Is There Life After Sex? Macbeth and Post-Sexuality

Helen Ostovich
McMaster University

Helen Ostovich. “Is There Life After Sex? Macbeth and Post-Sexuality.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 13.1-13 <URL:>.

  1. Although recent studies in history, art, feminism, and folklore offer reconstructions of the past as performances, the effect of such work when evaluating the witches in Macbeth confirms difference in ways that a society in which women routinely live to 82 years of age (with many surviving into their 90s) might be best positioned to calculate. The witches of Macbeth are so old that their organs of increase have not simply shrivelled up; their physical deterioration inverts the elderly ‘sisters’ into gender-confusing, self-indulgent, selectively remembering, outspoken creatures who claim to barter corpses of children for visions of the future. Once seen, never forgotten: their influence apparently seeps into those who invest in their prophesies. The marital life of the Macbeths becomes a reverse slide into inverted gender roles, duplicity, sexual dysfunction, infanticide, and impulsive slaughter, unfathering and unmothering Scotland.1

  2. The witches of Macbeth prompted imitations that invite us to reconsider how Shakespeare’s weird sisters were enacted: what was Jonson picking up on in The Masque of Queens, or Middleton in The Witch? I want to argue that the Jonson/Middleton creation of blackly comic covens of mothers and grandmothers may be closer to Shakespeare’s conception of the weird sisters than other critics have allowed. For modern audiences, especially film-lovers of The Triplets of Belleville, the performance of a conspiracy of crooning crones within an anti-youth, anti-marriage, anti-procreation, criminal culture of despair comments on individual hopelessness in the face of massive ambition, greed, and loss. I am not suggesting that the cartoon feature film is a deliberate adaptation of Macbeth’s witches—far from it, in fact—but I am suggesting that performances play with their material; not only their own script, but also the scripts and fables that went before. By playing with the play and invoking the past in the present (as indeed the cartoon does in retracing the life of its hero—a staple of drama at least since Sophocles) we as active readers and audiences may continue to revise our conceptions of what ‘playing’ means in any age. Whether the performance is a reconstruction of something seen, a parody or burlesque (as was common in early modern puppet shows), or merely a little echo or tribute, the compilation of impressions thus created adds to our understanding of the play by generating new possible meanings.

  3. My defence for this rapid summary of connections rests lightly on the postmodern theatrical choice of stirring tangentially related versions of stories together in a cauldron to create a deliberately dispersed presentist vision with layers of possible meaning:
    [P]ostmodern” is only superficially a style. On a deeper level, it is a multiple and decentred way of understanding the world and our own subjectivity. Instead of leading the audience towards a single dominating significance or interpretation, postmodern theatre, whatever its style, will be characterized by multiple tracks or channels, a demand that the audience respond to many “texts” at once. There is a wonderful sense of theatrical density, bounty and playfulness in good postmodern work; it can be alive with not-quite-nailed-down associations, not-quite-cohered potentialities, formal, literary, political, social, sexual. Of course, critics have attacked postmodernism for just this tendency to dispersal: How can such work ever take up a political position? Yet postmodernism's very subversions of aesthetic unity, social hierarchy, and the so-called “dominant discourses” have an undoubted political potential. (Fuchs 26)
    I add to that loose definition Terry Eagleton’s perhaps not so tongue-in-cheek contention that “positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches ... the heroines of the piece” who reject the violent oppressive society of hollow men, and choose to be “exiles ... inhabiting their own sisterly community on its shadowy borderlands,” infiltrating the Macbeth world with their riddles, but preferring their own world of otherness and playful non-meaning: “Androgynous (bearded women), multiple (three-in-one) and ‘imperfect speakers,’ the witches strike at the stable social, sexual, and linguistic forms which the society of the play needs in order to survive” (2). And then I slip in a pinch of classical myth: what preceded Shakespeare’s witches? The over-arching story I want to begin with is the myth of Perseus and his quest for Medusa’s head, directions to which he obtains from the Grey Women. In this quest, the hero seeks public acknowledgement of his valour, including political acknowledgement as his grandfather’s heir. But who allows him to attain this goal? The three Grey Women are reluctant weird sisters. Ancient, sleepy, decrepit, huge cousins of the Titans and the Gorgons, almost toothless and blind, they possess one tooth and one eye in common, and pass these items from hand to hand as the need arises. Surrounded by the human world of ambition, greed, desire, and mean-spirited self-importance, the sisters live harmoniously together, isolated from the chaos beyond their cave, sharing the same taste and vision, and indifferent to others.

