Supplementary Appendix 318.1

The witches’ scene in Schiller’s and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, act 1, scene 3

Caroline writes in her letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 25 May 1801 (letter 318) concerning Schiller’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the Weimar stage, which was published in late April 1801:

Let me say nothing about Schiller’s Macbeth. It is much, much worse than you dare imagine and has thoroughly filled us with genuine disgust. For example, the way he wanted to make the witches — morally consistent with the soap-boiler story from Gellert or la Fontaine — is that to be endured? [1]

The reference is to the scene from Macbeth in which the witches discuss the fate of a sailor (act 1, scene 3; here the Shakespearean original): [2]


Thunder. Enter the three Witches

First Witch. Where hast thou been, sister?

Second Witch. Killing swine.

Third Witch. Sister, where thou?

First Witch.A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munch’d, and munch’d, and munch’d:
‘Give me,’ quoth I:
‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.


Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger:
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

Second Witch. I’ll give thee a wind.

First Witch. Thou’rt kind.

Third Witch. And I another.

First Witch. I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman’s card.
I’ll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
Look what I have.

Second Witch. Show me, show me.

First Witch. Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wrack’d as homeward he did come.

Concerning Schiller’s different version, see Gebhard Schatzmann: [3]

The first significant textual alteration Schiller undertakes over against the original is found in act 1, scene 4 [i.e., scene 4 in Schiller’s play]. And yet even this first change is ill chosen. In Shakespeare (act 1, scene 3), the reason why the witches pursue the innocent sailor and ultimately bring about his ruin is much more natural than in Schiller. The English writer has one of the witches remark to her companions:

 A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munch'd, and munch'd, and munch'd:
'Give me,' quoth I:
'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries.
Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger:
But in a sieve I'll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do.

She then goes on to describe how she will pursue the unfortunate sailor in every conceivable way until, ultimately, he becomes stranded on his journey home and perishes.

This scene, portrayed in so animated a fashion in the English piece, is much weaker in Schiller. The witch’s story is much more feeble, dull, and less expressive. She says [approximate prose translation]:

A sailor I found, poor and ragged,
Who while mending his net did sing,
And going harmlessly about his work,
As if to a precious treasure did cling.
And, weary never, both morning and evening did greet
With his cheerful song.
But greatly did this beggar's happy air me vex,
And long and long had I sworn to get him back —
And when once he was fishing,
A treasure did I let him find,
In his net did it lay, gleaming and pure,
Such that his eyes did go blind.
He took the hellish enemy into his house,
And his song was gone forever….
And he lived like the prodigal son,
Surrendering to every lust;
And the false mammon, it fled,
As if it possessed legs and wings.
The fool! trusting in witches' gold!
Knowing not that he owed it to hell! . . .

And once bitter want arrived,
And his flattering friends departed,
Did good fortune abandon him, and shame as well,
He surrendered to the hellish enemy.
Freely offering it heart and hand
Living as a robber throughout the land.
And when today I then went by,
Where the treasure landed in his net,
I saw him weeping on the shore,
With grief-pale cheeks,
And heard as he in despair did speak:
"False nix, so you deceived me,
Gave me gold, drew me behind you,"
And plunged into the waves.

This first part of the Schillerian scene recalls Hagedorn’s poem “Johannes, der Seifensieder,” except that the ending is much more tragic. For while the cheerful soap-boiler takes the money back that was given him and continues singing, the sailor is like the prodigal son; he wastes the money with friends who flatter, becomes a robber, and finally, out of despair, casts himself into the waves.

