Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting

“A Gap” in the Body: The Witches’ Cauldron and the Permeable Self in Macbeth

by Joo Young Dittmann


Standing in the heath after his disturbing encounter with “[t]he weird sisters” (1.3.30), Banquo states: “Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root,/That takes the reason prisoner?” (1.3.81–83).[1] Indeed, the play depicts the process in which Macbeth’s “reason”, that is, the rational part of the soul in Aristotelian terms, is gradually dissolved after his meeting with the sisters.

Banquo’s description of demonic possession through the language of food intake reflects a crucial concern of early modern medical theory, in which quality of diet was supposed to determine one’s physical and psychological state. Authors of medical treatises repeatedly asserted the significance of diet in sustaining the balance of one’s bodily and psychic disposition. Warning his readers of the danger of poor diet, Thomas Paynell writes that “Surfet and diversites of meates and drynkes lettying and corruptyng the digestion febleth man . . . Yll diete (as me thynketh) is chief cause of all dangerous and intollerable diseases”.[2] Similarly, William Vaughan, the author of the popular Directions for Health,notes: “Physicians hold that men be diversly affected, according to the dyet which they use”.[3]

In these writings, the impact of food on the body was considered to be ambivalent. While sound dietary regimen nourishes the body, poor diet or diet that does not suit one’s physiological temperament can prove serious damage. Even the same food was believed to make various impacts on different humoral complexions. Furthermore, the inseparability of body and mind in early modern thought attributed to food the power to affect not only one’s physical health but also one’s soul.[4] These ambiguous effects of food were a central topic not only of medical discourse but also of witchcraft disputes. In early modern witch-lore, with its potential power to breach the boundary of the body, food was frequently used as a medium of bewitching.[5] These discursive overlays indicate the significance of food in relation to the body, selfhood, and subjectivity. With its ambiguous relation to the body, food offers a point through which to explore the conflict-ridden relation between interior and exterior, between the subject and the world, between container and contained.

The anxieties about potentially dangerous effects of food elaborated in medical theory and witchcraft tracts pervade Macbeth. The play is fraught with references to multifarious impacts of eating and drinking on the body, interrupted feasts, and images of malnurtured and disorderly bodies. Banquo’s speech quoted above, as if echoing the concern of witchcraft tracts, links bewitchment with ingestion of poisonous food. The chief guest Duncan is murdered after a banquet, and Banquo is slaughtered on his way to supper. Furthermore, under Macbeth’s tyranny, Scotland is metamorphosed to a malnurtured, open, and bleeding body suffering from internal imbalances. Variously associated with occult power, dissolution of selfhood, and breakdown of political order, food in the play refers to a wide range of meanings that suggest the uneasy relation between inside and outside, between constitution and blurring of boundaries.

This essay explores the play’s pervasive concern with poisonous food, malnutrition, dissolving boundaries, and deconstitution of selfhood in the light of early modern medical discourses and witchcraft disputes. As recent scholarship has shown, the body is not a transhistorical entity. Rather, it is a malleable construct, whose figurations entail historically specific modes of inscription.[6] As discursive sites of inscription and articulation, Macbeth, witchcraft tracts, and medical discourses participated in complex and sometimes contradictory processes of fashioning the early modern body. In this essay, I aim at examining cultural dynamics enmeshed in the representations of the body these texts provide, focusing on the following questions: how does the era’s preoccupation with ingestion and digestion of food point to the historical formation of the specific model of the body and selfhood?; how can we read the pervasive motif of the disorderly and malnurtured body in Macbeth?; and finally, how can we understand the varying figurations of food, the body, and subjectivity in medical treatises, witchcraft tracts, and Macbeth in the historical context of early modern England?


Critics have emphasized the specifically material understanding of selfhood in early modern England. Relying on the authority of Galenic humoralism, writers of the period claim that the material state of the body is determined through the balance of four humors, and the body thus constituted affects one’s physical as well as psychological state. However, sustaining the balance of body and mind was a difficult task, since bodies were imagined as a vulnerable boundary characterized by “its faulty borders and penetrable stuff” that “interacts differently with the world than the ‘static, solid’ modern bodily container”.[7] In this pre-Cartesian understanding of body and mind, subjectivities are perceived as a porous and volatile entity susceptible to external influences. As Timothy J. Reiss indicates, the early modern subject is “embedded in and acted on by […] the material world and immediate biological, familial and social ambiences […] [T]hese circles preceded the person, which acted as subjected to forces working in complicated ways from ‘outside.’ But because of the embedding, that ‘outside’ was manifest in all aspects and elements of ‘inside’—of being a person”.[8]

