Shakespeare has included the witches in the play for several reasons. First, these supernatural beings have an important part in the storyline of the play; without them the play would not be as exciting. Then, they are there to thrill and entertain the audience. Furthermore, Shakespeare included them to please King James. The witches also play a significant part in the moral of the play: witches are not to be trusted. Finally, Modern audiences still find the witches thrilling although many people no longer believe in witchcraft.
The witches have an important role in the storyline or plot of the play. They affect Macbeth’s state of mind and encourage him, ultimately, to do actions he would have dubitably done on his own. During their first encounter with Macbeth, the witches told him he would be king,
‘All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, that shalt be king hereafter.’
This prediction encouraged the idea of killing King Duncan in Macbeth’s mind. Then the witches tell Macbeth that Banquo’s sons will be kings, ‘Thou shalt get kings, thought thou be none.’
This does not please Macbeth; he will be King but not his sons. Therefore Macbeth orders Banquo and his son, Fleance, to be killed to ensure that his sons will be kings. If the witches had not told Macbeth these foresights, then he would not have killed King Duncan and Banquo.
During the second meeting with Macbeth, the witches again make predictions which lead to other evil acts. Their predictions make him violent, fearless. The prophecies are comforting to Macbeth but they trick him into doing cruel acts. In act four, scene one, he was told to, ‘Beware Macduff ‘ by the first apparition. The second apparition told him that,
‘None of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth’
Although the second apparition’s forecast is reassuring, Macbeth still takes the first prediction more or less seriously and decides to kill Macduff. However, as the latter has fled, he ends up doing something more spiteful. After hearing the witches’ prophecies; he establishes his plan of action:
‘The castle of Macduff I will surprise;
Seize upon Fife, give to th’edge o’th’sword
His wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in line.’
Macbeth would have fled during the battle but because the witches told him that he was invincible he held his position and fought until the end.
The witches also affect Lady Macbeth indirectly. Her husband tells her, through a letter, of his meeting with the witches. She is the one who thinks of the original plan to kill King Duncan. After assessing the situation, she speaks with Macbeth and asks him to,
‘Put this night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come,
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.’
Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do actions they would never have done without some outside encouragement; the witches in this case. The witches make the story, without them there would be no murder of the King and therefore no thrilling plot can follow.
Many Elizabethan beliefs about witchcraft and witches are illustrated in the play ‘Macbeth’ in order to entertain and thrill the audience. The belief of the existence of supernatural beings was commonly believed in Shakespeare’s day as demonstrated by the European witch craze during which an approximate nine million women were burned at the stake for being perceived as witches. Midwives and doctors were more likely to be accused of witchcraft as they were surrounded by death at all times. People feared witches and blamed them for all evil.
It was believed that witches could control the weather, bringing on fogs and tempests. At the very start of the play, the witches appear and there is ‘thunder and lighting’. The words said by the first witch imply that witches can produce the weather they desire.
‘When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lighting or in rain?’
Witches were also thought to be able to sail in egg shells, cockle or mussel shells and in sieves through and under tempestuous seas. This is shown before the witches’ initial meeting with Macbeth when they are gathered together and speak of what they’ve been doing; the first witch explains her meeting with ‘a sailor’s wife’ and how she will get revenge,
‘Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’th’Tiger:
But in sieve I’ll thither sail,’
Another Elizabethan belief about witches is that they had familiars, a reptile or a bird, to which they spoke. These animals were given by the devil who, in exchange, was allowed to suck the witch’s blood through a secret nipple hidden on her body called the devil’s teat. Throughout the play, the witches give some indication that they do indeed have familiars. One of them is in the very first scene when the witches call their ‘beasts’.
‘I come Graymalkin.’
Furthermore, witches seem to be able to fly and ‘vanish’. They often go off stage by disappearing; in scene one, they ‘hover through the fog and filthy air.’ This belief is also illustrated in the scene where they prepare a potion in which they throw some exotic ingredients like
‘a tiger’s chawdron’ which could not be found in England at that time. Did they fly to get these unusual items?