  4. If we see Macbeth as a kind of Perseus, he is a hero whose valour with shiny shield and sword is already demonstrated clearly in the bloody slaughters reported in 1.2, and whose quest for acknowledgement as Duncan’s heir pushes him into contact with the weird sisters. Here, classical myth intersects with early modern demonology, which has a coherent discourse of its own, rooted in a “characteristic idiom, the stress on contrariness and inverse behaviour ... appropriate for identifying and contrasting the key conditions of order and disorder” in which “the ritual activities of witches shared a vocabulary of misrule ... in effect part of a language conventionally employed to establish and condemn the properties of a disordered world” (Clark 100). The formal principle of this discourse is inversion, a mode that allows symbolic or open criticism, “potentially corrosive of existing structures” (Clark 103) and presupposing the rule that its misrule parodies: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11).2 Clark’s excavation of early modern habits of thinking about gender and politics has application to my initial understanding of the weird sisters and their replication in The Masque of Queens and The Witch, creations which spin out of one another and return, allowing us to renew or revise our insights into Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

  5. So, I cannot agree with a scholar like B. J. Sokol, who rejects the singing and dancing witches of the Hecate scenes (3.5 and 4.1.39-43) as “almost certainly extra-Shakespearean interpolations” which he will ignore ”without regrets” (246). Sokol also wants to ignore the sensationalism of performance—“Are we now in danger of over-interpreting a theatrical ploy or convention?”—and the “subversiveness” of witches within and outside of official society, a concept he admits is valuable, but discards because it was “never entertained in Shakespeare’s age” (247, 255). I think Sokol makes these confident claims because he cannot accept the records of performance in the same spirit as he clearly accepts legal records, even though Marion Gibson, among others, has established that legal observation is no more reliable than what viewers in Shakespeare’s day might have deduced from The Masque of Queens and The Witch.3

  6. The singing and dancing witches as performance prelude to Macbeth properly began when James VI of Scotland interrogated the North Berwick witches, and commanded Gillis Duncan to dance; that is, to illustrate (as corroborating evidence for the curious) part of the crime for which she was being tried as a member of the coven that raised a tempest on the North Sea with the sole intent of shipwrecking the king on his wedding journey home from Denmark-Norway.4 The dance, a reel, formerly an empowering occult experience within the coven, now became the witches’ self-incriminating entertainment for the king “who in respect of the strangenes of these matters, tooke great delight to bee present” (Carmichael A3v). The strangeness, if not the legal awkwardness of the act, appears in all three witch plays. The weird sisters, hearing the approach of Macbeth, “hand in hand ... / Thus do go about, about, / Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine” (1.3.33-37). The dancing hags in The Masque of Queens wind up the casting of charms for the birth of Chaos with a similar performance:
    with a strange and sudden music they fell into a magical dance, full of preposterous change and gesticulation, ... do[ing] all things contrary to the custom of men, dancing back to back and hip to hip, their hands joined, and making their circles backward, to the left hand, with strange fantastic motions of their heads and bodies. (ll. 327-32)5
    In Middleton’s The Witch, Hecate and her fellows sing a “charm song about a vessel” as they toss ingredients for a magic potion into the pot while circling and chanting “Round, around, around, about, about – / All ill come running in, all good keep out!” (5.2.65-66, 75-76).6

