Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Wyrd Sisters, Part V

Curtain up, it’s time for the only show that matters in Lancre—which brings us to the end Wyrd Sisters.

Summary

The play begins and the actors are having a rough time of it, so Hwel tries to pep talk everyone into their roles. Tomjon can’t find his usual costume crown and ends up having to fish the real one out of the prop box. Verence is upset to find that his son is playing an embellished and decidedly evil version of him. Granny sees what the play is doing to their town—it’s rewriting history in their minds and they’re losing the battle right before her eyes. After the first act, the duke tells his footman that the captain of the guard must arrest the witches because public opinion is now turning in their favor. The captain winds up arresting the actors who are playing the witches, while Tomjon tries to figure out why the play is trying to change around them. He goes to think on his own, and the ghost of his father tries to confront him with no luck. Granny, Nanny, and Magrat think that perhaps they could change the words of the play to fix this mess, are mistaken for their actors by Hwel, and told to go out on stage for Act Two.

A real storm (from the start of the book) shows up, which is just as well because the foley effects aren’t working out anymore. The witches are on stage with the play’s tin cauldron and paper fire, and they’re causing a great deal of distraction. The duke finally realizes that it’s the real witches up on stage and the duchess motions to have them removed. Granny casts a spell and the play begins to change, the words reforming and showing the audience what actually happened to the former king. Death arrives to claim a soul and prepares for his cue, but arrives on stage to an audience that can see him because they are expecting to see Death within the play. He freezes in stage fright. The duke panics and climbs onto the stage insisting that he did not kill the king, but Tomjon is seized by the voice of his father and insists that he did. The duchess is about to have everyone on stage arrested or slain when the Fool comes out on stage and confirms that he was there on the night of Verence’s death and saw the duke murder him.

The duke takes the stage dagger and stabs the Fool, then proceeds to stab most of the company, his wife, and himself—but it’s a retractable stage dagger so no one is harmed. Then Felmet says that there’s supposed to be a comet when a prince dies and goes outside to check. The duchess demands that the guards arrest the witches as Granny declares Tomjon’s heritage. She shows the duchess her true self using some headology, but the duchess isn’t having it, so Nanny knocks her out with the cauldron. The duke has decided that he’s already a ghost, much to Death’s dismay, but he thankfully slips from the battlements and falls into the gorge, dying. A conversation is happening about how to coronate Tomjon, who adamantly does not want to be king. He asks Hwel to help him, and the dwarf tries, but of course the problem is that being king isn’t exactly something people get a choice in. Magrat has stared at him though, and brought a whispering conversation to the other witches.

There’s some commotion about the whole thing and a month later the witches meet on the full moon in their coven, the night following the king’s coronation. The Fool has been crowned King Verence II, and Nanny wonders why Magrat hasn’t made herself the queen at this rate. Tomjon is performing on the company’s way back to the city, and insisting that they save every pence to put back into the theatre. The new King Verence comes to Magrat’s home and his sergeant pounds upon the door, but the king thinks that’s far too much and orders him to leave, and to return his hat and bells to the Fools’ Guild in Ankh-Morpork. The king lets himself into Magrat’s kitchen and falls asleep, thinking of all he has to do. The duchess escapes her cell and runs into the forest, determined to get her revenge, only to have the land take its revenge on her. As the coven is talking, it is revealed that while the king and Tomjon are truly brothers, their father was not King Verence—it was his Fool. Magrat is mortified that they misled the public, but Nanny and Granny are adamant that everything has worked out all right. They bring their meeting to a close and agree to not schedule their next meeting just yet.

Commentary

At the end of the book, we come to the play-within-a-play portion. (Okay, it’s a play within a book, but most narratives within narratives have similar functions, so it’s still valid.) As usual, we get the parodies of Macbeth and Hamlet and Richard III and so on, but the real focus here is aptly a commentary on how art and politics and reality intermingle, and where those stitches fray.

There are references here to the fact that art has often been shaped by those in power; the talk about how Tomjon has been outfitted with a hump on his back and made into this loathsome figure is a direct reference to how Richard III was depicted by Shakespeare—not out of a desire for accuracy, but because that was what the current king commanded. Similarly here, Hwel has written the previous king this way because the duke is paying for this play and has demanded certain features in it.

There’s also an acknowledgement on how art (specifically political theater here) can reshape reality… and I found that bit particularly hard to read at the moment. Granny watching the town watch the play, everyone seeing an altered version of history and how easily they believe it. Theatre is certainly magic, but the real concern is that people will often believe anything that is repeated enough or presented to them with the right kind of gusto. It’s all played out hilariously—with the real coven on stage and Death getting a brief cameo (this theatrical asshole gets up in front of a crowd and freezes?) and the poor actors suddenly reciting lines they’ve never heard before—but it’s a reminder of how easily humans are taken in by lies. And not even well-constructed ones.

