Which Witch One Is Which Witch Two? MacBeth 1.3; 3.5; 4.1.

It will be easier for readers (a plural that assumes that there will be more readers than the author himself. What hubris!) to follow the argument in this if they have a book of the play handy for consultation.

A Lot Packed In A Little: One, One, Macbeth ascribed traits and behaviour to its very first speaker (a witch whose name the Folio printed as a cardinal 1), which cannot co-exist with those 1 exhibits in the other three witch scenes if, as has always been assumed till now, she is the first to speak in each one; and this restricts the scenes’ dramatic possibilities, to the play’s detriment.

But what if the printed and unspoken numbering of the three nameless witches: 1, 2, 3, shows only that a different witch is about to speak, and that the 1 in Act One, Scene One, is not always the 1 who is the first to speak in the other scenes? How do we decide which of the three actresses is the next to speak without providing her with an arbitrary identification number (that cardinal sin)? In practice we can go by character. That is consistent and identifiable within each scene; and in the longer 4.1, which is cut in two by Macbeth’s entrance, each half is consistent, and it should be treated as two scenes. Witch 1 of 1.1 becomes the 2 of 1.3; does not speak at all in 3.7; and becomes 1 again in 4.1 before Macbeth, and 2 after. That opens up the scenes, and gives the witches the same dramatic freedom that the other characters have.

In addition, of the four witch-scenes, the first takes place in the obscurity of a storm ablink with lightning and followed by a fog, all four have thunder and are presumably overcast and murky, and the fourth occurs in a place containing the pit of Acheron, river of sorrows, and is lit by the strangely dancing flames of a cauldron fire which also lights at least one doubly-locked entrance through which Macbeth will come. The witches are all thin-lipped, withered, wildly dressed, and bearded (being originally playedby men but indicating a hormonal imbalance), and in the circumstances it’s going to be very hard for the audience to know one from the other even if one is a contralto, one a soprano, and one higher still, and this is of course not an opera, so the best way to distinguish them will be by the consistency of their characteristic behaviour which is very different in each one and in constant play — and that is so, even when they are not speaking. But that pioneer of pioneers of the close reading of printed Shakespeare from the point of view of performance, Richard Flatter (the Great), whom I adore, and whom I read for the first time today, April, 26, 1997, after I had written all the rest of this, and with whom I sometimes disagree, says in that extraordinary book, published so long ago as 1948, called "Shakespeare’s Producing Hand," that the witch scenes were done in broad daylight (which is my excuse for mentioning him now). But the difficulty in distinguishing the witches is even greater in the atmospheric lighting of mostperformances these days. To have one bigger, one middling, and one small, like the three bears in the story, would tend to the ludicrous, and militate against the evil and horror they are supposed to embody and project.

Each lays a "choppie" finger on her lips. The conventional and only interpretation till now has been that "choppie" means "chapped." This is more likely as a secondary meaning. In the circumstances the chapping would be hard to see, and if seen, hardly noteworthy, as well as being uncharacteristic of witches, and an unlikely ailment for all three witches to incur at the same time. It would inhibit their handling of poisons too much. No, one would expect a choppie finger to be more like a bent talon making a sudden movement to the lips. And this is the meaning we give to the angular shapes of a choppie sea, and the action and shape of ’chops’ in its still extant usage for a mouth whose jaw has teeth in it that can chop and tear, (though I doubt if someone who hits someone in the chops cares whether teeth are in it or not). Or are these also secondary meanings? The choppy sound is a factor in the line:

By each at once her choppie finger laying

(Act 1, scene 3), with the length of the sound in the sense unit her choppie finger elongating the finger by contrasting it to the lengths of the disyllabic sense units beside it. Don’t the lengths and punch of the syllables in her choppie finger imitate a choppy sea, and make the stressed syllables imitate the angles of the joints of a bent finger? And can’t the vowels of the two stressed syllables sound as if they were chopped short? And aren’t the witches indicating to Banquo that they want him to chop his speech off? There are people with no associative ear for this, but isn’t this what some better poetry does, and no bad poetry does ever? There is more micro-detail that could be dealt with, for the life of the poetry resides in it — derived from the writer refining a set of related imagined thoughts, feelings, actions, and words, into a desiccated printed residue, which the cast reconstitute into a visible and audible amalgam that the audience translates in important and stimulating internal ways by developments of thought and feeling that reassemble and approximate the writer’s original complex conception — with luck. A good audience is very focused on the events emanating from the stage, but not focused exclusively on it; and is very aware of the viability of what’s done on it, and the roads not taken; and though it may keep very still, is certainly not passive! This active audience is sometimes not present in a filled to capacity auditorium.


