Johann Heinrich Füssli’s The Three Witches (1783) depicts Shakespeare’s famous “weird sisters,” who appear before Macbeth to
tell the future.
Macbeth begins with three witches who predict the rise and
fall of the play’s protagonist, Macbeth, whose wife, Lady
Macbeth, is a queen-to-be gripped by ambition.
If women were powerful on stage or on page, oftentimes
it was because they were seducers or manipulators. Queens,
arguably as dominant an image of female power as the
witch, and other powerful women weren’t immune to this
kind of framing. Joan of Arc was accused of witchcraft, as
was Anne Boleyn.
“Joan of Arc wore men’s clothing. She had power,
and that was a sign of evil. When you think of this
historically—when a 17-year-old girl says, ‘Give me an
army’—the only reason the enemy thought the King would
do that was because she bewitched him,” explains Kristine
Holtvedt, associate professor of theatre and director of
Purdue Theatre’s The Crucible.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is arguably the Bard’s
most complexly wicked character. Guided by the prophecy
that one day she’d be queen, Lady Macbeth was bewitched
by the promise of power. Overtaken by her desire to rule,
she brews a concoction of murder and intrigue, mirroring
the three “weird sisters” in the play.
She is a complicated, powerful character, but her power
is intricately tied with her identity as a woman. This is
something she tries to shed with the famous lines “unsex
me here,” but what the monologue does is tap into the