Macbeth – Witches Essay
The appearances of the three witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth impact plot, character and theme. The witches are also known as the ‘weird sisters’, and they play a major part in the play. The fate of certain characters, the most significant being Macbeth, are affected by their involvement with the witches and supernatural power. Shakespeare’s use of the witches also makes Macbeth an entertaining play for the audience.
The three witches are described as being ‘filthy hags’ (IV.I) whose ‘beards forbid me (Banquo) to interpret that (they) are so (women)’. The audience associates these ugly creatures with evil immediately because filthy is associated with being bad and their rhyming contrasts with the rest of the play which gives them a ‘not of this world’ effect. They incite Macbeth into committing the murders.
The idea of the supernatural was very important in the early 1600s, when Macbeth was written. The people of those times strongly believed in a ‘chain of being’, which ranked the importance of different beings. God was ranked at number one and not far below, only one step below the Moon, was the King. If anything was to happen to a high-up being, chaos erupted and society needed to find someone to blame, especially if the guilty party was previously looked up to and respected, so they looked to the Devil and the supernatural. The three witches in Macbeth represent the belief that supernatural power was the cause of a good person turning bad.
Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis, who, after the witches’ predictions, becomes Thane of Cawdor and then King. Initially he is seen as ‘brave Macbeth’ and a ‘worthy Gentleman’ (I.II) but as he lets the witches’ take control of his life, he becomes cold blooded and murderous.
The opening scene of Macbeth is very foreboding. It gives the impression that the supernatural will be important throughout the play. The ‘thunder and lightning’ stage direction persuades the audience to feel a little frightened even before the three witches appear on stage; it sets an eerie mood. When the witches make their appearance, it strengthens the feeling of anticipation that something evil is brewing. The first witch’s opening lines add to this mood. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” The words ‘thunder’, ‘lightning’ and ‘rain’ are the weather conditions mentioned by the witch for them to next meet in. All three of these elements are ‘dark’, which tie in with the evil nature of the witches. It would seem out of place if they were to meet on a warm sunny day, and the darkness adds to the eerie atmosphere.
“When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won”. This line said by the second witch has a particular importance in the plot of Macbeth. It predicts what will happen to Macbeth. He wins the battle to become King, but loses it at the same time, because his soul is lost. In every battle, one side wins and the other loses. In Macbeth’s case, his ambition wins, but his soul loses when he realises the extent of the chaos he has caused in murdering King Duncan.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air”. The final lines in Scene I are spoken by all witches, which reinforces that it is the end of the scene but also highlights it for future reference. The audience does not know at the time the connection these lines have with Macbeth, but the fact that it is said by all three makes it tend to stick in the mind, and the connection will be spoken about further on. The main purpose of the first scene is to create anticipation for the audience about what the witches will do to Macbeth when they meet with him. “There to meet with Macbeth”(I.I).
In the first witch scene the audience does not actually meet Macbeth; only the witches appear, but we are introduced to his character when the third witch says “There (upon the heath) to meet with Macbeth.” The audience becomes curious about him at this stage and will ask themselves Who is Macbeth? Why do the witches want to meet with him? The witches are already judged as evil so the audience wonders what will happen when they meet Macbeth.
The witches are an important aspect in developing character in Macbeth and Act I Scene I introduces the audience to them. Their lines are in rhyming couplets in I.III which contrasts with the evil behind their words. The ’sing-song’ rhyming contrasts with the evil plans they have for Macbeth. Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets to portray the witches as being of ‘another world’ in comparison to the human characters in the play, who usually speak in no fixed rhythm, apart from the end of scenes or when particular emphasis is required. The rhyming couplets also have the effect of a spell or charm, which reinforces the supernatural theme.
In the first scene, the theme of the Supernatural is introduced. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” The theme of appearance and reality is also introduced. What appears good can actually be bad (e.g. the predictions, ‘pleasant hostess’ etc. hide what is foul – ambition, murder etc.). “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” hints at the overthrowing of what is deemed to be good, by unnatural acts, and this, along with the supernatural, is a major theme in Macbeth. The main purpose of Scene I is to introduce the plot. Only three characters are present in this scene, the weird sisters, and this gives an evil effect to the rest of the play. Because the only characters in the first scene are witches, it presents a supernatural theme.
