Shakespeare’s use of language Essay
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Title: Discuss the role of the witches in Macbeth your essay refer to Shakespeare’s use of language, devices and structure for dramatic effect.
The play opens dramatically with three witches in a dessert place with thunder crashing and lightning flashing. This would immediately gain Elizabethan audiences’ attention that would be unsettled by the scene on stage. Elizabethans really did fear witches and the thunder and lightning would add to the drama. Elizabethans believed extreme weather conditions signalled turbulent times for man.
This creates a powerful mood of chaos and confusion. It foreshadows the dramatic events that will unfold on stage. It symbolises the detrimental power of evil and the forces of chaos Macbeth will unleash in Scotland. Throughout the play thunder and lightning always accompanied the witches.
In Macbeth the witches have a very important role as in Elizabethan times when the play was first performed the idea of witches was a very real for people. King James 1, who was on the throne at the time, was terrified and also knowledgeable in the subject of witches. He believed that witches had plotted against him and tried to kill him. He even wrote a book about the subject called “Daemonology”. Flattery is also involved in the including of witches’ role in the play, as they were in keeping with the King’s view on witches. King James himself would have gone to watch the play.
As the witches were seen as evil, mouthpieces of the devil people would know as soon as the witches appeared on stage that evil was one of the themes of the play. Once the witches actually spoke it would confirm the audiences’ first impressions that these wild women were outside normality and not part of society. The way that they speak in chants is as if they are making magic
“When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battles lost and won”.
It is also very sinister especially when they speak in riddles. This confuses and amazes the audience. At the end of Act 1 Scene 1 the witches all chant “Fair is foul and foul is fair” and these words are echoed in Act 1 Scene 3 when Macbeth comments to Banquo “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. These words immediately link Macbeth with the witches in the audiences mind.
The way they mention their familiars “Greymalkin” and “Paddock” confirm the audiences’ first impressions. Once the audience heard that, they would be completely sure that they were, as it was the devil that gave them their evil familiars to help them in their deeds.
As the witches speak about what weather conditions they should meet again in (all extreme) “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain?” makes the audience aware of the magic within them, as it was thought that witches had powers to create storms. This statement sounds like the witches can control the weather. Elizabethan audiences would relate to this portrayal of the witches. The fact that the witches spoke in rhyming couplets seems as if they speak with one voice, an evil supernatural voice.
Their style of language also separates them from other characters. They seem to inhabit a world where moral order has been reversed “Fair is foul and foul is fair” This sets the scene for the rest of the play as one of the themes is of appearance being deceptive of, things not being what they seem. I.e. good and evil will be indistinguishable. Later in the play where Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to
“Look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it”
In act one scene one the witches are in an uninhabited place far from civilisation. They mention Macbeth’s name in this scene as it is embedded within their chanting and rhyming, the audience will automatically connect Macbeth with the witches and the forces of evil. It also suggests that the witches are in control they know that they are going to meet Macbeth.
The second time the audience see the Weird Sisters in Act 1 Scene 3 their evil is made apparent by their spiteful conversation. The scene opens with the witches telling each other what they have been doing, during their time apart. The first witch recalls her encounter with a sailor’s wife, who would not give her any chestnuts. She threatens he will be “tempest tossed” The three witches execute a spell using revolting ingredients “pilots thumb” and chanting out what they were going to do. These insights into the witches’ weird world show us how odd and even how evil they are.
The witches know that they are going to meet Macbeth as they plan it in Act 1 Scene 1 what is going to happen just before they meet him “When the battles lost and won” that obviously means when Macbeth is riding home in victory after the battle. The type of weather contributes to the atmosphere of the scene too. The witches show their power of prediction, which was a gift from the Devil, when they know Macbeth is about to appear before they see him.
“A drum, a drum!
Macbeth doth come.”
The witches seem to greet Macbeth in the two tenses present and future. But they represent the three fates past, present and future. “All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”
“All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor ” he knows that the Thane of Cawdor lives but this greeting means something to him. The final greeting made to him by the third witch has a powerful effect on him, even Banquo realises his emotions. The witches greet him as “All hail, Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter”. Deep down that is what Macbeth secretly wants, to be King of Scotland.
When Banquo first sees the witches he thinks they are spirits and asks ” Live you or are you aught that man might question?” He is also surprised at Macbeth’s reaction to the predictions. Banquo, thinks they are ” fantastical” but notices Macbeth did “Start and seem to fear” the witches words.