  7. The striking factor in all these scenes is the representation of the warm social life of witches, gathered together for fun, mischief, and sharing stories among friends, sustained through regular meetings. “When shall we three meet again?” the first witch asks in the first line of Macbeth; and later she prompts her sisters, “Where hast thou been?” (1.3.1). Hecate appears later only to complain about being left out of the witches’ games, and berates them for wasting time on Macbeth, “a wayward son, / Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do, / Loves for his own ends, not for you” (3.5.11-13). What’s in it for witches to bother with a man like that? Clearly, nothing. Before their attempts to raise hell, the Dame in The Masque of Queens asks, “But first relate me what you have sought, / Where you have been, and what you have brought” (l. 140). Hecate in The Witch looks forward to more partying, “When hundred leagues in air we feast and sing, / Dance, kiss and coll, use everything” (1.2.28-29), as she gossips about recipes, sexual encounters, revenge or favours for neighbours, all “for the love of mischief” (1.2.180). Only Middleton’s witches seem to have explicitly active sex lives—including the nocturnal ravishing of young men, incest, and bestiality—but these pleasures, imagined and circulated like old wives’ tales, are simply a routine part of their exuberant undifferentiating embrace of the chaos in which they live, and where they remain unmoralized and unpunished. The play-world beyond the witches, like Macbeth’s, is full of much nastier behaviour, dominated by particular malice and deception. Neither is a feature of the witches’ community, of which Macbeth’s Hecate remarks to her coven, “Oh, well done! I commend your pains, / And every one shall share i’th’gains” (4.1.39-40). These witches do not want to hover over Macbeth or guide him into evil; they already recognize “Something wicked” (4.1.45) in him, give him words and visions that echo his desires, and vanish permanently from the play.

  8. The less explicit sexuality of Macbeth’s witches, perhaps a fantasy of replicating their own barren bodies, is something Janet Adelman explains, in speaking of the planned attack on the master of the Tiger, as “quasi-sexual” (100): the witch promises “I’ll do, and I’ll do, and I’ll do,” leaving the sailor drained “dry as hay” (1.3.11, 19) and impotent with his wife, a pay-back for charity refused. That is, the witch’s project simulates sex, a comforting tale to share with her sisters, like the animal warmth of cats sleeping together in a tangle of limbs on a cold day, sensually pleasurable but not sex, strictly speaking. Similarly, Jonson depicts the dry heaving of simulated childbirth as confused with conception, when the Dame tries to force the earth to “quake / And her belly shall ache / As her back were brake” (ll. 240-41), to deliver or perhaps arouse “Old shrunk-up Chaos” with his “dark and reeking head” (ll. 295-96). The bizarre sexual descriptions of Charm 7 fail to re-invigorate the ancient pre-Creation world, despite the witches’ encouraging grunts and anticipatory laughter:
    Black go in, and blacker come out;
    At thy going down we give thee a shout,
    At thy rising again thou shalt have two,
    And if thou dost what we would have thee do,
    Thou shalt have three, thou shalt have four,
    Thou shalt have ten, thou shalt have a score.
    Hoo! Har! Har! Hoo! (ll. 300-7)
    Like the other post-sexual fantasies of witchcraft, the image is impotent and the charm abortive.

  9. The bizarre singing, dancing, shared confidences and laughter, cuisine, and general adventurousness all suggest that the eeriness of the weird sisters may have been tempered with nervous comedy—an “odd mixture of the terrifying and the near comic” (Adelman 99)—of the same sort Jonson hints at in his antimasque, with its several botched attempts at conjuring Chaos, and that Middleton depicts more broadly in Hecate and her women. The strongest connection is the women’s total absorption in their own activities: not just their singing and dancing, but their whole social engagement in a world of their own choosing and construction, a world defined by their isolation from others, their shared memories, their indifference to the rest of the world, their pleasure in their own exchanges. All of them, in that sense, have a bond with the Grey Women, although not all have a Perseus figure. Perseus appears as the shape of Heroic Virtue in Jonson’s masque, speaking for the queens and arranging for the shackling of the hags to the queens’ chariots. This conjunction of queens and hags is a dubious icon. Other Jonsonian masques expel the antimasque figures when the masquers appear in their glory, but here the hags are hitched to the glorious queens in an uneasy tension, and will require the strictest supervision lest they escape to practice their mischief again. In Middleton’s play, there is no Perseus—no one is that heroic or virtuous—and the witches are free from outside pestering. Macbeth’s witches leave their dark Perseus to his fate: he becomes the Gorgon, losing his own head instead of decapitating and proclaiming his victory over Medusa.

