What is the Significance of the Witches in ‘Macbeth’?
‘Macbeth’ is set in 11th century Scotland – a time of political unrest with lots of violence, murders and rivalry to do with politics and kings. In these times competent and noble leaders were often killed for ambition and greed. Shakespeare explores these issues in the play.
Although ‘Macbeth’ is set in a period a long time ago, its themes are still relevant to any society and age – even today. Shakespeare writes about issues that have been in any time. An example is whether leaders are good or bad and what qualities they have that shows this. ‘Macbeth’ also demonstrates the role of ambition in society and how it affects everyone both short term and long term. The play shows how power is gained and kept be that by legitimate reasons or by wrong methods such as usurpation.
Shakespeare was a patron of King James I, who supported Macbeth and his plays. Therefore James I had some influence on the play, and several elements of the play appear; such as the divine nature of kings which James strongly believed him. This Divine Order is a theory about how the whole universe is decided and dictated by God and kings were God’s agents. This meant actions against kings were crimes against God and anyone who did so would go to hell. This explains why James I hated regicide and why Shakespeare portrays it as bad in ‘Macbeth’.
We are shown two noble, good, strong kings – Duncan and Malcolm. We also see a ruthless evil tyrant named Macbeth who becomes a poor and weak king. Shakespeare deliberately changes Holinshed’s Chronicles of which he gets his ‘data’ from. An example is how Macbeth and Duncan are ‘switched around’ as such where in real life Macbeth was strong king who reigned for many years and Duncan was a weak king, however in ‘Macbeth’ it is Duncan who is the strong well-liked king and Macbeth is the weak ruler. This is done to add a twist to the story and make Macbeth by all including James I who would have been appalled at his poor leadership qualities. James was a man who cared strongly that kings should all be great and have good ‘kingly’ characteristics. He would therefore be pleased by how Shakespeare presents Duncan and Malcolm in a good light in ‘Macbeth’ and would also welcome Macbeth’s death – the weak king who he was appalled at.
Throughout Shakespeare’s life, people believed in witches and witchcraft. An of Parliament declared that anyone found of being a witch or practising witchcraft would immediately be executed. People were terrified of witchcraft and witches were often horribly tortured.
In ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare uses three “weird sisters” to trick and scare both the play’s characters and the audience watching the play. To so this Shakespeare uses a crude, traditional stereotype of a witch – doing this meant the audience can immediately recognise and see that it is a witch on stage.
James I was fascinated by witchcraft and using the three witches would please him, which Shakespeare wanted, as discussed in the earlier paragraph.
Throughout ‘Macbeth’ the witches play a huge role in twisting the story and its characters – however how significant is this? This is what I am going to find out in my essay.
The play begins with a scene featuring the witches – unusual because a lot of plays begin with the protagonist – Macbeth. However Shakespeare does this to set the whole plays themes and atmosphere and also to show what is to come in the play. Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy by using thunder, lightning and a murky, strange atmosphere to present the witches. This reveals that Shakespearian theatre uses different techniques to show and present things – creating intrigue and excitement for the audience. We find out about how the witches seem to predict the future and how they plan to meet with Macbeth – creating suspense and excitement for the audience – ‘when will we meet this character? This is a technique known as delayed revelation because the audience is forced to wait to see something or find something out. The way the witches talk shows the evil they have “in thunder, lightning or in rain”. These are all nasty, unpleasant types of weather and because they like these types of weather, it shows how horrible and strange they are. They speak in rhyming couplets featuring lines of only 7-9 syllables – so their lines are quick and sound like a spell. They speak in antithesis – opposites to confuse and intrigue the audience. An example is “fair is foul, and foul is fair” meaning they see evil as good and good as evil, which is their attitude to life, showing how different they are to everyone else. This also creates a link to Macbeth, about which we will find out later.
