While Shakespeare’s Weïrd Sisters are often portrayed as witches cooking up demonic spells in their cauldrons in order to ensnare Macbeth and push him towards his inevitable and evil destiny, I believe they are really unconscious emanations of an archetypal sort simply bringing forth, in prophetic form, the unspoken desires of the ancient Scottish collective to which Macbeth’s consciousness belongs. A witch is typically viewed as a dark feminine force capable of producing truly terrifying mayhem, while archetypal feminine figures such as The Three Fates of Greek mythology possess more complexity and imply a sense of mutual co-creative and mysterious liminal connectivity with prophetic psychic realms. The idea of the witch as a scary scapegoat for masculine fears contributes to the increasingly vicious disparity among the sexes, while apprehending a co-creative angle in relation with unconscious gendered archetypes can lead to the establishment of a healthy relationship to the psychic netherworld within. Taking an expanded view of the awesome power of the unconscious and learning to work with it can be a transformative evolutionary jump for human consciousness. My paper will show that the Weïrd Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are archetypal figures along the lines of C. G. Jung’s concept of the anima. It will further examine the depth psychological implications of the idea of a gendered action outside the self working upon the hero versus unconscious emanations from within the psyche causing action, which nevertheless lead to what is inevitable for the times and the consciousness to which they belong. One view locates responsibility for events outside of and separate from the psychic self, while the other sees all events arising first within the psyche, then moving outward into the world of action.
Jung has described archetypes as “unconscious contents” which are “primordial . . . universal images that have existed since the remotest times” (Jung, 2014, p. 5 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 5]). Accordingly, archetypes are ancient inherited psychic patterns contained within the unconscious and they are responsible for producing form and meaning in individual and communal life. On their own, they are amorphous, but they can be accessed and experienced through images, their only form of communication. For example, myths and fairy tales are “well known expressions” of the archetype, as are many of the contents of the dream world, where archetypes take on forms and images that can be perceived and articulated, although, weirdly, once they are perceived they tend to change. “The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its color from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear” (Jung, 2014, p. 5 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 6]). Formless and mysterious, archetypes reside in the unconscious—which is itself “an acting and suffering subject with an inner drama” (Jung, 2014, p. 7 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 9]), awaiting their turn on the stage of action in the conscious world.
At the beginning of Macbeth, we encounter three “witches” exploring the depths of some arcane symbolic language, making post “hurlyburly” plans about meeting poor Macbeth “ere the set of sun.” We regard them apprehensively for their language and the thunder and lightning in the stage directions intend us to sense something ominous in them and their odd words. In her book We Three: The Mythology of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters (2012), Laura Shamas explains the long identity evolution the Weïrd Sisters undergo and their enduring cultural appeal. “For four hundred years and counting” they “have mystified actors and audiences alike, both on stage and screen” (Shamas, 2012, p. 1). Fascinatingly, according to Shamas, “in a notice written after a 1611 performance of Macbeth” the Weïrd Sisters are referred to as “nymphs and fairies” (p. 2). The emphasis on them being witches seems to have come from sources other than Shakespeare himself. Indeed, scholars agree that entire sections of the witch songs and dialogue in the play, particularly in Act 3, Scene 5, were added later by Thomas Middleton. “Middleton is thought to have interpolated the songs ‘Come Away Hecate!’ and ‘Black Spirits’ around 1609-1610, as both of these songs appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and in Middleton’s later play The Witch” (p. 8). Regardless of these ongoing scholarly debates, convincing evidence points to the Weïrd Sisters as having “their basis in mythology” which in turn explains their “extensive archetypal resonance” (p. 9).