Medical treatises in this period repeatedly sought to overcome this vulnerability. Although the body is embedded in its surroundings, these writings claim that it can sustain itself through self-discipline and vigilant monitoring. Sir Thomas Elyot states in his highly esteemed Castel of Helthe that one’s “castel”, that is, one’s own body can be sustained through regulating external factors.[9] Elyot’s arguments concerning the significance of the sustenance of health as well as his figuration of the human body as a spatial image of “castel” were echoed by writers of the period. In 1562 William Bullein declares that one must defend one’s “little Fort” “against sickenes, or evill diate”. Similarly, in 1604 James Manning writes that one should “look after his castle” and “keepe the cage as cleane as he can”.[10] At the center of this argument, as Margaret Healy observes, lies the compulsion to sustain the bounded sense of the self: as “a model which can stand for any bounded system”, the body must have secure boundaries which protect itself from harmful external influences.[11]

In these writings, choice of diet plays a crucial role in sustaining bodily and psychic health. As an external substance incorporated into the body, food occupies a liminal position in its relation to the body: it is at once inside and outside, same and other. In this sense, food functions as ‘extimité’ of the early modern body, the intimate exteriority that simultaneously constitutes and threatens the integrity of the body.[12] Early modern medical discourses attempted to domesticate anxieties about the ‘extimate’ effects of food. The popular genre of dietaries and health manuals aimed at instructing readers how to govern one’s body through regulating external factors, especially dietary regimen. These texts discuss at length digestive and nutritive qualities of foods and their impacts on each humoral temperament and prescribe suitable diets to each complexion. For instance, “in a cholerike stomake”, states Elyot, “biefe is better digested than a chykens legge, forasmoche as in a hotte stomacke fyne meates be shortly aduste and corrupted. Contrarywise in a colde or fleumatyke stomake grosse meate abydeth longe undigested, and maketh putrified matter: light meates therefore be to suche a stomacke more apte and convenyent”.[13] Not only prescribing suitable food to each humoral temperament, writings in this period also repeatedly warned readers of the harmful impact of poor diet and excessive appetite. “As a lamp is choked with a multitude of oil”, writes Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, “so is the natural heat with immoderate eating strangled in the body […] [the stomach] is a pernicious sink, and the fountain of all diseases, both of body and mind”.[14] Overall, in this symbolic economy, as Michael C. Schoenfeldt argues, eating is a highly codified symbolic ritual that materially constitutes the self, and sound dietary regimen serves as a crucial means to sustain physical and psychological well-being, in other words, “literal acts of self-fashioning”.[15]

This attempt to sustain bodily boundaries is thwarted in Macbeth. The image of the disorderly body that escapes the control of the subject pervades the play. Macbeth’s almost hallucinated state after his encounter with the witches provides a vivid description of dissolution of boundaries:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so much my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is,
But what is not. (1.3.129–41)

This passage as a whole depicts bewitchment as a transferential process. As if drugged by “the insane root” (1.3.82), Macbeth undergoes physical transformations over which he has no control: his hair is “unfix(ed)” by “horrid image”, and his “seated heart” leaves its place and knocks at his rips “against the use of nature”. What is at stake is not only integrity but also agency: his internal organs elude his grasp and seem to have lives of their own, shaking his “single state of man”. This corporeal metamorphosis is accompanied by psychic transport. In his enraptured mind, distinctions between “good” and “ill”, being and non being, truth and falsity (“nothing is,/But what is not”), present and future, are blurred: the “horrible imaginings” of the future (i.e. the dead Duncan) comes to take the space of reality, and the very thought of murder precedes his “function” of man.

The dramatic plot that follows stages various forms of unbounded bodies that elude the control of the subject. In her invocation to the “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” (1.5.38–39) to “unsex” (1.5.39) her, Lady Macbeth wishes her body to be transformed into an open, disorderly body, not unlike the witches’. At the same time, the play represents the dissolution of the bounded sense of self in scopic terms. Instead of ensuring the spectator of a position of visual mastery, in Macbeth, the spectacle disintegrates visual agency of the spectator. Duncan’s corpse, like “Gorgon”, destroys the sight of the spectator (2.3.65–66); Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking has “mated” the onlooker’s mind and “amazed” his sight (5.1.68); confronting “the air-drawn dagger” (3.4.62), Macbeth is no longer able to sustain his visual mastery over the object of seeing, and his “eyes are made the fools of o’th’other senses” (2.1.44). Likewise, the sight of his own bloody hands blinds Macbeth’s eyes (“What hands are here? Ha: they pluck out mine eyes”, 2.2.62), and the spectacle of Banquo’s ghost dislocates Macbeth’s attempted display of power.

