Macbeth - The Witches are the Heart of the Play

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“The Witches are the Heart of the Play”     Paddy L

In Shakespeare’s day many, most people would have had no doubts about he actual existence of witches, and in their powers of evil, demonstrated by the European witch craze, where some 9 million women were burnt at the stake for practicing ‘witchcraft’. There were however strong arguments as to their non-existence in the same period. Even the play’s opening stage direction, “Enter three witches”, could be interpreted as a compressed historical commentary on the belief in witchcraft from antiquity, until the 1700’s. The practice of witchcraft was perceived as subverting the established order of religion and society, and thus was not tolerated, while death for murder by witchcraft had been the standard punishment since 1563. The prominent part played by the Witches in this case came at a fitting time, since King James first encountered witchcraft while returning from a trip to Denmark, where it came to light that several witches had tried to cast spells upon him. This resulted in the development of a passionate interest in the Black Arts: “In respect of the strangeness of these matters” he “took great delight to be present at [the Witches’] examinations”. His interest would only have been fanned to learn that “by reason the King is the greatest enemy he hath in the world”.

The intensity of the tragedy in MacBeth is hinged on the question of whether the witches exercise control over an innocent MacBeth- where the question of demonic possession has been raised-, or whether he is entirely responsible for his own repulsive actions. The play MacBeth opens with three Witches – representatives of the supernatural – discussing their proposed meeting with MacBeth. The very heart of the play is struck at in this opening scene, when they chant in unison, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”[I:I, 11]. This phrase concerns the theme of reversal of values, which recurs throughout the play, largely brought about by the Witches influence. This rather confused phrase refers to the moral confusion that Scotland would imminently be thrown into by MacBeth’s actions, through the killing of Duncan. By committing this murder, MacBeth shuns all natural laws of nature that were especially revered at the time, and as in original sin, order was plunged into chaos. The weight of his ensuing damnation, and thus the weight of the tragedy, rests on Shakespeare’s ability to portray MacBeth as a highly praiseworthy, noble character- who can then turn villain.

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The three witches in the tragedy are introduced right at the beginning of the play and the brief opening scenes instantly give an impression of mystery, horror and uncertainty. This is a sort of omen of things to come, with the witches creating an atmosphere of evil and disorder.

The seeds of evil in MacBeth are not planted by the witches, though; they are only cultivated by them. His wicked ambition is already at work before his first encounter with them, this ambition made more prominent by the contrast in reaction between himself and Banquo.  

Banquo is deeply ...

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