We’re going as classic as it gets with this entry, folks: meet the Weird Sisters from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now, some of you may be thinking, “Shakespeare? Shakespeare isn’t horror – unless you count the horror I feel at having to read complex sentences HEY YO!” Academics, in a similar vein, might think, “Shakespeare isn’t horror. Shakespeare is good literature, whereas horror is trash.” Hell, even most horror literature scholars would probably think, “Wait, wait, the first horror novel is The Castle of Otranto, which was written well after Shakespeare was dead. This doesn’t add up.”
Well, let’s take a look at the roots of the Horror Genre, shall we – or at least the roots of Horror in Western Literature, as it’s positively wrong to think that Western Culture is the source of all horror stories. In addition to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (still the first horror novel as far as we know), you also have several other early horror writers like Ann Radcliffe and William Beckford. Radcliffe is particularly important, as she was one of the most prolific horror writers of her time, while most of her contemporaries were kind of one hit wonders. These writers all had one major thing in common (besides writing horror): they all fucking loved Shakespeare.
Walpole (writer of the first horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, can’t stress this enough, it’s an important book) went on and on in his personal letters about how much he looked up to Shakespeare and tried to learn from the bard’s plays. If you look at the structure of his novel (and also his play The Mysterious Mother, which isn’t quite as good), you will see it takes after several patterns in Shakespeare’s work, in addition to just outright referencing the man’s plays now and then. Radcliffe, however, went the extra mile by writing an entire article (in the form of a socratic dialogue, because people were cultured as fuck back then) about how the two primary modes of fear in Gothic literature – horror and terror – are perfectly illustrated by two of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet, and… Macbeth.
Those two plays keep coming up, in fact, the more and more you research those early Gothic horror writers. Radcliffe was right – the formulas and techniques she and her peers were all working with are shamelessly pilfered from Shakespeare’s most spooky plays.
This has a curious effect, or at least it did on me. Many readers have seen the roots and foundation of the present day horror genre in those old stories. Well, it works backwards too – once you see the connection between Shakespeare and the early gothic horror tales, it’s easy to start viewing those two plays as horror stories themselves. After all, they fit the pattern – it’s a bit more medieval than, say, Dracula, but the beats are very close to each other. In the right light, Macbeth stops being just a work of the Renaissance, and instead becomes the progenitor of a whole new genre.
Which finally brings us back to our power trio here: the Weird Sisters. While the main monster/villain of Macbeth is, well, Macbeth, he isn’t the only grim grinning ghoul in the play. There are ghosts and demons apparitions, and then there are the witches. And again, I feel the need to give a history lesson.
Nowadays the term witch has kinda been shaved down to just a human with magical powers, but in Shakespeare’s day it was something way more monstrous. Witches were humans who had pledged themselves to demons, and let the fallen angels inhabit their bodies to give them great supernatural power. A witch was no longer human once the pact was filled, and their bodies twisted into something monstrous as a result (though they could always use magic to hide their hideousness if they needed to). In short, witches were more like Slenderman than Hermione Granger: monsters masquerading as human beings, and doing a shitty job of it while they’re at it.
When other characters see the witches in Macbeth, their reactions are something that should be very familiar to the modern horror fan: it’s the uncanny valley in full effect, the discomfort at how something appears close to being human, and yet is imperceptibly off. Two battle hardened knights practically shit their pants at the sight of these hags, one of whom is then compelled to rattle off all the ways they are almost human and yet incredibly, terribly off. We didn’t have the term uncanny valley back then, but Shakespeare was exploiting it as much as his 17th century theater budget could.
Like any good monster, the witches are symbols. They ride in on a storm during a bloody war, plague sailors with storms, kill livestock, and generally cause a ruckus while the kingdom goes to shit. They are natural disasters incarnate – every plague, storm, and other calamity that could crush a medieval kingdom wrapped up in three monstrous hags. Shakespeare digs deeper still, however, by mining the medieval European beliefs about such disasters.
Back in ye olde middle ages, it was believed that the King was literally chosen by God to rule. As an agent of the divine, the King’s purity was of great importance. A king that failed in his duties – by being sick, or weak, or old, or incompetent, or, worst of all, immoral – was committing a sacrilege, and as a result his country would be doomed to disaster and ruin until a good king took his place. The worse the king’s weakness, the worse the disaster, with monsters attacking only the sickest of kings.
So the witches arrive during a period of social unrest. The current king of Scotland is old and withered, and some of his servants have already betrayed him. They tell Macbeth that in the future he will be king, and, sap that he is, Macbeth not only believes them, but actively makes the prophecy come true by killing the king to take his place.
Now, if the king is God’s agent on earth, what would killing a king be? Sacrilege. Sacrilege of the worst order, especially since the same murderer then claims the throne. As per medieval tradition, everything goes to shit. Horses eat each other, prey animals kill and devour their pursuers, ghosts stir up shit, and Macbeth keeps on killing people even though his wife asked him to cut down on that – and all the while the witches make themselves comfortable and enjoy the show.
A lot of people call the witches evil, but I’m not sure I buy that. The witches incite destruction, sure, and they pay disproportionate retribution unto others, but they never do things without cause. The witches don’t tell Macbeth to kill the king – they simply say he will be king. It’s Macbeth who decides the only way that will work involves murder. There were other ways Macbeth could have been king. He chose to kill, whereas the witches just seem to go where death is and let it flow through them.
Destruction is not evil when you have no choice in the matter. It just is. And the witches are destruction incarnate. They cannot choose not to destroy – it’s simply the force they embody. I dunno, that’s just my personal opinion. They do commune with demons, so if you want to say they’re pure evil you’re allowed. Though whether demons were actually pure evil or just flawed back then was actually debated by a lot of writers and scholars. Regardless of whether or not they’re truly evil, the Weird Sisters are certainly terrifying, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the traditions of the Western Horror Genre are at least partially a result of their legacy. To this day they’re still scaring people in productions of Macbeth across the world, and it’s doubtful they’ll ever stop.