18 May 2011

MacBeth: Hierarchy in The Witches Sabbath (adapted from a paper for ENG2300)

"Double, double toil and trouble" is a familiar phrase, but its context is less well known. This line is found in Act 3 Scene 1 of Shakespeare's MacBeth, where it is chanted by three witches at their cauldron. The setting is described:
A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.
It is part of a dark and dramatic scene called the Witches Sabbath. The focus of this essay is to answer whether or not the Witches Sabbath represents some kind of witchcraft hierarchy.

In analyzing the Witches Sabbath, I made a list of ingredients that the witches place in their cauldron in order of their appearance. I also made note of the particular witch that performs the action. My reckoning is appended to this analysis.

Approaching this quantitatively, if we rank the witches by the quantity of ingredients each witch added to the spell, we see:

Third Witch - 12
Second Witch - 11
Fourth Witch - 3
First Witch - 2
Fifth Witch - 1
Sixth Witch - 0
* Unattributed - 1

Ranked by the number of solo actions, we see both the Second Witch and the Fourth Witch act independently most often, each performing 3 actions. Unless the unattributed action of adding the three ounces of red-haired wench is attributed to the Sixth Witch, this Sixth Witch might as well not exist outside of the fact that the scene starts with three witches, and Hectate then enters with three more witches. Surely, then, it is not a stretch to assign this Sixth Witch the lowest caste and placing in the Twisted Hierarchy. If the Sixth is last, who then should be placed first?

The Third Witch adds the most ingredients. Furthermore, if we are to assume that the subjective value, or the importance of ingredients, follows a common, widespread cultural norm, shouldn't bits of frogs, snakes, bats, dogs, lizards and owlets be less important than bits of mythical creatures, foreigners, and stillborn babies? If so, not only does the Third Witch add the most ingredients, she also adds the most infamous of them.

Nevertheless, there are a few things about the Second Witch that stand out: She's there from the beginning, and acts independently as often as any of the witches, and altogether, she acts the most frequently. Perhaps even more notably, the Second Witch adds the final, intimate ingredient: "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes" (61-62). (Note that I have considered that "By the pricking of my thumbs" could be interpreted as an exclamation, rather than infer any action on the Second Witch's part, but since actors often proclaim what they're doing, and because this, as a final act to complete the spell, has a certain affectation, I'll risk to err.)

Another notable, somewhat mysterious action in all this: the ambiguous witch who adds three ounces of red-haired wench. Is it to "rid the stench?" Does the "red-haired wench" refer to anyone in particular? Why is this action left to "A Witch" rather than to a specific witch? Does it mean anything? This time, rather than indulging in, say, the possibility the mysterious Sixth Witch is Lady Macbeth, or an extremely obscure reference to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, I'll surmise that these questions are unimportant and their details coincidental.

What about Hectate? She is a cthonic Greek deity of magic, necromancy, curses, witchcraft, ghosts, infernal spirits -- the supreme ruler of the borders between the natural and supernatural worlds -- and most significant to Macbeth, the crossroads are her dominion. Hectate is portrayed in Hellenistic art as a three-faced woman, and her likeness was erected over city gates to ward off evil spirits (or, if she was offended, to let them in). Her presence is signified by the barking of dogs (and she is often portrayed with dogs by her side), yet her nature is also polymorphous. Clearly, Hectate trumps all the other witches, which are only a pale reflection of her. Yet, Hectate adds no ingredients. She oversees, she has a ceremonial role.

Considering Hectate's supreme dominance, and the role she plays in the Witches Sabbath, it reasonable now to assume that the importance of the Twisted Hierarchy is not structured on the quantitative measures (the number of ingredients supplied) and if so, it is only among sub-dominants. So should hierarchical importance be relative to the kinds of ingredients or actions performed? Anciently, the most common form of tribute to Hectate was to leave meat at a crossroads, or (very rarely) a dog was sacrificed to her. Dogs were sacred and identified with Hectate. A tongue of dog is added by the Second Witch at line 16, but this seems less significant to Hectate and more important to rhyme with "toe of frog." Thus, I'm left with no sound reasoning to argue for an hierarchy present in the Witches Sabbath as relates to the acts, actors, or the ingredients. The inclusion of ingredients appears to be based on the needs of prose and rhyme; the choice of actors appears to be based on giving everyone their fair turn (excepting poor No. 6).

The Second Witch is compelling, as I've laid out previously, but the evidence is too nebulous to make claim for her as "the one to watch". Ingredients, on the other hand, start with bits of animals, and then become bits of corpses -- then they enter the pot pell-mell: blood and bane and oil and juice and that curious three ounces of red-haired wench. This leads me to believe there is no hierarchy in the importance or relevance to the ingredients, nor the sequence in which they are put into the cauldron. There also seems to be no connection between dog-based ingredients and Hectate, who resides over this Sabbath. Therefore, I have to conclude that the witches, the ingredients, the sequence, all are purposed to prose and rhyme rather than any meaningful witchcraft hierarchical significance.

Action / Ingredient(s)
Ingredients: poisoned entrails, toad venom.
First Witch
Ingredients: fenny snake fillet, newt eye, frog toe, bat wool, dog tongue, adder fork, blind-worm sting, lizard leg, owlet wing.
Second Witch
Ingredients: dragon scale, wolf tooth, witches' mummy (maw and gulf), salt-sea shark, root of hemlock (dug at night), blaspheming Jew's liver, goat gall, yew slips (silvered in a moon eclipse), Turk's nose, Tartar's lips, stillborn baby's finger, tiger's chauldron.
Third Witch
Ingredient: baboon blood.
Second Witch
Enter Hectate and three more witches. Commendation. Command to encircle the cauldron and sing like elves and fairies. Enchantment of ingredients.
Hectate, All
Summoning incantation
Evocation: Titty, Tiffin, Firedrake, Puckey, Liard, Robin.
Fourth Witch
Ingredient: bat blood.
Fourth Witch
Ingredient: grain of leopard's bane.
Fifth Witch
Ingredients: toad juice, adder oil.
Fourth Witch
Ingredient: red-haired wench (three ounces)
"A Witch"
Ingredient: Second Witch's blood
Second Witch

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