Shakespeare's characterisation of the witches in Macbeth

Witches’ Appearance in Macbeth

Introduction

An actor’s appearance is an important part of characterisation because their clothing and make-up could have an immediate impact on the audience and our interpretation. Although Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not use historically accurate costumes on stage, their modern dress choices would still convey the character’s social status and aspects of their personality. The witches’ appearance in the opening scene certainly adds to the spectacle.

Appearance

In the earliest editions of the play, there are very few details about any of the characters’ appearance included in the stage directions. However, in (I.iii), Banquo provides us with a good indication of how the three witches should look:

“How far is’t call’d to Forres? What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.”

Choosing the pronoun “what” to introduce the question instead of “who” is an interesting word choice because it immediately points towards their representation as subhuman. This interpretation is reinforced by Banquo’s comment that they “look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth”. Perhaps he believes they are from another realm such as hell. He even questions if they “live”. The use of three interrogatives in such quick succession does raise doubts about their existence.

He then describes their “attire” as “wither’d” and “wild”. These adjectives suggest the actors should be dress in ragged, filthy clothing. Shakespeare strongly emphasises their feral appearance through the repetition of the intensifier “so” and the use of alliteration to connect the two words. Banquo’s tone in these lines is clearly full of contempt and disgust.

The witches’ ages could be indicated by the deep wrinkles of the “chappy finger” they are using to silence Banquo. To give the casting director some scope, the image is probably a reference to their hideous appearance. Their “skinny lips” and the fact they have “beards” reinforces this view that they are repulsive.

These simple details suggest the three witches are stereotypical hags, but their costumes and make-up should match his description.

Context

There is no doubt Shakespeare wanted the audience to be terrified of the witches and their costumes would have supported that intention. In fact, many people believed they were real witches and the play was cursed!

We often judge people by their appearance and the clothes they wear. When Shakespeare was writing Macbeth, there were actually laws that dictated some materials and designs. Queen Elizabeth wanted her parliament to enforce these sumptuary laws and deliver harsh punishments to anyone who broke the law:

Sumptuary Laws Original Document

In this proclamation, she warned only members royal family could wear “silke of the colour of purpure” and “cloth” of “golde tissue”. The document then specifies other fabrics which can be worn by people of different ranks. Therefore, if Macbeth was to enter the stage at the start of the third act wearing purple silk, the audience would immediately know he has been crowned the King of Scotland.

Dying clothes purple was very expensive so it makes sense it was reserved for royalty. Peasants, on the other hand, would wear lightly washed and coloured clothing because they were much cheaper.

Since the witches are “wither’d and wild in their attire”, they must exist outside the codes of normal society. In other words, they are disgusting and untamed creatures rather than people.

The Trevor Nunn Production

The following production photograph is from Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth” which was performed in various theatres from 1976 to 1978 and starred Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench in the lead roles. It was recorded for television so you can still watch the highly-acclaimed production.

The “weird sisters” were played by Susan Dury, Judith Harte and Marie Kean. The director selected three actors with different ages so the audience would see the characters as individuals rather than identical hags. Typical of the representation of the witches in Macbeth, their “attire” is “wither’d” and “wild”.

production still from Trevor Nunn's 1976 version of Macbeth
The Three Witches (1976)

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