Macbeth: A Lot Packed In A Little: One, One

A scene with witches begins the First Folio Macbeth from which all other editions descend; and with their every jot and tittle of divergence from it, the less authentic they are; and the more we shall see and hear something other than Shakespeare on the stage, and that something other is no improvement on him, quite the contrary, with arbitrary stage actions imposed on the scene to give a meaning to what is perceived to be meaningless, or seen as meaningful and announcing an important theme, but not dramatically embodiable from the text, and still needing the imposition of arbitrary stage actions, and that’s how it is now, a. d. 1997.

Much can be learnt from trying to embody the words of this scene in ways other than mine, and by using differing editions. There is much to be written about that. But for now I want to be concrete and succinct, like a small modern building.

Three more preliminary paragraphs.

Like the man who protested when his wife found him in bed with another woman, "Do you believe me, or your lying eyes?" so, in this scene, contrary to your senses that show that nearly all its lines are very short, each line or two half lines, which by the way should be quickly spoken, has no fewer than ten syllables and no more than twelve per line! and these are embodied by the legerdetongue of counting-in wordless actions as if they too were quickly spoken syllables; and (another pill difficult to swallow) with the precise fraction-of-a-second timing of a good TV commercial, each line should take up exactly as much time as the one before it and the one after — it will improve things; and seldom or never alike, the syllables and their lengths, like small sculptures different in shape and width from each other in identically long display cases, should differ from their neighbours in line after line as much as each person differs from those around him in the multifary of persons one sees in the streets of Manhattan, and let it be as delightful. Good actors do all this intuitively, or with their second nature when taught by experience; the others wander far away, benighted, without any light to guide them. These rules are not meant to be a straightjacket, and should be broken if they are not a comfort and delight like clothing, made to measure, by a good tailor; though then what’s left is less: more prose and less poetry.

For a detailed explanation of this hard saying, see my book on Hamlet. On the whole, the words in this scene come out fast and snappily: the witches are in demand and in a hurry.

My Hamlet book, and Tempest piece, go into the importance of capitalization in the First Folio. But their necessarily long explanations, and frequent demonstrations of its use, aren’t essential for understanding what’s written here, and might be as unintentionally amusing, or irritating, as the disproportion between the dress dragged out of some mother’s bedroom and her four-year-old daughterdiscovered presiding in it in the shrubbery.

Here’s the First Folio scene:

Thunder and Lightning. Enter three witches.

1. When shall we three meet againe?
In Thunder, Lightning, or in Raine?
2. When the Hurley-burley’s done,
When the Battaile’s lost, and wonne.
3. That will be ere the set of Sunne.
1. Where the place?
2. Upon the Heath.
3. There to meet with Macbeth.
1. I come, Gray-Malkin.
All. Paddock calls anon: faire is foule, and foule is faire,
Hover through the fogge and filthie ayre. Exeunt.

The stage directions say there are three witches. If the word three is left out of the first spoken line, we still see three witches on the stage. So why is it there? Is it a residuum, of bad writing? Or, more than a mere number, does it assert that the consistory of the three of them holds a special place in the opinion of the First Witch? She is the one least knowledgeable about the future, the one with much to learn; the apprentice witch, who wants to belong, and be on an equal footing with the other two, and who tries to demonstrate her inclusion of them into an intimacy of three by trying to hug them while they try to squirm away. I believe that contrary to its use in the usual meaningless stage chant, we three is raised to prominency by putting an equal stress on both syllables. This both isolates and includes the other two witches with the enthusiast, and allows some comic or would-be-comic or less pleasant byplay on each syllable. She is nowadays usually, and arbitrarily, played as the leader of the other two!

Sir Thomas Hanmer’s edition (1743-1744) scraps the first question mark (he probably thought of it as an unneeded intrusion) and runs the sense on to the next question mark, and typifies the still-extant non-dramatic approach that is all very logical if you are not aware of the dramatic use of the first question mark. The first line stands on its own legs. Only when the other witches fail to respond does she feel the need to say the next question. To suggest this need is a function of the first question mark.

To regain the attention of the other two and insinuate herself into their "good" books, she tries to amuse them by acting as if her words Thunder, Lightning were producing the stage ones. She adds "or in raine" as if the rain were a let down after the thunder and lightning, or as if she’d run out of entertainment steam when her thunder and lightning weren’t apparently appreciated by the other two. They do withhold their appreciation. Desire-driven, ignorant innocence has again put her foot in it by seeming to guy them and steal their thunder and the credit for being able to control it which witches had in Jacobethan times.