I find myself fascinated by the difference with which the duke and duchess meet their ends, even more for how it relates to the ending of Macbeth; pointedly, Duke Felmet gets a rather comical ending, and that could be put down to the fact that we’re dealing with an overall comical book, but it reads more like a direct commentary on how Pratchett views Lord and Lady Macbeth—specifically that the lord is a nothing muffin of an antagonist, and the lady should have been permitted the full breadth of her villainy. Because let’s be honest, the idea that Lady Mac loses her mind over guilt at her misdeeds is one of Shakespeare’s weakest writing choices.

I’m sorry, but it’s true—it’s one of those ideas that’s fun to play as an actor, but doesn’t bear out in the characterization we’ve seen. So instead, Pratchett has the duke lose touch with reality over his guilt (which he’s built upon the entire book), and goes a different route for the duchess. People who walk around advocating for callous murder are unlikely to make a turnaround so severe, so we get a far more chilling end at the hands (and hooves and antlers and hoppy feet) of the land. The land which has been so abused in this story finally gets its revenge on the person who cared about it the least. It’s fitting and much more frightening, and pointedly shakes a finger at villains who believe that acts of compassion are weakness, which is something that should be brought up more often in fiction to my mind.

And then the witches have got things sorted, and they have another meeting to discuss how it all went, and Magrat learns that the Fool isn’t really related to King Verence at all, but Granny and Nanny are certain that it doesn’t matter. Because, as I said before, this is a story about how people are many things, and how complicated it can be to find your path when even so. The story doesn’t tell us if Magrat is going to become the queen, and that’s just as well because not knowing is really part of the story. (Have you watched Soul yet? The endings are similar here, really, and I was thinking about it the whole time.)

There’s a thought here at the end that I’m curious about, dealing with the play about trolls that Tomjon is performing on his way home. Pratchett writes of the show “A hundred people would go home tonight wondering whether trolls were really as bad as they had hitherto thought although, of course, this wouldn’t actually stop them disliking them in any way whatsoever.” It’s a scathing indictment because people who make art and appreciate art like to believe that art can change hearts and minds. We even like to believe that art can better instill empathy in others. But the fact of the matter is, plenty of people will appreciate the same art that we love and not take away the lessons within it. It won’t reach them, not for long enough to make them reassess the aspects of their life that they’re comfortable with. And this is an extremely glib though apt way of noting this very problem.

To that end, Tomjon calls Hwel “lawn ornament” at the end of the book, and Hwel accepts it this time. Perhaps he believes the young man has earned it; he’s truly become his father’s son now, Vitoller’s heir of the stage. Perhaps the dwarf has decided it doesn’t make that much of a difference when Tomjon is going to use all their earnings to make the Dysk the kind of theater Hwel is dreaming of. But it still sits awkwardly coming after that quote.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Getting all petty in the footnotes, about the alderman not being punished for using the phrase “commence to start” which, I’m not usually all in for pedantry, but I’ve got to give him this one.
  • Death quoting “There’s No Business Like Show Business” made me suddenly wonder if that’s not one of the most reappropriated songs on record. It’s not as though there aren’t other songs about show business, but anything sung by Ethel Merman is gonna have a certain kind of staying power in the public consciousness.
  • At the end, you’re forced to reconsider the title, particularly the label of “wyrd” as forces of fate. Because as Nanny and Granny insist, fate and destiny are pretty nonsense overall. But then again, they do sort of act as agents of fate. But then again…

Pratchettisms:

The castle was full of people standing around in that polite, sheepish way affected by people who see each other all day and are now seeing each other again in unusual social circumstances, like an office party.

He uttered the stage manager’s traditional scream of rage.

This was real. This was more real even than reality. It might not be true, but that had nothing to do with it.

This is Art holding a Mirror up to Life. That’s why everything is exactly the wrong way around.

It had spent ages learning its craft. It had spent years lurking in distant valleys. It had practiced for hours in front of a glacier. It had studied the great storms of the past. It had honed its art to perfection. And now, tonight, with what it could see was clearly an appreciative audience waiting for it, it was going to take them by, well… tempest.

Death was intrigued. They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in.

Alone, in the gray shadows, Death tapdanced.

“That doesn’t matter. A king isn’t something you’re good at, it’s something you are.”

And that’s the end of Wyrd Sisters! Which means that we’re starting next week into Pyramids, which is helpfully split into four parts. So we’ll get all the way through Part I.

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