The play forges a link between this dissolution of self and poor diet. Instead of nourishing the body, food in the play is a poisonous substance that harms physical and psychological health. Pleading to exchange her milk with gall, Lady Macbeth becomes the agent of infiltration, who poisons those whom she feeds: she claims to “pour [her] spirits” (1.5.24) in Macbeth’s ear and drugs the guards to facilitate the murder of Duncan:

                                   When Duncan is asleep,
Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him, his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only. When in swinish sleep
Their drenchèd natures lies as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
Th’unguarded Duncan? (1.7. 61–70)

Intensifying the concern of early modern medical writings, this passage foregrounds the potentially ambiguous effects of food. While featuring as a sign of hospitality, wine simultaneously functions as a poison that disintegrates “memory” and “reason”, two mental qualities that sustain the integrity of the self, into formless “fume”. The guards, drugged by “wine and wassail”, are beside themselves, lapsing into the comatose state of sleep. This infiltrating power of drugs and foodstuff was a pervasive concern in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. In this period, accusations of poisoning were prevalent, culminating in the conviction of the Portuguese Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez (1594) and in the Overbury case (1613). As Tanya Pollard indicates, the cultural anxieties about poisoning centered upon the fact that poisoning was extremely difficult to prevent. Again what is at stake is the subject’s agency: with its power of invisible infiltration, poisonous food renders the self a site vulnerable to malign plotting of another.[16]

In Macbeth, not only affecting the guards, the destructive consequences of drinking pervade the entire murder scene. Macbeth’s psychic and physical state is compared with that of a drunken man who has failed to discipline himself (“Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?/And wakes it now to look so green and pale/At what it did so freely?”, 1.7.35–38). With its insistent knocking at the gates (which echoes the ‘knocking’ of Macbeth’s heart depicted in Act 1 Scene 3), the castle itself is turned into a disorderly body that has lost control over itself. Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth imagine themselves in terms of a malnurtured, diseased body deprived of sleep, “great nature’s second course,/Chief nourisher in life’s feast” (2.2.42–43).

This malnurtured body provides a suggestive gloss to the horror represented in Macbeth. Not only representing the crisis of subjectivity, the malnurtured and poisoned bodies embody the sense of cosmic disorder, as dramatized through the two banquets in the play. Banquets are social rituals that reaffirm the social bond. As such, in banquets, food signifies the symbolic bond between the king and the subject: in banquets the king is “fed” (1.4.55) in “commendations” of the subject (1.4.55), and “the sauce to meat is ceremony” (3.4.36). Macbeth fails to sustain this symbolic function of banquet. Instead of nourishing their guests, the Macbeths poison them. Furthermore, in the second banquet, distracted by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth fails to fulfill his symbolic role as host. Due to his breaching of this symbolic function, Macbeth is accused of robbing his country of peaceful feasts (3.6.33–37) and of transforming Scotland into a disorderly body that is “[a]lmost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). This image of the malnurtured, disorderly body, combined with the trope of poisonous food, creates a powerful semantic pull that points to the shattering of subjectivity, familial bond, and nation.


Considering the early modern preoccupation with the bounded sense of the body, how can we understand the disorderly bodies in Macbeth? The play implicates the witches in a threat to boundaries. As has often been noted, they are themselves embodiments of boundary transgression. Simultaneously inhabiting the natural and supernatural world, confusing the rational with the enigmatic, and challenging gender distinction that sets off men from women, the sisters confuse the boundaries marked by the rules and norms of society. At the same time, their language disrupts a stable referring function of language. In their words, “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.12), and Banquo is “[l]esser than Macbeth, and greater”, “[n]ot so happy, yet much happier” (1.3.63–64). Furthermore, they attach Macbeth to three incompatible signifiers of “Thane of Glamis”, “Thane of Cawdor”, and “king” (1.3.46–48). This linguistic disruption and the specters of boundless bodies provide a telling emblem of the world where distinctions are dissolved, where “what seemed corporal/Melted, as breath into the wind” (1.3.79–80).

