Witches on Stage

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How do you stage the witches in Macbeth?

Johann Heinrich Fussli

Fussli - the three witches

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.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Well I didn’t have you down as a witch type! But perhaps that’s the point, confound expectation…. I think lots of the supernatural elements in Shakespeare’s plays can be very hard to do. The ghost in Hamlet and the masque in the Tempest…. all hard on the modern stage. ^liz

  • Nice comment about the voices, I would agree with that. As a teacher I know that the best way to get attention is to lower your voice not to raise it! Less can certainly be more! ^liz

  • I must admit it’s one of those plays I’ve never seen done well onstage, partly because I’m frustrated by Shakespeare’s indifference to motivation in his villains (se also Richard III and Iago) but mainly because of the problem of visualising the supernatural. If it’s all in Macbeth’s head then the audience is kept at arm’s length and it reduces the play to a case study but if you want the audience to see what Macbeth sees then what do you show them? I was once cast as one of the witches alongside an attractive young woman and a 10-year old child as the other two. I don’t know if it worked or not but we played to a lot of excitable, chatty school parties and it certainly shut them up when they saw us!

  • Ty Unglebower

    To me, subtly is key. The more played down any obvious supernatural aspects of the women are, the more profound the impact can be. Bells and whistles drown out so much of it if one is not careful.

    The same with the voices. So many productions of this play have a need to make them howl and screech almost into incoherence. Let their voices be soft, so that Macbeth and others almost have to lean closer towards the very things they are afraid of in order to hear their prophecy.

  • what an original idea! Very modern. Laughter can be a sort of nervous laughter which could be quite effective in a case like this. thanks for the suggestion ^liz

  • What about three old women, dressed up as men (one at least with beard): one of them as a politician, the other as a journalist and the third as a judge representing the powerful who shape the life of everyman? What may be difficult in this is the avoidance of a comic effect, but this may not be impossible.

  • Yes I like that idea, you could choose if you wanted to set Lady Macbeth in contrast or compliment to that, which would have interesting repercussions for the play. I also like the idea of leaving to the audience’s imagination…. ^liz

  • Duncan

    I liked Rupert Goold’s idea of the witches as nurses: bringing together two opposite concepts. Declan Donnellan’s recent Cheek By Jowl production didn’t really present them at all. He had female cast members whisper or incant their lines in the dark. Leaving their precise form to the imagination was very effective. This year’s Globe production had them as Globe ushers, which didn’t work that well as they were played too much for comedy.

    So for my own suggestion. How about a trio of elegant women, all haute couture and cigarette holders à la Cruella de Vil?

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