The Second Witch, though informative, is impatient at having to explain things to the First Witch. She doesn’t give the First Witch time to speak after When the Hurley-burley’s done, (putting no period after done prevents a pause comparable to the one after When shall we three meet againe) but hurries on into her second line’s non-explanatory explanation that leaves it open whether Hurley-burley refers to the storm, or to the battle which they were probably talking about just before they came on stage, or to both. How the First witch re-acts to not being allowed to get a word in, or how she was about to be impelled to ask for clarification to end her puzzlement (at what Hurley-burley refers to) doesn’t matter (except as a chance for the actress to develop the First Witch’s character) since the Second Witch is out to mock her style of speaking, and to make her look stupid no matter what. The Second Witch’s lines parallel the First Witch’s, and are not just a jingle with the second line more or less repeating the meaning of the first, an impression left by most current performances. Her second line is a parody of the First Witch’s second line, and and wonne’s delivery mimics the delivery of or in Raine, although the doubleyou in and wonne is made comic use of, making the most of its difference in pronunciation from its preceding partner in rhyme: "done." Is a demonstration of gratuitous cruelty implied in the use of Battaile instead of the more common battle? And does the Second Witch produce a bat whose hind part she tears off and then puts back to make it look like one again?

The Third Witch has at least part of her back to the audience and is nearer to it than the other two are. She draws out the words That will be as if looking for a specific time on a timetable, then triumphantly comes out with ere the set of Sunne.

The the shifts the stress onto ere, making a natural beginning for her expression of triumph. The the is necessary. If it were omitted the stress would be on set, and the sound of set of sun merely snatches at triumph, and even the set of Sunne is scarcely triumphant: one cheer, perhaps; certainly not even two out of three. The timing of That will be is enough to establish that a search is being made, and all of ere the set of Sunne is needed for triumph to assert itself fully. But what would have been a bumpy and rote the between of and Sunne is omitted because, not only isn’t it necessary, but its insertion would have destroyed the sound pattern that contributed to the triumphing.

The Third Witch gives her line of additional information because she is vain and a show-off. Having apparently had the last word, she triumphantly turns her back on the other witches, and starts to leave, so the audience sees her in the act of putting her portable crystal ball away.

The First Witch, as if fired up by all that triumph, enthusiastically asks, like a dutiful acolyte, Where, which echoes even the previous line’s ere in copycat homage; and she hurriedly adds the place? out of the insecurity that makes her follow-up and qualify what she first says. Where? or The place? would have been enough as a request for information, but together the two also make room for the display of more aspects of the First Witch’s character as it interacts with those of the others.

The Second Witch begins to get onto her broomstick when saying Upon, and probably makes one or two masturbatory movements along it after Heath.

The Third Witch, continuing the ere/Where enthusiasm, sighs out There with loud sexual satisfaction as she completes the mounting of her broomstick. (There is not needed unless ridden by a "useful" action, and would have been omitted). The perhaps deliberately faulty rhyme of Macbeth with heath can be made use of by having the Third Witch make some movement which would throw the Macbeth rhyme out of kilter and account for its imperfection, and link the e of Macbeth to the e of There.

I come had no sexual connotation till the nineteenth century, but may be a useful anachronism for the First Witch to hang a sexual stage-action on as a follow-up to the other sexual actions, just as a cliff-climber’s use of the happy accident of a reachable crack or minute protrusion is the latest in a series of linked movements.

A malkin was a stick ending in a mop made up of shreds of cloth and used for sweeping. Gray-Malkin’s shreds were gray and it was nearby and making beckoning movements to the First Witch. It was also a cat’s name, and we also hear a cat’s voice cajoling and demanding. This double meaning favoured the use of it over the more frequent form "Grimalkin," which, though denoting a female cat who was, like Gray-Malkin, a witch’s familiar spirit, did not also mean "a mop on a stick."

Wondering why the rhyming, that ended the rest of the lines, broke down before the last couplet ending in faire/ayre, I realized that anon (after the heath/Macbeth rhyme) was the rhyme for Sunne and was pronounced as a nun, which immediately brought up the image of the three witches putting on and smoothing down their nunlike hoods and preening like mad.

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken"

Told of this new-found pun on the "come right now" meaning of anon, writer/performer/choreographer/play director James Cunningham immediately came up with the same image of the hoods and added that it exemplified the witches’ credo, which immediately follows the pun, that faire is foule, and foule is faire.

Paddock is an enclosure, to which the now-impatient broomstick horses want to return. It is also a crookt-back frog, a familiar spirit of witches, who is telling them to come rightaway.

Paddock calls anon is an in-joke of the witches, who each vie to out-nun the other two while masturbating with their stick-steeds. Perhaps they flap their arms and give a henlike squawk as a pun on the second foule, and add a squawk after the second faire. Actresses who have known hens will know what to do. Others will do it in a different vein. A long ceasura after faire is foule will break up the line wonderfully. If the twelve syllables of this line are an automatic routine, they should be done very, very fast.

Towards the close of this scene, the witches will have created the fogge which must have helped to hide the ropes or contraptions that raised them, or that hid them as they ran off the stage. Is there a slight smell of sulphur from the filthie ayre?

Having figuratively "hugged themselves" with gleeful anticipation throughout the last line as they rose slowly and vertically and otherwise soundlessly till it ended, they give a knowing farewell nod to each other, peel off horizontally in three different directions, attaining the speed of lightweight non-operatic Valkyrie, and vroom quickly out of sight, having used those last few speechless moments to drill the hellish noise of motorcycles, in full throttle, into the heads of the auditorium’s insomniacs who had been on the verge of immersion in pools of much needed and soothing sleep.

© David Kozubei 1997