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the blood almost curdling in our veins, as, dancing, and singing their infernal glees over embryo murders, they unfold to our thoughts the cold, passionless, inexhaustible malignity and deformity of their nature. Towards Macbeth they have nothing of personal hatred or revenge; their malice is of a higher strain, and savours as little of any such human ranklings as the thunder-storms and elemental perturbations amidst which they come and go. Coleridge describes their character as 6 consisting in the imaginative disconnected from the good"; than which I can scarce frame an idea any thing more dreadful to contemplate. But, with all their essential wickedness, the Weird Sisters have nothing gross or vulgar or sensual about them. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” to them, by constitution of nature; darkness is their light, storms their sunshine, tumults, terrors, hideous rites, and Satanic liturgies their religion. They are indeed the very purity of sin incarnate ; the vestal virgins, so to speak, of Hell ; in whom every thing is reversed; whose ascent is downwards; whose proper eucharist is a sacrament of evil; and the law of whose being is violation of law !
In the cauldron scene, most of which is undoubtedly Shakespeare's, it is noteworthy that the Weird Sisters draw rather more into the speech and usage of old witchcraft than seems exactly in keeping with their mysterious and supernatural being. Is there any way of accounting for this, without dispossessing them of their proper character? Let us see.
The Weird Sisters of course have their religion ; though, to be sure, that religion is altogether Satanic. For so essential is religion of some kind to all social life and being, that even the society of Hell cannot subsist without it. Now, every religion, whether human or Satanic, has, and must have, a liturgy and ritual of some sort, as its organs of action and expression. The Weird Sisters know, by supernatural ways, that Macbeth is burning to question them further, and that he has resolved to pay them a visit.
To instruct and inspire him in a suitable manner, they arrange to hold a religious service in his presence and behalf. And they fitly employ the language and ritual of witchcraft, as being the only language and ritual which he can understand and take the sense of : they adopt, for the occasion, the sacraments of witchcraft, because these are the only sacraments whereby they can impart to him the Satanic grace and efficacy which it is their office to dispense. The language, however, and ritual of withcraft are in their use condensed and intensified to the highest degree of potency and impres
and necessary accommodation to the senses and the mind of the person they are dealing with. It really seems to me that they had no practicable way but to speak and act in this instance just like witches, only a great deal more so. But, in the Middleton scenes and parts of scenes, they are made to speak and act just like common witches, to no purpose, and without any occasion for it. This is, indeed, to disnature them, to empty them of their selfhood.
It may not be amiss to add, that Shakespeare of course wrote his plays for the stage ; but then he also, and in a far deeper and higher sense, wrote them for the human mind. And the divinity of his genius lies pre-eminently in this, that, while he wished to make his workmanship attractive and fruitful in the theatre, he could not choose but make it at the same time potent and delectable in the inner courts of man's intelligent and upward-reaching soul. But this latter service was a thing that Middleton knew nothing of, and had not the heart to conceive.
But is there any thing of permanent truth in the matter of the Weird Sisters? and, if so, what? These are questions that may fairly claim to be considered in any attempt to interpret the drama.
Probably no form of superstition ever prevailed to inuch extent, but that it had a ground and principle of truth. The old system of witchcraft, I take it, was an embodiment of some natural law, a local and temporary outgrowth from
something as general and permanent as human nature. Our moral being must breathe ; and therefore, in default of other provision, it puts forth some such arrangement of breathingorgans spontaneously, just as a tree puts forth leaves. The point of art, then, in the case before us, was to raise and transfigure the literal into the symbolical ; to take the body, so brittle and perishable in itself, and endow it with immortality; which could be done only by filling and animating it with the efficacy of imperishable truth. Accordingly the Poet took enough of current and traditionary matter to enlist old credulity in behalf of agents suited to his peculiar purpose; representing to the age its own thoughts, and at the same time informing that representation with a moral sig. nificance suited to all ages alike. In The Witch of Middleton we have the literal form of a transient superstition ; in Macbeth that form is made the transparent vehicle of a truth coeval and coextensive with the workings of human guilt. In their literal character the Weird Sisters answer to something that was, and is not; in their symbolical character, they answer to something that was, and is, and will abide ; for they represent the mysterious action and reaction between the evil mind and external nature.