The second scene in which the three weird sisters appear, Act I Scene III, is vital to the plot of Macbeth. Whereas the first scene was only short, this scene gives the audience a stronger idea of who the witches are and what they are planning to do, as well as introducing the protagonist, Macbeth. The scene opens with the witches discussing the evil deeds they have committed. The second sister says she has been “Killing swine”, while the first says she will cause The Tiger, a ship, to be wrecked. This is all because the wife of a sailor on The Tiger told the first witch “Aroint thee, witch!” when she demanded chestnuts from her. The first witch didn’t take too kindly to being told to go away and so took revenge by causing the husband’s death. The audience’s judgement of the three witches as ruthless and wicked is confirmed at this stage by the witches’ spiteful actions. After the witches finish talking about their power to make trouble, a drum sounds and the three say together “A drum! A drum!/Macbeth doth come.” The witches’ evil presence once again pushes the plot along; Macbeth is mentioned again and the audience anticipation grows stronger.
The audience is introduced to Macbeth through his line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”(I.III). This repetition by Macbeth of the witches’ last words imply that he is already, though subconsciously, connected with the witches. It also anticipates the blurring of good and evil; fair is the opposite of foul but he sees the day as being both and this suggests that Macbeth will find it difficult to distinguish between the two in later scenes.
The witches show the contrast in character between Macbeth and Banquo ( the Thane of Lochaber). When Macbeth hears the predictions they make, he thinks there may be truth in what they are saying, but Banquo, while seeing that they are telling the truth, believes them to be of the Devil, and have an evil motive. When Ross tells Macbeth that he has become Thane of Cawdor, Banquo says “What! Can the Devil speak true?”
Macbeth says to himself “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind”. While Banquo is thinking about the nature of the witches’ intentions, Macbeth is thinking about his next promise, to be crowned King. Banquo seems to be aware of Macbeth’s thoughts and so warns him against letting himself become caught up with what the witches said –
That, trusted home,
Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But ’tis strange;
And 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-
Cousins, a word, I pray you.
Banquo warns Macbeth that the ‘instruments of darkness’ (the witches) are telling him the truth so he has confidence in what they say, they have his trust, but then they may betray him with something more serious. By this time, the witches have effected Macbeth so much that he has already begun to contemplate the murder of King Duncan.
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,…
Macbeth has already begun to imagine himself killing the King because the witches have incited his ambition to take control of him. Macbeth doesn’t want to murder the King, but the image is firmly stuck in his mind and he thinks he will because of the third witch’s prediction “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” A change in Macbeth’s character caused by the witches influence is then revealed. Macbeth says to Banquo “Give me your favour. My dull brain was wrought/With things forgotten.” He is asking Banquo to forgive him for talking about being king, because his brain was full of what the witches had just said, but he had now forgotten all about it. This is an important line because it reveals the impact the witches had had on him. Macbeth is actually lying; this marks the beginning of his frequent lies to cover up his thoughts and actions. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about the witches’ predictions; they are the only thing he can think about and they have effected him so much so that he eventually kills King Duncan which leads to more murder and his self-destruction.
Later in the Act, Macbeth’s wife receives a letter from him telling her of the witches. This confirms that he is still thinking about what the witches had said to him, and that he believes the last prediction will come true, like the others did. He says in the letter:
… I have learned by the perfectest report they have more in them than
The ‘perfectest report’ is supposedly proof; Macbeth thinks the witches have proved themselves to know more than the average ‘mortal’ because the first two ‘predictions’ have come true. The only real prediction is in fact the third; Macbeth was Thane of Glamis before he met the witches, and Ross and King Duncan had already decided Macbeth would become Thane of Cawdor. Because the witches are supernatural, surely they could have ‘overheard’ Ross and Duncan discussing it? Even if they didn’t, it had already been decided and they were just the ones who told Macbeth. Macbeth is here shown to be easily manipulated; he hears what he wants to hear and then he relates everything else to it. The witches tell him the truth, and like Banquo said, builds up his trust in them so that he will believe anything they say.
