[Written by Witch Awareness Month team member, Simon Kewin]
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
These, of course, are the opening lines to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which contains arguably the best-known witches in literature. It’s a scene that is beautifully parodied in the opening paragraph of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters:
As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.’
© Terry and Lyn Pratchett, 1988
Pratchett’s witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – are each wonderful characters, even if they do lean heavily on the crone/mother/maiden triad. But at least they are three-dimensional, believable individuals, unlike Shakespeare’s. The witches in Macbeth aren’t even given names. It’s not really possible to tell them apart. They’re essentially plot devices, delivering the ambiguous prophecies that drive the play along. They are the ominous agents of chaos and conflict. And, of course, they also allow the drama to be amped up with a few supernatural thrills. But Shakespeare’s capacity for portraying character does not extend to his trio of witches.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the early seventeenth century, at a time when witchcraft was still widely feared. Anti-witchcraft laws had been passed a few years earlier and the trials of the Pendle witches were to begin a few years later. Pratchett, of course, is a much more modern writer. As such, he is sensitive to themes of oppression and prejudice. His witches are most definitely individuals, with their own foibles and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. In Pratchett, as with other modern writers, magical beings and monsters are people, too. Granny Weatherwax and the rest are characters the reader can empathise with.
Pratchett’s witches don’t even use magic that much. Granny Weatherwax is just as likely to rely on headology: her understanding of human psychology and frailty. Most of the time she gets by on people knowing she could work some terrible magic if she wanted to. The witches in Macbeth, on the other hand, use magic readily. The words of the incantation they use to conjure up visions for Macbeth are given in Act IV Scene 1. They are often dark lines that must have worked well once. Too often to modern ears they manage to sound both rather silly and offensive at the same time:
Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
So, it’s fair to say that the weird sisters in Macbeth and the witches in Wyrd Sisters (and all the other Discworld witch books come to that) are products of their respective ages. As with all literary characters, each period gets the witches it needs and deserves. Macbeth is a wonderful piece of drama, but for interesting witches with real character (and better jokes), read Pratchett too.