Episode 3

The King, The Witches and the Undoing of Lady Macbeth

Published on: 12th April, 2021

Hello my friends!

How are you all doing? Wow I’m hyped up on a tremendous amount of caffeine, so thats a good thing. 

Also, the truth is that these last few months, since January have been hard for me when it comes to my health and taking care of myself. I haven’t been going to yoga regularly - and in the last 7 years, hot yoga has been the way I stay strong and sane. And I simply got out of the habit.

I also have been eating my feelings, especially at night, how many of you can relate to that? Numbing myself with Netflix, wine and chips. ANd there’s nothing wrong with doing that. It's simply that it’s making me unhealthy, and it wasn’t making me feel very good. Isn;t that funny. Even when we know something isn’t good for us, if we’re used to it, even if it feels bad, it kinda feels good or safe at the same time? It’s like our bodies are used to doing this thing and so they want us to keep doing it. It feels normal and safe in so many ways.

I had some realizations over the last week, some really great things that have happened. I started going back to hot yoga and I’m feeling feisty! In the best way possible! so I’m calling this Spring my focus on my renewal.

Alright! Today my friends we are talking about WITCHES...

Double, double

Toil and trouble

Fire burn and

Cauldron bubble

Today we are going to start our conversation around WITCHES, and I say START because this is a really vast topic and we will talk about this from lots of different perspectives over the course of the show.

We’ll delve into WHY the 3 witches were so important in the Scottish Play, even though they only appeared 2 times

And we’ll START to look at the comparison and contrast between Lady Macbeth and the 3 witches and LAdy Ms transformation inside her story arc

It’s important to set the stage with some backstory on the time period we’re talking about- the very early 1600s. King James 1 of England is also King James the 4th of Scotland. Same person. He rules as King of Scotland from 1567 to 1625 and picked up the role of King of England in addition to Scotland when Queen Elizabeth, his distant cousin died, and was chosen as her successor. 

And my promise to you in that we are going to go deep into Queen Elizabeth 1 as a powerful fierce ruler and leader, why she never married, and how she was able to rule in such a patriarchal structure .

Witchcraft, and women (and men) being accused of being witches was not a new thing in Jacobean England but it wasn’t made a capital offense in Britain until 1563, although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. 

From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe. Most of them women.

What we need to understand is that during the reign of King James 1 people of all social status and intellect levels believed in the reality of witchcraft or enchantment. This was part of their everyday lives - just like we know for a fact that the planets rotate around the sun, the people back then “knew” this as if it were absolutely truth.

In fact before he assumed the role of King of England King James actually wrote a dissertation titled Daemonologie that was first sold in 1597, and this book was heavily influenced by the North Berwick Witch trials of 1590. 

And this all gets very interesting on several fronts, when King James is betrothed to Princess Anne of Denmark.

She’s only 14 years old at the time and in 1589 they’re married in Denmark by proxy, and an earl marchial stands in for King James. Then Anne sets sail from Denmark to Scotland along with a fleet of 14 ships. Now, the weather and storms that fall caused some pretty harsh sailing conditions and set light to a vigorous renewal in the fear of witches.

According to Phillipa Gregory, author and historian,

“ Anne’s journey was a disaster – the fierce storms damaged her ship and she was forced to anchor in Norway for repairs. 

A second attempt to set sail was made, but her ship once again sprung a leak and returned to Norway. With winter setting in, the bad weather was expected to continue, the decision was made to postpone the journey until spring, and so Anne remained in Norway.”

Now King James was NOT known for his chivalry. But he set sail to NOrway to claim his new bride and also experienced fierce storms - borrowing from a Tumblr post from the sadly abandoned profile, Paisley Sweets, who wrote incredibly eloquent analysis on Sleep No More and the layers and history that it’s wrapped in writes of James’ journey to claim his queen:

“[James] was not to land without a sharp taste of the dangers he had voluntarily encountered, for, on the fifth day, a furious tempest sprang up: during four and twenty hours the king’s little barque was in great danger of wreck.” 

And they are quoting, I believe from Strickland, Agnes. Lives of the Queens of England. London: Bell & Daldy, 1873. 15

If you’d like to go down a sumptuous rabbit hole of wit and beautiful prose and also learn a bit more about this, I’ll link this blog post in the shownotes. It has some Sleep No MOre spoilers in it but it is so delicious that it’s worth it!