As a form of power that involves interaction between the bodies, witchcraft dissolves secure boundaries. In early modern witchcraft disputes, fantasies of witchcraft are often articulated through the image of porous, disorderly bodies. The witch was believed to shift shape, unfixing the contour of bodily boundaries. Furthermore, she could invade the body of others through her curse, her evil eye, or her food.[17] While the truth of witchcraft could not be proven, anxieties concerning potential danger of witchcraft pervaded sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In village-level witchcraft beliefs, witches were accused of poisoning, causing illness and madness. At the same time, even the royal power was not in a safe distance from this transformative power of the witch. Both Elizabeth and James expressed their concern about the occult. In 1580, Elizabeth decreed an Act condemning anyone who attempted to harm the queen by witchcraft or conjurations. In Scotland, more than 300 witches were accused of aiding the earl of Bothwell’s conspiracy against James VI.[18] At the center of these disputes lie anxieties concerning the dissolution of boundaries facing the power of another. Witches transgress boundaries that distinguish self from other, natural from unnatural, rational from enigmatic. In early modern witchcraft disputes, the fear of possession was frequently articulated through the language of contagion. In his Daemonologie, James I defines the witch as “the direct haunting […] [of] societie, with that foule and vncleane Spirite”. Even Reginald Scot, who argued against the existence of witchcraft from the perspective of skepticism, seems to lend some credence to the contagious power of the witch’s evil eye: “For the poison and disease in the eie infecteth the aire next unto it, and the same proceedeth further, carrieng with it the vapor and infection of the corrupted bloud: with the contagion whereof, the eies of the beholders are most apt to be infected”.[19]

The play as a whole foregrounds the formative impacts of the witches. Not only associated with “the insane root” (1.3.82), the weird sisters set the climate of “fog and filthy air” (1.1.13), which was considered to harm one’s health by causing disruption of humors.[20] Their meeting with Macbeth is framed by descriptions of their power to cause corporeal transformations. The first witch, as a revenge on the sailor’s wife who denied her food, claims to use her magic to “drain” her husband “dry as hay” (1.3.17), deprive him of sleep, and toss him at sea, making him “dwindle, peak, and pine” (1.3.22). While it is not clear whether their maleficium can achieve the desired effects, the torments they devise establish them as threatening figures of infiltration. In addition, their use of fragmented body parts for their magic (“a pilot’s thumb”, 1.3.26) symbolically links them with an antithesis to the wholesome, balanced body.

The brew concocted by the witches in Act 4 Scene 1, made out of ingredients such as “poisoned entrails”, “[f]illet of a fenny snake”, “[l]iver of blaspheming Jew” and “[n]ose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips” (4.1.5, 12, 26, 29), powerfully evokes their potentially destructive power. While this brew is not literally consumed, the poisonous image pervades the whole play. Composed of fragments of body parts, the simmering cauldron is figured as a parodic, disorderly body that in turn produces fantasmatic bodies that bewitch Macbeth. As an antithesis of the balanced body promoted in medical discourses, the cauldron provides a rich commentary upon the play’s prevailing concern of bodily disintegration. In this scene, the play again presents the anxieties about boundary transgression through the language of food. As has been observed, in spite of its gruesome ingredients, the making of the brew evokes the process of everyday cooking: the list of ingredients is a perverse recipe, and its detailed cooking instructions such as “[m]ake the gruel thick and slab”, “[c]ool it with a baboon’s blood” (4.1.32, 37) hint at discourses of cookery.[21]

At the same time, with its image of contagion, the witches’ poisonous brew evokes Lady Macbeth’s milk she pleads to exchange with gall. Lady Macbeth’s invocation is all the more striking, if we take into account the symbolic significance of breast milk in early modern England. Considered the most purified form of blood, in this period, milk defines the female body as a source of nourishment that materially constitutes the infant. “We may be assured”, writes James Guillimeau in The Nursing of Children, “that the Milke […] hath as much power to make the children like the Nurses, both in bodie and mind; as the seed of the Parents hath to make the children like them”.[22] This symbolic significance of breast milk attributes to the maternal breast ambivalent power to form and de-form the infant. Through her invocation, Lady Macbeth, like the witches, is turned into an agent of poisoning, as she herself states in her fantasmatic imagination of infanticide: “I would […]/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/And dashed the brains out” (1.7.56–58).[23]

Through presenting Lady Macbeth and the witches as perverse nurturers, the play sets a link between the threat of infiltration and women’s domestic labor of nurturing and food preparation. It is the ‘extimate’ nature of food that attributes to women the power to dissolve bodily boundaries: since they are responsible for feeding, they can also harm others.[24] As a potentially harmful nurturer, the witches and Lady Macbeth serve as a point onto which the threatening ambiguity of the formative power of food, the fear of malnurturing, and the anxieties about porosity of the body are projected and displaced. It is the early modern fascination with boundaries that nourished the era’s cultural preoccupation with the perverse nurturing, the recurring motifs central to the imagination of the witch-craze and early modern medicine.


