The witches’ chant in Macbeth is powerful poetry and powerful drama. It derives its power from several features. Among them are the rhymes, the rhythm of the words, the interpolation of a chorus, the increasing complexity of the lines as the poem progresses, and the vivid and horrifying imagery. Shakespeare may have had many aims in this play, some of them as deep as the Protestant/Catholic conflict that was roiling in Elizabethan England, but this particular piece of poetry stands on its own, apart from its historical context.
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The most striking characteristic of the poem upon first reading is the rhyming. As Clugson points out, most of the personae of the play speak their parts in blank verse for most of the time (Clugston, 2010). The appearance of these definite, assertive, unsubtle rhymes in the midst of the heroic declamation sets it apart instantly.
The character of the rhymes is heavily constrained. Each line taps out a “four-beatrhythm”(Wilson, 2002, p. 126). Wilson describes the result as a “‘drumming insistence’ with a musical effect which is irresistibly conspiratorial, ‘hovering between a ritual and a threat’” (Wilson, 2002, p. 126). This wonderful description captures the feeling of a dance that this poem has evoked for many young people, even if they did not know what issues or events the play addresses.
These lines are largely monosyllabic, a feature which, as Kranz notes, makes the iambic pentameter very obvious (Kranz, 2003, p. 346), almost a caricature of itself. The words that Shakespeare chooses for these lines also display what Kranz accurately describes as “fricative alliteration” (Kranz, 2003, p. 346). This gives the poem a hissing sound, which reinforces the nearly inhuman nature of the speakers and the spectral activities they pursue. A poem of equivalent power in using rhythm might be Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo(Lindsay, 1917).
The chorus lines demarcate the verses, providing a welcome relief from the insistence of the ingredients list. The chorus also includes all the participants, transforming the poem from a recitation to an incantation, a shared, almost sacramental activity. This pattern is very reminiscent of the versicles/responses in the Christian mass, or the call-and-response of African music.
In light of Wilson’s contention that the witches symbolized the Elizabethans’ suppressed and rebellious Catholic gentry (Wilson, 2002, p. 129), the chorus also seems more than a rhythmic change of pace. The altered rhythm makes the lines around the chorus stand out in greater relief.
The imagery is where the poem really packs a massive punch. Shakespeare has assembled a collection of ghastly items that retain their power to shock and make us squeamish. This is true even in an era when the reader is quite likely to have a poison tree frog or an endangered tiger on their t-shirt.
Shakespeare manages this by selecting animals that are not our cuddly barnyard friends. These creatures mostly hail from other taxonomic groups and distinctly different modes of life. There are examples of reptiles (adder, blindworm, snake, and lizard), amphibians (newts, toads, and frog), nocturnal mammals (bat), nocturnal birds (owl, or howlet), notochord (shark), and mythical (dragon).
The cat appears as a herald of mischief, and the dog appears in the form of its tongue. This latter is one of the most alien body parts of man’s best friend; dogs, after all, only sweat through their tongues. The goat, perhaps the least sympathetic of domestic animals, is represented by its gall, a bitter and mysterious organ.
The reader moves from the more revolting portions of the animal kingdom to the misfits of the human world. The poem lists the offal of the witch, Jew, Tartar and Turk, all despised groups. Jews were discriminated against severely (Campos, 2002), scapegoated even more severely than Catholics (who were in active, violent rebellion (Wilson, 2002, p. 139), and ghettoized.
The Tartars were a name to evoke terror, for their ravages, all over Europe. The Turks had threatened Europeans in the Holy Land for centuries. These choices by Shakespeare for his poem, then, were among the most frightening boogeymen of Elizabethan England. Witches were another emerging fear, in an era of religious conflict.
The most disturbing image – that of the body parts of a poor, demoralized girl’s roadside infanticide being used in witches’ potions – is distressing on many levels. Just in this one image, the reader is reminded of the issue of sexual exploitation of women (Why is the girl pregnant out of wedlock in the first place?), class oppression (If the father was of the same social class, why did they not simply get married?
If the father is of a different social class, what gave him the right to victimize?), hypocrisy in attitudes about sexual behavior (Would a wealthy girl be consigned to this position?). Thus, Shakespeare caps off a gallery of horrors.
These imagesmake readers and viewers think of all the things that made people shudder and cringe, from slimy or predatory animals to the Elizabethan world’s version of terrorists. Shakespeare has woven together rhymes that pound, a rhythm that evokes the slow, foreboding dance of the witches, a chorus that brings everyone into the action, and images that retain their power to disturb after all these centuries. I am struck by all, but especially by his deeply upsetting imagery.
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Campos, E. V. ( 2002, Fall). Jews, Spaniards, and Portingales: Ambiguous Identities of Portuguese Marranos in Elizabethan England. Englis Literary History, 69(3), 599-616. doi:E-ISSN:1080-6547.
Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into Literature. NY: Bridgepoint.
Kranz, D. (2003, Summer). Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth. Studies in Philology, 100(3). Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4174762?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Lindsay, V. (1917). The Congo. In H. Monroe (Ed.), The New Poetry: An Anthology. Retrieved from https://www.bartleby.com/265/193.html
Wilson, R. (2002). The Pilot’s Thumb: Macbeth and the Jesuits. In T. L. Stories, & R. Poole (Ed.), The Lancashire Witches (pp. 126-145). Manchester: Manchester Universiity Press.