Their speaking habits were considered particular and odd. They spoke in rhythm and rhyme. All their lines are written as such, for example, their famous spell.
‘Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’
The witches also speak in riddles. For example, in the first scene, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ is a conundrum and it does not make much sense like all the others they will say later on in the play.
Witches were thought to be unlike normal humans. These unearthly beings were wild looking and did not look ‘like th’inhabitants o’th’earth,’. They were believed to have beards. Banquo is taken unaware about these particular features when he meets them for the first time with Macbeth.
‘Upon your skinny lips; you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.’
Moreover people believed that witches harmed and killed livestock. Many farmers blamed witches for the death of their animals often done by wolves and not witches. It was thought that it was a casual habit and it is illustrated as such in the play when the witches meet again in act one and speak of their deeds.
‘Where hast thou been, sister?
Likewise, they were supposed to be able to harm people but not kill them. For example, when the first witch wants revenge on the ‘sailor’s wife’ she cannot kill her husband,
‘Though his bark cannot be lost’,
She, however, can injure him, ‘Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d’ or make his life miserable and cursed, ‘He shall live a man forbid.’
It was a common belief that witches could see the future. This is first revealed in act one, scene three where they predict the future for Macbeth and Banquo,
‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.’
Witches are seen to cast spells, concoct horrible potions and raise spirits. They used some revolting ingredients like ‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog,’. They use ingredients like ‘scale of dragon’, that is, supernatural elements. The animals they used in their brew are also somehow linked to evil. For example, they use ‘baboon’s blood’; baboons are traditionally evil and lustful creatures.
Originally, the stereotypical witch was an old woman or hag, dressed in black to represent the devil, and having familiars of cats and owls to do her bidding. These features are illustrated throughout the play. In act four, scene one, Macbeth refers to the witches as
‘secret, black, and midnight hags!’
The number ‘three’ was believed to have some magical significance. Shakespeare puts it in the play often by, for example, having three witches, repeating the chorus of the spell three times and starting lots of sentences said by the witches by ‘Thrice’.
‘Thrice the brindled cat hath mew’d.’
Witches were believed to be connected to the devil somehow. They have made a pact with him as shown by their familiars. They are Satan’s servants, seducing the weak and attacking the godly. Some even believed that they were possessed by demons. They held rituals at night in the woods and danced with the devil. Such devotion to the fiend is shown when they are creating the potion, ‘Like a hell-broth’.
Shakespeare included the witches to both interest and please King James. He was particularly interested in witches and witchcraft for a number of reasons. James I came to believe in and fear witches around 1590 when there was a conspiracy against his life. Francis, Earl of Bothwell, the heir to the throne if James was to die and have no children, was accused of trying to kill the king with the aid of witches. He supposedly had the witches throw a christened cat into the sea in order to raise a storm. This storm was meant to drown the King on his way to retrieve his fiancée, Princess Anne of Denmark, who also encountered a violent storm on her way to Scotland.
While interrogating the accused, King James became convinced that they had been trying to kill him. These events led to James I great fear of witches and many of them were burned at the stake. Not content with merely starting a witch hunt and presiding over several trials, James even took part personally in several interrogation and torture sessions of suspected witches. He wrote one book about witchcraft called Demonology. He thought that all witches were bad and were the devil reincarnated on earth. He would have liked the play ‘Macbeth’ because the witches are pictured as deceitful and evil beings
in it and that supports his own ideas. It was important for Shakespeare to please the King because the King was sponsoring his acting company, ‘The King’s Men’. He could not offend the King as this was considered treason and he could have been put to death for this. But more importantly, without the King’s permission and acceptance of the play, Shakespeare would not have been allowed to perform it. The author makes one reference in the play to King James. He gave coins to those he touched. This is in act four, scene three, in Malcolm’s speech,
‘Hanging a golden stamp about their neck’
The witches play an important part in the moral of the play. The moral is that one should not trust witches or work with them otherwise a curse shall come upon him; one should put all his trust, faith into God to live a happy life away from mischance and to go to Heaven.
