Witches: MacBeth, Pratchett and Ngaio Marsh

MacBeth, by William of the Wobbly Spear.

I first read MacBeth in the form of a comic when I was eleven. (All pictorially presented story were described as ‘comics’ then.) I couldn’t see a super hero anywhere in this one but the characters were just as overwrought as in the DC stuff that I devoured and the story line looked as far fetched. Woods marching to castles? Men not born of women? And witches. Weird stuff.

I have since enjoyed seeing Macbeth several times. Yet I’ve appreciated it even more on reading two books loosely wrapped around its themes. These are both in genres that are normally flicked aside as ‘not literature’.

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The Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh.

Marsh completed this novel in 1982, just before her death. Of her mystery novels, I think this is the best. She was thespian and producer, as well as a novelist, and her love of ‘The Play’ shines through. I wondered if the way she explains it to us in the novel represents the manner in which she herself staged it at some time. The Light Thickens is a murder mystery and Marsh’s lifelong favourite detective, Roderick Alleyn, solves the case. But for me, that was merely a distraction. Because in The Light Thickens, The Play’s the thing.

In Chapter one we have Peregrine Jay, Director giving notes to his players about the witches.

‘The witches are enormously important. One has the feeling that they are conjured up by Macbeth’s secret thoughts. There’s not a character in the play that questions their authority. There have been productions, you know, that bring them on at different points, silent but menacing, watching their work. They pull Macbeth along the path to that one definite action. And then, having killed the King, he’s left – a murderer. Forever.’

Everything I had never grasped about Macbeth is lucidly explained here, and I wanted to see the play again, with that knowledge.

Wyrd Sisters, by Terry ‘Discworld’ Pratchet.

Why Pratchett has not yet been crowned as among the few greats of Literature in English, I don’t know. Not just a great writer of ‘fantasy’, whatever that unhelpful label is meant to mean, but of LITERATURE. His ability to meld dozens of sources into fast paced, entertaining, enlightening, furious satires of social stupidity, political idiocy, ideological madness, and the exasperating hopelessness of humanity is matchless in my view. In Wyrd Sisters he brings us a version of MacBeth gone riotously askew. I’m not going to say much about Wyrd Sisters except that by not reading it you are missing the joy of a great literary writer, Pratchett, having enormous fun with the works of another, Shakespeare.

But back to the witches: why are they even in Macbeth? I wondered about that at age 11 and now here is my perhaps totally unreliable explanation.

It is a well known fact that no playwright wants his work suppressed, his person imprisoned and his life dangling ‘at the King’s Pleasure’, fates common enough with artists who irked monarchs.

Our lad Shakespeare’s plays had gone down well with Good Queen Bess. But when she died in 1603, the dour King James of Scotland took the throne of England. James was nervous about possible rebellion; and he was right to be. Soon came the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which an attempt was made to blow up the house of Parliament and everyone in it. It was foiled, by the way.

Our bard took thought upon these sundry matters, and lo! he came up with this play in which a plot (tick) against a rightful Scottish King (tick) goes horribly wrong (tick), and the nobles of both Scotland and England work together (tick) to bring down the murderers (tick). Yes, yes, good material so far, but we had King James to please here. Hmmm. Hmmmm.

The King fervently believed in Witchcraft and had written pamphlets on the subject. Our William had a brainwave. He bunged in witches and moreover used one of James’ own pamphlets as his source*. Elephant stamp for that one, Willy. Fast footwork there. The play was presented. The King was not displeased. And William survived to write another play.


Links to Wryd Sisters by Terry Pratchett:
BookDepository (with free shipping worldwide); also on AbeBooks.com.

Links to Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh: on BookDepository and on AbeBooks.com.

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