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 Weird Sisters in 1.1 and 1.3 (II)
Bill Long 3/31/06
2. Their Pettiness
Not only are the Weird Sisters or Witches morally indifferent to the course of battle or the fate of Macbeth, they take delight in provoking or getting into little quarrels. The purpose of the first 35 lines of 1.3 is to show these Sisters in this activity. One Witch questions the other as to where she has been. "Killing swine" is her answer (1.3.2). For some reason this question is reminiscent to me of God's question to the Satan in Job 1--'where have you been?' The Satan answers that he has been going to and fro about the earth. Here, however, the Sister says she has been killing swine. It is sort of like the question we might ask of a friend: 'What have you been up to lately?' Though we humans might say, "I have been killing time," few would say "I have been killing swine."
As the conversation develops in 1.3., however, we see the ways in which the Sisters argue and seek revenge. One of them had a quarrel with a sailor's wife because she (the Witch) wanted a share of the wife's chestnuts. The wife chased her off with words that have a 17th century ring (and probably will not be brought back today), "Aroint thee, witch!" Then, in response to this treatment, the Sister decides she will afflict the wife's husband as he travels in far-off Aleppo. Though she doesn't seem to have the powers of the Satan in Job 1, she can affect the winds so that he shall "dwindle, peak, and pine" (1.3.23). This statement brings us to our third point.
3. The Sisters' Power(s)
Shakespeare is careful to circumscribe the power of the Weird Sisters. For example, one of them says quite explicitly that she cannot destroy the sailor's boat. "Though his bark cannot be lost,/ Yet it shall be tempest-tost" (1.3.24-25). One reason for the limitations on their powers may have been S's audience. Witches were personae non grata in S's time (we recall that the Salem with trials happened nearly a century after S was writing), and King James I, who ascended to the throne just a few years before S wrote Macbeth, was a vigorous pursuer of witches. Thus, S felt comfortable introducing them into his play because of the common beliefs in their existence, yet he could not give them too much power or he might run afoul of the King.
Thus, the Weird Sisters seem to be able to cause trouble but not precipitate major havoc. Yet they are ambiguous characters, both in their role and their appearance. The ambiguity of their role is evident when they greet Macbeth and Banquo in 1.3.44ff. They say to the former,
" All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!"
But what they don't say is whether they are the ones who bring about these things or if they simply are able to see the "seeds of time" and know which one will germinate. Does their power consist primarily then in their knowledge or in their ability to get things done? Possibly the two merge into one. That is, by sharing their knowledge with Macbeth they create an uncertainty and give focus to an ambition in his mind. As if often the case with good literature, all you need to do is advance a suggestive word and the hearers/readers will interpret it as they will. The mind takes on a course of its own when it is give suggestive fodder.
4. The "Attire" of the Weird Sisters
Just as their role in the world is ambiguous in Macbeth, so the physical appearance of the Sisters transgresses clear gender boundaries. Their appearance confuses Banquo on two levels. On the one hand he wants to know if they are "fantasical" (1.3.53), i.e., creatures of imagination only, even though he concludes that since they talk to him and understand him they must have some kind of earthly existence. Yet, on the other hand, he cannot put them into categories, since they have beards. "You should be women," he says, though the presence of their beards, "forbids me to interpret/ That you are so" (1.3.46-47).
One other feature of the Weird Sisters calls for comment. I like two adjectives S uses to describe them in 1.3.43-45. Banquo is speaking, and he says:
"You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips."
The agreed-upon meaning of "choppy" is "chappy" or chapped. The OED has two definitions of "choppy," one relating to the clefts created by chapping of the flesh and one relating to "chopping" seas. I interpreted the word in another essay to mean the latter--and so Banquo would be making reference to the bent, irregular shape of the finger or the short, jerky movements made by their fingers when they place them on their lips. Yet, if we read the word choppy as chappy, it would mean full of chaps or clefts. A chap, according to the OED, is "a painful fissure or crack in the skin, descending to the flesh: chiefly caused by exposure of hands, lips, etc. to frost or cold wind." On the hands they are called chaps, while on the feet they are referred to as kibes, according to Chambers' 18th century Cyclopedia. But let's not get into kibes now. Suffice it to say that S's use of "choppy" here might suggest not simply a deeply fissured finger due to chapping but also (if we read him from the perspective of our language today), a sort of bent or gnarled finger. Both would fit the Sisters.
These, then, are the creatures that meet Macbeth and Banquo. Their ambiguos place in the world will help usher in all kinds of ambiguities into Macbeth's life. We long for clarity and clean lines in life, but often what we get are nothing but mixed categories.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long