By representing the potentially harmful impact of feeding and nurturing, Macbeth registers the anxieties about the porosity of the body elaborated in early modern medical discourses and witchcraft tracts. In spite of their differences, both early modern medical treatises and witchcraft tracts seek to sustain the boundary of the body and selfhood: medical treatises aim at containing the porosity of the body through self-discipline; witchcraft tracts attempt to negotiate the anxieties about boundary transgression by defining the witch as a source of contamination.

The play shows an ambivalent stance toward the possibility of sustaining boundaries. On the one hand, through its depiction of Lady Macbeth and the witches, the play defines the sphere of the feminine as a threat to the balanced body. Furthermore, as Janet Adelman states, it stages a process of excision of the feminine, through which patriarchal power consolidates itself. Presented as powerful figures at the beginning, the witches and Lady Macbeth disappear in the course of the play. Macduff, whose Caesarian birth symbolically sets him off from the contaminating effect of women, defeats the bewitched Macbeth, and the fantasy of male parthenogenesis is achieved.[25] On the other hand, however, the play questions the possibility of cultural reordering through excision of the feminine. First of all, it leaves ambiguous the role of the witches. Although they are associated with infection and perverse feeding, in the larger context of the play, the witches’ agency in Macbeth’s transformation remains opaque. The play even questions the validity of their existence, whether they are “fantastical” or “that indeed/Which outwardly [they] show” (1.3.51–52). Even the significance of the witches’ brew so powerfully associated with the image of contagion remains ambiguous. The spectacles produced by the brew, while they dissolve Macbeth’s selfhood, paradoxically affirm the patriarchal fantasy of autotelic birth.

The play further complicates the issue by blurring the distinction between the witches’ prophecies and Macbeth’s choice, bewitcher and bewitched, poisoner and poisoned. Macbeth’s ambition is largely forged by Lady Macbeth, who is symbolically fused with the witches throughout the play. This commingling of bewitcher and bewitched is further highlighted in the sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth is turned into a bewitched sleepwalker. Furthermore, as Stephen Greenblatt states, the play dramatizes the overlapping of the demonic with the secular through the strategy of “translacing”, “a mode of rhetorical redistribution in which the initial verbal elements remain partially visible even as they are woven into something new”.[26] Macbeth’s first line echoes the sisters’ speech (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” 1.3.36). The witches’ greeting of Macbeth—“All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor./All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.47–48)—is echoed by Duncan (“Thane of Cawdor:/In which addition, hail, most worthy Thane”, 1.3.103–4) and Lady Macbeth (“Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,/Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter”, 1.5.52–53). The commingling of the demonic and the secular is also apparent on the intertextual level. In Holinshed’s text which serves as the source of the play, it is not Lady Macbeth but Duncan who drugs his opponents with poisoned brew.[27]

As such, the play represents witchcraft as ‘the uncanny’ in Freudian terms, a peculiar intermingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar, of the proper and the improper. The witches are both inside and outside the self and the symbolic dimension. Thus, the symbolic function of witchcraft overlaps with that of food: both function as the intimate exteriority that blurs the division between inside and outside, between self and other.


This fusion of the demonic and the secular poses another problem: since it is impossible to localize the source of contagion, there can be no easy remedy. Together with its depiction of disorderly, malnurtured bodies, Macbeth also represents various attempts at cure. The play opens with the language of suturing, a surgical reattachment of fragmented body parts: the “bloody man” (1.2.1) is sent to a surgeon, and the body of Scotland is restored through Macbeth’s heroic victory. Lady Macbeth seeks to contain her husband’s irrational psychic transport through rationalization and calculation. Replying to Macbeth’s reluctance to see Duncan’s dead body, she attempts to contain his anxiety by defining the image of the dead Duncan as an inanimate object: “The sleeping and the dead/Are but as pictures” (2.2.56–57). To his anxious question of “[w]ill all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?” (2.2.63–64), she calmly replies: “A little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.70). Likewise, after being informed of his wife’s precarious state of health, Macbeth desperately seeks a cure, asking the Doctor for an “oblivious antidote” (5.3.44). Malcolm describes his battle against Macbeth in terms of a purgatory cure: “Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge/Tocure this deadly grief” (4.3.216–17).

