Friday, 20 December 2013

Are The Witches in Macbeth Evil?

Do the three witches in Macbeth represent more than
pure evil?
Are the witches wicked, old harridans who make Macbeth kill his king? Do they represent temptation? Or are they no different from the soothsayer who tells Caesar to "beware the Ides of march"?

In a comment on my post '5 Interesting Facts About Macbeth', a reader asked whether the three witches could be perceived as evil.

This is a really interesting question, and as I was mulling over how to phrase my response, I realised it was a topic that I could ramble on with for quite some time. So, here goes.

The Nature of Evil in Shakespeare

I think the first point to address is how we go about defining 'evil'. One of the things I love about Shakespeare's characters is they are nuanced, complicated, mixed-up, contradictory and....well, human.

There are very few truly evil characters in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, I can only think of one: Iago. And, let's face it, he would be better described as a psychopath, which begs the question: is he evil or is he ill? Maybe it doesn't matter either way.

But, the point is, there aren't many examples of pure evil in Shakespeare. For instance, Edmund from King Lear has been abandoned by his father and is entitled to no title or lands, simply because he was born out of wedlock. So, while he's undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, we can see how he came to be that way.

What about the witches from Macbeth, are they like Edmund (twisted in a way we can justify or understand) or psychopaths like Iago? Well, that really rather depends on what you consider it is they actually do in the play.

Do the Witches Cause Macbeth to Murder?

Witches are, traditionally, intimate with the devil

All the witches really do, initially at any rate, is tell Macbeth that he will be king.

They don't tell him to go and kill Duncan; they don't even hint that the old man needs to be got out of the way. Those thoughts drift through Macbeth's head without any prompting.

The three witches do however, with one very simple phrase, "thou shalt be king hereafter", start a chain of events that ends horribly for just about all involved. But why would they do that?

They have nothing to gain from Duncan's death or the disastrous state Scotland descends into....unless, of course, you think of them as minions of the devil, which, of course, is exactly what King James I would have believed.

And, I suppose, this is an arguement that could be put forward if you wanted to label the three women 'evil'. By virtue of the fact they are 'witches', they're intimate with demons and are, therefore, by nature, evil. This sounds a little too simplistic for Shakespeare, though, doesn't it?

It also poses a problem in our perception of the play, because if we conclude that the witches are to blame for Macbeth's actions, then he isn't. And if you take away Macbeth's ability to make decisions that will affect his fate, then he loses some of his 'tragic' status.

Are the Witches Able to Foresee the Future?

Like Oedipus, Macbeth makes his own fate
It certainly seems that the three weird sisters know what is lying ahead for Macbeth - their latter prophecies are very specific, if ostensibly a little cryptic.

But if the events of the play are already written, not only does Macbeth take no responsibility for his actions, but the witches don't take any for theirs either.

For one thing, they are simply reporting facts. Fair enough, they're not like the soothsayer, who tries to warn Caesar, but they are really only messengers. And for another, they speak to Macbeth because that's their 'part' in the fate that's already written.

Maybe Macbeth was right, and all the characters are "poor players"; no more than puppets who have lines to speak and scenes to act.

But by taking this view, we remove the 'good' and 'bad' out of everything. Every action simply is what it is, because it has already been determined by some higher power.

Alternatively, we might like to look at the play as self-fulfilling prophecy. Much in the way that Oedipus causes the oracle's prophecy to come to pass by actively trying to prevent it, perhaps Macbeth makes his own fate.

Shakespeare's Weird Sisters Are Complicated

For study help with Shakespeare's
Macbeth, check out the guide

Now, of course, the wonderful thing about this, as with many things in Shakespeare's plays, is that it's open to interpretation. I encourage everybody who has read or seen the play to think about what it is the witches do and whether they can be perceived as evil, and why.

Personally, I wouldn't call them 'evil', for all of the reasons above, but predominantly because the word suggests a dichotomous view of the play. 

The world (and Shakespeare's worlds always reflect this), is not that simple. There isn't mere black and white - in fact, more often than not, there is no black and white at all.

The witches are many things in the play, I've written about a few of them here, and to reduce them to pantomime villains is, it seems to me, to do them and, more importantly, Shakespeare a great disservice.

But what do you think? Let me know your views of the weird sisters.

If you're studying Shakespeare and would like to learn more about Macbeth, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Quotes About Shakespeare | Famous Thoughts on The Bard

Shakespeare is quoted often, but
what do others have to say about him?
I quite realise that there are people in the world who don't like Shakespeare. In fact, those of us who love him are, although I find it hard to stomach, in the minority. I've known several people; friends, co-workers and relatives, who dislike him for one reason or another: predominantly, because they don't 'get' it. 

My question to these people is always the same: how can so many people be so wrong? He's gone through peaks and troughs of popularity, but he is one of only a few playwrights from his era, whose work has 'survived' until the 21st century. He's by far the most famous playwright of his era - arguably the most famous playwright of ANY era.

This is only possible because he has been appreciated and much-loved throughout the centuries. And he's had some pretty famous fans.

So, here are just a few thoughts on Shakespeare...

"I have good reason to be content, for thank God I can read and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths." - John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet.

"When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder that such trivial people should muse and thunder in such lovely language." - D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), English author most famous for the infamous Lady Chatterley's Lover, which puts E. L. James to shame.

"Oh, how Shakespeare would have loved cinema!" - Derek Jarman (1942-1994), Stage and film director.

Mary Shelley was a fan of

"I also became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated." - Mary Shelley (1797-1851), from Frankenstein.

"Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. They all knew the joy of creating in large or small forms, on unlimited or restricted canvases. These are the children of the gods." - Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), American author most famous for Fahrenheit 451.

"Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth." - Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

"I have always derived great comfort from William Shakespeare. After a depressing visit to the mirror or an unkind word from a girlfriend or an incredulous stare in the street, I say to myself: 'Well. Shakespeare looked like shit.' It works wonders." - Martin Amis (1949- ), from Money.

(a little harsh perhaps, but the portraits we have of Shakespeare don't offer the image of an Adonis.)

Shakespeare, looking like sh*t, according to Martin Amis' Money

"Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters. You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him- as you’ll find everything else worth saying." - Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), from Long Days Journey into Night.

"It is difficult to restrain admirers of Shakespeare once they have begun to speak of him." - Karen Blixen (1885-1962), Danish author, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.

"Shakespeare, in some sense, helped create the modern man, didn't he, his influence is that pervasive. He held the mirror up to nature, but he also created that mirror: so the image he created is the very one we hold ourselves up to." - Jess Winfield (1962- ), American author and TV writer.

George Orwell said the worth of a writer
should be in the longevity of his work -
bodes well for Bill Shakespeare

"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good'. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that--for instance--Warwick Beeping is 'bad'. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion." - George Orwell (1903-1950), English author, journalist and critic.

"To become intimate with a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience." - Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), British educator.

"A few people have ventured to imitate Shakespeare's tragedy. But no audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare's comedy...We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate into his coal-cellar, but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky." - G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), British writer and lay theologian.

"No one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean." - Harold Bloom (1930- ), American literary critic and professor.


For more on Shakespeare, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, and if you know of any other great quotes about Shakespeare, why not share them in the comments below.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Why Did Shakespeare Create Roderigo?

When in doubt, give the baddies
curly moustaches
He's a pretty minor character. But does he serve a purpose beyond being Iago's foolish sidekick?

The character of Roderigo, in Shakespeare’s Othello, is one of those rare things: a creation entirely of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are retellings of established tales and, therefore, many of his characters (although often altered to suit the playwright’s purposes), have their foundations in fully formed fictional creations or historical fact.

Roderigo, however, has no precursor in Shakespeare’s source for OthelloCinthio’s Un Capitino Moro

So, why did Shakespeare create this lovesick fool and what purpose does Roderigo serve in the play?

Roderigo as Iago’s Sidekick

We're introduced to Roderigo in the very first scene of the play. Underneath Brabantio’s balcony, he and
Robert Coote as Roderigo, in Orson
Welles' Othello (1952)
Iago collude in a plot to ruin Othello by exposing his marriage to Desdemona. 

During this first scene, we also learn that Roderigo has given Iago vast sums of money, “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine…”(I.i), which he believes is being used to help him woo Desdemona. In reality, of course, Iago is using Roderigo’s money for his own gains.

Subsequently, from the very beginning of the play, there are three things about Rodergio that are clear: he is na├»ve (to say the least); wealthy; and besotted with Desdemona. 

These traits will be exploited mercilessly by Iago.

When the plan to ruin Othello with reports of his elopement fail, Roderigo joins the journey to Cyprus. There, he comes in handy for Iago, who persuades him to bate Cassio into a public brawl. Ultimately, Iago draws his buffoonish right-hand man into a murder plot, which, unfortunately for Roderigo, goes awry. 

When Iago discovers the wounded Roderigo, he kills him - and, although we may feel some sympathy for him, I would venture to say that it's only a little.

Roderigo as a Comic Character

In modern interpretations of Othello, Roderigo is sometimes played as a foppish, idiot; akin to Andrew
Michael Maloney as Roderigo, in
Oliver Parker's Othello (1995)
Aguecheck in Twelfth Night. Certainly, this interpretation is supported by some of Roderigo’s dialogue, “I will incontinently drown myself.”(I.iii), in which he could sound like an angst-ridden, overly dramatic teenager.

Although it may seem peculiar to include such a clownish figure in a tragic play, it is worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare almost always includes comic moments in his tragedies. 

For example, the gravediggers in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in King Lear. Of course, this mixture of genres is not unusual today either.

By making Roderigo a comic figure, Shakespeare has encouraged his audience to feel no (or very little) empathy with the character when he is killed. And, that's probably just as well. After all, Roderigo’s death is in no way as tragic as Othello’s and Desdemona’s, partly because he participated in the plot.

However, in many ways, he is just as much a victim of Iago as the other characters of the play. However, because he is an overemotional fool, who stoops to underhanded methods in an effort to bed Desdemona, his death seems far from tragic.

The Significance of Roderigo

In my opinion, the principal purpose of Roderigo is added entertainment value rather than serving the plot.
Should we feel sympathy for Roderigo's
 fate; is he likeable enough?
After all, Cinthio managed just fine without him, and I can imagine an Othello without Roderigo in it - the play would not be lost without him.

So, I suppose it could be argued that Shakespeare added the character for no other reason than comic relief. 

As mentioned above, comedy is certainly something Roderigo adds and it would be difficult for any of the other characters to provide it without affecting the way an audience views him or her.

However, Roderigo does have a practical purpose from a dramatic standpoint. He serves to, at least in part, resolve the plot. In fact, to some extent, he absolves himself in death, as it is the letters found on his body that prove Iago’s guilt. 

That said, the rather rushed nature of the closing moments of Othello might suggest that this was all just an afterthought and certainly not the reason for the creation of Roderigo.


How do you feel about Roderigo? Do you think he does more than provide a few comedy moments? Should I feel more sorry for him than I do? Let me know in the comments below.