’s possessing a beard betokened a witch. In Macbeth this physical anomaly perhaps also emphasizes, in the light of the Weird Sisters’ plans for the sailor, their demonic bisexuality.

The parallel between the Weird Sisters’ program of harassment for the sailor and Macbeth’s subsequent course after he meets them has often been noted. This parallel extends to the sexual aspect of the Witches’ maleficence. Their spiritual seduction of Macbeth will deprive him of true manhood. His violence against Duncan is a more extreme form of the Witches’ violence against the master of the Tiger. The “terrible Dreames” (III.ii.18), that afflict Macbeth after the murder of Duncan, correspond to the Witch’s oppression of the sailor, for nightmares were thought to be caused by the assaults of incubi and succubi.

What I have tried to suggest in this discussion is an alternate way of viewing the Macbeth witches: not as figures of fate; not as malicious tools of the devil; not as the sick and impoverished old women accused of retaliatory witchcraft on the basis of charity refused; but as critical responses to a community in which patriarchal disorder is so pervasive that only a matriarchal parody can find the loophole and escape to a new order. Whether we talk of a Scotland fraught by inept leadership, civil war, and foreign invasion from England, the question is who or what can we rescue, and from what ideological stance? In Macbeth, neither Malcolm nor Macduff offer viable options: Malcolm tests people by lying, and Macduff thoughtlessly abandons his family to slaughter. If there is more to those characters than the negative, then there is more to the weird sisters too, and performance experiments are key: “The acceptance of the performative as a category of theory as well as a fact of behaviour has made it increasingly difficult to sustain the distinction between appearances and facts, surfaces and depths, illusions and substances. Appearances are actualities”.

While the three witches represent women at their core—free of male control, deeply rooted in nature and sisterhood—they are far from depicted as heroines, usually given the title, “The Weird Sisters”. And their power diminishes as the play goes on and the character Macbeth grows in power. That as a man’s power grows, a woman’s power weakens? Is this the message that we are supposed to receive from the witches? It is problematic to look at these witches as strong when their portrayal is both weird and weakens over time. Are we to believe if a woman succeeds in life, and also helps a man achieve what he is capable of accomplishing, in the end it will lessen her power until she is nonexistent while the man reaps the rewards? This lack of acknowledgement of female power continues today, as women still struggle to find recognition in the work force. While comparing witches to businesswomen seems far-fetched, they in fact share similar characteristics. Alienated for not fitting their gender (the bearded witches and the businesswomen working in male-dominated careers), they are scorned and ignored as men attain bigger and greater achievements, even though women may have initiate and contribute to man’s success.





Buckk, Kathryn. “Feminism in Macbeth: Story of a Phoenix” 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Datta, Jayanti. “Teaching Macbeth.” Ed. Jayanti Datta. Pp. 70-75.

Datta, Jayanti, Ed. Only Connect: UGC Seminar on Shakespeare. Burdwan: Avenel Press, 2012. Print.

Goris, José. “Macbeth and the Witches”. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Hirsch, B. D. “‘What are these faces?’ Interpreting Bearded Women in Macbeth”. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Helen Ostovich. “Is There Life After Sex? Macbeth and Post-Sexuality.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009). Web. 25 Nov. 2015.


Verity, A. W. Ed. Macbeth. Calcutta: Radha Publishing House, 1992. Print.


Explore More in: Academic Research Paper

Read More Articles: