Hecate in Macbeth

Hecate in Macbeth
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  • 0:02 Shakespearean Problems
  • 1:04 Who Is Hecate?
  • 1:47 Hecate: Pros and Cons
  • 2:33 Possible Approaches to Hecate
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Get an introduction to the character Hecate from Shakespeare's ''Macbeth.'' This lesson explains what makes Hecate a ''problem'' figure for many scholars, but it also suggests a number of ways to examine and appreciate her character.

Shakespearean Problems

In setting up the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda assures Luke that if he abandons his Jedi training to rescue his friends, there will be dire consequences. Luke forges ahead anyway, significantly raising the stakes for the audience. These consequences, however, don't pan out. In the next sequel, it's as though Yoda's predictions never occurred. Despite this slight plot hole, we love our Star Wars anyway.

Believe it or not, the works of Shakespeare are also sprinkled with complications. The fact is that Shakespeare sometimes botched it: neglecting to follow through on a plot point, requiring near-impossible emotional shifts from characters or counting on lovely language to carry sluggish stories.

But the truly excellent far outweighs the not-so-good, and because Shakespeare is responsible for so many great works, scholars have simply created a 'problem' category for botches, blunders, and clunkers. The glaring problem of Macbeth is the character of Hecate.

Who Is Hecate?

The name 'Hecate' is drawn from the Greek goddess of feminine magic. The play is likely invoking the goddess herself.

Hecate appears in two scenes. In Act III, scene v, she sweeps in to scold her minions, the three witches introduced at the opening of the play, for their mishandling of the Macbeth situation. As their mistress, she commands their presence the next morning when, with her guiding hand, their magical arts will be put to the purpose of getting things right and using Macbeth's own confidence and arrogance against him.

Later, in Act IV, scene i, she enters mid-conjuration to essentially say to the witch trio: 'Ah, you made it. Excellent. Carry on.' She's gone with music and flourish.

Hecate: Pros and Cons

Many scholars don't accept that Hecate is part of Shakespeare's original text of Macbeth and contend she was shoe-horned in by another writer. Their arguments revolve around Hecate's general incompatibility with the text that surrounds her.

For instance, her scene in Act III significantly disrupts the story line, and Hecate's poetry is noticeably different from the style of the three witches who share scene-time with her.

However, there are comparable scenes and characters in other Shakespeare plays that don't bear the problem label. If Hecate was a later insertion by someone other than Shakespeare, that someone did so in a Shakespearean spirit. We can embrace the problem while still considering Hecate within the larger context of the play and Shakespeare's body of work.

Possible Approaches to Hecate

There are numerous approaches that allow readers to gain a richer understanding of Macbeth and Shakespearean dramatic literature through Hecate's character.

First, let's consider historical context. We need to remember that Shakespeare wrote his plays within the framework of a professional theater company, which meant that certain actors would be assigned parts and lines based upon their financial investment. Some parts were custom written for individual actors.

The part of Hecate would provide an opportunity to play an extravagant, attention-grabbing role without extensive, interactive rehearsal and with minimal line memorization. Certain circumstances behind the scenes might have made that opportunity quite desirable and shaped the creation of the character.

Next, we'll consider experimentation. Shakespeare is well known for having been a maverick. Playwrights in his era generally held to an accepted set of artistic conventions, traditional, established guidelines for form, style, and content. Hecate's poetry contrasts with the style of the witches. Her distinct meter, which refers to the pattern of syllables and stresses, has been seen by many scholars as a reason to reject her authenticity, but others have suggested that was an experimental choice, used to create a unique voice for Hecate.

The disruptive nature of Hecate's primary scene can be approached as an innovative technique rather than a problem. Such departures from the main story line are commonplace in film and television today, and there are many other aspects of Shakespeare that seem similarly futuristic when compared to the conventions of his time.

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