By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, Hannah Spruce and Dani Basina
The classics team have decided to introduce a new feature to The Publishing Post where we discuss and compare caricatures featured in classic literature. When referencing caricatures, we typically mean archetypal characters. The introductory character we are focusing on here is the witch. The witch is commonly used in classic literature and can help to explain various contexts in society. We have decided to include examples of witches from a scope of literature to see the progression of this character over time. From Shakespeare to Philippa Gregory, here is our examination of the classic witch in literature.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Perhaps one of the more iconic examples of the witch is the three witches that are featured in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. These famous three are the first characters that we meet, and they play a pivotal role in shaping Macbeth's ambition. From their famous spells and chants, the three witches are continuously symbolic in The Scottish play and become viewed as agents of evil and chaos to the characters who interact with them. They fuel Macbeth and spark the initial plan for the character to kill the King, become Thane of Cawdor and eventually take the throne himself. Once Lady Macbeth hears of this, the downfall for the characters begins while the witches witness and profess all that occurs.
The witches are described as wild and ugly, and represent a negative side to the archetype, with them only causing chaos and havoc. This sets a precedent for future depictions of witches in literature. The tendency to present witches as negative, haggard beings seems to remain the most common.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum
With Lyman Frank Baum’s renowned novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, readers receive a vibrant adventure through the nominal land of Oz, as Dorothy takes part in a fantastical quest that sees her find her way home to Kansas.
While the novel centres around several fantastic elements, Frank Baum incorporates perhaps two of the most diametrically opposed witches in literature – Glinda and Miss Almira Gulch, i.e., the Good Witch and Wicked Witch of the West.
Embodying powerful restraint, complex motivation and social order, Glinda the Good Witch controls the Southern portion of Oz and digresses from traditional notions of the witch, becoming a guiding authority for Dorothy and her companions.
Alternatively, Miss Almira Gulch, the Wicked Witch of the West, captures and emphasises the image of the traditionally demonised witch. Her actions are selfish, deceitful and volatile. She pursues power, exudes chaos and melts away under the purity of water.
Individually, the witches are minor representations of already established archetypes, but, when paralleled, their dispositions and representative ideals present a strong social paradigm regarding Lyman Frank Baum’s ideologies.
Narnia by C.S. Lewis
As the main villain in the first and second books (The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) from The Chronicles of Narnia, Jadis the White Witch is also known as the Queen of Narnia. Her character is ‘summoned’ in the first book by a little boy named Digory. Jadis’s evil persona is clearly depicted in the second book of the chronicles where we see her freeze the whole of Narnia.
The depiction and traits of the White Witch’s character in Narnia are common as far as witch depictions go. In The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she meets the children and, at first, tries to trick them by being kind and helpful. She initially succeeds in this but ultimately ends up defeated. Her appearance, of course, is always breath-taking and charming.
The Cousins War series - The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction series The Cousin’s War embellishes and retells the politically complex era of the War of the Roses from the perspective of the prominent female figures of the period. Gregory gives these women a voice and emphasises their importance and influence in court, highlighting the precarious position of opinionated women during this time. In her retellings, Jaquetta of Luxembourg and her daughter Elizabeth Woodville (later wife of Edward IV) are suspected of using witchcraft to their political advantage, the former actually standing trial for witchcraft in 1470. The two women are portrayed as intelligent, tactical and manipulative, in the same vein as the traditional mythology of the ‘witch’. However, their plight is empowering and encouraging within a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal society that sought to oppress female influence. Gregory’s idea that these women manipulated historical events provides an escapist and engaging narrative against the less vibrant reality.