Macbeth is based upon an historical tale in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Irelande (1577). Evidently, Shakespeare relied heavily on this book “for the ten plays dealing with English history and three others, King Lear, Cymbeline, and Macbeth” (p. 10). There is an even earlier version of the story of Macbeth found in The Original Chronicle of Andrew Wyntoun (1420) in which the meeting with “thre werd sister’s” [sic] takes place in his dream, lending the sisters an aura of being from a “Scotish dreamscape” functioning as “prognosticators” with prophetic powers like “special Seers, or the Fates.” (p. 10). Indeed, the “Wyrdes or Weirds . . . were Anglo-Saxon fates, usually three sisters, who weave the destiny of man . . . ” (p. 10). We can see, therefore, that “the first account of the trio in Holinshed . . . identifies the Weird Sisters as goddesses of destiny, nymphs or fairies.” An encounter with them would nevertheless induce anxiety, especially as the events in the play are set in the years between 1040 and 1057, meaning that it tells the story from the point of view of “a medieval psyche” (p. 11). Although the idea of a nymph or fairy may contrast favorably with a witch in the modern psyche, in medieval times nymphs and fairies “were regarded as liminal figures and evoked fear,” making it likely that “the ‘original' three Weird Sisters, as a trinitarian concept, would provoke feelings of discomfort” (p. 12) when encountered. Fearful or not, as liminal goddess figures they sit firmly in the realm of archetypes and are therefore not human, whereas a witch is an actual female human being. Furthermore, Shamas argues that Shakespeare spelled it as weyrd or wayward. Apparently wayward was one of Shakespeare’s favorite words. The word meant “‘self-willed’ in the fourteenth century, and by the sixteenth century, it meant ‘capriciously willful’” but “linguistic roots reveal a deeper meaning: Wayward is an aphesis of “awayward” (p. 16) suggesting that the Weïrd Sisters are wyrd and awayward, they have “an independent track, a path of their own; their movement is seemingly centrifugal” giving the “impression of purposeful retreat away from the center . . . as being ‘Other’” (p. 16). In other words, they emanate outwards from an otherworldly space and operate autonomously. Lastly, it should be noted that many scholars agree the extravagant presence of the Weïrd Sisters in the play was an homage to the new king of England, James I, who was very interested in witchcraft and who penned a book on the topic of witches and other necromantic phenomena entitled Daemonologie (1597) although this view has its naysayers as well. For example, in his essay “The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Macbeth” (1943), Ludwig Jekels makes a compelling argument about how Shakespeare never showed any particular deference to Elizabeth throughout his long relationship with her so it makes no sense that he would now make such excessive acts of deference towards a monarch he barely knows. It is therefore unlikely that Shakespeare intended the Weïrd Sisters as anything other than archetypal figures. After all, Jung says that “archetypes are complexes of experience that come upon us like fate, and their effects are felt in our most personal life” (Jung, 2014, p. 30 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 62]) which perfectly encapsulates the relationship of Macbeth and the Weïrd Sisters.
Many scholars have viewed Macbeth from the point of view of conscious human interactions in the world, pointing to a combination of lust, greed, and blind ambition as the primary motivating factors in the play. There is also a tendency to fuse Lady Macbeth with the Weïrd Sisters and label them as evil female instigators who play upon Macbeth’s narcissistic weakness for power employing an arsenal of traditionally female weapons such as fortune telling, witchcraft, and sexual manipulation. Others view the matter from the point of view of lineal succession and the “successful” distribution of heirs, suggesting that the play is about fecundity versus sterility. This is Freud’s view of Macbeth (Jekels, 1943, n.p.) based upon the prophetic element in the play when the Weïrd Sisters promise a limited kingship to Macbeth, and a long lineal succession of kings to Banquo:
Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo (Shakespeare, 1998, 1.3.65-68)!
Freud believed this prophecy to be the central motivating force for the entire play, and he cited the actual goings on in England around the time the play was written as evidence. In a cruel ironic twist, the childless Elizabeth I, “The Virgin Queen,” was forced to name James I, the son of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, as her successor to the throne of England. The irony lies in the fact that Elizabeth was forced to execute Mary, Queen of Scots for treason because she was plotting to gain the English throne. Freud saw Elizabeth’s failure to maintain the Tudor line as a primary referential force in the play (Jekels, 1943, n.p.). He cited the following passage to further prove his point:
Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding (Shakespeare, 1998, 3. 1. 60-63).
“These words repeat Elizabeth’s outcry” of anguish upon hearing the news of James’ birth “almost literally” (Riddle, 1943, n. p.). While there may be correlations here, I find they do not explain everything. For example, since Macbeth was there when the prophecy was handed down, why did he still continue down that bloody, fruitless path knowing that he would not “get” what he ultimately wanted? He accepts his destiny as an issue-less king via a “heinous act” of “murder most foul,” and then, later, decides he cannot live with a prophecy whose outcome he already knew about? The problem with Freud’s view is that it places responsibility for Macbeth’s destiny on an oversimplified idea of procreation and sexual virility in the conscious human realm. It is a classic masculine perception of what matters most in the world: begetting and sexual activity. It seems there is no escape from this incessant wish of man, to continually beget and clone his ego, spreading it as far and wide as possible, smearing it all over anything that moves. This is a very personal and individual view which separates man from himself and from all others, setting him up against life and its various inhabitants, in continual competition with other breast beating simians in the field. Perhaps it is possible to find an alternative interpretation to Freud’s reductionist view.
