By Diana Major Spencer
My grandmother used to say, “Di-AN-a! WHAT’S gotten INto you!” Could she have known something I didn’t? Could my behavior have been caused by some mysterious outside force that invaded my spirit and made me a “naughty girl”? I didn’t know it at the time, but Grandma Emma’s locution has a long history in the English language, long enough, in fact, that our understanding of and sympathy for Macbeth, for example, can be enriched by asking the same question of him: “Really, Macbeth, what HAS gotten into you?”
Shakespeare uses four words in the course of Macbeth which, interpreted in sixteenth century terms, reveal a man of nobility waylaid by conjurors: noble, charm, weird, and wicked. For maximum tragic effect, Macbeth must be noble (in a sixteenth-century sense); he must also be charmed and wicked (in a sixteenth-century sense) by the Weird (in the sixteenth-century sense) Sisters. In contrast, many productions minimize the weird and wicked and aim the early scenes in the direction of unfettered ambition and bloody cruelty, culminating in mad scenes for both Macbeth and his lady. If the mad scenes are mad enough, the entire motivation of the play lies in the insanity of its two primary characters—not very tragic.
If, however, Macbeth is a noble man (not merely a nobleman) caught up in something beyond his control, he is a sympathetic, tragic figure. Noble implies a code of behavior as well as rank of birth. A person earns the respect paid to Macbeth in act 1, scene 2: “brave Macbeth . . . Valor’s minion” (The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974], 16-20); “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” (24); and “What [the former Thane of Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won” (67). Even Lady Macbeth “fear[s his] nature, / [as] too full o’ the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (1.5.15-17). Macbeth begins as a brave and noble warrior who counts kindness and gentility among his virtues. He is noble by birth and noble of character.
In the first scene, however, the Weird Sisters agree to meet Macbeth, whom they have singled out for their attention. Act 1, scene 3 enumerates the miseries they will unleash upon him as they cast this magical spell: “The weird sisters, hand in hand, / Posters of the sea and land, / Thus do go, about, about, / Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine. / Peace, the charm’s wound up” (1.3.32-37).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the original meaning of charm was “to sing [magic] into,” as in two other French versions of the Latin, in-cant-tation and en-chant-ment: “chanting or recitation of a verse supposed to possess magic power or occult influence” (The Compact Edition [New York: Oxford UP, 1971], 1.383). Prospero in The Tempest, ends his magical career with “My charms I’ll break, [my captives’] senses I’ll restore” (5.1.31). Romeo and Juliet are “alike bewitched by the charm of looks (2.Prologue.6).
Magic, witchcraft, and spells are consistently associated with charms. By extension, to say someone is charming, enchanting, or bewitching as metaphors for attractive, or that one is spellbound by a person’s charms, implies something metaphorically magical, though not usually occult. Macbeth later says he leads a “charmed life” (5.8.12), meaning that he is “rendered invulnerable by a spell or charm” (OED 1:383).
The OED’s primary meaning of weird, moreover, is “the principle, power, or agency by which events are pre-determined” (2:3731). The Weird Sisters correspond to the Three Fates, who spin, weave, and cut the thread of life. Like the oracle in Oedipus Rex, they bring confusion to the issue of responsibility: How can Oedipus be responsible for his actions when they have already been determined by the gods or the Fates? How can Macbeth? Is the Fates’ power absolute? Or do they merely have the power of prophecy? Maybe foreknowledge is the same as causality. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, weird characters were deemed capable of prophecy. Macbeth makes the association when he asks why the sisters “stop our way / With such prophetic greeting?” (1.3.76-78). We moderns, though, hear the modern denotation of weird, which, incidentally, dates from its use to describe these bearded ladies who vanish into the air. Formerly, weird ladies—i.e., those endowed with prophetic powers—were presumed to have magical powers as well; now, ladies who think they have magical powers are presumed to be weird—i.e., strange, peculiar.
If we are to enjoy a tragic sympathy for Macbeth, he must be good without being quite perfect and he must contribute to his own downfall. Banquo notices that the sisters have deeply affected his companion: “Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” (1.3.51-52). Macbeth’s aside confirms his own misgivings: “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature [i.e., against the normal habit of my nature]?” (1.3.134-37). What in his character makes him vulnerable to the Weird Sisters? Ambition, perhaps; but Shakespeare has not established unreasonable ambition as Macbeth’s normal state.
Instead Macbeth is wicked (“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes” [4.1.45-46]). We do not understand the sentence, Macbeth was wicked by the weird sisters; yet the adjective wicked derives from the passive of a dialect variant of (be)witched. To say something was wicked meant literally to Shakespeare’s audience that it was under the spell of a witch (wicca). Something “had gotten into” Macbeth--the inner disturbance induced by whatever has the power to witch, bewitch, or charm: the Weird Sisters. Interpretations of the disturbance range all the way from total infestation by supernatural powers to the mere catalyzing of Macbeth’s latent seed of ambition. Nevertheless, the witches have done something to Macbeth.
For catharsis, the ultimate goal of tragedy, the tragic hero must recognize his role in his own downfall. As wickedly as Macbeth behaves, he never completely loses his traces of his nobility. Two crucial speeches suggest sorrow and futility rather than satisfaction with his bloody actions. In his sleep-deprived “in blood stepped in so far” (3.4.136-7), he is so clearly guilty of crimes he’s worse off trying to make amends than trying to complete the task, futile as it may be. Hence, he is resolved to bloodier actions. In “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5.5.19), he acknowledges that he and Lady Macbeth have spent “all [their] yesterdays . . . light[ing] fools [i.e., themselves] the way to dusty death” (5.5.22-23).
Macbeth makes for exciting drama even as a bloodbath prompted by a fourth witch--Lady Macbeth. But the play has the potential to engage the emotions at a deeper and more universal level. Macbeth needs to undergo crisis and change during the course of the play, which can best be achieved, I believe, by playing the Weird Sisters at face value as other-world powers that seduce the hero from his truest nature.