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From a plot and literary perspective, the cultural miasma surrounding witchcraft in Elizabethan England is somewhat negligible. We don’t need to be afraid of the witches to understand their place in the story as supernatural agents of evil. However, the weight of their appearance is lost on modern audiences. Imagine the appearance of witches on that stage in 1606, opening the play. These three witches are not just creepy characters to the audience. They are horrors – abominations, the things that go bump in the night. However, unlike the horror movie monsters of the modern era, these creatures were indisputably real. I wish I could give a modern parallel, but there isn’t one. We don’t have anything that is simultaneously unknown and terrifying while at the same time considered completely real.
So how could we bring the impact of witches into the modern era? Let us say you were directing Macbeth in 2021. What choices could you make in order to translate not only the witches but their historical context to your audience? Many productions have tried different strategies. The one that immediately comes to mind is Orson Welles’ famous “Voodoo Macbeth,” which featured an all-Black cast and swapped medieval witchcraft for, as the name suggests, voodoo. This was in 1936, which, while not exactly recent, is far closer to the present than Macbeth’s original incarnation. The success of this play is likely due, in part at least, to its substitution of witches, which provided the interwar audience with a far more germane fear (although that fear was likely reliant on xenophobia and misconceptions about a different culture, which is problematic in its own right). Despite the relatively small amount of time since this production and the present, this approach would likely fail to strike the same chord today. The combination of increased knowledge about other cultures and general distaste for blatant xenophobia would likely sour a voodoo adaptation of the witches. While the fear of medieval witches was based in part on the fear of “the other,” witchcraft was not seen as a foreign phenomenon. It was distinctly alien but certainly was not regulated to any other culture. Even when Voodoo Macbeth would have been most effective, its portrayal of the witches would still be accidental to their original effect.
More modern productions have attempted other methods. In the Macbeth episode of ShakespeaRe-Told, a 2005 BBC mini-series that recontextualized Shakespeare plays (although without the original language), James McAvoy portrays Joe Macbeth, a sous chef at an upscale restaurant who kills the restaurant’s owner, celebrity chef Duncan Docherty. The witches in this adaptation are garbage collectors. I find this adaptation to hit the mark in some ways. Sure, garbage collectors are not the scions of evil that witches would have been seen as, but this version of the witches does some things right. ShakespeaRe-Told’s Macbeth develops the idea that the witches know the dirt on everyone (as binmen would). There’s an element of knowingness to these witches, and their profession helps reinforce the idea that they know more than they let on at any given time, which is disturbing in its own way.
Leaning more towards the horror spectrum, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth (2010), directed by Rupert Goold, features the most ostensibly creepy witches I’ve seen. As in many productions of Macbeth, the witches are featured heavily in the background of various scenes, being a constant presence. However, they are introduced and most often presented as a trio of nurses. While it can come off as a little “haunted house-y,” these witches are undoubtedly creepy. The production evokes a distinctly unnatural feeling, with sterile lighting, bloody plastic hangings, and implications of something supernatural. As Macbeth speaks to the witches, a cadaver wrapped in a body bag begins spasming. In another scene, the witches construct a kind of effigy of Macbeth with an overcoat, IV stand, and blood bag. This production probably does the best of any modern production to bring the abject horror of the witches to the modern audience, drawing on allusions and invocations of horror movie tropes and imagery to deliver something unsettling. However, when viewed alongside the original reception of the witches, one can see a clear delineation. While the witches were terrifying, unnatural, and unknown, they were also considered a reality. Creepy supernatural nurses, while unsettling, don’t pack the same punch.
At the end of the day, it seems almost impossible to replicate the same type of emotional impact that the original witches would have had with a modern audience. That may be too defeatist, but it is undeniable that the witches pose a unique challenge to anyone looking to portray the witches today. Despite that challenge, any actor playing one of the witches, or really any character in Macbeth, should be aware of the historical context around witchcraft. Macbeth is not Shakespeare’s cursed play by chance. Its subject matter is steeped in mystery and magic. If you are looking to perform a monologue or scene from Macbeth, it might be helpful to reflect on the environment in which the play was written and initially performed. How could one approach “Is this a dagger…” or “Out damned spot” differently when considering the role of the supernatural in the events of the story. When Lady Macbeth says, “hell is murky,” is she going mad, or is she actually glimpsing something beyond our world?
Whatever you do, knowing the historical background of your text can help inform your choices and open up the path to new and exciting discoveries.
Wesley is a Student Ambassador at Stagepunch and a current History Major at Skidmore College with a background in the performing arts. Wesley is also an alumni of the New York Teen Shakespeare Intensive, a summer program run by the team behind Stagepunch.
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