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'Double, Double, Toil and Trouble': The Weird Sisters in Costumes?!

24/02/2014 13:16 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

'What's past is prologue'. -Shakespeare

'What's past': 'The 'Prilogue' -April X. X.

Our fervour of Shakespearean theatre productions seems unshakable, as it seems. Recently, Albery's staging of Verdi's first Shakespeare opera returns, a new film adaption of 'Macbeth' is released... Whilst we are obsessed with all those different adaptions, let's reflect on 'what's past'... This post focuses on whether the Weird Sisters, in Shakespearean Theatre, were presented through elements including costume to correspond to the stereotyped witches' identities.

Noticeably, in Shakespearean theatre, characters were presented by all male performers. One early solution to the difficulties of representing mature women was to dress female characters so that they could appear either young or very old. Prosthetic breasts were used to create the differentiation. The effect, however, was that ageing women were played as caricatures. In order to clearly differentiate gender roles in representing characters, Shakespearean theatre would usually highlight 'masculinity' and 'femininity'.

When writing the play 'Macbeth', however, Shakespeare did not make the Weird Sisters appear clearly feminine or masculine. An alternate analysis of costuming in Shakespeare explains that instead of simply filling in checklists of gender codes, Shakespeare's characters were dressed in different costume elements that mattered to a variety of degrees.

In an original production in Shakespeare's contemporary time, the Weird Sisters' identity as preternatural beings is distinguished by the fellness of their purposes and the fatality of their delusions. This corresponds to Elizabethan society's negative view of witches and supernaturals in general, as the Three Weird Sisters were dressed in 'mittens, plaited caps, laced aprons, red stomachers, ruffs, etc.'

Those costume elements can be analysed in order to determine the representation of the Weird Sisters' gender through costuming. Ruffs were fashionable among both women and men in Shakespeare's time, and thus may suggest gender neutrality and do not visually reveal the gender of the Weird Sisters. Stomachers, on the other hand, are ornamental fronts that fill the opening of the gown and convey a false impression of a corset. Stomachers are labelled as one of the generalised costumes of an Elizabethan gentlewoman on the Shakespearean stage. Stomachers, assumably, make the witches appear more feminine on-stage. According to Banquo's description of the Weird Sisters, the Weird Sisters also have 'beards' that 'materially display' masculinity, which would be 'strongly masculine' on the Shakespearean stage. Viewed holistically, the elements apparently suggest the ambiguity of the Weird Sisters' gender in 'Macbeth'.

An analysis of the apparel worn on stage could be sometimes difficult due to limited extant documentation. However, it is known to theatre historians that Shakespeare chiefly alluded to 'Holinshod's Chronicles', a fable from the Sixteenth-Century, when characterising the supernaturals in Macbeth.

The scene later turned out to appear in Act I of 'Macbeth'. The woodcut contrasts the common perception of 'sexual ambiguity' of 'aged', 'wild', and 'unattractive' creatures but instead demonstrates 'young' and 'attractive' 'women'. A spectator named Simon Forman, on the other hand, wrote after watching 'Macbeth' at the Globe on 20th April, 1611, that 'ther was to be observed, firste, howe Macbeth and Bancko, 2 noble men of Scotland, ridinge thorowe a wod, the strode before them 3 women feiries or nimphes.' Thus, there is a clear contradiction between the Weird Sisters described in Shakespeare's script of 'Macbeth' based on Elizabethan society's general perception of witches and the audience's narrative of what he supposedly saw in the contemporary production of 'Macbeth' at Shakespeare's Globe, since in the original script, Banquo describes the Weird Sisters upon his first encounter with them that 'You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so'. Banquo's account shows ambivalence of the Weird Sisters' apparent gender, while the spectator Forman's description does not.

Another costume element considers the role of costumes in revealing the supernatural's status in society. From their unconventional costumes, the supernaturals in 'Macbeth' could be surmised as isolated from the mainstream society just as witches were generally not tolerated and indeed despised' by the Elizabethan society. '"Demonic" inspirations' and '"overturned" perceptions' define the witches as they 'see and do everything the wrong way up'. Hecate, the witches' 'mistress' of 'charms' and 'The close contriver of all harms', castigates the Weird Sisters as 'beldams' in Act Three, Scene Five, that they are 'saucy' and 'over-bold' to 'dare / To trade and traffic with Macbeth / In riddles and affairs of death'.

In Shakespearean stage, the ordinary dress of female characters is symmetrical; the Weird Sisters, on the other hand, had inverse, irregularly shaped costumes. Further, the typical Shakespearean women are dressed in a solid color (some shade of black, brown, or grey), and the Weird Sisters, by contrast, are costumed in a patchwork of disparate colors. In addition, whilst feminine costumes are typically soft in texture, that of the Weird sisters are unusual in evoking the skin of a snake.

Custom, hierarchy and providential order can generally be revealed through costuming in Shakespearean theatre productions at the Globe. The costumes of the witches can perhaps demonstrate their status within their own social circle of the supernaturals, although in the 16th to17th Century, witches generally had no special characters that were readily apparent to observers. The Weird Sisters in 'Macbeth', through their costuming, are seen as inferior and subordinate to their leader Hecate. Hecate, instead of appearing grim or portentous, is dressed as fairy-like and palely beautiful Greek goddess. The texture of Hecate's costume's materials is silk, which is used as higher-class members of society in Shakespearean theatre. There is a strong contrast between the withered ugliness of the Weird Sisters and Hecate, partly suggesting that Hecate is represented as the socially superior leader of the witches, similar to the play text 'Macbeth''s description of this character.

To conclude, here is my response. As peculiar as their names may suggest, the Witches at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's time were considered ambiguous in terms of age, gender and status in society, as demonstrated by the elements of their costumes.