Verbs, Power, and Macbeth's Three Witches
The subjunctive mood heightens the contrast between the agency of the three witches and Macbeth's diminished power.
I attended my first Shakespeare play when I was in fourth grade. My dad has been a Bard fanatic since long before I was born, and many family vacations to Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival followed. When my fifth-grade teacher assigned us passages from Macbeth to memorize, I was drawn to one in particular. Early in the first scene of the fourth act, after each witch makes an incantation, the three witches chant together:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
I especially enjoyed reciting these lines, with all the [l]s and the swirling “ubble”s. The authoritative tone enhanced the allure.
For a larger project, I am considering more broadly the issue of verbs, grammar, and plot. With this project in mind, I reconsidered these lines. What verb form was being used here?
“Double” is in the command form, exhorting toil and trouble to multiply. The verbs in the second line, however, are not straightforward commands. I was amused when I realized they were subjunctive.
In English, The subjunctive is used after certain expressions that contain an order or a request, a hypothetical, or a wish. The subjunctive form of a regular verb is the third-person form of the verb with the ‑s dropped: “fire burn” (not burns) and “cauldron bubble” (not bubbles). Usually, two clauses are involved. First, a verb states “X wishes/suggests/desires/demands that Y ___. As in, “I demand that he apologize immediately” or “It is required that she fasten her seatbelt.” Here, however, there is no first clause to set up the subjunctive. Instead, it is understood that “I command that the…” comes before each of the verbs in order to compel the subjunctive use. By deploying the subjunctive, Shakespeare stealthily invokes agency with the implied demand⎯a demand of fire and liquid, things the states of which mere mortals are not normally able to impact through spoken direction alone.
By using the subjunctive with these verbs, Shakespeare taps into the associations of that mood and manipulates our understanding of what normally creates burning or bubbling in the service of intensifying the mystique and agency of the witches, in contrast to Macbeth’s diminished power. The witches’ commanding of the fire and the contents of the cauldron to undergo certain changes displays their magical might. A striking effect—and still fun to recite, too.