For the external world serves in some sort as a lookingglass wherein we behold the image of our inner man. And the evil suggestions, which seems to us written in the face or speaking from the mouth of outward objects and occasions, are in reality but projections from our own evil hearts. In a moral sense, the world around us only gives us back ourselves ; its aspect is but a reflection of what we bring to it. So that, if the things we look on seem inviting us to crime, it is only because our depraved lusts and most frail affections construe their innocent meanings into wicked invitations.
In the spirit and virtue of this principle, the Weird Sisters symbolize the inward moral history of each and every man; and therefore they may be expected to live in the faith of reason so long as the present moral order or disorder of things shall last. So that they may be aptly enough described as poetical or mythical impersonations of evil influences. They body forth in living forms the fearful echo which the natural world gives back to the evil that speaks out from the human heart. And the secret of their power over Macbeth lies mainly in that they present to him his embryo wishes and half-formed thoughts. At one time they harp his fear aright, at another his hope ; and this too before his hope and fear have distinctly reported themselves in his consciousness; and, by thus harping them, nurse them into purpose and draw them into act. As men often know they would something, yet know not clearly what they would, till an articulation of it, or what seems such, comes to them from without. For so we are naturally made conscious of what is within us by the shadow it casts in the light of occasion ; and therefore it is that trials and opportunities have such an effect in revealing us to ourselves.
All which may serve to suggest the real nature and scope of the Weird influences on the action of the play. The office of the Weird Sisters is not so properly to deprave as to develop the characters whereon they act. They do not create the evil heart, they only untie the evil hands. They put nothing into Macbeth's mind, but merely draw out what was already there ; breathing fructification upon his indwelling germs of sin, and thus acting as mediators between the secret upspringing purpose and the final accomplishment of crime. He was already minded to act as he does, only there needed something to 6 trammel up the consequence"; which, in his apprehension, is just what the Weird Sisters do.
Accordingly it well appears in the course of the play that the thought of murdering Duncan is by no means new to Macbeth. Perhaps I ought to remark here that, as the Scottish crown was elective in a certain line, Macbeth's claim to it was legally as good as Duncan's till the vote was declared ; while his consciousness of superior fitness for the
office might naturally have filled him with high expectations. At all events, it is plain enough that he has more than dallied with the purpose of retrieving that disappointment by crime; he has entertained it seriously, and has had talks with his wife about it; she no doubt encouraging him in it with all her fiery vehemence of spirit. In his boldness of imagination he was then even ready to make an opportunity for the deed; and it is a profound stroke of nature that, when the opportunity makes itself to his hands, its effect is to unman him. This is evident from his wife's stinging reproaches when at last his resolution falters and breaks down : “Was the hope drunk wherein you ’dress’d yourself?”—“When you durst do it, then you were a man ;” and, “ Nor time nor place did then adhere, and yet you would make both.” These plainly refer to conversations they have formerly, perhaps often, had on the subject.
So that in the salutation of the Weird Sisters Macbeth just meets with an external temptation to that which he has been inwardly tempted or instigated to before. Yet he cannot all at once rest secure in the thoughts which at that prophetic greeting spring up within him; and therefore it is that he “ burns in desire to question them further.” Fears and scruples as to the consequence still shake him: a general pledge of security is not enough : he craves to know further how and whence the means of safety are to come; his faith in the Weird promise not being strong enough at first to silence the warnings of experience, reinforced as these are by the instinctive apprehensions of conscience :
“But in these cases
It seems worthy of remark how Buchanan represents the salutations of the Weird Sisters to have been the coinage of