The Third Witch

About The Book

Rebecca Reisert's mesmerizing first novel re-imagines Macbeth, Shakespeare's classic tragedy of power and madness, through the eyes of a mysterious young woman on a dangerous quest for vengeance.
For the girl called Gilly, life in the wilds of Birnam Wood is little more than a desperate struggle for survival. Seven long years have passed since she was first taken in and sheltered by Nettle and Mad Helga, the hut-dwelling wise-women whose inscrutable powers of alchemy and prophecy are feared and reviled throughout good King Duncan's kingdom. Living under the threat of deadly persecution by witch-hunting villagers, the threesome ekes out a life by peddling potions and elixirs, scavenging for food, and robbing the bloodied corpses of Scotland's battle-scarred hills for precious metals and weapons.
But Gilly is haunted by recollections of a much brighter life. She clings to fading memories of a time when she was contented and adored -- until tragedy swept all that happiness away and young Gilly's life was changed forever.
I have made my life an arrow, and His heart is my home. I have made my heart a blade, and His heart is my sheath....Obsessed with avenging her loss and putting out the fire that still rages in her heart, Gilly has dedicated herself to destroying Macbeth, the boundlessly ambitious man who took away her childhood, and his goading wife. Disguising herself as a poor servant boy, she insinuates herself into their lives and, as she bears horrified witness to Macbeth's violent path to power, Gilly subtly begins to take a hand in the forces governing his fate. But as the culmination of her revenge draws near, Gilly finds her own life at risk when she confronts the troubling legacy of a long-concealed heritage.
The Third Witch is a brilliantly imagined, wonderfully satisfying novel. In a riveting story of ruthlessness and revenge, debut author Rebecca Reisert demonstrates a profound understanding of the Bard's timeless drama -- and of the real-life Macbeth upon whom Shakespeare's incarnation is modeled.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for
The Third Witch
by Rebecca Reisert

1) The way gender dictates actions and behaviors and affects expectations plays a central role in this story. While Lady Macbeth utilizes traditional views of womanhood, claiming that she is "only a weak woman" when she is, in fact, manipulating those around for personal gain, Gilly sloughs off her female status to embrace the anonymity and freedom that boyish-ness allows her. Yet both women ask to be "de-sexed" so that they may fulfill their murderous plans without hesitation. Why do these two women feel that their genders stand in their way? Is it fear and cowardice that they see as inherently female, or empathy and compassion?
2) Does it logically follow then that men find it easier to kill, either for revenge or for selfish gain? What do you think the character of Macbeth suggests? Is Macbeth less susceptible to the madness that guilt brings than Lady Macbeth because of his gender? When Gilly speaks of being "de-sexed," is she referring to her desire to be like a man, or is she asking to be made sex-less, or somehow less human -- an inanimate object, without consciousness and therefore conscience?
3) The Third Witch is the story of a young woman in a desperate search for justice. And despite numerous warnings that "Doom is more costly than love," Gilly chooses to seek this justice through mad, blind revenge. What is the price of Gilly's revenge, both literally and figuratively? To what degree do you blame the young girl for failing to see the folly of her ways? Although Nettle assures her at the end of the novel: "You did not kill them. Macbeth did," do you think she should be totally absolved for the destruction that takes place in the story?
4) How does the idea of responsibility -- to one's family, to one's friends, to those who cannot defend themselves -- play out in this novel? Although we see Gilly struggle with her feelings of responsibility and her desire to be free and unfettered by others, to what degree does she abandon this idea when it suits her (keep in mind her rationalization when she abandons Pod)? Would you consider her sense of loyalty to those who she loves to be strong?
5) Similarly, what do you make of Gilly's concept of family loyalty? She spends her entire young life avenging her father, yet she treats her mother, the woman who bore her, as her archenemy and, at times, thrills in the woman's suffering. How is she able to shut out the emotional and familial bonds that might have once tied her to her mother? What do you think family means to Gilly? Does this change for her by the end of the novel?
6) Nettle tells Gilly, before the young girl begins her journey, that " 'tis easier than anything -- easier than breathing, easier even than death -- to find that you yourself have become the very thing you hate most." Discuss the transformation that Gilly undergoes, both physically and emotionally, as she makes her life an arrow. Do the characters of Lady Macbeth and Gilly have so many similarities simply because they are mother and daughter, or are there other reasons for the traits they share?
7) Discuss the way fear acts as a motivating force for the different characters -- both major and minor -- in this novel. What kinds of mechanisms do the people in this story use to handle their fear? Who do you think is the most frightened character and why? Does anyone appear to be fearless? How does the concept of fear give us a window into the souls of many of these characters?
8) Look at the various ways motherhood is presented in this novel. Compare and contrast Lisette and Nettle, two seemingly disparate characters who often mirror each other.
9) During one of their conversations on the nature of Science, Fleance remarks to Gilly, "Oftentimes the best discoveries are made by observing a thing until it reveals its true nature." How does this quote apply to this novel as a whole? By the end of this story, do you feel that you have grasped the "true nature" of all of the characters? Do any of them remain convoluted or ambiguous?
10) Witchcraft, or at least suspected witchcraft, plays a large role in this text. Gilly seems confident that both Mad Helga and Nettle are not witches, and yet the opinions of many of the townsfolk and the way Nettle's premonitions come true might make us believe otherwise. Do you consider the two women to be witches in the traditional sense? Does that characterization have any effect on how you view their role in the story?
11) Discuss setting as it is presented in this novel. What does the forest represent for Gilly and for the other characters in the novel? In what ways does the wood serve as an individual character -- one that helps shape and alter the plot?
12) In her moment of truth, as Macbeth kneels vulnerable before her, why do you think Gilly abandons her chance to slay him in order to save Pod? Do you think Gilly ever really wanted to kill Macbeth? Is she simply a Hamlet-like character -- bloodthirsty yet incapable of action -- or is there something else at play here? How might her choice to save Pod be representative of the ways in which Gilly has changed by the end of the novel?
13) If you were familiar with Shakespeare's Macbeth before this novel, how did you find the experience of reading a re-telling such as this? In what ways did the author depart from the traditional storyline and/or embellish certain scenes to tell the story of Gilly? Did you find that you had certain expectations that you might not have had with a piece of fiction where you were completely unacquainted with any of the characters? Did you find that the author's depiction of certain historical figures met with the vision that you had in your mind?

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (March 2, 2002)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743423052

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Raves and Reviews

Betsy Tobin Author of Bone House A gripping tale of revenge and betrayal that yokes the reader from the early pages.

The Birmingham Post (U.K.) One of the most original first novels you're likely to find.

Publishers Weekly Audacious....The supple language distantly evokes the poetry of the original.ŠWhat's best here is the fetid atmosphere, and the intriguing exploration of the place of women in macho Scotland.

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