The play, however, frustrates these attempts at cure. The sutured body of Scotland is again disintegrated by Macbeth’s regicide. In spite of their attempt to sustain themselves, the Macbeths succumb to forces that cannot be explained. Upon Macbeth’s request of an “antidote”, the Doctor, echoing early modern medical discourses, states that the disorderly body must be cured through self-disciplining: “Therein the patient/Must minister to himself” (5.3.46–47).

Malcolm’s victory seems to have cured Scotland by expulsing Macbeth. The play as a whole, however, foregrounds the fragility of his new reign by drawing attention to structural problems inherent in the feudal patronage system. With its utter dependence on loyalty, in the feudal patronage system, the bond between the king and the lords is ultimately performative. The sovereign power is justified not because of the ruler’s natural property but because of the symbolic system sustained through iterative performances of social codes.[28] Hence the significance of communal events such as royal banquets, or hospitable gathering as symbolic rituals that reaffirm social bond through displays of hospitality. As Jacques Derrida has shown, drawing on the work of Emil Benveniste, hospitality, deriving from the Latin hostis which refers to both host and stranger, shares with the word ‘hostility’ its etymological root.[29] The two banquets Macbeth holds show the fragility of the social bond predicated on hospitality. Due to its performative nature, displays of hospitality can be manipulated, as Duncan states at the beginning: “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face” (1.4.11–12). This potential separation of signifier from referent, face from mind, informs the play’s anxieties about equivocation and disguise and at the same time highlights the fragility of the feudal bond. The Macbeths, “look[ing] like th’innocent flower” while being “the serpent under’t” (1.5.63–64), sever the symbolic bond that sustains society by blurring the line between hospitality and hostility. Malcolm’s testing of Macduff in Act 4 Scene 3 again calls into question the possibility of sustaining the feudal symbolic bond by problematizing the capacity to know one another. Both Malcolm’s and Macduff’s language is frustratingly equivocal like the witches’ prophecy, and, due to this semiotic confusion, it is extremely difficult to draw a clear line that distinguishes hospitality from hostility. By locating the unsettling specter of dissolution of boundaries not only in witchcraft but also in sovereignty, Macbeth shows that even the most hegemonic symbolic formation is not able to constitute itself as a coherent entity.


As a discursive construction, early modern medical theory participates in a regulatory production of the body. Early modern medical discourses negotiate anxieties about the porosity of the body by regulating the relation between the self and the other, interior and exterior. Here, the healthy and balanced body functions as a social imaginary that must be sustained through vigilantly regulating what threatens its integrity. As such, not only designating dietary taboos, these writings engage themselves with the question of identity and difference, self and other.[30] In this symbolic economy, the balanced, healthy body is constituted through expulsing what cannot or should not be incorporated in this body: hence the compulsive demonization of poor diet, excessive appetite, and ungoverned lifestyle. In this framework, the uncontrolled body that is unable to govern itself functions as a domain of the abject, through the differentiation from which the balanced body defines itself and onto which the anxieties about the porosity of the body are displaced.

Critics have suggested that the early modern subject’s attempt at sustaining itself through disciplinary regimen contributes to the emergence of the distinctively modern form of subjectivity that governs itself through conscious control.[31] While this attempt at boundary construction was prevalent in this period, the regulatory production of the body was not so much a totalizing as a fragmentary and contradictory cultural process. With its representation of disorderly, porous bodies, Macbeth calls into question the possibility of sustaining bodily boundaries through self-conscious disciplining. Instead of being neatly disciplined by the subject’s acts of self-fashioning, in the play, bodies are porous and uncontrollable (non)entities that exceed the grasp of the subject. This impossibility of sustaining boundaries is also apparent in the history of witch-hunting. Early modern witch-hunters sought to escape from the inexplicable, supernatural, and potentially malign power of witches by persecuting them. Similarly, witchcraft tracts attempted to negotiate the fear of witchcraft by defining the witch as a source of contagion. The disturbing mystery of witchcraft, however, remained unresolved. Perhaps it was the very irresolvability of the truth of witchcraft that provoked compulsive repetition of the drama of witch-hunting. As such, the figure of the witch questions the attempts to construct secure boundaries by drawing into attention what exceeds this regulatory construction of the body, a surplus that cannot be integrated into the symbolic structure of the bounded body.