  10. The witches of these plays, in other words, are figments of comedy, always celebrating their own happy ending, always opposing male ‘knowledge’ with their teasing of male fears of subversion, classified as female. As Diane Purkiss argues, Jonson saw his witches “not as allegories of women’s power, but as figures for ignorance, groundless suspicion, and credulity; opposites of learning, rationality and civility … a threat to learning because witch-beliefs exceed the terms of rationality” (202). For Jonson, ignorance or, worse, pretence to knowledge, is always comic. And learning is misleading when perceived as a kind of straight line between problem and answer, without the need to withhold judgment on the basis of ambiguity. A good example pre-dating Jonson’s hags is Macbeth’s reaction to the bloody child that emerges from the cauldron: he interprets the birthing-prophecy as meaning no one can harm him, instead of understanding that “the bloody child is the one who will harm him” (Marchesi 873).7 But the real harm is Macbeth’s belief in the witches’ power to control him. Not so in Jonson or Middleton. The dead infants mentioned by Jonson’s fifth and sixth hags are by-the-way incidents in narratives about playing practical jokes: outwitting a nurse and providing a demonic piper for the church-ale. The tall tales of crib-deaths are preludes to entertainment, not credible facts. The dead baby becomes a comic stage prop in Middleton’s play, when Hecate enters carrying “this unbaptised brat” (1.2.18) whose boiled flesh will render the fat for flying ointment. Her off-hand consignment of the dead baby to the cauldron merely plays on foolish superstitions about witches, and Hecate’s cheerfulness in her task defies the horror invoked by popular fear. The true evil is belief in witchcraft, not old wives’ tales.8 As Purkiss points out, “the witch-scenes brazenly refuse any serious engagement with witchcraft in favour of a forthright rendering of witches as a stage spectacular. These all-singing, all-dancing witches bear about as much relation to the concerns of village women as The Sound of Music does to women’s worries about childcare in the 1990s” (207). The rhythms of their voices may create different “soundscapes” for each play, but the differences do not override the essential shared activity of finding the music that binds them together as witches, as others, as women taking charge of defiant female space.9

  11. The Triplets of Belleville (2003), a brilliant Franco-Belgian-Canadian cartoon, plays a riff on the Grey Women and the early modern witches of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton. The freedom of all the witches (or potential freedom, in the case of The Masque of Queens, whose hags remain a seeping threat to any queens who lose control of their chariots) is the freedom to live in their own created space without permanent consequences. The Triplets enjoy their cozy chaos, tolerating their poverty by nostalgically remembering their glory days as cabaret stars of the roaring ’20s and decadent pre-war ’30s, a time whose occasionally violent magic shows up in a brief flashback (Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes flip off, reveal their fangs, and chew the dancer to death). The Triplets’ post-war world of 1950s Belleville (still a squalid neighbourhood in Paris full of sex-shops and decrepit housing), is a dangerous night-time place of darkness,10 but metaphorically these sisters, like the Grey Women, share one eye and one tooth—the same point of view and the same taste. Music—singing and dancing—is the basis of their enjoyment of what life offers, indifferent to the seedy excesses of the underworld exposed in their tenement building, or among the grotesquely fat capitalist consumers on fashionable Parisian streets. These sisters live among their instruments and memories, sharing everything, including one bed (another post-sexual moment: they share giggles before sleep). The Triplets grasp new adventures as eagerly as new rhythms, exuding a kind of eccentric integrity despite their habit of tossing grenades to resolve problems—whether netting frogs for dinner, or rescuing a distressed boy from the mob. In this version of the myth, Perseus is a tiny club-footed granny, Madame Souza, whose goal is to save her orphaned grandson from his grief. The grandson, Champion, despite his name, is not a hero, but a type of Andromeda, an innocent sacrifice in a cruel world that left him deeply depressed, relieved only by his passion for cycling (a link to his lost father). And this passion is what almost destroys him: the mobsters kidnap him and two other cyclists during the Tour de France, and use them in an stationary three-seat infernal cycling machine to generate bets out of a voraciously gambling audience. Madame Souza has to rescue Champion from this gambling-hell guarded by killers—a quest she is able to complete, thanks to her own technical ingenuity and the Triplets’ “constant subversive fluidity.”11