The way the witches affect Macbeth show how true this moral is. After hearing their predictions, Macbeth does not want to kill the king and does so only with Lady Macbeth’s persuasion. After the murder, he is overcome by guilt and feels he is cursed for what he has done,
‘But wherefore could I not pronounce ‘Amen’
I had most need of blessing and ‘Amen’
Stuck in my throat.’
Macbeth has many nightmares and sleepless nights; he is in mental torture. He cannot sleep or rest; he envies Duncan.
‘Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.’
Although he feels guilty about the murder he does not want to fight evil anymore; he is giving into it. Things have gone too far for him to go back and makes them right again. This renouncing is just before he orders Banquo to be killed, ‘Things bad begun, make strong themselves by ill.’
At the banquet, after he ordered Banquo to be killed, he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost. He is horrified at what he sees, ‘Avaunt and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!’
The witches’ predictions are so tempting that Macbeth eventually becomes reliant on them. He grows less fearful, more confident and becomes malicious. He develops into a ruthless and arrogant man who will do anything to reach his goals. For example, Macbeth kills Young Siward. Just before this, he tells him,
‘Thou wast born of woman.
But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,
Brandish’d by man that’s of a woman born.’
The foretellings tricks Macbeth. He is made to believe that nobody can kill him as nobody born naturally can defeat him and that he shall not be defeated until a wood moves. As these two things seem very unlikely to happen so Macbeth does not worry about them and thinks he is untouchable. He later finds out that these two things will happen and he feels tricked by evil.
‘To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth.’
Although the death of his wife depresses and saddens Macbeth, he is not going to mourn now, when he is so close to victory. Having lost everything he ever wanted,
‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’
Pride is the only reason he is going on. The witches made him almost inhuman. Throughout the play, he has become more confident, cruel and merciless through the ‘weïrd sisters’ doings. If he had not given in to the devil he would not have murdered all these people and he would not have been killed himself by Macduff; the moral is reflected in Macbeth’s final fate.
Lady Macbeth is also changed by the witches first, into a ruthless and ambitious woman and then into a suicidal woman. She calls unto the spirits to ‘make thick my blood’ because she wants to be ‘king’ as soon as possible and she feels that Macbeth is too cowardly to use any means he has.
Towards the end of the play, however, she is overcome by guilt. She does not understand why Macbeth killed Macduff’s family. She has nightmares and during her sleepwalking, she utters this lamentation,
‘The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What,
Will these hands ne’er be clean?’
Lady Macbeth also finds her marriage breaking down. Macbeth starts hiding things from her and then ignores her altogether. The first signs of the failing of their marriage are when Macbeth has lots plans, ‘O’ full of scorpions is my mind dear wife!’ but he isn’t telling his wife what they consist of.
Lady Macbeth feels ashamed of what she and Macbeth have done. She has been emotionally destroyed by the events triggered by the witches. Mortified at her activities, she believes,
‘All the perfumes of
Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’
Feeling guilty, she kills herself. Lady Macbeth’s fate is also reflects the play’s moral; she has worked alongside witches and has been punished by much suffering for this disloyalty to God.
The witches are still important to a modern audience. Many countries, especially African, have a strong supernatural culture; they believe in witches and other magical phenomena. Audiences from these areas of the world will still believe in the witches and be as deeply affected as the Elizabethans were by them.
A non-believing audience, however, will still be thrilled by these evil witches. Witchcraft and the supernatural fascinates us today although we may not believe in it. The witches show to a modern audience how important it is to stick to their values. If people do not stick to their ideals and be corrupted by a stronger person or, in this case, the witches, then they will be tormented by this betrayal and it may lead to a gloomy life or even suicide. This is echoed in the play by the suicide of Lady Macbeth.
The paranormal is also exhilarating in times of need. It explains the unexplained; we know so much about every thing that it is sometimes exciting to know we have not yet explained some phenomenon by science. Therefore the witches still bring suspense, excitement and mystery into the play.