The reference is to Friedrich von Hagedorn’s verse fable Johannes, der Seifensieder (Johann the soap-boiler) (1738), a piece the source for which Hagedorn found in Jean de La Fontaine’s (1621–95) Le Savetier et le Financier, whence Caroline’s simultaneous reference; indeed, she seems to be acquainted with both versions: [4]

The Merry Soap-boiler

 A Steady and a skillful toiler, 
John got his bread as a soap-boiler, 
Earned all he wished, his heart was light, 
He worked and sang from morn till night. 
E'en during meals his notes were heard, 
And to his beer were oft preferred; 
At breakfast, and at supper, too, 
His throat had double work to do; 
He oftener sang than said his prayers, 
And dropped asleep while humming airs: 
Until his every next-door neighbor 
Had learned the tunes that cheered his labor, 
And every passer-by could tell 
Where merry John was wont to dwell. 
At reading he was rather slack, 
Studied at most the almanac, 
To know when holidays were nigh, 
And put his little savings by; 
But sang the more on vacant days, 
To waste the less his means and ways. 

'Tis always well to live and learn. 
The owner of the soap-concern — 
A fat and wealthy burgomaster,
Who drank his hock, and smoked his k'naster,
At marketing was always apter
Than any prelate in the chapter,
And thought a pheasant in sour-krout
Superior to a turkey-poult;
But woke at times before daybreak
With heart-burn, gout, or liver-ache —
Oft heard our sky-lark of the garret
Sing to his slumber, but to mar it.

He sent for John, one day, and said: 
"What's your year's income from your trade?" 

"Master, I never thought of counting 
To what my earnings are amounting 
At the year's end: if every Monday 
I've paid my meat and drink for Sunday, 
And something in the box unspent 
Remains for fuel, clothes and rent, 
I've husbanded the needful scot, 
And feel quite easy with my lot. 
The maker of the almanac 
Must, like your worship, know no lack, 
Else a red-letter earnless day 
Would oftener be struck away." 

"John, you've been long a faithful fellow, 
Though always merry, seldom mellow. 
Take this rouleau of fifty dollars, 
My purses glibly slip their collars; 
But before breakfast let this singing 
No longer in my ears be ringing: 
When once your eyes and lips unclose, 
I must forego my morning doze." 

John blushes, bows, and stammers thanks, 
And steals away on bended shanks, 
Hiding and hugging his new treasure, 
As it had been a stolen seizure. 
At home he bolts his chamber-door, 
Views, counts and weighs his tinkling store, 
Nor trusts it to the savings-box 
Till he has screwed on double locks. 
His dog and he play tricks no more, 
They're rival watchmen of the door. 
Small wish has he to sing a word, 
Lest thieves should climb his stair unheard. 
At length he finds, the more he saves, 
The more he frets, the more he craves; 
That his old freedom was a blessing 
Ill sold for all he's now possessing. 

One day, he to his master went 
And carried back his hoard unspent.


"Master," says he, "I've heard of old, 
Unblest is he who watches gold. 
Take back your present, and restore 
The cheerfulness I knew before. 
I'll take a room not quite so near, 
Out of your worship's reach of ear, 
Sing at my pleasure, laugh at sorrow, 
Enjoy to-day, nor dread to-morrow, 
Be still the steady, honest toiler, 
The merry John, the old soap-boiler."

Although Schiller’s adaptation of Macbeth consciously adapts Shakespeare to a different style, Schleiermacher’s review (which Wilhelm read in manuscript form) in the Erlanger Litteratur-Zeitung ignores this element; [5] Schleiermacher similarly repeats Caroline’s joke concerning the soap-boiler (after discussing various changes Schiller made in the material, Schleiermacher continues):

These are not changes deriving from any particular circumstances of this or that theater, but rather solely from the conception of the artist himself, who by adding something of his own to the work thereby affects the entire nature of that work.

Such alien or externally imposed material can be found right at the beginning in the complete internal and external transformation of the witches. They are no longer “wither’d,” but rather have “gray hair,” and are, moreover, “gigantic.”

Schiller probably made this change so that their external appearance would better resemble their internal disposition. For these are anything but common witches of the sort Macbeth himself might imagine, or of the sort still doubtless conceived in Shakespeare’s own age. They neither strangle swine nor sulk over denied chestnuts. Instead they prefer to ruin a comical soap-boiler simply from pure malice — for one cannot avoid being reminded of him by the fisherman’s story.

