Is There Life After Sex? Macbeth and Post-Sexuality
Helen Ostovich. “Is There Life After Sex? Macbeth and Post-Sexuality.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 13.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/ostomacb.html>.
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
- 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
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
- 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.
- 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
creations which spin out of one another and return, allowing us to
renew or revise our insights into Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
- 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
- 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
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.
In Middleton’s The
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
- 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
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
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.
- 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
Black go in, and blacker come
Like the other post-sexual
fantasies of witchcraft, the image is impotent and the charm
At thy going down we give thee a
At thy rising again thou shalt
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)
- 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.
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
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
- The Triplets
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.
- 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.
for example, Callaghan.
textual references, indicated parenthetically in the text, are to
the Norton Critical Edition edited by Robert Miola.
3 See Gibson,
especially chapter 1.
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
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
implications of the dark time of day for witches and other “merry
wanderer[s] of the night,” see Griffiths.
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
Cristina Leon Alfar’s brilliant and engaging article on
deconstructing Lady Macbeth as the good wife.
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.
Cristina Leon. “ ‘Blood will have blood’: Power, Performance,
and Lady Macbeth’s Gender Trouble.” Journal
X 2.2 (1998): 179-207. Print.
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.
London, 1592. STC 10841a. Print.
Stuart. “Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft.” Past
and Present 87 (1980): 98-127. Print.
Anne. “ ‘What are these?’: Hunting for Witches in Macbeth.” Shakespeare
and Renaissance Association of West Virginia: Selected Paper 27 (2004): 23-34. Print.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. Print.
Peter. “Rewriting the Renaissance, Rewriting Ourselves.” Shakespeare
(1987): 327-38. Print.
Elinor. “Cymbeline and
Its Critics: A Case Study.” American
(1987): 24-31. Print.
Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches.
New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Stephen. “Shakespeare Bewitched.” New
Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts,
Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds. Princeton: Princeton UP,
1993. 108-35. Print.
Paul. “Meanings of Nightwalking in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth
Century 13.2 (1998): 212-38. Print.
Complete Masques of Ben Jonson. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969. Print.
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.
Patricia. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Post-Reformation Desire.” Literature
Compass 5.4 (2008): 865-76. Print.
Ed. Elizabeth Schafer. London: A & C Black, 1994. Print. New
Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century
New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Masks of Macbeth.
Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978. Print.
Richard. “What is Performance Studies Anyway?” The
Ends of Performance.
Ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998.
Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. A Norton
B. J. “Macbeth and the Social History of Witchcraft.” Shakespeare
Yearbook 6 (1996): 245-74. Print.
Triplets of Belleville [Les
Triplettes de Belleville].
Dir. Sylvain Chomet. Panorama Entertainment, 2003. Film.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2009-, Matthew
Steggle (Editor, EMLS).