And if you’re gonna make any lady sound mannish, the Weird Sisters are good candidates. Banquo, upon first seeing them, notes they are bearded and cannot quite figure out if they’re alive or dead, man or woman, natural or supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 3:
How far is’t call’d to Forres? What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
The Weird Sisters aren’t – strictly speaking – women at all, and I’ve played them as having dubious gender. The final result is that Witch #1 is the understated leader, Witch #2 is batshit-crazy, the Weird Sister that makes the other two exchange worried glances, and Witch #3 is a pop-eyed, bullfrog-voiced hag-monster that snatches flies out of the air with her prehensile tongue (metty-forically speaking).
The witches are very similar to the three Fates of Greek mythology, the Moirai from which they’re descended, who drew out the skein of people’s lives at birth and arrived to clip the thread when those lives were over. In fact, in Old English the sentiment of ‘fate’ was the word ‘Wyrd’, and hence the name in the context of Shakespeare. It’s funny, because the witches give Macbeth ambiguous predictions about the future, which he interprets as marks of a destiny they never assure him of. Is it Macbeth’s fate to be King of Scotland, or are the witches pushing him into his tragic, murderous future?
Though most often depicted as old hags, the Moirai also relate to the Triple Goddess of maiden, mother and crone, symbolised by the waxing, full, and waning moons respectively. This is the version of the story depicted in Pratchett’s Witches books I mentioned above. The first of these, Wyrd Sisters, is loosely based on Macbeth and is chock-full of gags related to the play. The opening scene of the book is even a rough facsimile of the opening of Macbeth and the ‘When shall we three meet again…’ line. The ‘crone’ of the series, Granny Weatherwax, is one of Terry Pratchett’s best inventions, a ‘wicked witch’ who’s unapologetically proud of her witchy countenance and old lady power. My daughter thinks she and Nanny Ogg (the ‘mother’) are infinitely cool and admires them to no end when we read of their adventures (the second of which is loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also Shakespeare. I can imagine fewer good examples of accessible feminism than Granny Weatherwax and her unconditional belief in herself and her own abilities.