Forest, trees: there is a certain brand of scholarship that tends to focus on minute examinations of trees in the attempt to discover a forest. I am the last to decry the idea of analyzing parts in the hope of understanding the whole, but there are limits. In the case of Laura Shamas’ We Three, I have to confess that by the end, I felt as though I had been buried in a pile of kindling.
Working from the basic premise that the three Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth partake of a broad resonance that is the product of their intersection with both classical and northern mythologies, Shamas makes some astonishing claims, calling the Sisters “a unique amalgamation of classical, folkloric, and sociopolitical elements,” going on to say that “the impressive variety of the Sisters’ steady resonance in the modern world may be directly related to their complicated beginnings.”
Shamas spends the bulk of the book relating the Weird Sisters to various aspects of the Triple Goddess and her offshoots in classical and Anglo-Norse mythology (the Norns, the Erinyes, the Graces, and so forth), which makes a certain amount of sense: Shakespeare was quite obviously well-versed in the details of Mediterranean pantheons, and as an Englishman was also heir to the Northern traditions, although one can’t credit that pantheon with the popularity that the classical model enjoyed in Renaissance England. Given that Shamas makes such a point of the Scottish connection (particularly in the attitude of James I toward witches), I found it odd that little attention was paid to Celtic sources, particularly their Scottish variations, which, while undoubtedly appropriated when not suppressed with the coming of Christianity, still survive in a particularly rich folklore tradition.
Anyone who has dealt in any substantial way with the processes of folklore will probably raise an eyebrow at Shamas’ assertion of “uniqueness” for the three witches. Consider that at their core the Sisters reflect the Triple Goddess, the Maiden-Mother-Crone triad so prevalent in pre-Christian European and Middle Eastern mythology, a point that Shamas establishes quite firmly. The idea of “threeness,” upon which Shamas spends an inordinate amount of time, is a structural component of many archetypes, male as well as female (although it seems that male images receive short shrift in mythological studies these days).
A misstep that throws into doubt the supposed link between Shakespeare’s witches and those we see on stage and screen today is the relatively little attention paid to sources in nineteenth-century folk and fairy tales. A mere four pages or so are spent on bringing the fairy and folk tale archetypes into the mix, and then we are snapped right back to the classical connection. Intuitively, at least, I would expect folklore to have a stronger impact on our modern perceptions of “witches” than Shakespeare’s portrayal. (Although Shakespeare’s plays certainly were, in their time, popular entertainment, that is not really the case these days — a play at the Globe, I think, would have been much more akin to “going to the movies” than to a night at “The Theatah.”) The projection of Shakespeare’s vision into “Bewitched” and “Charmed” seems an attempt to describe the processes of folklore without quite twigging to the realization of what she is describing, which probably would have been simpler — and much clearer — if more attention had been paid to intermediate periods. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are not, in this context, details that can be immediately referred back to classical antecedents, although those antecedents are certainly germane. They are part of a process that gets short shrift in Shamas’ hands. She doesn’t really establish a continuity that is of critical importance.
One of the most bothersome details is Shamas’ reference to Shakespeare’s conflation of archetypes, particularly since Shamas concentrates her study on a seemingly endless list of aspects of the archetype. As commonly understood, at least in this post-Jungian world, an archetype is the central, core meaning of a mythic image. In this case, we have the Triple Goddess, of which the various triads that Shamas discusses are aspects: Persephone-Demeter-Hecate, the Norns, the Graces, the Erinyes, the three aspects of the Morrigan, and so on, through any number of specific variations. Shakespeare conflated no archetypes, but merely restated the basic fluidity of the essential identity of the archetypal goddess. The fact that we can make these connections between his Weird Sisters and their mythological antecedents is only testimony to his greatness as a writer.
There are some nice reminders — the association of Hecate with Nox, for example — and some intriguing insights, but on the whole the argument is not totally persuasive. The book, brief as it is, suffers from a surfeit of detail, not all of which seems to be germane. On reflection, I think the biggest fault of the book is the apparent attempt to establish primacy for what is simply a reflection of a much broader contextual understanding of our ideas of “witch” (and I make that plural for good reason: as Shamas does point out, there are many facets to our conceptualization, some seemingly mutually exclusive, that all devolve into one multivalent archetype). That flaw was only reinforced by what seems a lack of established continuity between views of witches in Shakespeare’s time and our picture of them today. Analysis of parts has relevance only if relationships are firmly established, and the connections simply aren’t clearly stated or developed. In other words, the trees are all there, but we don’t really see the forest.
(Peter Lang Publishing, 2007)