As for the witches’ terrific dance (which if nothing else did, would on its own justify the existence in the play of the three other non-speaking witches and Hecate who ruled them all, for she must be the dancer and instigator around whom the dance revolves and ebbs and flows), whether or not the choreography was by Mr Hierome Herne (there’s someone to research), who deserves all honour and that acknowledgement accorded him by Ben Jonson; as for the dance itself (I begin again), of which we have no detail, and of which we can conceive only by analogy, (but which should last several inventive minutes, because the making room for it is one of the reasons why the textual part of Macbeth takes a shorter time to perform than do the other Shakespeare plays), I will quote from Jonson’s annotations to his own The Masque of Queenes to give an idea of the spirit of it in Macbeth. This is the quotation:

At which, with a strange and sodayne Musique, they fell into a Magicall Daunce, full of praeposterous change, and gesticulation, but most applying to theyr property: who, at their meetings, do all thinges contrary to the custome of Men, dauncing, back to back, hip to hip, their hands joyn’d, and making theyr circles backward, to the left hand, strange phantastique motions of theyr heads, and bodyes. All which were excellently imitated by the Maker of the Daunce, Mr. Hierome Herne, whose right it is, here to be nam’d. Bodin addes that they use broomes in their handes: with which we armed our Witches.

And talking of honour due, the Arden edition quotes nearly all of this, and put me onto it. No, no, the Arden edition is not talking of honour due, and yet the form of this sentence is not grammatically incorrect, as purists would have it, who would only allow something like: And while we are talking of honour due, let me say the Arden edition quotes most of this, and put me onto it. And the reason the rejected sentence is correct is that what makes the second sentence acceptable to them is, in some form or other, assumed, in the first sentence; and makes it feel right in the same way that insightful and still interesting De Quincey recognized the importance, of "The Knocking on the Gate" in Macbeth, for yearsbefore figuring out what made it important and writing about it. Of course, a "hanging participle" like "talking" in the first sentence often leads to ludicrous results, and even the first sentence of this paragraph can make available misery hint at a smile, if the wrong meaning is preferred, and the missing words are not suspended in the mind.


A problem that has vexed those who have commented on it concerns the end of the Porter’s soliloquy (Second Act, Third Scene), which is, with stage directions in italics,

I had thought to have let in some of all Professions, that goe the Primrose way to th’everlasting Bonfire.
Anon, anon, I pray you remember the Porter.

Enter Macduff, and Lenox.

It has been asked who the last line is addressed to, to the audience or to himself, and suggested that neither makes sense. To make sense of it, I pray you remember the Porter can be done as if he’s complaining about the amount of effort expected of him, who is not only a mere human, but one with a hangover, moving forward with difficulty, who might not even make it to the gate. Or, as a poor second best, like a racehorse coming in several furlongs behind the winner (because it involves adjusting the place of a stage direction), have Macduff and Lenox come in after Anon, anon, so that he’s holding out his hand for a tip when saying I pray you remember the Porter. No matter what, we must have meaning. The gap between ’remember the Porter’ and Enter Macduff is, if not intentional, highly suggestive of the Porter (with his capital P) taking his time to get to the gate. This and other typographical "normalities and aberrancies" may mean that the printing in at least parts of the First Folio Macbeth reflects Shakespeare’s intentions and conceptions more closely than the print in any other play of his.

Well, prose as well as poetry has its caesuras. Here, there’s one after "pray" (for the winner, but after you for the runner-up). But I would prefer the whole line to have no pause, the caesuras and other differentiations to be made by changes in the pitch of the voice.

Knock is a verb, not a noun, instructing the sound-effects man to knock as if on a gate. Some of these homophonic instructions, punctuating the same speech earlier on, produced three knocks as we know from the Porter. And so the three spoken iambs in Anon, anon, I pray reproduce the hurried speed (indicated by the huddling-up of the print in the original line in the Folio) of a triad of hammer strokes which are annoying him and which he is going on about. All of which the actor will use.

© David Kozubei 1997