The delayed revelation is continued in the next scene – where suspense is increased further by the Captain saying “for brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name”. Who is this Macbeth and if he’s this noble and brave – why do the witches want to meet him.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Even the king approves of Macbeth – “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” We see how strong both Banquo and Macbeth are – “Dismayed not this, our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?” Duncan asks whether they are scared about the attacking Norwegians. The Captain replies “as dismayed as a lion is by a hare/as dismayed as an eagle is by a sparrow. This is ironic and shows that Macbeth isn’t scared at all. He sees the Norwegians as weak and vulnerable – like prey.
Duncan then praises Macbeth further “Thy smack of honour” showing that everyone including the king himself, see Macbeth as loyal, honourable and brave. He defends and fights for his king, which turns out to be dramatic as he betrays him later in the play.
We then learn how Macbeth has been given the title of Lord of Cawdor and Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets to link ‘Macbeth’ with the word ‘death’ - telling that he’s winning this title but with this as a side effect he loses his honour and perhaps his life.
In Scene 3 of Act 1 we are introduced to the witches again. Shakespeare makes the witches fit into the traditional stereotype using pathetic fallacy with thunder. We also have rhythm and rhyme being used to create quick speeches with all the watches ‘synchronised’ together to cause a speech that sounds like a spell. The witches create a lot of the atmosphere in ‘Macbeth’ which is one of their major roles in the play and why they are significant.
We only see the witches at the beginning of this scene and Shakespeare does this to show us what they are like. In this case, we learn how they like to take revenge on people and how they plan to do so on a sailor’s wife by hurting her husband. We find out how the 1st witch will sail in a “sieve” meaning she is going to transform herself into a rat and take revenge. She casts a spell then to make him unable to sleep and thirsty all the time.
This shows how evil and cruel they are because they are willing to hurt innocent people to get their revenge. We see in this part of the scene what the three are capable of: controlling weather, changing themselves into animals, killing animals and people, prophesising and casting spells. Shakespeare is careful to make sure we see the witches do all this to show how evil they are, and what evil they are capable of it. This would also scare the audience.
The entrance of Macbeth is then announced and we instinctively know that these witches aren’t going to help Macbeth – they are going to harm him.
Macbeth enters, with his first line of the whole play – “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. This is a very important part of the play because it links back to Act 1, Scene 1, Line 11, where all three witches cry “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. The two lines are eerily similar and links Macbeth to the witches. Something “foul” is going to happen to Macbeth.
Banquo is first to see the witches and he’s shocked and afraid of them. He believes they are evil spirits and describes them “withered and wild…choppy finger…skinny lips…beards” horrible and strange words give us the first description of their appearance; which tells us that they are hideous creatures.
Macbeth then sees the witches: “Speak if you can. What are you?” – notice it’s “what are you?” and not “who are you?” He doesn’t see them as people, as human beings. Through this, he appears brave and doesn’t appear to have any fear of them – perhaps Shakespeare’s way of emphasizing the man who the Captain and the King were talking about in the earlier scene – brave, loyal, noble – the Macbeth before he meets the witches.
All three witches greet him in turn, telling him what he is, what he will be and what he could be.
This seems to unnerve the brave Macbeth and Banquo, sensing this, asks why Macbeth seems so jumpy and afraid. He says Macbeth is “rapt” meaning in a trance. Macbeth then asks ‘how on earth’ could he be Lord of Cawdor. He’s now interested and intrigued about the witches, when the audience know that he should be suspicious of them.
Then after the witches vanish, Ross enters and reminds us of Macbeth’s past loyalty to the King, however we suspect hat Macbeth with later break his trust and lose his loyalty because of Macbeth’s ambition. This is therefore ironic.
Then Macbeth is told that he has been made Lord of Cawdor and both Banquo and Macbeth are shocked. In an aside Banquo warns Macbeth that the witches are evil and not to believe what they say. He says that despite appearing truthful, the predictions are sinister and they are trying to trick him. However Macbeth chooses to ignore him and thinks to himself about the witches’ third prediction. “The greatest is behind” he murmurs. This shows the audience how much ambition Macbeth has and shows what the witches’ roles are – they spark of things in people – hidden character traits. In this case Macbeth has always had this ‘seed’ of ambition planted in his mind and the witches have ‘watered’ this seed and it has grown – by the witches telling him he could be king. We see this ‘plant’ of ambition start to take over Macbeth throughout the play, through another of the witches roles – encouraging Macbeth to act on his ambitions, which causes major problems for him later in the play.
