Witches in Macbeth

Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.

The witch hunts are one of those areas that people often think they know about, when actually a lot of what they know is not correct. Witches were never burned in England, for example; the punishment was hanging. Nor was torture ever used in English witchcraft interrogations. Also, witchhunts were most often directed at elderly women, rather than at young and pretty girls. Confessions rarely involved sex with demons, but focussed instead on relations between the accused and a small animal – a weasel, a rat, a fly – which fed off the witch’s blood in exchange for power; this animal was called a familiar. Accused witches usually didn’t have secret herbal knowledge; some did practise as healers, but by using charms, not herbal remedies. These charms, as we shall see, were not remnants of paganism; by the time of the witch trials, the Old Religion was not paganism, but medieval Catholicism.

Witchcraft pamphlet: A Rehearsal both Strange and True, 1579

Witchcraft pamphlet: A Rehearsal both Strange and True, 1579

Illustration of a witch feeding her animal familiars in a pamphlet describing the case of Elizabeth Stile.

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Magical books, words and charms

The main difference between a magician and a witch to Shakespeare’s contemporaries was books. Witches do magic with their bodies, or sometimes with other people’s bodies, but magicians do magic with words and, in order to be magical, those words have to be any of the following:

a. in an unknown language
b. names of spiritual/non-human entities
c. names of God or angels/demons

Filtered down to ordinary people, the criterion ‘a’ could be met either by use of half-recalled Latin from pre-Reformation prayers, or by simply garbling or gabbling the words. ‘B’ could be met with names once known to all good Catholics, while ‘c’ could be met by incorporating set prayers into charms or magics, or by consulting books or pamphlets.

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

A charm for invisibility.

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In this way both learned magic and popular magic followed similar patterns, and those patterns were also characterised by combining the normal with the weird, inviting the incomprehensible into the well understood.

Some good and proper charms of Shakespeare’s day include the Longinus Charm and the Five Wounds Charm. The Longinus Charm is found across Europe:

take oil of olives and [wool] of a ewe and put it to the wound and say: ‘In the same way, he says: ‘The heb[rew] Longinus fixed a lance in the side of our Lord Jesus Christ and not long did it bleed or rankle or swell or become inflamed. So may the wound of this person no longer bleed or rankle or become inflamed. In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit.[1]

The Five Wounds Charm is related to it:

et coniuretis vulnus per virtutem quinque plagas iesu christi et per virtutem mamillarum beate uirginis de quibus lactatus est iesus quod non amplius doleat nec putrestat nec cicatriscet plusquam fecerunt vulnera domini nostri iesu christi quando suspensus fuit in cruce.

. . . and conjure the wound through the power of the five wounds of Jesus Christ and through the power of the breasts of the blessed Virgin from which Jesus was nursed that [the wound] may not ache nor putrefy nor form a scar any more than did the wounds of our lord Jesus Christ when he was hung on the cross. . . .[2]

The Five Wounds was also not just a charm, but a relic of an old form of Christianity, medieval Catholicism. The Five Wounds was the banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the largest rebellion in English history, which took place in the autumn of 1536 and contested Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the so-called Dissolution (or destruction) of the Monasteries. During the 1569 Northern Rebellion, the banners of the Five Wounds were also used when Catholic rebels broke into Durham Cathedral and celebrated Catholic Mass there.[3] The idea of charms and charming were interwoven with fear of Catholic rebels, a fear realised in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and one result is Macbeth.

The Trial of Henry Garnet, 1606

The Trial of Henry Garnet, 1606

Pen drawing of a Gunpowder Plot relic referred to in Macbeth.

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The hand drawn illustration is Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The word ‘charm’ in early modern drama always means magic, usually not healing magic but the quasi-erotic magic of bewilderment, sleep or reverie. There are many such uses in drama of the period, including metaphoric ones. Deceptive charming has haunted the word all along. This becomes very clear in Macbeth’s last reference to his ‘charmed life’ (5.8.12), which Macduff denounces as a cover for his satanic embroilment: ‘despair thy charm,’ cries Macduff, like any reformer (5.8.13).[4] The play ultimately reconfigures all charming as deceptive. The witches have not really charmed or sained/saved Macbeth; they have tricked him into thinking he is invincible when he is not. They have flattered him and he has believed their lies because he wants to. This, for Macduff, seems to amount to Macbeth’s enrolment as a minion of Hell. The relation between this turn of the word’s usage in the play and that in demonological work is very clear, and it is entirely orthodox.

