What do you think the significance of the witches is in Macbeth?

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‘What do you think is the significance of the witches in Macbeth?’

The witches within Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ can be interpreted as providing a number of roles within the play which add not only to the plot but also to the atmosphere and fear evoked within the audience. Within the Jacobean period in which ‘Macbeth’ was first performed, witches were the subject of much public hysteria and superstition, with the King’s own beliefs being based on a long history of Christian paranoia about witchcraft. As a result, the witches can be seen as a supernatural influence within the play, linking them to the devil and other dark forces and playing on the real and current fears of what may have been a dominantly Christian audience. In this respect, a modern Gothic reading can be applied to the novel.

The supernatural power of the witches is one of the first elements highlighted within the play, as in Scene 3 Banquo states they can ‘look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow and which will not.’ Therefore, from the outset the witches are highlighted as the fortune-tellers within the story, who hold an otherworldly power to see into the future. This gives them a greater level of power than the surrounding humans, and such power in the wrong hands may have created a sense of unease and unpredictability within the audience. Additionally, it is this power to tell the fortune which creates the catalyst for the play and leads to Macbeth’s moral deterioration: ‘All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be King hereafter!’ Thus, the witches can be seen to play the role of the typical villains through their manipulation of Macbeth, turning him from a ‘worthy gentleman’ into a brutal murderer. However, there is also contradictory argument that in reality, the witches do not hold any true superiority of power and that it is instead the planting of the idea in Macbeth’s mind which leads him to commit murder through the growth of his own ‘dark desires.’ This is exemplified further as Banquo suggests ‘oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.’ Following this interpretations, the witches may be interpreted as having less power as they merely suggest an idea, and it is the desire and drive of the human mind which instead leads to Macbeth’s downfall. This interpretation may also be considered particularly frightening both to a Jacobean and a modern audience as it follows the modern Gothic stereotype of playing on the realistic fears of humans, such as the power of our deep and potentially repressed desires.

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Furthermore, the witches can also be seen to play a part in destabilising the typical gender roles of men and women within Jacobean society. Banquo states: ‘You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.’ The ‘beards’ of the witches bring about confusion as to whether the witches are female or male, and deconstruct the opposition between both genders. This ambiguity leads to the witches failing to fall into either category, which further highlights the unnatural nature to them as they do not fit within the realms of human and social convention. Not ...

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