In Macbeth, even after Malcolm reorganizes the social body by expulsing the Macbeths and abjecting them as “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (5.9.36), his victory cannot entirely eliminate the specters of disorderly bodies and the witches’ cauldron vividly staged throughout the play. They are at once within and outside Malcolm’s rule: they are not a part of the play’s newly restored all-male society, yet, at the same time, they circulate within the symbolic dimension as ghostly apparitions. As such, the specters of witchcraft and disorderly bodies mark negativity, that is, contradictions, ambiguities, and fissures that simultaneously exist within and exceed symbolic organizations. In the representational framework of the play, these specters function as an anamorphic stain, which exists at once inside and outside the field of meaning and distorts ostensible meaning from the margins.[32] The play has shown another anamorphic stain in one of its most compelling depictions of dissolution of boundaries: Banquo’s ghost. His appearance as a ghostly specter visible only to Macbeth utterly dislocates Macbeth’s claim of power and agency as the newly crowned king, making “a gap” in the feast (3.1.12). Like Banquo’s ghost that disrupts Macbeth’s display of agency, these specters of dissolved bodies leave “a gap”, an anamorphic stain that casts an uncanny shadow over Malcolm’s rule and, furthermore, over the contour of the bounded self.


[1]  All quotations from Macbeth are from William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. by A. R. Braunmuller, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2]  Thomas Paynell, Regimen sanitatis Salerni (London, 1528), sig. A2v, quoted in Margaret Healy, Fictions of Disease in Early Modern England: Bodies, Plagues and Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 24.

[3]  William Vaughan, Directions for Health (London, 1626), quoted in Michael C. Schoenfeldt, “Fables of the Belly in Early Modern England”, in David Hillman, Carla Mazzio, eds., The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 251.

[4]  For the early modern notion of the inseparability of body and mind, see Michael C. Schoenfeldt, Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[5]  Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-century Representations (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 128.

[6]  For some instances, see Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); Hillman and Mazzio (1997); Paster (1993); Paster (2004).

[7]  Paster (2004),p. 23. In the early modern preoccupation with the vulnerability of bodily boundaries, we can observe the increasing influence of the newly emerging Paracelsan paradigm of the body. In Galenic humoralism, disease was caused by internal imbalance of humors. This Galenic conception of disease, however, began to be complemented and displaced by the newly emerging understanding of the body asserted by the Swiss physician Paracelsus. Challenging the Galenic system of internal balance, he claimed that origins of disease lie outside the body. As Margaret Healy argues, early modern medical texts tended to combine these theories, which produced the era’s idiosyncratic understanding of the body (Healy [2001], p. 6, pp. 18–49). For the increasing influence of Paracelsianism in early modern England, see Jonathan Gil Harris, Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 19–47.

[8]  Timothy J. Reiss, Mirages of the Selfe: Patterns of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 2.

[9]  Sir Thomas Elyot, The Castel of Helthe (London, 1541), introduction by Samuel Tannenbaum (New York: Scholar’s Facsimiles & Reprints, 1937).

[10] William Bullein, A newe booke Entituled the Government of Healthe (London, 1558), sig. C2v, quoted in Healy (2001), p. 24; James Manning, A New Booke Intituled I am for you all, Complexions castle (London, 1604), p. 2, quoted in Healy (2001), p. 34.

[11] Healy (2001), p. 18. The quotation is in Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 116.

[12] For the notion of ‘extimité’, see Jacques-Alain Miller, “Extimité”, in Mark Bracher et al., eds., Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure, and Society (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 74–87.

[13] Elyot (1541), 16.

[14] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), ed. by Holbrook Jackson (London: J. M. Dent, 1972), p. 226.

[15] Schoenfeldt (1997), p. 243. See also Schoenfeldt (1999), p. 11.

[16] Tanya Pollard, Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 7–9.

[17] For the association of witchcraft with the image of disorderly bodies, see Purkiss (1997), pp. 119–44; Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 23–26.

[18] Peter Stallybrass, “Macbeth and Witchcraft”, in Alan Sinfield, ed., Macbeth: New Casebooks (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 26–27.

[19] King James I, Daemonologie (1597), ed. by G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966), p. 16; Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), ed. by Montague Summer (London: John Rodker, 1930), pp. 281–82.