There is a huge amount of contrast and juxtaposition between Macbeth and Banquo by the way they have reacted to the witches. Macbeth gets ‘taken in’ by them and doesn’t actually realise that they’ve betrayed and tricked him until Act 5 Scene 8 – right near the end of the play. However Banquo realises that the witches are equivocating with them almost immediately. The reason for this contrast is Macbeth’s ambition is too strong and because he wants to be king so much it got in the way and he couldn’t see what the witches was doing to him.
We truly know Macbeth’s ambitions in his aside speech near the end of Act 1 Scene 3. It includes phrases like “horrid image…horrible imaginings…whose murder is yet but fantastical”. Macbeth is already considering murdering Duncan – a feat before he’d met the witches that would be unimaginable for him. Soon after, Macbeth also lies to Banquo – to cover up his black thoughts of murder.
By the end of this scene, we fully realise what the witches have done. They have changed a loyal, courageous, noble, honourable man into a man whose ambitions have overpowered him, turning him into a liar and evil. This is the witches’ role in Macbeth.
Just from these first three scenes, we have been a great deal of the witches and we have learnt a lot about their roles in ‘Macbeth’. They excite and thrill James I, who had a deep interest in witchcraft; by the way they speak in rhythm and rhyme. They also create the play’s atmosphere, with the weather – thunder, lightning, rain and how menacing and evil they are, creating excitement for the audience. They also create suspense and tension for the audience and the play’s characters because of how they have begun to manipulate and twist Macbeth – creating a tragedy because they have unleashed Macbeth’s fatal character flaw ambition which we suspect will eventually take over and destroy him. They also show and create some of the themes in ‘Macbeth’ like the supernatural element, the evil of the play, equivocation, violence and tyranny. Therefore the witches play a big part in the story and their effect is so powerful, that whenever they appear the audience anticipate evil and treachery. In Shakespearian times, this would have been because the audience would have had strong Christian beliefs.
Next in Act 1, Scene 4, King Duncan names his successor to the throne – Malcolm, not Macbeth. The witches haven’t told him the whole truth, fate is not just going to make him king – Macbeth notices this and makes up his mind to do something about it. Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland is an obstacle to Macbeth that he “must fall down, or else o’erleap”. We see Macbeth’s ambition – the result of the witches by his rhyming couplets “black and deep desires”.
It is not just Macbeth who is affected by the witches. His wife Lady Macbeth gets changed by them too. We see that Lady Macbeth shares the same ambition that Macbeth has – possibly even more. We first see this when she reads Macbeths letter in Act 1, Scene 5. She really wants Macbeth to be king but she fears he’s too kind to “catch the nearest way”. She wants Macbeth to be ruthless; she pushes Macbeth until he’s determined to kill Duncan.
In Act 2, Scene 1 Macbeth lies to Banquo again – what the witches have brought him to, before he wouldn’t even think about lying to his best friend. He says he hasn’t thought about the witches since when he met them – but really they’re all he has been thinking about. Next he asks for Banquo’s support in the future, however Banquo says he will only act honourably. Banquo is a better person than Macbeth.
The end of this scene and Macbeth murders Duncan – a horrible and evil feat. The witches and his ambition have caused this. Macbeth can’t turn back now – he’s on his way to his black journey to more evil. We see that Macbeth goes into a state of panic – he can’t say “Amen” anymore and he says he can’t wash the blood off his hands. The audience would immediately know that Macbeth is going to hell after the murder – and the fact that he can’t say Amen re-emphasises this. Lady Macbeth is stronger and takes control – where Macbeth is weak and guilty. She tells him to stop being silly and to wash his hands of Duncan’s blood.