Macbeth and Banquo meet the Weïrd Sisters on a “blasted heath” just after a fierce and bloody battle for the Kingdom of Scotland. Everything about the meeting suggests that it is taking place in the unconscious. The heath itself symbolizes the unbounded liminal space between psyche and nature reminiscent of the English moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This imagery implies that a connection is both taking place, and always extant, between physical reality and psychic reality, a theme Shakespeare explores repeatedly in many of his plays, particularly in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thunder and lightning suggest the deep volcanic activity of the unconscious as it “raises land from the sea of unbeing” (Rowland, 2010, p. 9). The image clearly defines an encounter with archetypes and is justifiably sagging with ominous portents. In this moment, the Weïrd Sisters establish contact with Macbeth and Banquo, the duo here acting as one unit of human consciousness representing the collective unconscious on the field of action. They observe and interact with, and are in turn modified by what they observe, each going on to fulfill the requirements of the collective unconscious as outlined by archetypes emanating from within their own psyches. In Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious Jung describes a process by which an archetype, often with a “cunning play of illusions . . . , lures into life the inertness of matter that does not want to live.” The archetype “makes us believe incredible things, that life may be lived” (Jung, 2014, p. 26 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 56]). Archetypes “are meant to attract, to convince, to fascinate, and to overpower,” (Jung, 2014, p. 7 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 9]) and with their siren songs they compel consciousness into being. Furthermore, the archetype is autonomous, “it lives of itself . . . it is a life behind consciousness that cannot be completely integrated with it, but from which, on the contrary, consciousness arises” (Jung, 2014, p. 26 [CW 9 pt. 1 para. 57]).
Accordingly, in their capacity as liminal archetypal figures, the Weïrd Sisters discharge their duty of notifying these representatives that something is “out of joint” and must be put right. What is out of joint is the fact that after the battle, back at Macbeth’s castle with the sweet smelling air, the great Thanes of Scotland rejoice in victory, King Duncan dispenses what bounty is his to give—lordships, lands, and money, one presumes—then goes on, quite unexpectedly, to bequeath the kingdom to his son Malcolm after his own death. Some scholars agree that this is what seals Duncan’s grim and bloody fate since in those ancient times lineal succession was not as important as was having a strong leader who could quell the never-ending uprisings across the kingdom and protect and feed the people. Nevertheless, everyone goes along with Duncan’s wish necessitating Macbeth’s murderous act, which has already been “predicted” by the archetypes. For, as Jung has stated, the collective unconscious will always play a compensatory role in relation to the conscious outlook of the times and/or the individual/collective:
“This is effected by the collective unconscious when a poet or seer [or Macbeth] lends expression to the unspoken desire of his times and shows the way, by word or deed, to its fulfillment—regardless whether this blind collective need results in good or evil, in the salvation of an epoch or its destruction.” (Jung, 1966, p. 98)
This statement also describes the current dynamics of American politics vis a vis the collective unconscious of American citizens. On the surface, America is number one, exceptional, never wrong, always bringing freedom and democratic values to all the less fortunate “savages” of the world. Underneath, however, Americans have a fierce, unspoken, and dreaded apocalypse complex, they know their way of life is responsible for the destruction of the world and for ongoing mass murders of plant, animal, and human life across every continent as U.S. policies have ruthlessly put “America First” for over two hundred years. On the surface, we want a hero president who will save the day with integrity and honor, and that is what is portrayed in many films, but deep down, we want a president who will start world war III and punish us with annihilation. This is why America and the western world elected Donald Trump, and this is why Macbeth kills Duncan. Each man is simply representing, on the conscious field of action, the unspoken desires of the collective unconscious to which he belongs. In the case of Macbeth killing Duncan, the unspoken desire of the Thanes and the people of Scotland is that King Duncan be got rid of because he is old and weak. He is clearly incompetent for when we meet him, he is receiving reports of multiple uprisings against his rule. Furthermore, he is not on the battlefield with his generals, he does not witness the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, and he is standing by while the country and its people are almost lost to rebels. He remains king only because of a last ditch “doubtful” effort launched by his “worthy” cousin, Macbeth.