The ingredients in the witches’ cauldron

A lot of the horrible stuff that the witches put in the cauldron is material considered foreign or strange. It comes from alien peoples – Jews, Tartars, Turks – or from animals which are not usually eaten – dog, bat. But the outlandish ingredients are included in a practice that looks reassuringly familiar to an audience from Shakespeare’s time, when few people had ovens and most cooked in a cauldron slung over an open fire. As with written charms, then, magic is about inserting the outsider into the familiar world, about letting the outside in, or even inviting it in.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

A dark Cave. In the middle a cauldron boiling. Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1 by Joshua Reynolds.

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That’s just what Lady Macbeth does. After she hears of the witches’ prophecy, she addresses the powers of darkness directly, trying to make herself just like them. The witch’s body, however, was the last place to look for hot, free-flowing blood. The body was hard, and desiccated by age. However, once breached, the witch’s power was lost; the classic folk remedy for witchcraft was scratching the witch above the heart. Once her hard skin was pierced, her power evaporated. Yet these wizened bodies were apparently actively sought by demons. Familiars are apparently drawn to the lower body. In the 1634 Lancashire trial the examining midwives located ‘teats’ or marks on the lower bodies of the accused women, especially around the vulva and the anus. Charles I, who was not a witch-hunting man, sent his personal physician to examine the witches. This happened to be William Harvey and he dismissed the midwives’ witch marks as the results of credulity and superstition, implying that the suckling teats they found were simply haemorrhoids. Lady Macbeth delivers the only authentic invocation to the powers of darkness in the play, and they too are connected with the loss of milk:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
and fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood
Stop up th’ accents and passage to remorse,
that no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers ... (1.5.40–48)

This speech is usually read as a renunciation of the sexed body. But what does that mean within the context of the play? The witches, of course, are unsexed, or rather their gender is to Banquo problematically undecidable – because they have beards. But what kind of marker are beards in women? They are markers of old age, when hair begins to grow in places coded as smooth in young women. What Banquo is seeing is a body unsexed by old age, and we shall see in a moment that this is how Lady Macbeth marks her body too.

Witchcraft pamphlet: News from Scotland, 1591

A 1591 witchcraft pamphlet News from Scotland

An account of accused witches where ‘witch marks’ were used as evidence.

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Old age brings the functions of the female body to a halt. Lady Macbeth is making, in effect, the same choice as women who ‘adopted’ devilish familiars, but making it much more comprehensively. She is wishing for early menopause, and this is why she asks that her blood be made thick. A witch’s blood was thought to be so thick with old age, so lacking in fire that it was impossible to extract it, and it was this idea which lay behind the notion that a witch’s body could not be pierced by shot or by a pin. Such hardness is the opposite of the soft body of the mother. To early modern medicine, deriving its knowledge from Aristotle, breast-milk was impure blood from the womb that was made white and pure by the burning fires of maternal love, which also drew it upward through the body until it reached the breasts.[5] By contrast, the gall which Lady Macbeth substitutes for milk is a signifier that her heart has failed in maternal love. Gall is also the kind of poison in which witches were believed to deal. In an era when babies who were not breast-fed were far more likely to die, she imagines herself murdering her child, via the trope of a refusal to feed it. Lady Macbeth’s double refusal of breast-milk marks her as a witch, too, because witches were beings who stole the milk of other animals and also mothers, substituting unnourishing blood for it. And she also imagines herself choosing not to feed the child, but to feed something else, to feed the familiar spirits she summons.

Singing and dancing witches

Shakespeare has his witches singing and dancing. Critics often find this really embarrassing, and modern productions usually don’t have much in the way of witchy music, worrying that the effect will be comic. It almost certainly was meant to be funny, but funny with a dark and edgy element of fear running through it. Samuel Harsnett in his Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures describes a possessed girl as dancing in her fits:

Fratetto, Fliberdigibbet, Hoberdidance, Tocobatto were four devils of the round, or Morrie, whom Sara in her fits turned together in measure and sweet cadence. And least you should conceive, that the devils had no music in hell, especially that they would go a maying without their music, the fiddler comes in with his tabor and pipe, and a whole Morris after him, with mostly vizards for their better grace. These four had forty assistants under them, as themselves do confess. (p. 49)

Other plays also link the chaos of the morris dance with the figure of the witch.