These predictions seem to play on Macbeth’s mind. The three witches have the power to know what Macbeth is thinking. They know that it is his secret ambition, all they needed to do was tell him their premonitions and the seeds in his mind would grow just by those few words the witches said. “Why is it that you seem rapt withal” Banquo picks up on the thoughts that Macbeth is having about the things the witches have just told them.
After the sudden disappearance of the witches Macbeth and Banquo wonder whether they were just dreaming. They are discussing the witches’ words logically and at the same time wondering if they have “eaten upon the insane root” and that is why they had seen such wild women. They possessed that thought that they were hallucinating, that is until Angus and Ross arrive at the heath. Ross informs Macbeth that the King is very pleased with his performance and bravery on the battlefield. Ross then confirms what the witches had prophesised, that he is to be Thane of Cawdor. Banquo is amazed “can the devil speak true?” Both Macbeth and Banquo know that the witches were really there and they were not just imagining things. It also makes Macbeth believe that the third prophecy can come true, but at this stage he hopes he will become King without having to do anything,
” If chance will have me King
Why, chance may crown me
Without my stir”
Before Macbeth had encountered the three witches he may have had the burning desires to kill the King and become king himself. After the withered and wild women told him what he would become his reaction strongly suggests that nothing and no one would stand in his way. They have tempted Macbeth knowing his desires and leave him to fulfil their prophecies. It is obvious that they are in control and display a monstrous power. They can see into the future and refuse to be commanded by Macbeth, at his plea to ” Speak, I charge you” they vanish. They will only tell Macbeth what they want him to know. He is totally under their influence and their powers and strength, this would further unsettle the audience, as many people believed in the power of witchcraft.
He sent his wife a letter explaining about the meeting with the sisters and what they told him. Lady Macbeth was very ambitious and was greedy for power she wanted Macbeth to kill King Duncan and claim the throne for himself. She knows that Macbeth would find it difficult to kill Duncan who he admires and is a relative, she thinks he is “too full of the milk of human kindness”. She therefore encourages him and supports him in the plan to kill King Duncan. When Macbeth runs to Lady Macbeth after the murder holding the daggers she takes control telling Macbeth ” Give me the daggers”. She places them in the King’s chamber and reassures Macbeth that “The sleeping and the dead are but pictures.” However Macbeth feels extremely guilty.
Once the King had been murdered it set Macbeth on a path of evil and brought him no happiness or peace. First he murdered the guards then Banquo, fearing he knew too much, and later Macduff’s family. His tortured mind was obvious to the audience at the Banquet.
Macbeth holds a dinner party on the night that he has ordered for Banquo to be murdered. His entire kinsmen are invited including Banquo. The audience knows that his assassination has been carried out successfully. He finds a spare place at the table he finds one then sees that the gory ghost of Banquo occupies it. Macbeth is now a wreck as the haunting ghost plays in his mind. Since the first killing Macbeth has not been the same. When the gory Banquo appears at the dining table Macbeth is very distressed his wife has to excuse him, giving the reason that it was a fit he suffered regularly. Macbeth is driven to almost reveal everything in front of his guests, they in turn become suspicious. Macbeth now determines to seek out the witches to hear the truth about his future.
Macbeth’s intentions for visiting the witches are to find out more about what will happen in the future. When Macbeth arrives in this barren place the witches are chanting spells round a cauldron. They talk about revolting ingredients such as “poisoned entrails”, ” Eye of newt and toe of frog” to make a “hell broth”. This creates a powerful atmosphere of evil on the stage and their language excludes outsiders The witches embody evil in the way they look, speak and act.
Again there is thunder reinforcing the theme of turbulent times for man. It is also very dramatic visually and the fact that the witches are in a deserted place puts them outside normal society. The second witch senses Macbeth coming and informs the audience by uttering “by the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes” the audience immediately knows that she means Macbeth. Also that the witch came to know this by “the pricking of her thumbs” a supernatural way of knowing Macbeth was approaching.
Macbeth’s first words in this scene tell the audience that he despises the witches. He greets them in a demanding way “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags. What is it you do?”
Shakespeare wanted the witches to be so mysterious and enchanting. They reply as one voice “A deed without a name” this sounds to the audience that what the witches do is so un natural and evil it cannot be given a name. Macbeth demands to know more, he still doesn’t realise that they are still in control. The witches conjure their masters to tell Macbeth his fate. Three apparitions appear they each tell Macbeth things the first one advises him to
“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!
Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough”
Macbeth knows what to do he will kill Macduff and wont have to worry about him. The second tells him ” Be bloody, bold and resolute.
Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Will harm Macbeth”
Macbeth is reassured this wipes out the first premonition but Macbeth, is so disturbed and unstable decides he will kill Macduff anyway just to be sure. The third announces
“Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him”
Macbeth does not seem worried about this premonition, as he knows that will never be. He is greatly reassured and believes he is almost invincible. We, however, are concerned. We recognise the witches’ evil and are fearful for Macbeth. He is deliberately relying on their words.
Macbeth is still not satisfied when the apparitions disappear. He wants to know more. The witches state” seek to know no more” they might have done this to shield him from the truth that all his efforts had been for nothing. This on the other hand may have been a tactic used by the witches to make Macbeth even eager to find out more. The witches call to their masters to let Macbeth see and know more. He is then shown the show of eight kings all of whose faces resemble Banquo’s, then at the end Banquo is standing there holding a mirror reflecting even more. All of his efforts to keep the throne were in vain. He would not have any children to succeed the throne and the future kings would be descendants of Banquo. He now knows what the witches meant in Act 1 Scene 3 where he first encountered the witches. They stated
” Lesser than Macbeth and greater.
Not so happy yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though be none”
When he hears Banquo’s sons will be kings but he will never be king it adds to Macbeth’s confusion.
As Macbeth has been told “Beware Macduff”, he immediately creates a plot in his mind to murder him. This shows the audience how desperate he is, his actions resemble this thought. Why would he kill Macduff if the second premonition said, “no man born of woman can harm Macbeth”. It also shows the audience how Macbeth believes everything the witches say and takes it literally. He should have learnt from experience not to take any notice of what the witches said. Other events in the play would not have taken place if Macbeth had ignored what the three wild witches had to say. But they enslave him with their promises.
It almost seems as if Macbeth only listens to the things he wants to hear. He interprets “No man born of woman can harm him” into a reassurance that he is invincible. This as we find out later in the play is untrue.
As he is growing very desperate he thinks instantly about murdering Macduff’s family. He has enough blood on his hands already after he murdered Duncan and ordered for Fleance and Banquo to be killed. Now he has gone past reasoning and normality as he has become so disturbed and troubled by what he has done. He now realises that everything he did has been for nothing. The only thing he has done is destroyed his life and also his wife’s life too. This all came about because of the witches.
The motives of the witches in Macbeth are to bring about the downfall of Macbeth, and also to make Macbeth thirsty for the information that they will give him. Macbeth wants to know more about his successes and power. At the start of the play the second reference to Macbeth is that he is a brave and loyal subject to Duncan. He does have secret desires but he keeps them well hidden and does not let them overpower him. The witches stir up these feelings inside him and make him determined to achieve these secret goals, by any means possible.
If Shakespeare had not introduced the witches into the play Macbeth would not have been the Macbeth we know at all. The witches, even though they are only in a few scenes are the backbone of the whole play. They are like the finger that starts a domino topple. They do or say one small thing and trigger off lots of other events, such as the killing of Duncan and also the murder if Banquo. The witches germinate the seed of ambition already in Macbeth’s mind. They seem to know all about his secret, black ambitions. This reinforces the presence of evil associated with these wild women.
In Elizabethan times when the play was first performed the audience would have associated witches with the devil and evil happenings. The language that Shakespeare employs supports these thoughts that the audience would have. Words such as hover known to refer to power. People believed that witches had powers, as the witches are always in deserted, lonely places they automatically are perceived by the audiences as outside society, outside human morality.
The witches do not speak like other characters in the play. Their contradictory and ambiguous language sets them aside from them. As they speak in chants and riddles Macbeth does not know what to think. Macbeth believes that he is in control of what the witches say but actually he is wrong. The witches have control. They always have Macbeth right where they want him. Macbeth also listened to what the witches had to say as they were seen as the ” gods of destiny”. He would not have listened if they were just instruments of evil.
The visual appearance would have set them aside from all the other characters. They were “So withered and so wild in their attire, that look not like the inhabitants of the earth” as described by Banquo. These so-called women had beards; Banquo is not really sure what they are.
“You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so”
Their overall significance in the play is to create confusion for Macbeth and also to control his actions. The audience was aware from the beginning of the play. When in the first scene Macbeth’s meetings with the witches were arranged. The witches were in control the whole time but their evil could only operate where man allows it to do so; so eventually, at the end of the play good triumphs as Malcolm and Macduff conquer Macbeth.