  12. The Triplets are “weird,” not in the supernatural sense, but in the mundane sense of being conspicuously unconventional, bizarre, or eccentric, more “openly theatrical” (Greenblatt 127) than Shakespeare’s witches, less cynical than Middleton’s; and “sisters” in the feminist sense of consolidating their female power to resist and outwit patriarchal bullies. They fulfil Marvin Rosenberg’s latching onto the OED definition of the “weyward” sisters as “capriciously wilful; conforming to no fixed rule or principle of conduct, erratic” (12).12 With unfettered imagination, they can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary: a refrigerator, a newspaper, and a vacuum-cleaner become instruments for new rhythms, and Madame Souza’s similar transformational skill (she turns an abandoned bicycle wheel into a cross between a xylophone and a steel drum) wordlessly invokes their aid as they join her in singing, hand-clapping, finger-snapping, foot-stamping, and laughter. Although The Triplets of Belleville is an apparently positive romance-vision of ancient women literally in tune with one another, a successful quest in which a handicapped grandmother, with her back-up trio, valiantly delivers her damaged grandson from his criminal abusers, there is a downside. The unimpaired mirth and energy of the Triplets does not guarantee anything but an infantilized existence: both for the Triplets themselves, who live for their past, their music, and their favourite treats, frog soup, grilled frogs on skewers, and iced frog-lollies (frogsicles?); and for Champion, who lives on with his granny in a gap in time, in a crumbling house in a polluted countryside, the boy aging but never maturing, grateful but not happy, certainly not self-reliant, the granny always nurturing and protecting a static cocoon from which no butterfly will ever emerge.

  13. What I have tried to suggest in this discussion is an alternate way of viewing the Macbeth witches: not as figures of fate; not as malicious tools of the devil; not as the sick and impoverished old women accused of retaliatory witchcraft on the basis of charity refused; but as critical responses to a community in which patriarchal disorder is so pervasive that only a matriarchal parody can find the loophole and escape to a new order. Whether we talk of a Scotland fraught by inept leadership, civil war, and foreign invasion from England, or a Belleville blighted not only by physical pollution from rapid transportation and the rigours of commuting, but also by cultural pollution from criminal takeovers and capitalism gone berserk with fast food, fast money, and fast sex, the question is who or what can we rescue, and from what ideological stance? In Macbeth, neither Malcolm nor Macduff offer viable options: Malcolm tests people by lying, and Macduff thoughtlessly abandons his family to slaughter. If there is more to those characters than the negative, then there is more to the weird sisters too, and performance experiments are key: “The acceptance of the performative as a category of theory as well as a fact of behavior has made it increasingly difficult to sustain the distinction between appearances and facts, surfaces and depths, illusions and substances. Appearances are actualities” (Schechner 362). If the witches appear more like the Triplets, then the play offers a different judgment on Macbeth’s choices and Lady Macbeth’s wifely support for those choices.13 In The Witch, Middleton’s caricature of the weird sisters burlesques something valuable in Macbeth, an alternative that modern criticism does not take up. If we look back from The Triplets of Belleville, perhaps we can see the options and try to understand the complications in a new way.


    1 See, for example, Callaghan.

    2 All textual references, indicated parenthetically in the text, are to the Norton Critical Edition edited by Robert Miola.

