"They have more in them than mortal knowledge..." (Act 1, Scene 5)
While the witches are one of the most striking and memorable aspects of Macbeth, some of the witch scenes in the play were probably not written by Shakespeare at all. They were taken from another play, by Thomas Middleton, and added to Macbeth by Shakespeare's acting company after he had died. They draw heavily on the conventional theatrical stereotypes of Shakespeare's time, giving us witches that are sometimes scary, sometimes silly.
Shakespeare's historical source for the events of the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, gives a different view of the witches. It says that the beings who appeared to Macbeth and Banquo were widely thought to be "the goddesses of destiny." This is in keeping with the way the witches are referred to in the dialogue: they are always called "the weïrd sisters," where "weïrd" comes from the Old English term wyrd, meaning fate or destiny. And the primary power that the witches have in the play is indeed the ability to prophesy about what will happen in the future.
This set of ideas links the witches of the play back to the older, pre-Christian mythological traditions of early Europe. They stand in a line of "goddesses of destiny" such as the Norns of Norse mythology and the Greek Fates. For this production, we've been exploring the possibilities of taking this idea literally and treating our witches as goddesses of destiny, powerful supernatural beings that exist on a different level of reality than the human characters and have "more in them than mortal knowledge."
Along these lines, the goddess Hecate appears as a character the published text of the play, but she is probably part of what was added to the play by other writers. Hecate is invoked at other times in the play, however, and we became intrigued with the possibilities that arose from tracing her back to her roots. In classical mythology, Hecate was a powerful goddess of night, magic, crossroads, etc. An ancient Greek hymn to Hecate goes like this:
Hekate of the Path, I invoke Thee, Lovely Lady of the Triple Crossroads,
Celestial, Chthonian, and Marine One, Lady of the Saffron Robe.
Sepulchral One, celebrating the Mysteries among the Souls of the Dead,
Daughter of Perseus, Lover of Solitude, rejoicing in deer.
Nocturnal One, Lady of the Dogs, invincible Queen.
She of the Cry of the Beast, Ungirt One, having an irresistible Form.
Bullherder, Keeper of the Keys of All the Universe, Mistress,
Guide, Bride, Nurturer of Youths, Mountain Wanderer.
I pray Thee, Maiden, to be present at our hallowed rites of initiation,
Always bestowing Thy graciousness upon the officiant.
Hecate is usually depicted as a triple goddess, with three faces and three bodies, as for example in the carving shown below. Since there are three witches in the play, this led to some interesting possibilities for staging...