One theme stands out in the second appearance of the three witches – Ambition. Macbeth hears what the witches say and then nothing can stop him from getting what he wants. Macbeth may have already had ambition in him, but the influence of the witches brings it out of him and causes him to take action.
The supernatural theme is also reinforced. The three witches talk about their powers in the beginning of Act I Scene III. The second witch says she has been ‘killing swine’ and in Shakespeare’s day, livestock diseases were believed to have been caused by witchcraft. The sisters discuss how they will cause The Tiger to be wrecked, and the second witch says “I’ll give thee a wind”. Around the time in which Macbeth was written, the early 1600s, witches were generally thought to cause winds. These two lines support the theme of the supernatural through their connotations in relation to the beliefs at that time. The three sisters then chant a spell:
The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about,
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace! The charm’s wound up.
This spell is chanted immediately before Macbeth and Banquo enter and it adds to the suspense as well as the supernatural theme. “The charm’s wound up” means that the spell is ready to act and so this creates suspense because the audience wants to know what will happen.
There is a lot of argument over the third witch scene which involves Hecate. Many people believe that Shakespeare did not write this scene; because Hecate appears suddenly and there is not much more mention of her, and the rhythm of her part is in iambic pentameter which is different from the rest of the play. However, I am going to assume he did write it because the iambic pentameter has a purpose and Hecate is mentioned earlier by Macbeth ( II.I “…Witchcraft celebrates/Pale Hecate’s offerings…” and II.II “…Ere the bat hath flown/His cloister’d flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons…”) and later appears again in IV.1 to congratulate the three witches on the spell they had concocted. Hecate is the Greek Goddess of the moon, magic and enchantment. She was also thought to be goddess of the underworld, earth and sky and she is often represented by threes due to the fact that the three paths meet at the crossroads, of which she is guardian. This is another factor which supports the idea that Shakespeare did write this scene; there is a lot of reference to the number three by the witches. In I.III, the witches (there are three of them) make three predictions, and before this they talk about multiples of three: nine.
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
In the fourth witch scene, there are also many references to the number three and it’s multiples which will be discussed further on.
Hecate has power over the other witches in Macbeth and this is revealed through her speech. It is iambic (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) rather than trochaic (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and this portrays her power over the witches. She is not happy with the three witches because Macbeth is a ‘nobody’ and they did not ask her to help them destroy him. She then takes control of the witches and tells them what to do to Macbeth.
But make amends now. Get you gone,
And at the pit of Acheron
Meet me i’ the morning. Thither he
Will come to know his destiny.
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
… As by the strength of their (apparitions)
Shall draw him on to his confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
And you all know security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
This scene pushes the plot along because the audience now knows the witches are going to destroy Macbeth. Hecate says Macbeth will ’scorn death’ and this is what makes Macbeth a tragedy. The witches are going to lead him to believe that he is invincible so that when he is going to be brought down, he won’t expect it and the saying ‘the higher you are the harder you’ll fall’ will ring true. This scene develops the plot but also Macbeth’s character. Previously he was seen as weak and emotionally unstable (for instance when he sees Banquo’s ghost [III.IV] which is the previous scene) but now the audience gets the impression that his character will change and he will grow stronger.
“And you all know security/Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” Hecate’s last line says that humans’ greatest enemy is being without anxiety. This is another reference to the idea that Macbeth will become over-confident.
There is not a major impact on theme in III.V. It is a short scene, involving only two characters, Hecate and the first witch. It doesn’t contribute to the theme of ambition but it does backup the supernatural theme. Towards the end of Hecate’s speech, a song is sung and this is entertaining. One of the main purposes of this scene was to be entertaining for the audience, and this breaks up the intense drama. The supernatural theme is only slightly impacted upon; Hecate talks about the witches providing Macbeth with the answers he wants with their supernatural powers.
Will come to know his destiny.
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
Hecate is telling the witches that they will uses their magic to show Macbeth what he wants to know and ultimately cause his downfall. The third scene involving witches and Hecate is effective in developing plot and character; and adds to the supernatural theme.