    3 See Gibson, especially chapter 1.

    4 The full story is available in the thirty-page pamphlet attributed to James Carmichael, Newes from Scotland (1592).

    5 All line number references, given parenthetically in the text, are to Stephen Orgel’s edition in The Complete Masques of Ben Jonson.

    6 All play references, given parenthetically in the text, are to the New Mermaids edition edited by Elizabeth Schafer.

    7 Marchesi argues that “knowledge” for the play’s characters is fact-based, finding concrete answers to riddles, not accepting riddles as sources of more information that might lead to different answers.

    8 See DeLong.

    9 See King.

    10 For implications of the dark time of day for witches and other “merry wanderer[s] of the night,” see Griffiths.

    11 Erickson defined the Macbeth witches with this phrase (334).

    12 See “weyward” in the Rosenberg’s index, and the OED’s definition under “wayward” but including “weyward” in its etymology: 1. Disposed to go counter to the wishes or advice of others, or to what is reasonable; wrongheaded, intractable, self-willed; froward, perverse [and variations applying to things, judgment, words, and disease] 2. Capriciously wilful; conforming to no fixed rule or principle of conduct; erratic.”

    13 See Cristina Leon Alfar’s brilliant and engaging article on deconstructing Lady Macbeth as the good wife.

    Works Cited

    • Adelman, Janet. “ ‘Born of a Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. Ed. Marjorie Garber. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985. 90-121. Print.

    • Alfar, Cristina Leon. “ ‘Blood will have blood’: Power, Performance, and Lady Macbeth’s Gender Trouble.” Journal X 2.2 (1998): 179-207. Print.

    • Callaghan, Dympna. “Wicked Women in Macbeth: A Study of Power, Ideology, and the Production of Motherhood.” Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the Twenty-First Annual Conference. Ed. Mario A. Di Cesare. Binghamton: MRTS, 1992. 355-69. Print.

    • Carmichael, James. Newes from Scotland. London, 1592. STC 10841a. Print.

    • Clark, Stuart. “Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft.” Past and Present 87 (1980): 98-127. Print.

    • DeLong, Anne. “ ‘What are these?’: Hunting for Witches in Macbeth.” Shakespeare and Renaissance Association of West Virginia: Selected Paper 27 (2004): 23-34. Print.

    • Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. Print.

    • Erickson, Peter. “Rewriting the Renaissance, Rewriting Ourselves.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 327-38. Print.

    • Fuchs, Elinor. “Cymbeline and Its Critics: A Case Study.” American Theatre 6.9 (1987): 24-31. Print.

    • Gibson, Marion. Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

    • Greenblatt, Stephen. “Shakespeare Bewitched.” New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. 108-35. Print.

    • Griffiths, Paul. “Meanings of Nightwalking in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 13.2 (1998): 212-38. Print.

    • Jonson, Ben. The Complete Masques of Ben Jonson. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969. Print.

    • King, Ros. “ ‘Action and accent did they teach him there’: Shakespeare and the Construction of Soundscape.” Shakespeare and the Mediterranean. Ed. Thomas Clayton, Susan Brock, and Vicente Forés. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2004. 180-93. Print.

    • Marchesi, Patricia. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Post-Reformation Desire.” Literature Compass 5.4 (2008): 865-76. Print.

    • Middleton, Thomas. The Witch. Ed. Elizabeth Schafer. London: A & C Black, 1994. Print. New Mermaids.

    • Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representation. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

    • Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Macbeth. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978. Print.

    • Schechner, Richard. “What is Performance Studies Anyway?” The Ends of Performance. Ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998. 357-62. Print.

    • Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. A Norton Critical Edition.

    • Sokol, B. J. “Macbeth and the Social History of Witchcraft.” Shakespeare Yearbook 6 (1996): 245-74. Print.

    • The Triplets of Belleville [Les Triplettes de Belleville]. Dir. Sylvain Chomet. Panorama Entertainment, 2003. Film.

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