In the next scene, Macbeth’s evil gets worse when he kills the guards in cold blood for something they didn’t do. He does this just so he doesn’t get blamed for the murder – he does it to save his own skin. This murder has no moral reason. “O yet I do repent me of my fury, that I did kill them”.
We see that unnatural events are occurring and they are linked with Duncan’s murder. It is dark during the day now, because the murder was so awful. This darkness links back to the witches and their themes of black, dark evil. Animals are flying in strange patterns – such as owls and horses who are behaving uncontrollably. Because Macbeth acted on the witches influence, we see that it isn’t just Duncan who has been affected; nature has as well.
In Act 3, Scene 1, we see that Banquo is suspicious of foul play by Macbeth – he thinks (and is correct) that Macbeth has killed Duncan, not the guards. Macbeth realises this and the witches cause him to choose to betray Banquo and he prepares to kill him – simply because Banquo is suspicious of him. Macbeth wants to be safe as king – and we see that the witches didn’t warn Macbeth about the dangers of him being king.
In the next scene, Lady Macbeth speaks of “desire is got without content”. They’ve got what he wanted but they haven’t got peace of mind, because people are suspicious of them. This is the witches’ effect of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth also speaks of “scorpions” in his mind. This links back to the witches through the darkness and evil of the creatures. His mind is in this state because of what the witches have done.
We then learn that the murderers Macbeth employed have killed Banquo – A shocking feat, which Macbeth before he’d met the witches would never have even thought of doing.
In Act 3, Scene 5 the audience sees the witches again. There is once again a terrific atmosphere – thunder, which creates a tense, eerie mood to the scene. We meet Hecate, the goddess of witches, who says she intends to deceive Macbeth because she doesn’t approve of him as he is selfish – “loves for his own ends, not for you.” This is quite strange for something as evil and horrible as a witch, to disapprove of someone because they are selfish, shows how bad Macbeth has come. He is no longer noble and great. Hecate tells the three sisters to prepare some “artificial spirits” for when Macbeth sees them tomorrow. This immediately creates excitement and tension for the audience; what will these spirits be? What will they tell Macbeth? How will Macbeth react to them? This scene therefore creates lots of dramatic irony – and this is another reason why the witches are so important in ‘Macbeth’. This dramatic irony means the audience know that the witches plan to trick Macbeth tomorrow, when Macbeth doesn’t.
We move onto the next day, Act 4, Scene 1, and the witches are preparing their potion for Macbeth. This creates a sense of horror, thrill and suspense for the audience, who already know something terrible is going to happen to Macbeth. Macbeth enters, as Hecate predicted, and addresses them as “secret, black, and midnight hags!” We remember the old Macbeth – honest, truthful, loyal, honourable and noble. Now he has deliberately seeking out these witches who he knows practise black magic. This shows the audience how far Macbeth has come throughout the play. Macbeth seems to be very confident around the witches “call ‘em, let me see ‘em” however we know that he is in a false sense of security, as the witches are going to betray him. The witches then show Macbeth the apparitions, with the first being Macduff whom Macbeth is told to beware off. Macbeth already knows this, and the audience also know that Macbeth already knows that Macduff is a threat. This gets Macbeth even more confident, and the witches show Macbeth their second apparition – a bloody child. He is told that no man born of a woman can “harm Macbeth.” Macbeth likes this prediction, and is so confident that he makes a joke on line 78. However, we suspect that there is more to this than it seems – it is a half-truth and it requires lateral, out of the box thinking. The final spirit says that Macbeth shall never be “vanquished…until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him.” Macbeth’s response: “that will never be” a sign of over-confidence and it is ironic to the audience – we know this is another half-truth. By the end of this scene, we see why the witches are so important in Macbeth. They create excitement and thrill by their themes of equivocation and lying. They create dramatic irony for the audience, who now all know that Macbeth’s downfall is awaiting.
