Which witch? Interpreting the instruments of darkness

The opening scene of Macbeth sets an ominous mood for the play: the witches are ending their meeting and we get only a glimpse of them before they disappear.    The natural world is evoked through the references to the wild weather: ‘thunder’, ‘lightning’, ‘rain’ and ‘fog’.  The world of man is in conflict and turmoil as the witches anticipate their next meeting with Macbeth: ‘When the hurlybury’s done.’   It will be on a heath: wild and open to the elements.  Their equivocation: ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ hovers through the ‘fog and filthy air’ and over the rest of the play to come.

Later in the play, Banquo and Macbeth are greeted by three witches. From the University of Pennsylvania , this illustration is the one that Shakespeare would have seen in his source for Macbeth, Holinshed’s Chronicles. (Read more here.)   He took some artistic licence, here.  In the true story, Banquo joined Macbeth in killing Duncan but of course it was not politic to include this, given that King James I was a direct descendant of Banquo’s.

Read about the origin of the three witches in Macbeth in Wikipedia

Interpreting the text

There are many layers of interpretation in drama.  In the case of Macbeth, we have Shakespeare’s reworking of an historical tale; the director’s interpretation of the text; the actor’s interpretation of their character; the audience’s interpretation of the performance.  A director of Macbeth will have an overarching vision of the way the play can reach an audience and have an impact. As you view the following interpretations of the witches, think about why the directors have made particular decisions.  Some things to think about:

  • casting
  • lighting
  • staging
  • movement
  • costume
  • appearance
  • props
  • music
  • setting
  • cinematography

The Witches on Film

Act 1 Scene 1 of Macbeth from 3 different film versions: 1. directed by Roman Polanski (1971); 2. directed by Geoffrey Wright – Australian (2006); 3. directed by Rupert Goold (2010)


Macbeth: Witches Scenes from Miroslaw Rogala on Vimeo.

About Miroslaw Rogala

A scene from Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth (2015) where Macbeth meets the witches and they share with him their prophecies.

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō?, literally, “Spider Web Castle”) is a 1957 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film transposes the plot of William Shakespeare‘s play Macbeth to feudal Japan, with stylistic elements drawn from Noh drama.[1] 

Taketoki and Miki come across one witch in Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth. Watch the scene here.

Read about The Throne of Blood here. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Witches on the Stage

Click here to view the Everyman stage production, starring David Morrissey, which is available for viewing digitally.

Watch the slideshow below

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Which Witch?

Now that you’ve had time to digest a range of interpretations of the witches, is to your taste?  Are there any that are not particularly effective or are noteworthy in their originality?  Do you have any firm opinions about how the witches should be played?

Look at the way at least two representations work dramatically.  Compare and contrast them.  You should reference one film clip and one still image minimum.


Photo source: Barnbrooks



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