There is the argument that Shakespeare has employed the witches merely as plot devices rather than as characters and to enhance the extent of the supernatural within the play. However, apart from the consideration of the eponymous character of Macbeth, it may be viewed that the witches are the most prominent of the characters within the play, and that they have considerable significance over the actions within the plot. Their significance is evident from the very beginning, as the “three witches” introduce the audience to the play, implying that their participation within the plot will be central.
The presence of the witches within the play may be said to be significant due to their enhancement of the element of the supernatural, and therefore the extension of the Gothic genre, within the play. “Thunder and lightning” appear to be used in conjunction with the presence of the witches; this does not only present Shakespeare’s aim to evoke feelings of unease and discomfort amongst the audience, but the storm may also suggest that the witches represent disorder, chaos and conflict. This sense of conflict and confusion is reinforced by their contradictory rhyming of “Fair is foul and foul is fair” and “When the battles’ lost and won”.
Their language promotes their portrayal as stereotypical Gothic witches by bringing to mind a sense of incantation and chanting, but it also presents a paradox to both Macbeth and the audience, making it hard for them to understand the witches. The duality evident in their language may be representative of the conflict between morality and immorality within the character of Macbeth, and there may even be the interpretation that their ambiguity and confusion has been the cause Macbeth’s later mental conflict.
Therefore, the witches have high significance in terms of the Gothic genre, and also in the development of Macbeth’s character. The element of the supernatural is also reinforced by the appearance of the witches in Act 1 Scene 3. The witches are portrayed by Banquo as “withered” and “wild”, with “choppy fingers” and “skinny lips”, and therefore may be stereotypical of what Shakespeare’s audience would expect in the Elizabethan era.
Also, Banquo questions their existence by remarking, “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so”, implying that they are neither man nor woman, and creating an ambiguity regarding whether they are human or not. This may be seen as a reflection of the audience’s suspicions and fears towards the subject of witches at the time. The uncertainty of their existence also raises the audience’s curiosity further, and therefore enhancing the significance of the witches’ role in creating anticipation within the play.
Furthermore, it may be argued that Shakespeare’s audience would be far more interested in these “fantastical” characters compared to the ‘normal’ human characters within the play, suggesting a higher significance above the other characters. Shakespeare employs rhyming couplets to the language used by the witches, which is evident from “Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in Act 4 Scene 1, distinguishing them from the other characters whose speech includes blank verse for most of the time throughout the play, again giving them further significance over the other character within the play.
Although one interpretation of the “dagger which [Macbeth] see[s] before [him] in Act 2 Scene 1 may be that it is merely a “dagger of the mind” and therefore a hallucination that is triggered from the guilt of considering the murder, others may argue that that it is not a “false creation”, but rather something paranormal that is being conjured by the “weird sisters” in order to entice him towards the murder of Duncan.
The view that the witches are responsible for Macbeth’s actions and their ability to influence him may not only impact Shakespeare’s audience, who would already be suspicious of witches in their society, but may also inform the audience that they have a large involvement in the development of the plot, by driving Macbeth further towards the murder.
Essentially, even though they are only present within four scenes of the play, it may be argued that the witches have a significant role within the play, as they not only heighten the atmosphere of the Gothic, but also provide the audience with a greater understanding of Macbeth’s evil actions, and allow Shakespeare to bring to attention the fears and suspicions of his audience.