First edition of Middleton's The Witch

First edition of Middleton's The Witch

‘Come away, come away’: a witchy song also appearing in Macbeth.

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Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson wrote The Masque of Queens (1610) for performance by court ladies. Some of the music survives and Jonson’s witches also do a kind of morris dance. To Puritans morris dances were holdovers from Catholicism, and they also believed such Catholic festivals contained traces of pagan and thus diabolical elements. In his Anatomie of Abuses, Philip Stubbes said in 1582 that morris dancers were ‘like devils incarnate, with such a confuse noise that no man could hear his own voice’. In the much more realistic play The Witch of Edmonton (1623), the Witch’s demon dog leads a morris dance of villagers, bringing diabolical disruption.

Autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, 1609

Autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, 1609

A witchy antimasque in The Masque of Queens.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

In Shakespeare’s time, everyone believed that the macrocosm of the whole state could be influenced by microcosmic acts and disturbances. If a child disobeyed a parent (or a wife disobeyed a husband!) it was believed political disobedience and even public rebellion might follow. By showing witches howling unmusically, the disorder in the state could briefly be intensified and then dispelled. This also goes with what tragedy is meant to do; it conjures up a much worse version of ourselves and then kills off that worse self before our eyes. We come out blinking, relieved, purified.

Accusations in Othello and The Winter’s Tale

It’s interesting that Shakespeare’s most famous witch play stands at an angle to the witch trials which reached a peak in his lifetime, during the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. He does, however, feature witchcraft accusations in other plays; in Henry VI Part II, Jeanne La Pucelle, aka Joan of Arc, is accused of witchcraft, and is attended by numbers of demons. However, the other two witchcraft accusations are manifestly the result of paranoia. When Brabantio accuses Othello of bewitching his daughter, the audience is unlikely to agree:

She is abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not. (1.3.60–64)

Especially after hearing Othello’s compelling self-defence:

Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes ’ the imminent deadly breach

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.


She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used. (1.3.127–69)

The other who is accused is Paulina in The Winter’s Tale: Leontes bursts out that she is ‘a mankind witch’ (2.3.68) seemingly on no grounds at all. Indeed, both Othello and Paulina are notably accused by older men, who are stigmatised for their biased judgements. By the time 20 lonely years have passed, Leontes has come to recognise that Paulina’s wit is not witchcraft, and declares ‘if this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating’ (5.3.109–10). It is not actually magic, but a kind of conjuring trick that Paulina uses to bring the ‘statue’ of Hermione to life, but by then Leontes does not care, and Shakespeare is clearly telling his audience that witchcraft is a fantasy – and a fantasy of cranky older men at that – one which gets in the way of love. Like other dramatists, he works to force audiences to question their own beliefs and to move towards less prejudiced opinions.


[1] Munich, Clm MS 19440, p. 282, Latin text given in Lea Olsan, ‘The Three Good Brothers Charm: Some Historical Points’, Incantatio 1 (2011), 48–78, Appendix I, p. 64, English translation is my own. See also Harley MS 2558, f. 64v, text given in Olsan, pp. 64–65.

[2] Cambridge University Library, MS Kk.6.33, f. 5r, text given in Olsan, p. 68.

[3] See Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions (London: Longman, 1973), p. 113.

[4] See also 1.3.37, 4.1.9 and 4.1.38.

[5] Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth, or, The happy deliuerie of women, etc. (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum; New York: Da Capo Press, 1972).

  • Diane Purkiss
  • Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and Fellow and Tutor at Keble College Oxford. She has published widely on witchcraft and other supernatural beliefs in the early modern period, and her most recent book, The English Civil War (HarperCollins 2006) examines Matthew Hopkins in the context of the period. She has completed a study of food in England, and is working on two new projects; an examination of the writing process and its impediments from Homer to David Foster Wallace, and a microhistorical study of a Scottish witch, Andro Man, who was executed in 1597.

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