WHY THIS IS ALL IMPORTANT and what does it have to do with witches!?

On Anne’s first attempt to try and get to Scotland when the ships were tempest-tossed and had to stop in Norway to be repaired, The admiral of the Danish Fleet, Peter Munk, argues with his treasurer Christoffer Valkendorff about the ships and the cause of the storm. He BLAMES the storm on the wife of a high official in Coppenhaugen, whom he insulted. 

That somehow she cast a spell on the journey and called up the storms they encountered.

Let’s be clear- all it took back then was for someone to accuse someone else, usually a woman, of witchcraft or enchantment and it was game over. 

The idea took hold that it wasn’t just one witch, it was a group of them. Eventually witch trials began in Denmark and The first woman who was accused gave up 5 more who all “confessed” to raising the storms and sending Devils to Queen Anne’s ship. 

And what made them confess to this? Torture.

When King James and Queen Anne are safely back in  England. He hears about the witchcraft trials in Denmark in 1590, he set up his own tribunal which was known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

The most famous victim was Agnes Sampson was a well known and respected healer and healers were often not always, but most of the time women. Side note for all my SNM listeners...since King James and Queen Anne’s ocean travels play so heavily into the fabric of our dear McKittrick, is Agnes Naismith a nod to Agnes Sampson? Hmmmm let’s discuss ,y friends.,,,

Women who had talent, who knew how to heal with plants and herbs, midwives who helped women give birth had knowledge. THey had power. They stood visible in it - this was a direct threat to the male-dominated field of medicine, of doctors. 

Women were not supposed to have the kind of intelligence that would allow them to learn how natural herbs could help with different medical conditions so what they did MUST have been the Devil’s work and unnatural. So they were targeted.

When Agnes was originally questioned she denied everything, calling up storms to harm the king and queen. She was brought before King James himself and still she denied doing anything or knowing anything and so the torture escalated.

She was stripped naked, her entire body was shaved, which was common at that time because the inquisitors were looking for what they called the Devil’s mark - which could mean a freckle, a birthmark, a mole. And what they did was stick very sharp instruments into any mark they found to see if they bled. And any mark that didn’t bleed was the devil’s mark and proof the woman was a witch. And so the inquiry was also the punishment.

Agnes, like many women accused of being witches, was forced to wear a iron muzzle called a Witches Bridle. This heavy apparatus was around her head, and had spikes that pressed against the inside of her cheeks as well as a metal plate with spikes on it that covered her tongue so she was unable to speak. 

And this was very common practice not only in England and Scotland but also in America around this time. A way to torture and silence women. 

Women who instilled FEAR in men.

Eventually Agnes broke under this extreme torture, confessed and was burned alive.

I tell you this story for 2 reasons.

 1. Because I want us all to feel the reality and the weight of what used to happen to us simply because we were women. And King James himself explains in his dissertation Daemonologie  wHy women were so much more inclined to succumb to the devil's temptations than men are:

“The reason ise easie, for as that sex is frailer than a male is, so it is easier to be entrapped by the grosse snares of The Devil, as was over well proved to be true, by the serpents deceiving Eve at the beginning.”

Another well known and earlier work about how to hunt a witch, called the Malleus Maleficarum, a manual for conducting a trial of those accused of witchcraft and was written by  Dominican Friars Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1486.

Grounded in satanism written in 3 parts. First part Proves that witches exist. Second part goes into what witches did and how they did it and third part is practical advice for the judge who presides over the trial.

Leans heavily against midwives - herbs

“Witches worked to:

Divert men to irregular love

Impede the procreative force

Remove mens’ penises

Change men into beasts

Cause miscarriages

Offer newborn babies to demons”

The form of disputation, or academic debate Used in this book was one where they would cite past authority to support current arguments - Expert John Chrysostom Archbishop of the Catholic Church circa 349-407:

“What else is a woman

But the enemy of friendship

An inescapable punishment

A necessary evil

A natural temptation

A desirable disaster

A danger in the home

A delightful detriment

Painted with nice color”

I want you to stop what you’re doing and listen to this. The Malleus Maleficarum also notes that there are many “reasons” a woman could be suspected of and accused of being a witch. Here are just a few:

If they were too UGLY or too pretty

If they were too pious OR not pious enough

If they were too lustful or not lustful enough

If they were too smart or mentally deficient

If they had a bodily “defect” like a birthmark, wart or mole

I mean think about this. Not only couldn’t we win, but how far off does this feel to you all when you think about how we’re referenced today.

