Shakespeare and the Witches


a macbeth 2

“All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

All hail Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!”

So states witches’ the prophetic message in William Shakespeare’s immortal ‘Scottish Play’.  This prediction, told by the Weird Sisters, sends Macbeth on a tunnel vision mission to destroy reigning King Duncan and take his so-called ‘rightful’ place on the throne.

To believe or not to believe… in the power of suggestion? That is the question!  (Pun intended.  See what I did there?)

The Bard has taken on nearly every subject in human capacity, but have you ever wondered what inspired him to write about witches?  What were the superstitions of the day, the beliefs of Jacobean society?  It is a history worth looking into.

In 1603, James Stuart of Scotland succeeded his aunt, Good Queen Bess, as ruler of England.  Along with his Danish wife and courtiers, James brought strange ideas to the palace, not the least of which was the irrational fear of witches.

Before James, witchcraft in England was considered a mostly benign crime.  Queen Elizabeth was no stranger to magic. She was known to consult super astrologer of the day John Dee.  Also, her own mother Anne Boleyn was rumored to have a ‘sixth finger’ and a ‘witch’s mole’.  (Moles and  other birthmarks could really get you in trouble back then.)   Anne Boleyn had been marginally accused of sorcery.  These factors perhaps contributed to Bess’ liberal attitudes.  At any rate, under Bess the crimes were not considered treasonous and first offenders were let off easily.

Not so with James. Before 1603 he had already tortured and executed dozens of accused witches, convinced that they contrived murderous plots against him.  James had instigated the North Berwick Witch Trials,  which were the first major witch persecutions in Scotland. This led to bigger paranoia.    It has been estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland over the years from 1560 to 1707.

James considered himself a virtual witchcraft expert.  He was so much of an expert that he wrote a book called ‘Daemonologie’, which was all about – you guessed it – demons!  James instated the Witchcraft Act of 1604 which put the screws to witches (thumb and otherwise.)  Dabbling in the magic arts became treason.  Healers, midwives, potion makers and soothsayers were all fair game.  Culprits got the noose. This was much different than the previous hand slaps of Queen Bess.

James introduced a whole bunch of exotic and frightening new witch folklore into the social milieu.  You know that story about blood contracts? It was James who propagated it. For those that are unfamiliar, it goes something like this:  A witch signs a blood contract with the devil, guaranteeing him her immortal soul in exchange for earthly powers.  The devil, complete with hooves and horns, eagerly accepts. The two then do the Satanic horizontal bop to seal the deal.  James’ book describes all sorts of other ridiculous notions, such as cannibalism, evil hexes, maiming and murder.  Read this incredible piece of fiction for yourself at

James of course did not intend it as fiction.  He was serious as a peasant’s revolt.

James was also an avid theater fan.  He made it his royal business to take over Shakespeare’s troupe, the former Lord Chamberlain’s Men, renaming them simply ‘The King’s Men’.

Will Shakespeare, who was certainly no fool, became eager to write plays that would please his new boss.  Hence he penned Macbeth, set in 11th century Scotland, dealing not only with the Divine right of Kings, but also with witches.  The Bard frequently based his plays on myths, Greek tragedies and historical happenings.  One of his go-to reference books was Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Great Britain composed by Rafael Holingshed.  It is from this book that Shakespeare weaved the tragic history of Macbeth.  Ironically, one of his first inspirations came from this picture:

a macbeth

“Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches – Holinshed Chronicles”

See those three ladies dressed in regalia of the day?  Those are the original witches.  They look pretty normal, don’t they? Yeah.  That’s what I thought.  Your average, every day wise-women.

Holinshed describes the scene:  “It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores…  there met them thrée women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of  an elder world…  the first of them spake and said; “All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis”’

Three women.  Creatures of an elder world.  Judging from the picture, they would have commanded a bit of respect.

However, with King James in the throes of full blown witch paranoia, it is easy to see why Will hyped up the image, making the women bearded, thin lipped, hunch backed and squint eyed.  They were also prone to kill pigs, raise storms and cut off a pilot’s thumb.  Scary?  You bet.  The play was a box office smash.

However, it did leave us with an uncomfortable legacy.  The association of witches with evil.  I do not blame Shakespeare.  He was just trying to please his boss.  Besides that, the play clearly lays the blame for King Duncan’s murder on Macbeth’s ruthless ambition, NOT on the women of the Elder world.   At no time do the women actually suggest murder.

Much can be said about the power of literature and the ideas that become fixated in the human psyche. However, the next time someone tries to tell you witches are ugly old squint eyed hags, remember Holinshed’s illustration.  The original Macbeth witches.


Jasper agrees!

Black Cats need love