A Witch’s Charm Twice Told

Author: Zan Fraser

Those who seek clues as to the nature of English witchcraft prior to Gerald Gardner turn their attentions sooner or later to William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth. “Witch Plays” appear to have been highly popular with Elizabethan/ Jacobean theater-goers; virtually every significant play-writer from the 1580s to the early 1600s contributes a “witchcraft work” and Macbeth’s fame is such that nine people out of ten will cite it as their first association with witches. The virtue presented by these bodies of work is that they describe and demonstrate the puzzling phenomenon known as the “witch’s craft” in a way not found otherwise in period sources.

One should not allow oneself to be distracted by the disagreeable elements of Shakespeare’s presentation, such as the infamous ingredients-litany of the Witches’ Brew (IV.i.1-37) , which starts off with eyes of newts and toes of frogs before culminating in a horrific porridge of body-parts and animal intestines.

Such sections represent Shakespeare’s concessions to the rabidly anti-witch views held by Elizabeth’s successor, the new King James I of England, who ascended following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. As James VI of Scotland, his Majesty had published Daemonologie, an attack on witches as socially corrupt persons and failure to be in endorsement of royal opinion was a severely fraught stance.

Peering through the grotesque but self-protective veil that Shakespeare hangs in front of his work, one finds that the witchcraft depicted by the Bard of Avon nonetheless plays heavily upon two traditional and fundamental concepts- the performance of magic through the creation of charmed, circular space, and the powering of this specialized space by the raising up of magical, charming energies.

Folklorists have long identified the “ring-dance” (holding hands and dancing in a ring) as a particular activity of both faeries and witches; in Witches and Jesuits, Garry Wills interprets the blocking of the Three Witches of Macbeth in terms of their “spinning” or generating a magically charmed precinct through circular motion. (The notorious Cauldron Speech that opens Act IV actually accompanies such an “energy-generating” performance, immediately prior to the Scottish King’s entrance.

It is fascinating to consider that the Witches’ line “Open locks, whoever knocks” [IV.i.45] suggests that they have placed magical protections around their spell-working site- exactly as we ourselves would do- and that it is necessary to “cut” others into the circle. It is also interesting to reflect that they describe Macbeth as the “something wicked” that “this way comes.”) .

The conclusion to the so-called “Witches’ Scene” is another example of a witches’ circle-dance, as the Three launch into an “antic round” (IV.i.130) in mocking contempt for the Scottish King and Murderer: “I’ll charm the air to give a sound while you perform our antic round, that this great king may kindly say, our duties did his welcome pay!” Thus with one final whirling circle, the Three take their last leave of the soon-to-fall tyrant.

The instant before they first greet Macbeth (“A drum- a drum! Macbeth doth come!”) , the Witches (who have been anticipating this encounter since the play’s opening scene) perform a ring-dance (or dance in a witches’ circle) in order to create the charmed atmosphere that the late 1500s and early 1600s considered appropriate for events of a magical nature. As if to remove any doubt about the matter, they helpfully (in fact) inform us so (I.iii.31) :

“The Weird Sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land, thus do go about! About! Thrice to thine and thrice to mine and thrice again to make up nine! Peace- the charm’s wound up.”

As the text makes plain, the Three join hands (“hand to hand”) and “thus do go about”- they go around in a circle (presumably nine times, although one imagines this may be fudged a bit during actual performances) . Their purpose is made explicit when they halt (“Peace”) and judge that their charm is “wound up.”

It is within this mini-arena of charmed and potent space that they greet Macbeth, soon to be the Scottish king through murder and usurpation.

Unique in Shakespeare’s canon is Macbeth’s status as a hexed play with a dark and malevolent curse attached. It plainly is not clear when this superstition might have developed, but within theater communities there is a firm belief against uttering The Name out loud when one is backstage, for to do so is to invite the terrible malignancy of outraged fate. (Productions of the Scottish Play, as it is cautiously called, are famed for plagues of injury and accident.) In sensible and sage manner, a ceremony exists to throw off the dark importuning of the Fateful Word. The rash actor must immediately move herself outside the space of the theater (or at least the dressing room or backstage area) and unwind the grim energies by spinning in a counter-clockwise circle- she must spin widdershins, in other words.

In the movie The Dresser, Albert Finney plays an actor who must perform this ritual when he lets slip the Name of the Scottish King. The superstition is fascinating because it mimics in minor the execution of a witch’s round-dance. However, in this instance, one does not “wind up” a charm- one “unwinds” bad or wicked fortune.

An activity on a par with much documented English folk-magic, the ceremony of “casting off” the dark energies of Shakespeare’s Scottish play has become as intertwined with the play as any portion of its text. How remarkable then, that within the play’s lore, are found two examples of the logic that lies behind the witches’ ring-dance – an express instance of the “winding up” of a witch’s charm and an implicit demonstration of the “unwinding” of ill-omened actions.

In both cases, these seem to me to be examples of the strange and obscure practice attributed to witches and articulated by Gerald Gardner as “raising energy.”