[20] For the early modern notion of miasma as disrupting humors, see Healy (2001), p. 40–43.

[21] Purkiss (1997), p. 212; Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 231; Wendy Wall, Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 199.

[22] James Guillimeau, The Nursing of Children (1612), sig.li4, quoted in Kathryn Schwarz, “Missing the Breast: Desire, Disease, and the Singular Effect of Amazons”, in David Hillman, Carla Mazzio, eds., The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routeldge, 1997), p. 152. For the symbolic significance of breast milk in the early modern period, see ibid., pp. 147–69.

[23] In the early modern period, the witch was frequently associated with perverse nurturing. For the projection of anxieties about feeding and nurturing onto the witch, see Purkiss (1997), pp. 133–34; Willis (1995), pp. 27–81. For the play’s overlapping of the occult with the domestic, see Wall (2002), p. 199; Frances Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550–1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 225.

[24] Critics have attended to the play’s preoccupation with destructive nurturing, often focusing on psychological dynamics of nurturing. For some instances, see Stallybrass (1992), pp. 30–33; Janet Adelman, “‘Born of woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth”, in Alan Sinfield, ed., Macbeth: New Casebooks (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 53–68.

[25] Adelman (1992), p. 60.

[26] Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare Bewitched”, in Jeffrey N. Cox, Larry Reynolds, eds., New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 125.

[27] A. R. Braunmuller, “Introduction”, in Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 14.

[28] For the significance of iteration in performative construction of norms, see Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993).

[29] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[30] Not only constructing boundaries of selfhood through disciplinary regimen, early modern medical discourses also consolidated national and gender identity. Wendy Wall observes that writers in this period often emphasized the danger of foreign food, setting a link between diet and national identity (Wall [2002]). At the same time, these texts contributed to fashioning gendered subjects by constructing the female body as disorderly and excessive (Paster [1993], p. 23–63).

[31] Schoenfeldt (1997); Schoenfeldt (1999).

[32] Early modern painters used the pictorial device of anamorphosis in order to suspend ostensible meaning of a picture. The most well-known example of anamorphosis is Holbein’s picture titled The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two foreign emissaries surrounded by objects signifying worldly achievements. However, at the bottom of the picture is a stain which, if viewed from a certain angle, is a skull. This stain, at once visible and invisible, alters the ostensible meaning of the picture from the margins. For an account of the use of anamorphosis in early modern paintings, see Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 10–20. For an analysis of the anamorphic function of Banquo’s ghost, see Philip Armstrong, Shakespeare’s Visual Regime: Tragedy, Psychoanalysis and the Gaze (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 187–91. For the representational effect of anamorphosis, see Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981),pp. 79–90.


Der Artikel erforscht die Darstellung von Nahrungsmitteln und deren Auswirkungen auf den menschlichen Körper in Macbeth vor dem Hintergrund medizinischer Diskurse und Hexenschriften der frühen Neuzeit. Abhandlungen dieser Periode zeigen eine eigentümliche, intensive Beschäftigung mit den materiellen Einflüssen von Nahrungsaufnahme auf den menschlichen Körper. Im Rahmen der medizinischen Theorie dieser Zeit war die Aufnahme von Nahrungsmitteln ein Zeichen für Durchlässigkeit von Grenzen, da eine externe Substanz in ein geschlossenen Ganzes eingegliedert wird. Medizinische Abhandlungen dieser Zeit versuchten demzufolge auch, die Begrenzungen des Körpers und der Subjektivität aufrechtzuerhalten, indem der potentiell schädliche Einfluss von Nahrungsaufnahme streng reguliert wurde. Aus den gleichen Beweggründen strebten Hexenschriften dieser Zeit danach, dem Schrecken von Grenzüberschreitungen zu begegnen, indem sie Hexen als den Grund für Verseuchungen ausmachten, die folgerichtig vertrieben werden mussten. Der Artikel vertritt die These, dass Macbeth eine ambivalente Haltung zum Prozess der regulierenden Konstruktion auf den Körper einnimmt. Macbeth erkennt das Verlangen nach Grenzen und auch die Ängste, diese aufzuheben. Gleichzeitig stellt Macbeth die regulative Konstruktion auf den Körper, wie er in den medizinischen Diskursen und Abhandlungen über Hexerei ausgearbeitet wird, in Frage und betont die vergebliche Bemühung, die körperliche Integrität durch Regulierung und Vertreibung aufrechtzuerhalten.