She’s such a pushover. She’s such a bitch

She’s too fat. She’s nothing but skin and bones.

She’s too sexy. She’s frigid. 

She’s too meek. Who the hell does she think she is.

And again I will say, while our patriarchal structures and society DIVE this - this is NOT ONLY MEN saying these things. Women - we say these things about each other.

We say these things about OURSELVES.

We still deal with these SAME judgements, and the punishment for being too much and not enough is very similar.

And the second reason I tell Agnes’ story is. Because I want us all to get that Shakespeare, opening Macbeth with the scene with the 3 witches - this was a very real fear. It wasn’t fantastical or funny like we think about it today. People were terrified of witches and women were terrified of being called a witch. Because that usually ended up being deadly.

So this was a powerful way for Shakespeare to set us up, with the witches coming in HOT and full of power! He instantly creates drama and instills immediate fear in his audience.

In this initial scene the witches mention Fair is foul and foul fair - things are not as they seem this is a little Easter Egg for my Sleep no more listeners - it reminds me of when James tells us in the elevator that fortune favors the bold and everything is not as it seems.

When Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches after they return from battle, the witches  are talking about punishing the husband of a woman who wouldn’t share her chestnuts with them. They cast a spell on the boat he’s traveling on saying “though his bark (or his boat) cannot be lost, yet it shall be tempest tossed.

This gave a very direct nod to King James and what happened to him. Blending the fantasy with the reality. Reinforcing that it was witches, women who caused the actual storms that derailed their journey.

And it sets the witches  up to wield a lot of power and influence over Macbeth and drive the narrative in this story.

Very much like Lady Macbeth.

Once the Witch Hunts subsided in Western Europe and America, late 1700’s some experts argue that it gave birth to a brand new way to oppress half the population.

The big question was did the disappearance of the witch from society and religion necessarily make things better for women?

Witchcraft and women having this supernatural ability made them very powerful, able to change the course of things, control nature, influence events and people. This was a lot of power for a woman to have.

In an article by Dr. Joanne Levin called “Lady MacBeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria.” ELH, vol. 69 she brings to light the notion that a new ideology formed around the same time that the story of Macbeth was written and performed. The idea of a powerful and threatening witch transforming to that of the “hysterical woman” who is domesticated, sexually passive, feminine and subordinate. 

And that this shift provided a new and much more effective means of the controlling of women by men. 

In 1603 a physician and chemist by the name of Edward Jorden wrote a  book titled “A Brief Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother” and the word mother here means womb or uterus. But how horrifying is that title!!!

In this book he begins to change the narrative from a woman as a powerful and threatening witch with supernatural power to literal victims of their own bodies.

He builds on the Hippocrates theory that:

 1. A woman’s uterus isn’t fixed, it moves all over a woman’s body. 

 2. Virgins and widows are most prone to hysteria because they “lack the benefit of marriage” and are deprived of sexual activity, which, I quote, creates a congestion of humors and corruption of the womb.

Jorden also argues that hysteria is caused simply by having a uterus. That it causes ‘monstrous and terrible’ symptoms such as ‘suffocation in the throate, croaking of Frogges, hissing of Snakes … frenzies, convulsions, hickcockes, laughing, singing, weeping, and crying.”

 Jorden also argues that these physical symptoms can cause “‘perturbations of the minde’”. He has ‘infinite examples’ of those who ‘have dyed upon joye, griefe, love, feare, shame’ and he offers case studies of women who have suffered fits, fainting, apoplexy and ‘Madnesse’ .

So basically Jorden is saying that everyone should stop accusing women of being witches because it’s actually a medical condition that is causing these symptoms and behaviours.

As an owner of a uterus, I can attest  it has power beyond measure. And can cause a lot of problems. But It’s the way in which we’re “otherized” because we have an organ that men, at that time, did not understand. And feared. 

And that made us LESS than. And worth LESS.

Dr. Levin offers that Jorden’s work began to “politicize the transition of oppressing women” from accusing them of witchcraft to diagnosing them with hysteria. 

She says that “Jorden’s work, “Brief Discourse” absorbed and promoted many of the assumptions about femininity already inscribed within the the witchcraft / demonological books and dissertations of that time. Books like Daemonologie by King James and Malleus Maleficarum by

She says “Far from being a benign “ailing nurturer”, the early modern hysteric replayed the contradictions of her satanic (witch) predecessors: 

she was both disorderly and passive, 

she was a disturbing threat to phallic power, 

and largely a paternalistic construct. 

