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A study on infamy

Whoever has seen Shakespeare’s Macbeth, surely recalls the eerie opening scene, when amidst a roaring storm, three witches materialize from the mist. While William simply names them Witch 1, 2 and 3, throughout the drama they are called “The Weird Sisters”. The fact that they are the first characters to appear gives significance to the central role they play in Macbeth’s downfall.
The initial phrase, intoned by Witch 1, reveals that they don’t get together often, –they probably shriek at each other when they do– yet they are one for all and all for one when it comes to conjuring black spirits, levitating stolen property or disguising themselves as friendly daisies:
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lighting or in rain?
In allusion to the endless quarrels they thrive in, Witch 2 replies:
When the hurly-burly’s done
When the battle’s lost and won.
Then, they all chant, while dancing round a bonfire, what seems to be the moral Shakespeare wants to convey in this oeuvre:
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and the filthy air.
Thus, spectators are initiated in the dual order of things. A wine bottle, for example, can be “fair” all right in its luscious appeal and yet it can also trigger spurts of anger, automobile accidents and dementia. On the other hand, an old book might well look like a “foul” bundle of ragged paper sheets while encompassing fair thoughts that enhance human condition.
So with Macbeth. He and lady Macbeth are both in the prime of their lives; they are handsome, and they have attained wealth, success and power, those things that we initially feel will make our lives complete, and for a while they thought too their lives were complete. They certainly are "fair", on the outside at least.
Furthermore, Macbeth perceives himself as a "good man", efficient, speedy and to the point. He owns a magnificent feudal domain, is highly esteemed by his brother Duncan, the King, whom he sided with during the war on mediocrity. Duncan even goes to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness to spend the weekend there as symbol of friendship. But then the Witches appear.
Double, double, toil and trouble.
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble (Act IV Scene 1)


Witches, we know, are fallen angels. They come from the realm of heavenly powers but due to an unsolved twist in their early lives, a traumatic accident or something, they turn into mauled creatures. These particular ones descend from the White Goddess, the primeval Mother of All Living worshiped by the Druids at Stonehenge. Robert Graves describes her as “A lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startling blue eyes and long fair hair…” Being her daughters unable to match her beauty and cleverness, they became resentful and envious, not only towards their own Mother, but towards anybody endowed with the Goddess’s flair.
Of course, none of them is a practicing Catholic; all keep family altars near their beds and chatter as witches do, with their mouths full. Number one tries to desecrate the blue-eyed deity by making ghostlike dolls with her dresses. Twos lights candles to amulets in her den high up in the trees and Witch 3 exercises animistic rituals at the Goddess’s sanctuary.
Three sisters prop up again in King Lear, but here Shakespeare brings about a most important difference: one of them, Cornelia, is honest. When the senile Lear announces that in order “To shake all cares and business from our age” he will handle over his possessions to his three daughters according to how much love to him they profess, Goneril tells her father that he is dearer to her than "eyesight, space and liberty". Regan says she is “an enemy of all other joys”. But Cornelia refuses to compete with her sister’s hypocrisy. “Love and be silent” she whispers aside. Furious at her silence, Lear yells:
How, how, Cornelia! Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
The tragedy of this free speech heroin is that due to her frankness, Lear disinherits and disowns her, his most devoted daughter, the only one who could have saved him from the ensuing catastrophe.

Back to Macbeth. When he enters “a blasted heath” (Scene III), the Weird Sisters conjure three ghosts to answer his questions. The first, an armed head, warns him against his partner Macduff. The second, a bloodstained child, tells Macbeth that no man born of woman can harm him. The third, a child wearing a crown, says to Macbeth that he will rule Scotland.
They certainly know how flattery, no matter how insincere, does him in.
“Of noble having and of royal hope”, they hail him with false graciousness in what seems to be a dart aimed at Macbeth’s weakness: his relentless craving for power.
This really gets him. He writes home to his “dearest partner of greatness” announcing the Sisters saluted him with a prophetic: “Hail, king that shalt be!”
Lady Macbeth exudes in joy with the news, although she fears he is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”, that is no other than committing fratricide.
Interestingly, in no way do the Weird Sisters force Macbeth to take the path he chooses, but rather they merely serve as a psychological justification for him to do what must have been in his secret heart all along.
By gossiping here, fabricating a story there or shamelessly lying into his ear, the witches manage to fire up anxiety in Macbeth’s soul, an odious anxiety derived from a long repressed guilt. Why is it he wants more and more? The crown, the cherished crown, is it for him a means to hide some badly buried misdeed? Here, as we start to see “fair” Macbeth in action, we learn that his fairness covers a foul design.
In Hamlet it is his Father’s ghost who gets thing going, in Macbeth, the Weird Sisters act as what Aristotle calls “the unmovable movables,” those particles that not being the Thing cause it to be. These witches appear to be able to not only foretell the future but to bring it about. The way they do this manifests supernatural powers –when they induce Macbeth to see schizophrenic visions, for example– but overall their effect relies less on obscure magic than on tricks we now call psychology.
Influential as they are on Macbeth’s frame of mind, he denies any connection to them. When Lennox asks him if The Weird Sisters have shown up, Macbeth, who was enraptured listening to their prophecies, blatantly replies what can be interpreted as the first symptom of a divided self:
Infected be the air whereon they ride
And dammed all those that trust them!
On the surface Macbeth pays little or no attention to the witch’s rhymes and bubbles, he is still outwardly respectable, perfectly sane, and carries on with his chores in a ‘business as usual’ attitude. But suddenly he sees a dagger floating in the air, he hears voices. Are these hallucinations the imaginings of a sick mind or are they real apparitions, like the witches? With no Weird Sisters in sight, would he act the way he does? We never know for sure, we can only infer from his doings that something must have happened to his mind, a terrible loss perhaps. Other than his compulsion to dominate, and his uneasiness with independent minded people, Macbeth bears no grudge towards the King. Yet, when Duncan, the King arrives at Inverness Castle with a gift of blossoms, Mr & Mrs Macbeth stab him to death.


It does not benefit him. Quite the opposite: with the Cain-like attack on his brother, Macbeth opens ground for his own downfall. His bloody rise to power comes to light, first in the form of the phantasmagoric resuscitation of his victims. His lost daughter, Duncan’s soul, the assassinated friend, they all appear in the middle of a banquet. Macbeth, now a crowned monarch, starts talking to them, but he is the only one who can see the ghosts seated around his table. The divided self overcomes him, his alter ego starts regurgitating from way below. Since the other guests think he went nutty and start to leave, Lady Macbeth rushes to explain that “My Lord if often thus, and hath been from his youth. Pray you keep seat”.
Once he has killed to get the crown, the other crimes seem inevitable. All pushed by the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds generating still more evil deeds. His values become totally confused. Fair is foul, and foul is fair to him now. He runs out of gentleness and warmth, harasses his collaborators and ends up stirring throughout the country a subterranean antipathy that seeds the rebellion against his domineering rule.
In words of his former associate, Macduff:
This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues,
Was once thought honest; you have loved him well…
The lesson is that guilt and remorse can be suppressed for a time, for decades perhaps, but they cannot be done away with entirely.
Finally when Macbeth, now overwhelmed by regret, learns his wife has committed suicide, he moans his famous:
Life is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Act V, scene V)
And what happens to The Weird Sisters?
Witch 1, out of so much nurturing vile forces, grew a hunchback. Witch 2, out of never caring to listen, turned deaf. And Witch 3, out of stuffing a lie too many into her veins, sparked off a maddening blood pressure.

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