Kindle Your Social Life --- We're Making Reading Cool Again
About six or seven years ago, when I was still creating writing credits to add to my resumé, I was enjoying the relative success of a short story I had written called "The Experiment," a story of everyday torture based on real events, and I was at a sort of crossroads as I decided what I would write next.
Ultimately I decided to realize a long-simmering idea of a story about the Three Witches from Shakespeare's "MacBeth." Anyone familiar with the play knows that the Three Witches embody the Fates, each of them has power over the past, present, and future respectively, and I was curious about their origins and why they were so determined to destroy MacBeth. I rejected the idea that these were immortal beings, eternally existing in a demonic state. In folklore, supernatural beings almost always interact in the world through mortal avatars, and this seemed to me a likely origin for the Three Witches.
Proceeding from this idea, I dove into research. I read the play through, referenced Asimov's guide to the history and mythology behind the play, and researched its themes and allegories, as well as the background of the historical figures featured in the play. Finally the story began to take shape.
I was dealing obsessively with the past, both with a story set in the historical past and the personal histories of its characters. It made sense then that main character should be the embodiment of the past, the First Witch.
I was determined to take my characters' names from real people of the era, as well as from the play itself. Throughout the first draft, I had named my main character Gruoch, which is the real name of the historical Lady MacBeth. I liked it both because it was ugly, (what better name for an old witch?) and it would serve as a subtle link between my character and MacBeth. However, I happened to come across an entry in a list of ancient Scottish names of a person named Grissell. The description next to the name only said, "A girl convicted of witchcraft in the thirteenth century." The time period of the play. Perfect. Gruoch became Grissell.
A change of personality came with the change of name. Grissell seemed a more goodly, honest, perhaps world-weary moniker. This wasn't yet the destructive being bent on MacBeth's ruin. I imagined a good woman, held prisoner on false charges, trapped as evil forces both earthly and supernatural closed in on her. The political situation of Scotland in the time of King Duncan, MacBeth's predecessor, as described in the story is accurate, and it presented Grissell's dilemma. She would be held on suspicion of plotting against the King.
The Three Witches are also known as the Weird Sisters, and so Grissell's two sisters would be held in the same tower. I took their names from the real MacBeth's family tree; Lulach (which is actually a man's name that I chose simply because of its beauty) is the middle sister, and the youngest, who would be become the Third Witch, is called Doada.
Although the story is told only from Grissell's point of view, their predicatment is the same. Each day their interrogator comes to extract information from them about rebel forces fighting against King Duncan. Grissell honestly tells him she knows nothing; she and her sisters work as weavers at a loom. (Another link to the Fates.) But there is more going on here than Grissell knows.
As she despairs alone in her cell between sessions of torture, a cat jumps in through the window. It carries a note, which identifies it as Graymalkin. "Ask me a QUESTION," says the note. "I'll tell you a RIDDLE." This inauspicious note begins a terrible transformation.
Some critics have wondered why Grissell even got into this situation if she was a witch. It's clear in the story that Grissell is not yet a witch; this is the story of her transformation. Graymalkin is no ordinary cat. As he brings her food and cryptic messages Grissell begins to know things she cannot possibly know, and to gain strength to use this knowledge over her captors. His nurturing of her begins the process of possession, turning Grissell into an avatar of the beings that guide him. As the historical events surrounding the story come to a head, so does the transformation of Grissell and her sisters.
The ultimate line of the story, "When shall we three meet again?" is the first line of the play. I hope the story provides a possible explanation of what drives the Weird Sisters, gives some historical background for the play, and so enhances enjoyment of the play in its readers.