What’s the most scared you’ve ever been in the theater? For me, that moment came 20 years ago, during a performance of Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the start of the show, the house lights went all the way down, plunging us into complete darkness. Then came the unsettling scurry of footsteps in the aisleways around us before, finally, the light of a dim flame center-stage enabled us to see – just – the hunched bodies of three figures: “When shall we three meet again…” Here were the weird sisters, the witches. The stuff of nightmares.
But Shakespeare’s witches haven’t always terrified audiences. For a century and more – from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries – actors played these parts for laughs. During the period in which Shakespeare became “the Bard”, the witches in fact brought a large dose of comedy to Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy.
The origins of this surprising, but long-lasting, stage interpretation go back to 1664. That year, William Davenant sought to pull in the punters to his theater at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, by staging a spectacular adaptation of Macbeth (an adaptation revived by the Folger Theatre to much acclaim in 2018). Restoration-era audiences wanted music, special effects, and variety – and Davenant didn’t disappoint them. His Macbeth included all-singing, all-dancing witches, as well as the sight of Hecate riding in a cloud. The weird sisters were now more cabaret than creepy.
By the 18th century, it was stage convention for the witches, along with Hecate, to be played by male actors who specialized in physical comedy. And, despite the gradual return to a darker version of Macbeth as the decades passed, this practice of cross-dressing continued right through to the mid-19th century. This engraving shows the actors George John Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, and John Howard Payne in the roles in 1838.
Of course, the play itself provided the cue for this take on the characters. The weird sisters are figures who upset categories of gender. “You should be women,” Banquo says to them, “And yet your beards forbid us to interpret / That you are so (1.3.45-7). In Shakespeare’s England, witches were regarded as women of sexual license and “masculine” bearing. Their femininity was seen as deviant, transgressive, dangerous. “A mankind witch!” (2.3.67): this is the paranoid Leontes’s insult of choice for Paulina, when she attempts to defend his wife from the (false) charge of adultery in The Winter’s Tale.
But none of this stopped the critics of the day from crying foul. As one of them put it, the public “now laughs in some places where it ought to shudder.” The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the comic, crossed-dressed witches “a vulgar stage error”. And Horace Walpole, writer and son of a prime minister, complained that the witches were “by the folly of the actors, not by the fault of Shakespeare, represented in a buffoon light.” They were dressed, he went on, like “soldiers’ trulls” – i.e. prostitutes. As Walpole’s words suggest, what troubled critics had as much to do with how these stage witches upset established notions of femininity and gender as with their debasing of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
But where the critics took offense, political cartoonists saw an opportunity. Macbeth has always been a cartoonists’ favorite. After all, it’s a play about conspiracy, assassination, and regime change. In the 18th century, the fact that it featured comic, cross-dressed characters only heightened this appeal. Many cartoonists ridiculed politicians by picturing them as the witches. Here, for instance, is James Gillray’s Wierd Sisters; Ministers of Darkness (1791), which imagines the prime minister and two cabinet colleagues in the roles. The witches offered satirists a ready means of calling into question the masculinity (read: honor, integrity, courage) of the men who ran the country.
And, two centuries on, political cartoonists are still depicting powerful men as Shakespeare’s witches. In a cartoon published in London’s Evening Standard in October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Patrick Blower showed Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, as the weird sisters. They huddle around and tend to a boiling cauldron, gleefully chanting, “Eye of newt, toe of toad, spore of anthrax plague and pox”.
Does this cartoon ask us to laugh or shudder? The answer, if we know our stage history, is both. The witches provide an image of malevolence, conspiracy, and, yes, terror. But, like Gillray before him, Blower seems to understand that as suspect women played by men, the witches also imagine difference – whether sexual or, as here, political and racial – in a form that turns fear into laughter.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t a matter of tolerance or understanding. It’s about defusing the power of what threatens us because it’s not like us. In their gender-confused comedy, the witches of this cartoon – like the witches of the 18th-century’s Macbeth – call for a laughter that reinforces differences of identity and culture. They call for laughter as an anxious assertion of power.