Were the Three Weird Sisters witches?

April 3, 2010 by Mercedes Rochelle | Filed under Macbeth.

The Three Weird Sisters were the central theme to Macbeth, and yet reams of scholarly material have been written in an effort to determine their exact role.  Many believe that they were witches, especially considering the 16th century beliefs and witch hunts rampant under King James.  Did they cast a spell on Macbeth, or were they merely foretelling the future in the first act of the play?

It’s easy to take them at face value, considering Shakespeare’s use of spells and words commonly associated with witchcraft at the time.  If you want to get down to the “meat” of  the play (i.e. Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan), one can accept the Weird Sisters as witches and move on… no problem.  But this doesn’t explain their motivations: why would the witches wreak such havoc in the first place?  Just to stir things up, so to speak?

Another point of view is to associate the Weird Sisters with the fates.  The word weird has its origins in the Saxon word wyrd meaning fate, or personal destiny.  Some attribute the first modern use of the word to Shakespeare.  

More to the point of my manuscript, the word wyrd  translates to Urðr  in Norse, namely one of the Norns of Scandinavian mythology who controlled the destiny of mankind.   The Norns are said to appear at the beside of a newborn and shape the child’s future. 

It is possible that Shakespeare intended to portray the weird sisters as the Norns, shaping the destiny of the royal Stuart line which culminated in King James I, Shakespeare’s patron.  James is said to have claimed descent from Banquo.  Hence, their prediction “Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings, thou Thou be None” and incidentally the name of my book.


3 Responses to “Were the Three Weird Sisters witches?”

  1. The Weird Sisters certainly give an extra dimension to “Macbeth”, and Kurosawa did not fail to pick up on this eeriness in his “Throne of Blood”. Oracles are traditionally ambiguous, and staking one’s fortunes and the kingdom on predictions acquired while storm-beset — well, that doesn’t seem to encourage prudence in the bold.

    The Norns would seem to be part of Shakespeare’s inspiration here.

    • Thanks for the comment, Robert. I’m convinced that the Japanese understand Shakespeare better (as a culture) than Americans. I wonder how much the Norns were on the Elizabethan’s mind?

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