She was and was not a mother, 

she was deceptive and yet utterly somatized, 

and she both confounded patriarchal authority 

and provided occasion for it’s legitmation. 

And these contradictions also work themselves out in the figure of Lady Macbeth and she herself provides a further link between the demonic and the hysterical.”

When you think about Lady M’s progression in the play from completely in control and driving all of the action and narrative with her brutal soliloquy calling upon the gods

“Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. “

To her total incapacitation, sleepwalking, wringing her hands...guilt and grief:

 “Out damn spot 

Out I say!”

It’s so interesting because we see this real world shift playing out in her character’s arc.

  1. How similar her power is to the witches’ power in the sense that they all  influenced Macbeth - the witches by promise of glory and promotion at first. And then in the second prophesy they give him false sense of safety by telling him to “be bloody bold and resolute. Laugh to scorn the power of man for none of woman born can harm macbeth.”

And Lady M does it through manipulation and bullying.  

But all these women have all the power.

  1. Shakespeare gives her ambition and agency inside this story until he absolutely can’t anymore.
  2. At the end, Lady M  personifies the hysterical woman, wringing hands, frail, sick, guilt ridden, etc. 

It’s like we can see the changing social norms that were happening in the world in the early 1600’s in REAL TIME inside this play - this letting go of the witch concept and adopting the more insidious and pervasive concept as women of victims of their own bodies in LADY m’s character arc

And it makes me wonder how much Shakespeare intentionally wrote that into the play? Because I think he was smart like that. And I want to believe he was warning us about what was coming. Shakespeare as the original closeted feminist and womanist. Maybe??

Fast forward to today. We’re still living out this centuries old narrative in so many ways. We are either evil bitches or hysterical emotional wrecks.

To society and to ourselves.

What’s it gonna take to fundamentally shift our narrative?

Always too much and not enough.

Here’s what I believe.  We can make this change. Together! For ourselves. For our sisters, our daughters, our friends, for each other. 

I believe this with all my heart. And that’s why I'm doing all of this. That’s why I’m in your ear, telling provocative and sometimes horrifying stories- because I want you all to sit up and take note so that history doesn’t keep repeating itself.

Imagine a world where we are not worth LESS.

Where we feel completely equal.

Where the patriarchy is replaced by the Humanarchy

Where people, all people love, help and support each other.

It’s in the AWARENESS OF that we can create change for ourselves. It’s in the noticing when we are...

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Show artwork for Defending Lady Macbeth

About the Podcast

Defending Lady Macbeth
For every woman who was ever told, you are too loud, too much, or too ambitious.
Was Lady Macbeth a cunning, evil, manipulative, murderous villain, or a fierce, smart, badass influencer who did what needed to be done? Now I’m not saying conspiring to murder your husband’s boss is OK! (it’s bad!) But what’s a woman to do when she has IDEAS, a POINT OF VIEW and a PLAN and absolutely no “right” to show up in her power?

I’m calling you, beckoning you, down a dimly lit hallway, a gravelly, uneven path, where we will hold up Lady Macbeth as our cautionary tale of what happens when you step outside the socio-political roles that history has written for YOU, for US, as WOMEN.

When we say - THIS IS WHAT I WANT, and then go after it.

When we show up in our sovereignty as WOMEN.

When we let our AMBITION show, even just a little.

When we stand naked and visible in our POWER.

We are going to LAY BARE all that history has given us on female agency, ambition and power by having juicy conversations with leading experts on women and gender studies, Medieval experts, and Shakespearean scholars about what life was actually like for women during Lady Macbeth’s time in history vs. the experience we live today.

We’ll also talk with bad-ass women (like you!) who have laid their ambition out for all to see and have suffered the overt and subliminal consequences that are built into our social, corporate, and family structures.

We’ve been conditioned for thousands of years as women to give up, deny and side-step our own agency. To not rock the boat and to never show up visibly in our own power. OR ELSE.

This show is all about revealing our current reality by unearthing the past, all in an effort to create change at scale in our future, for women everywhere. The BIG questions we will be grappling with are, “How far have we, as women, REALLY come since the Middle Ages?” and “How can we normalize women’s ambition, help them activate their agency, and stand firmly and boldly in their power?”

About your host

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Tracy Oswald