How do you stage the witches in Macbeth?
Ask anyone today to describe a witch and they will describe a typical Halloween costume: pointy hat, cat, broomstick, warts. But this is hardly going to cut the mustard on the modern stage, in fact it would be more likely to inspire laughter than fear.
Modern readers of Macbeth might wonder what Shakespeare himself imagined when he wrote about the witches. Of course it’s impossible to know for sure, but we do have access to other texts which influenced Shakespeare and one of those is Raphael Holinshed’s history of Britain, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). Holinshed writes about Macbeth and Banquo who in his version encounter “three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world” Holinshed observes that “the common opinion was that these women were either the Weird Sisters, that is… the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science.” But Shakespeare’s imagination goes beyond Holinshed’s history for Shakespeare added the details Banquo describes of “chappy fingers,” “skinny lips,” and “beards,” (Act 1, scene 2).
So this is what Shakespeare wrote, but what about what the audience saw on the renaissance stage? Macbeth is one of the few plays we have an eye witness account of written by Simon Foreman who saw Macbeth at the Globe, on April 20th , 1610, he describes it thus: “there was to be observed, first, how Macbeth and Banquo, two noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth”. Interestingly Foreman returns here to Holinshed’s words rather than Shakespeare’s. But did Shakespeare’s witches look to Foreman like fairies or nymphs (both of which were more sinister in his day than our own)? Interestingly Foreman’s account has also led scholars to speculat that Macbeth and Banquo entered the theatre on horse back riding through the audience before dismounting and mounting the stage.
But what of the witches today? How does a modern director inspire the right combination of awe and fear? How do we present the supernatural to a largely sceptical audience? Well some ideas which have been tried on stage or film, include the witches as hippies, evil schoolgirls, ghosts of victims of Macbeth’s atrocities, and corrupt policemen.
How would you stage the witches?
If you like Macbeth and live locally why not pop down to the birthplace this Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday from 5.30 to 7.15 and meet the witches (and other characters from Macbeth) in Shakespeare’s house. Admission is £5 after 5pm.