As has already been stated, the Weïrd Sisters in Macbeth represent the centrifugal action of the unconscious which emanates outward in autonomous fashion attempting to counteract and balance whatever is being manifested by the conscious outlook of the time. These unconscious emanations belong to Macbeth and to all the members of the community of Thanes to which he belongs. His murder of Duncan is therefore sanctioned by the community and required by the collective unconscious. This is in keeping with the dictates of an ancient creation myth of matriarchal monarchy which predates the masculine line of kings:
“The idea of the sacrificial king . . . was developed by James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough. Diana here was a goddess of childbirth and ripening fruits as well as of the hunt. Her priest, also called a king, was obliged to accept any challenge to his kingship and to fight the challenger. If he was killed, the challenger became the new king and Diana’s consort. The custom, which survived into classical times, was probably of very ancient origin. [Frazer’s] idea was that kings developed from shamans or magicians who seemed to demonstrate extraordinary power to control the rain, sunshine, and other elements vital to survival . . . . The man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay.” (Talcroft, 1995, p. 17)
Hence, Macbeth is the vigorous challenger and Duncan is the weakened king threatened with decay. This returns us, in one way, to the idea of fecundity and regeneration, for the continued fertility and regeneration of the earth mother goddess and all her many children are of utmost importance here. It could be argued that Macbeth, as the psychic action of unconscious desires moving upward into consciousness, is pushing the collective psyche towards the regenerative promises of individuation, and for individuation to occur, that which impedes psychic progress must be removed.
When contrasting these evocative theories with the idea that witchy, evil women—actual living ones—rubbed their creepy gnarled fingers together and manipulated a weak and vain man into committing murder solely for personal gain, one gains a lucid perspective on the silliness of taking such rich archetypal material into the realm of literal interpretation. My feeling is that reading Macbeth on one hand from the point of view of ego distribution through begetting, and, on the other, through the idea that he was played upon by outside forces in the conscious realm cheapens both the the vivid and terrifying genius of Shakespeare, and the awesome power of the unconscious as a viable, living component of human consciousness. These views are problematic for they place responsibility for human action in the world within the questionable logical framework of the five year old boy on the playground who, when caught in a naughty act, cries: “She made me do it!”
Does it make a difference whether Lady Macbeth and the Weïrds, as physical beings in the conscious realm, manipulated Macbeth’s weaknesses and caused him to commit murder, or whether his unconscious interacted with liminal figures in a primordial archetypal way and set him upon his path, which is identical regardless? My answer is yes, absolutely there is a difference. The former argument says that Macbeth is weak and powerless and his wicked wife and the creepy witches made him do it, implying a lack of personal connection to the events, while the latter argument suggests a co-creative liminality between man and the mysteries of consciousness. It says that there are broader interactive webs of interdependence between man, nature, and the outcomes of the day. It says that cause and effect are larger than one man’s ego and that mysterious realms of consciousness are powerful factors in the world of men and women and that we would be wise to heed them, to tend to them, to nurture them. Macbeth is a play about the profound depth and power of unconscious archetypes and our terrifying inability to oppose them. It is complex and varied. As a visionary artist, which Jung identified as someone who can tap into the vast reservoirs of“passion and its fated outcome, human destiny and its sufferings, eternal nature with its beauty and horror” (Jung, 1966, p. 90), Shakespeare is revealing to us, here in the modern world, the monumental responsibility we have as individuals and as a collective species, to heed the call of our deepest selves. Contrary to what we would like to believe, we are not alone in our individual egos, and our conscious outlook, whatever it may be, will yield its opposite as an unconscious unspoken desire, whether we like it or not, and whether it ends up saving or destroying us. Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time to heed the call of Macbeth, as we collectively face our unconscious unspoken desire which is manifesting across our planet as an unquenchable death wish. Double, double, toil and trouble indeed.
Jekels, L. (1943). The riddle of shakespeare's Macbeth. Psychoanalytic Review, 30(4), 361-385.
Jung, C. G. (2014). Archetypes and the collective unconscious. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Complete Digital Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C.G. (1966). The spirit in man, art, and literature. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.
Rowland, S. (2010). C. G. Jung in the humanities: Taking the soul’s path. Spring Journal Books. New Orleans, LA.
Shamas, L. (2012). We Three : The Mythology of Shakespeare's Weird Sisters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, US: ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 March 2017.
Shakespeare, W. (1998). The arden shakespeare complete works. Bloomsbury. London, UK.
Talcroft, B.L. (1995). Death of the corn king: King and goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction for young adults. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, NJ.