Act IV Scene I is perhaps the most important scene in Macbeth after the first meeting with the witches. It is the final time the audience sees the witches but they influence Macbeth until his death. The scene opens with the three witches conjuring spirits to go into their charm, for Macbeth.
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
The ‘three’ reference is present once again and it continues throughout the scene. The ‘cat’ and ‘hedge-pig’ are references to the witches’ familiars. The ‘familiars’ are what, in the 1600s, people thought represented, or were somehow connected to, witches. The first witch’s familiar is Grey Malkin, a cat. The second witch’s familiar is Paddock which is thought to be either a toad or a ‘hedge-pig’. The third witch’s familiar is Harpier, an owl. There is a reference to the owl in II.IV.
A falcon towering in her pride of place
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.
This suggests that the supernatural is to blame; and the witches still influence the plot even when they are not directly involved. Another reference to the owl, or witch, is in II.II when Lady Macbeth says “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” to her husband, after he has just killed king Duncan. This represents the witches’ influence on Macbeth and his actions. Lady Macduff also makes reference to the owl in IV.II:
He (Macduff) loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
The owl here is represented as evil (it wants to kill the wren) and this links with the witch, who is also evil. These examples show that the witches have a very strong influence on the play even when they are not actually involved through speech.
The witches continue to make their magic charm for Macbeth, and then they chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”. They say this three times, raising again the idea of the magic connotations of the number three; and it also links with the continued use of ‘double’. The use of ‘double’ is part of the idea represented by ‘fair and foul’; that things aren’t always what they seem, they can have double meaning. An example of this is said by King Duncan at Macbeth’s Castle, I.VI. “Fair and noble hostess…” King Duncan thinks that Lady Macbeth is ‘fair and noble’ while all the time she is plotting his murder. In I.II, King Duncan says of Macbeth “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!”. This connects with the ‘fair is foul’ theme because Macbeth is said to be worthy and he is also murderous, in fact he is the very person who kills the King.
The witches in IV.I show three apparitions to Macbeth, and after one of them calls his name three times, he says “Had I three ears I’d hear thee.” These references to ‘three’ add to the supernatural theme. It is also noticed that Macbeth is directly involved in three murders. King Duncan, Banquo and Lady Macduff and her family and all killed by either Macbeth himself or a murderer sent by him. The number three supports the supernatural theme all through the play and is particularly strong in the last scene involving the witches.
By the time Macbeth meets with the witches for the last time, he is dependent on them. Banquo’s fear is proved true in this scene. He told Macbeth to be weary of trusting the witches after little promises were proven, but Macbeth’s mind was already full of what the witches had said and was influenced by them throughout the play. The witches’ three predictions came true (another ‘three’ reference) and now Macbeth trusts every word they say. The witches conjure up three apparitions who make three prophecies.
Beware the Thane of Fife.
…Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
Shall harm Macbeth.
…Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
The witches set out to make Macbeth overconfident and they succeed. Macbeth’s only worry was Macduff, but when he heard the apparition about ‘none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’ he became cocky and had no worries at all. What Macbeth didn’t know was that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d.” (V.VI) When the third apparition came true, Macbeth still was not worried because he believed he was safe from Macduff. The witches successfully built up his confidence and when he was finally defeated, his downfall was great because he had lived out the saying “the higher you are, the harder you fall”.
The last scene in which Macbeth meets the witches is the witches’ most purposeful one and they fulfill Hecate’s demand, for Macbeth to fall. It provides intrigue for the audience because the prophecies seem beyond belief. The audience knows they will come true so the question is how.
Skakespeare’s Macbeth is deeply impacted by the appearance of the three witches. They effect the plot, character and themes in the play and their supernatural power is present throughout the play. The witches were what made Macbeth a ‘tragic hero’. They fuelled his ambition until it was so strong he depended on the witches to guide him and ultimately trusted them too much. Shakespeare’s witches are entertaining to the audience but they also link everything in the play together; without them, Macbeth would be a lot less entertaining and unconnected.