Examine the role of the witches in Macbeth.

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Show, through close reference

to the text, the role of the

witches in ‘Macbeth’

King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I on the throne of England in 1603. He was a member of the Stuart dynasty and was already the King of Scotland. This meant he united the two kingdoms, ending incessant warring between the two nations. James hoped to end the period of religious turmoil that had engulfed England for the previous century.

The people in 17th Century England were very superstitious and witchcraft was the object of fevered fascination. In 1604 a law was passed that said anyone convicted of witchcraft should be executed. King James I was as fascinated by witches as his subjects, and in 1590 he personally interrogated a group of witches who had plotted to kill him. Misogyny and a strong belief that morality was being upheld fuelled society’s hatred of witches.

World Order was an important factor of seventeenth century life. World Order was a system in which God was at the top of the chain, followed by the King or Queen, then humans, birds, animals and fish. They believed that the King had been directly chosen by God and therefore did not have to answer to parliament.  The human section of the Order was split into subdivisions of classes. It was believed that each person was born into their social status and ambition to rise above their position was considered unacceptable and was punishable by political means or by fate. The audience would immediately realise that once Macbeth had murdered the King, he would have to die, as he had disturbed God’s natural order.

The first scene of Macbeth prepares the audience for the entrance of the witches with the use of pathetic fallacy. This is used to dramatic effect, with thunder, lightning and rain applied to create a feeling of chaos. The scene being set in a desolate place reinforces this idea, with the setting making it seem like the events that will unfold will be of an ominous nature.

The words the witches use support the idea of chaos and disturbance. The word ‘hurly-burly’ is used to show the turmoil at the time, with the area being ravaged by battle. Another phrase used to show disturbance is ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. This phrase makes the audience wonder how anything fair can possibly be foul, thus creating confusion.

There are many indicators that the ‘three weird sisters’ are witches. These include the use of the number three, the familiars and the language of the sisters. The number three is a number often believed to be magical, and throughout the play Shakespeare frequently uses this number throughout the play. All three of the sisters have familiars, demons who take the form of creatures to aid witches with their evil craft. This is shown when the witches say ‘I come Graymalkin’, ‘Paddock calls’ and ‘Anon’. Some of the sisters say things that can be interpreted as being related to witchcraft, including ‘that will be ere the set of sun’. This relates to witchcraft, as traditionally it was believed that witches performed magic at sunset.

In Act I Scene 1, the Captain tells the story of Macbeth being a brave and noble man who is valiant and trustworthy. He gives an account of a battle that has just taken place and tells the king of Macbeth’s role in it. As the man telling the story holds the rank of Captain, trust is established between him and the audience. The use of words such as ‘carved’, ‘unseamed’ and ‘steel’ have connotations of murder and butchery, showing Macbeth’s bloodthirstiness in battle. The Captain also uses the phrase ‘or memorise another Golgotha’. This compares Macbeth’s fighting as being as bloody and savage as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is a huge comparison, as Christ is a holy figure. I think that this shows Macbeth fights with such passion it could be almost a religion. A semantic field of ‘warfare and battle’ supports this scene, with lexis including ‘choke’; ‘rebel’; ‘galloglasses’; ‘smoked’; ‘over-charged’; ‘bloody’; ‘execution’; ‘carved’; ‘battlements’; ‘cannons’ and ‘wounds’. I think the words ‘choke’ and ‘over-charged’ are strong words, as they both show the zeal and ferocity Macbeth fought with.


There is a large contrast between the way the witches and the Captain portray Macbeth. This creates an ambivalent presentation of Macbeth, allowing the audience to interpret Macbeth’s character in different ways. As a result of this, Macbeth’s entrance to the play is delayed until the third scene to allow the witches and the Captain to speak. The contradictory ideas about Macbeth that are spoken create tension, as the audience waits to see the true nature of Macbeth. A witch speaks before Macbeth’s arrival in Act I Scene 3, the line ‘A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come’. This line has a strong aural quality, and the rhyming of ‘drum’ and ‘come’ creates a sound like a heartbeat, or a drum signifying war. This creates uncertainty in the audience’s mind, and prepares them for an ominous scene.

Throughout the first scene of the play the witches are presented to the audience as puzzling creatures, possibly closer akin to Satan than humans. Their characters seem uncertain and their strange speech patterns are an enigma. They speak many contradictions including ‘when the battle’s lost and won’ and ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. These contradictions could possibly be affiliated to world order, and the 17th Century audience may interpret the witches’ speech as a disturbance of that.

The second appearance of the witches gives an insight into the power of the witches. The first witch tells the others about a woman who insulted her and how she would take her revenge upon the woman’s husband. The woman’s husband was the captain of a ship and the witch says ‘in a sieve I’ll thither sail’ and ‘I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do’. One of the skills witches were credited with was the ability to sail in sieves and the use of this and the way in which ‘I’ll do’ is repeated three times, suggests some form of incantation will be used upon the sailor. The other witches offer to ‘give a wind’, allowing her to create a storm at the ship’s location. This shows that while the witches cannot directly control people, they do have control over the environment and they can use this to change the circumstances of people. What the witches plan to do with the captain is very alike what happens to Macbeth in the future. “Sleep shall neither night nor day” is similar to Macbeth after murdering Duncan, where he is plagued by nightmares and cannot sleep. This links Macbeth to the witches and shows his evil nature.

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When Macbeth meets the witches he is greeted with the witches saying ‘hail to thee, Thane of Glamis’, ‘hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter’. The three lines indicate the three states of being: past, present and future. ‘Glamis’ shows the past tense, as Macbeth has been Thane of Glamis for a significant amount of time and he is aware of his position. ‘Cawdor’ represents the present, as unbeknown to him, Duncan has just stripped the previous Thane of Cawdor of his title, and will issue it to Macbeth. The final ...

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