John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
The Shakespearean Wow Factor
One of the things that makes Shakespeare's works intimidating to a modern audience is the sheer volume of words. Once we start digging into those words, we encounter many that are unfamiliar or inconsistent with modern usage. For example, we know what 'thou' means, but heavy dosages in the company of many a 'thee' and 'thy' throw us out of our comfort zone. All the words can seem overwhelming.
Given that reputation, contemporary audiences tend not to associate Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audiences with their appreciation of music, costuming, and visual effects--crucial non-verbal components of the theatre experience. And like many of us here in the 21st century, Shakespeare's audiences enjoyed a good scare. Lacking Vegas magicians, music videos, horror flicks, and Disney, the people of London around the year 1600 flocked to the theater to get their fix. And along with the words, Shakespeare's plays gave the wow. That's what Act III, Scene V of Macbeth is all about.
A note of caution is necessary since a number of reputable Shakespeare scholars consider the scene to be a later insertion, written by someone else. It is true that that its placement disrupts the central plot line and development of Act III, and that the poetry doesn't rank with Shakespeare's best, yet there are numerous comparable scenes in several other of Shakespeare's plays whose authenticity isn't regularly challenged. There are many questions about how pure a form of the original script comes down to us today for any of the 37 plays typically attributed to Shakespeare, and there currently is no way to resolve them completely. For this lesson, we'll proceed as though III.v belongs to the play as a whole and summarize it accordingly. On to the wow.
One of the knocks on Shakespeare's works by peers and rivals was that they shifted around in focus and location, violating the classical unities, of place, time, and action, which fixed a dramatic story in a singular setting with condensed, real-time action, zeroing in on a main character's struggles. In other words, no alternating locales or major subplots, no flashbacks or leaps in time. Part of Shakespeare's brilliance, however, lies in his unconventional style, which often seems almost modern in its outlook. Scene III.v flies in the face of the unities. The continuity of the act as a whole is interrupted by a startling leap to a removed setting and a secret meeting of supernatural entities, which feels a lot more like Joss Whedon than typical 16th century British drama. The appearance of Hecate, classical goddess and patron of witches, provides for an interlude of pageantry and spectacle in a predominantly dark and claustrophobic play.
The three witches who helped prime Macbeth and prompt his ambitions to take the Scottish throne through murder and mayhem encounter Hecate on a desolate heath, and the first witch asks about her angry demeanor. Hecate's response essentially comprise the remainder of the scene, though stage directions will call for music, and the imagination of the production designers is summoned to bring Hecate's passion and magical presence to life for the audience. She demands:
' . . . How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call'd to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?'
Initially, then, Hecate is indignant that the three 'weird sisters' have been attempting to manipulate Macbeth without her special touch, and apparently doing a poor job of it by sorcerous standards. Rather than falling properly under their spell, Macbeth has become '(s)piteful and wrathful' and is independently working 'for his own ends' rather than bowing to the dark fate assigned to him. Hecate commands the three to meet her the next morning, when she will use Macbeth's arrogance against him and,
'by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
He hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear.'
And that is how the goddess of witchcraft and queen of black magic rolls. Hecate assures them that with her guidance, their 'vessels' and 'charms', Macbeth will 'come to know his destiny'. Hecate is set up for a grand and spectacular exit, which again, can be as elaborate and theatrical as the budget and creativity of a given production allow.
Act III, Scene V of Shakespeare's Macbeth stands out from the rest of the act in terms of style and setting. In fact, some scholars have questioned its legitimacy as part of Shakespeare's original manuscript. Today's students might well be expected to account for it however, and there are abundant examples of similar scenes in other Shakespearean plays that allow us to approach it as authentically Shakespeare. For example, its presence violates the classical unities of place, time, and action, which is a common, and almost modern characteristic of much of Shakespeare's dramatic writing. At the same time, the character of Hecate and the atmosphere of the scene provide rich opportunities for pageantry, lavish costuming, and elaborate staging, which are entirely consistent with Shakespeare's dramatic tendencies as a whole and the taste of his contemporary audiences. The stage direction specifying a musical interlude is also characteristically Shakespearean.
The content of the scene revolves around Hecate's lambasting of the three witches, evidently her minions, who have been influencing Macbeth's murderous rise to the Scottish throne. Hecate, classical goddess of feminine magic, commands the three to meet her the next morning, at which time her intervention will tame Macbeth's rebellious inclinations and use his own ambition against him.
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