Their friendship here has also been cast in a completely different style; they give each other neither thumb nor wind, and express their goodwill by supporting the narrating sister by a refrain in which they all join. In general they all speak quite eloquently, indeed one sings in what are almost regular stanzas quite resembling a ballad by Schiller himself, whereas their Shakespearian discourses consistently betray a certain awkwardness commensurate with their status.

The most peculiar feature, however, is that they moralize and experiences pangs of conscience, thereafter justifying themselves by adducing human freedom. In a word: they are not really witches at all, but genuine sisters of fate, priestesses of the reestablished, highest dramatic deity [Shakespeare: “weird sisters”; Schiller: “Schicksalsschwestern, “sisters of fate”].

But just how they are nonetheless called witches, and just how one is to reconcile such lofty discourse with an incantation over such a cauldron with such ingredients — is one problem that will probably be difficult to resolve.

In any event, although no one attending this play believes in the existence of witches of the sort Shakespeare presents, those witches are not part of the material tying the play to a specific age; for one can quite easily imagine that at one time people did indeed conceive and believe in such witches. By contrast, no one in any age could conceive of these Schillerian witches.

Finally, Wilhelm could not refrain from composing some satirical verses on the adaptation: [6]

Macbeth adapted for the Weimar court theater by Schiller (Motto from Hamlet)

Macbeth is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

In the next piece, Wilhelm alludes to Faust 1, scene 6, “Witches’ Kitchen,” spoken by Mephistopheles to Faust: “My friend, take proper heed, I pray! / To manage witches, this is just the way”: [7]

The Refined Cultivation of Witches

Witches you would travesty into furies?
Thinking this is just the way to manage witches?
Alas, both sets of ladies, I fear, will protest,
And Shakespeare, Aeschylus no longer comprehend themselves.


[1] Caroline mistakes Christian Gellert for Hagedorn. See below. Back.

[2] Shakespeare Complete Works, ed. W. J. Craig (London: Oxford, 1966).

Illustrations of act 1, scene 1 (the witches’ first appearance in the act) from The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Henry Irving and Frank A. Marshall, vol. 5 (London 1889); of act 1, scene 3 (the witch with the sailor’s wife), William Strang, Macbeth’s witches (1882); “English Etchings,” Part XVI. Back.

[3] Gebhard Schatzmann, “Schillers Macbeth, nach dem englischen Originale verglichen,” Programm der k. k. deutschen Staats-Oberrealschule in Trautenau, veröffentlicht am Schlusse des Schuljahres 1889, ed. Josef Wurm (Trautenau 1889), 3–30, here 12–13 (entire scene from Schiller added by present editor, which Schatzmann cites only in part). Back.

[4] Friedrich von Hagedorn, “Johannes, der Seifensieder,” in Versuch in poetischen Fabeln und Erzählungen (Hamburg 1738), 116–20. Translated anonymously as “The Merry Soap-boiler,” The Masterpieces and the History of Literature: Analysis, Criticism, Character and Incident, ed. Julian Hawthorne et. al., 10 vols. (New York 1903), German Literature, Period IV, 8:13–15. Illustration from Fabeln von Hagedorn, Gleim und Lichtwer: mit Kupfern von J. R. Schellenberg (Winterthur 1777), plate preceding p. 41. Back.

[5] Erlanger Litteratur-Zeitung 2 (1801) nos. 148ff. (30 July 1801), 1177–91; repr. Aus Schleiermacher’s Leben 4:540–54, here 4:547. Back.

[6] Sämmtliche Werke 2:213; Wilhelm’s title here repeats the title of Schiller’s adaptation: Macbeth: Ein Trauerspiel von Shakespear zur Vorstellung auf dem Hoftheater zu Weimar eingerichtet (Tübingen 1801). Back.

[7] Faust: A Tragedy, trans. Bayard Taylor, 2 vols. in 1 (Boston, New York 1870), 108. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott