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The Witches as the Heroines of Macbeth
Traditionally, the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth have been treated as symbolic manifestations of the potential for evil. Many students and critics of Macbeth enjoy blaming the witches, along with Lady Macbeth, for Macbeth's downfall. Regardless, it may be argued that the witches are the heroines of the play.
One eminent modern literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has addressed the issue of the witches as heroines directly:
To any unprejudiced reader--which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics--it is surely clear that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches. The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little the play itself recognizes the fact, and however much the critics may have set out to defame them. (William Shakespeare, p. 2)
For Eagleton, the social reality of the witches matters. They are outcasts, much like feminists they live on the fringe of society in a female community, at odds with the male world of "civilization," which values military butchery. The fact that they are female and associated with the natural world beyond the aristocratic oppression in the castles indicates that they are excluded others. Their equality in a female community declares their opposition to the masculine power of the militaristic society. They have no direct power, but they have become expert at manipulating or appealing to the self-destructive contradictions of their military oppressors. They can see Macbeth's destruction as a victory of a sort: one more viciously individualistic, aggressive male oppressor has gone under.
This suggestion is not entirely serious (Eagleton observes that the play does not recognize the issue he is calling attention to), but it underscores a key point in the tragic experience of Macbeth, its connection to a willed repudiation of the deep mysterious heart of life, the place where sexuality and the unconscious hold sway. This aspect of life is commonly associated with and hence symbolized by women, for complex reasons which there is not time to go into here (but which would seem to be intimately bound up with women's sexuality and fertility, contacts with the irrational centres of life which men do not understand and commonly fear). In seeking to stamp his own willed vision of the future onto life, the tragic hero rejects a more direct acquaintance with or acceptance of life's mystery.
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The notion that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are, in a sense, punished by some life force drew a short comment from Freud (in Some Character-types Met With in Psycho-analytical Work, 1916), in response to questions about the accuracy of Shakespeare's depiction of their motivation and subsequent psychic breakdown. While confessing himself at something of a loss to account for the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in detail, Freud sees an important suggestion in the notion of childlessness:
It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of generation-if Macbeth could not become a father because he had robbed children of their father and a father of his children, and if Lady Macbeth suffered the unsexing she had demanded of the spirits of murder. I believe Lady Macbeth's illness, the transformation of her callousness into penitence, could be explained directly as a reaction to her childlessness, by which she is convinced of her impotence against the decrees of nature, and at the same time reminded that it is through her own fault if her crime has been robbed of the better parts of its fruits.
Freud notes that the compressed time frame of the play does not invite this analytical conclusion, so he does not push home this possibility. And he concludes his short remarks with the suggestion that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are, in effect, a single personality, so that, considered as a unit, "Together they exhaust the possibilities of reaction to the crime, like two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality, and it may be that they are both copied from the same prototype."
This final suggestion might help us to see that the impact of the tragedy is, in part, conveyed to us by the falling apart of the couple who, when we first meet them, seem entirely in harmony with one another - one strong being is separated into two weaker beings and separately they are destroyed.
Macbeth is a work of art, and if it is effective, it does its work through our emotional responses to the poetry (and the action in a performance), not by making some closely argued case about the nature of the world.