Two scenes later, and we have Malcolm and Macduff criticising Macbeth. They call him a tyrant – a king who bullies his people, and cheats to get his own way. He is not a good king, and doesn’t have the good kingly qualities Malcolm says, which Shakespeare put in to please King James. “Justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude”. However if the witches hadn’t interfered with Macbeth, and he became king ‘properly’, then it would have been likely that he would have been a good king, and have these characteristics. However the witches ‘mess up’ and interfere with people as one of their roles, so Macbeth is now a poor king, who many dislike.
In Act 5, Scene 1, we see how Lady Macbeth has been severely affected by the witches. She is sleepwalking, and this is Shakespeare’s way of portraying her guilt. Lady Macbeth has had enough of being queen – and having to lie, cheat and murder to stay as it. She wants to sleep, which should bring rest, but ironically it doesn’t because of her guilty conscience. “Slumbery agitation” sums up her problems. “Yet here’s a spot” she is trying to wash blood off her hands, but she can’t get it off, she feels too guilty. This idea of blood not coming off, links us back to Act 2, Scene 2 where Macbeth had a similar problem. The witches have caused this guilt, and they have given it to both of them, through their ambition.
As Macbeth prepares for battle in Act 5, Scene 3, he realises he has got no honour or love (the witches have caused his and Lady Macbeth’s relationship to deteriorate, so they share no passion for each other no longer – they just concentrate on staying as king and queen). He also realises that he has no friends. The witches and their tricks have caused him to lose everything and he has “fallen into the sear” – dry, withered state. All he has is “mouth honour” – people only pretending to like him as king and acting as his friends, they are scared that he’d kill them otherwise. However, Macbeth says he has got no remorse for what he’s done, and is soon talking defiantly about fighting to the death. This is perhaps a shadow of the Macbeth of old, the bravery and courage that the witches have not changed. Some may feel sorry for Macbeth at this moment. On line 60, Macbeth amazingly still believes the witches, and Shakespeare using rhyming couplets to emphasize this dramatic irony for the audience.
As the battle begins in Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth is still confident, because he believes what the witches told him. The audience know that it is inevitable that he will lose. The witches have given Macbeth the emotion, ambition and belief that he has, and then taken it away with their tricks. This is one of their roles in ‘Macbeth’. Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has died – likely to be the witches cause, because of the guilt and pain they caused her. However Macbeth is still confident, he’s not scared because of his past killings – “I have been supped full of horrors”. As Messenger reports that Birnam wood is moving towards the castle, Macbeth partially realises what the witches have done. “I pull in resolution, and begin to doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend, that lies like truth”.
Act 5, Scene 8, and Macbeth fully realises that the witches have tricked him. He is totally disheartened and is finally killed by Macduff, a fate that had been awaiting him since his second meeting with the witches.
The witches have a huge amount of significance in ‘Macbeth’ for a number of ways. Shakespeare gives them a number of roles to play, many which have huge effects on the plays’ characters and the audience. An example is their equivocation, lies and mistruths. They trick Macbeth, and set off his seed of ambition – his fatal character flaw. This eventually leads to Macbeth’s downfall. This also gives the audience excitement, tension and suspense – another of the witches roles – to entertain the audience, particularly James I who was deeply interested in witches. The witches also portray a number of ‘Macbeth’s’ themes, which makes the play as deep and popular as it is. Examples of the witches themes are; order and disorder; equivocation; evil; ambition; treachery; appearance and reality; sin; guilt; violence and tyranny and fare. They also create imagery in Macbeth – such as the atmosphere associated with every time they appear on stage. This is pathetic fallacy and an example is the thunder, lightning and rain they have in their scenes. They also conjure up images of darkness and evil. They also act as a catalyst by the way they spark off things in people. The main example is ambition in Macbeth, but also they spark off Banquo’s loyalty by the way he is not affected by them. The witches also create a lot of rhythm for the play, and this is done by their rhyme and spells – “double, double toil and trouble”. This means the play is exciting to watch, ultimately accounting for ‘Macbeth’s’ popularity. The witches therefore are very significant in ‘Macbeth’.