Overview Act I
"Threes" in 1.1
"Threes" in 1.1 (II)
Weird Sisters I
Weird Sisters II
Act 1, Scene 2
I. 2 Images
Word Use in 1.2
Word Use in 1.2 II
Partial Lines (1.2)
Partial Lines II
Phrases and 1.3
The Future Now
The Chalice (1.7)
Sacking the Temple
Sack. the Sacred II
The "Chance" II
The Witches/Weird Sisters in 1.1, 1.3
Bill Long 3/31/06
The Creatures on the Heath
When we first run into the words "Weird Sisters" (1.3.32) to denote the Witches, most of us think we understand what that means. 'Sure,' we say, 'weird means strange.' They are the Weird Sisters because they are 'unusual.' Yet, there is a lot more in that word, and those creatures, than meets the eye. This and the next essay will probe their identity in Act I of Macbeth. To that end I will first explore the word weird, and then limn four characteristics of the sisters: (1) their moral indifference; (2) their pettiness; (3) their ambiguous relation to effecting events; and (4) their physical appearance.
The Word "Weird"
We know of weird as an adjective, but weird was originally a noun and referred to "the principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined; fate, destiny" (OED). It appeared as early as Beowulf, and then occasionally was used during the next millennium. From 1603, contemporareous with S, we have (modernized spelling): "What wicked weird has wrought our woe?" Say that six times before breakfast. I discovered that there was even a phrase "to dree one's weird," going back to the 14th century, which meant to "endure one's fate, suffer or submit to one's destiny." "Dree" meant to endure, do, perform or suffer and could be used with "weird" in the following sentene: "Heere in wilderness I dwell, my weird for to dree." Or, from 1886: "French must dree his weird as a brave man should." I think this phrase has possibilities today. Rather than saying, "Take it like a man (woman)," or "S/he got what was coming to her/him," why not say, "he had to dree his weird"? The blank stares and uncomprehending looks will give you a chance to explain what you mean (or duck for cover).
Since, in Greek mythology, fate could be personified in the three Fates (or Parcae), medieval English authors became comfortable with putting the word "weird" before "sisters" so that the phrase "weird sisters" (with various spellings of "weird") appeared as early as the 15th century. Though the OED defines weird as an adjective meaning "having the power to control the fate of human beings," the role of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth is more ambiguous than this (see below and next essay). Thus, by the time S was writing (about 1600), the phrase "weird sisters" to denote either the Fates or some kind of supernatural beings (i.e., witches) was floating in the intellectual and popular atmosphere.
The OED has one more note on the word as S used it in Macbeth that is worthy of note. It says that on many occasions the scansion of S requires that "weird" be pronounced as a two-syllable word. In the First Folio and other early folios, the word was written either as weyrd or weyard or even weyward. We can see in the last word an association with "wayward," which means erring or wandering. Thus, just as S is not crystal clear on the role of these three women/Witches/Sisters in his play, the word he uses to describe them also has some "play" in it. When I call them the Weird Sisters I mean that they are characters inhabiting a world between supernatural and natural, and that they have information about a person's destiny.
1. Their Moral Indifference
We meet the Weird Sisters in the opening lines of the play. They are just about ready to leave, even though the play is just beginning. Two passages stress their moral indifference to the ways of life. They will meet again "when the battle's lost and won" (1.1.4). As pointed out by other interpreters, S uses the word "and" here and not "or." The battle will be lost and won. Some lose and some win, and the Sisters don't really care. Then, the famous last couplet (1.1.10-11) of the scene is:
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair,/
Hover through the fog and filthy air."
That is, there is no difference between "foul" and "fair" for the Sisters. They simply go about their work, hovering between heaven and earth, possibly bringing the filth to the air which they inhabit.
We can tell that these Sisters are not simply hovering over the heath when we hear that they are planning to meet again, this time with Macbeth. His fate will be intertwined with words they give him in 1.3.
Now that we have met the Sisters and know one thing about them, let's go to the next essay for three more things.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long