Greenblatt, Stephen. "Shakespeare Bewitched."
New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. 108-135.
Thesis: Greenblatt asks a startling question: "Why shouldn't we say that this play about evil is evil?" (111). Greenblatt asks this question because women accused of witchcraft were tortured to extract confessions and then burned at the stake or hung. This evil could not have taken place if people had not believed in the reality of witchcraft, so, Greenblatt asks, "Why shouldn't we say . . . that Macbeth, with its staging of witches . . . , probably contributed, in an indirect but powerful way, to the popular fear of demonic agency and the official persecution and killing of women?" (111). Greenblatt's basic answer to his own question is that Shakespeare neither affirms or denies the reality of witchcraft; Shakespeare "takes what he wants from the world and gives no sign of concern for the fate, either exculpation or execution, of the miserable old women actually or potentially facing trial on charges of sorcery" (121).

What Shakespeare takes from the world, according to Greenblatt, was a state of belief which was highly ambiguous. The belief in the reality of witchcraft was sanctioned by King James, who published a book on the subject, but Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), argued that supposed witches were either con-artists or—in Greenblatt's words—"harmless melancholiacs and hysterics incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy" (115). King James ordered Scot's book burned, but Greenblatt (and other scholars) believe Shakespeare must have used it as a source when he was writing Macbeth.

According to Greenblatt, as the state of belief about the reality of witchcraft was ambiguous, so is Shakespeare's presentation of the reality of witches. In support of his point, Greenblatt asks us to take notice of Banquo's reaction to the witches:

     "What are these," Banquo asks when he and Macbeth first encounter them,
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earth,
And yet are on't?  (1.3.39-42)
Macbeth echoes the question, "Speak, if you can:—what are you?" to which he receives in reply his own name: "All hail, Macbeth!" Macbeth is evidently too startled to respond, and Banquo resumes the interrogation:
                  I'th' name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?  (1.3.52-54)
     The question is slightly odd, since Banquo has already marveled at an outward show that would itself seem entirely fantastical: "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so." But "fantastical" here refers not to the witches' equivocal appearance but to a deeper doubt, a doubt not about their gender but about their existence. They had at first seemed to be the ultimate figures of the alien—Banquo intially remarked that they did not look like earthlings—but now their very "outwardness," their existence outside the mind and its fantasies, is called into question.
     What is happening here is that Shakespeare is staging the epistemological and ontological dilemmas that in the deeply contradictory ideological situation of his time haunted virtually all attempts to determine the status of witchcraft beliefs and practices.   (123)
The witches are presented in this manner, says Greenblatt, because it suits Shakespeare's artistic purpose to create "the sense of an equivocal betwixt-and-between" (127).

Evaluation: Greenblatt's method is to pose a problem, consider possible solutions, and gradually work his way to his conclusions. I prefer a straight-arrow style—main point first, everything else following in a straight line.

Also, although Greenblatt's central argument is persuasive, he raises a question, which he, as the first figure of New Historicism, ought to answer, but dodges: What were the real-world "political and ethical consequences" (112) of the representation of the Witches in Macbeth?

Bottom Line: A long way around to a persuasive literary analysis of the Witches.