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To What Extent Are the Witches Significant in Macbeth?

To what extent are the witches significant in Shakespeare’s Macbeth? ‘Macbeth’ is a play written by William Shakespeare. Macbeth is among the most famous of William Shakespeare’s plays, as well as his shortest tragedy. It is set in Scotland and is commonly known as the ‘Scottish play’ as it is a superstition amongst actors. In my essay I will be exploring the significance of the witches in ‘Macbeth’ and will be answering the following questions: Why Shakespeare chooses to use them as he does? What their significance is in the play? How might the audience (at the time it was written) respond to them?

Act 1, scene 1, opens with the appearance of the witches. This emphasises the significance of them in ‘Macbeth’. Pathetic fallacy is deployed by Shakespeare in the stage directions within the first scene which opens with thunder and lightening; at that time people also believed that witches could control the weather. This creates a sombre mood which permeates the rest of the play. The oxymoron “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”, is used for dramatic effect, confusing Macbeth’s perception of right and wrong (good and bad, beauty and ugliness). It also sets the scene of appearance vs. eality. This is perhaps symbolic of Macbeth, who at first is introduced to the audience as a brave, noble and is loyal towards King Duncan. This quote is linked with the line in Act 1, scene 3 when Macbeth remarks, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. This echoes the words of the witches and therefore the audience sees immediately the tragic inseparability of Macbeth and the forces of darkness. It can also mean that the day is foul due to the witches raising a storm, and fair because of Macbeth’s victories on the battlefield. In Act 1, scene 3 the witches also make their prophecies.

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They tell Macbeth three prophecies: that he will be Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis and then eventually King, this is encapsulated in the lines: “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis”, “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor”, “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter”. They excite Macbeth and he presses them for more information but they then turn their attention to Banquo. Speaking in yet more riddles they call Banquo “lesser than Macbeth, and greater”, and “not so happy yet much happier”, and they go on to predict that his descendants will be kings, even though he himself will not be.

At the start neither Macbeth nor Banquo believe the witches prophecies but the conversation with the witches is then interrupted by the arrival of Ross and Angus. Ross tells Macbeth that he has been made Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is amazed that their prophecy has come true and this is when he starts to believe that he may become King. The witches seem to know the potential inside Macbeth to be evil and look to exploit this by tempting him with this thought. Macbeth’s ambition eventually leads him to murdering King Duncan. This brings into the play the idea of fate.

I think that maybe Banquo is present in the play for the audience to be able to contrast him with Macbeth’s new evil self. The question that needs to be answered is, if the witches had not told Macbeth these prophecies, would he still have driven himself down the route of evil or could he have been responsible for his own actions and decisions in the play? I believe they do not control his destiny. However they add temptation to the evil within him and play upon his ambition but from then on it is his own decision driven by the desire for power.

Lady Macbeth is another great influence on his negative actions as she taunts him saying he will only be a man when he kills Duncan. Act 4, scene 1. The witches circle around a cauldron, chanting spells and adding bizarre ingredients to their stew. Macbeth enters and greets them with “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! ” He describes the witches as hideous creatures as they would have been played by males; in those days females were not allowed to act. Macbeth then demands the witches to reveal the truth of their prophecies.

In response they summon ghastly apparitions, each of those calming his fears. One of these being a bloody child that tells him, “for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. This may cause Macbeth to think that he is invincible, not knowing that a person born by Caesarean; this referring to Macduff, may be able to kill him. After this encounter, Macbeth sends murderers to seize Macduff’s castle and kill his wife and children. Throughout the play, the witches are referred to as the “weird sisters” by some of the characters.

They are so exaggerated which makes them seen almost comical like caricatures of the supernatural. However they are clearly the most hazardous characters in the play and would never have been thought to be comical among Shakespearean audiences. I feel that Shakespeare uses the witches in the way he does so they immediately imbue a sense of evil because of the way in which witches were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. The audiences’ views of witches and witchcraft would have been strong during the Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare uses the witches to highlight the themes of darkness and evil as that is what they symbolise and what they were normally associated with. It is important to take into consideration that the witches would have been taken seriously by Shakespearean audiences. This would obviously mean that the opening of the play meant something much deeper to them than it does to us. They would have been frightened of them. This may have been one of the effects that Shakespeare was looking for at the time.

Most readers today would agree that the murders Macbeth committed were a result of his own lust for ambition accompanied by the pressure from Lady Macbeth. Audiences in the Elizabethan era would have had an alternative view, putting the blame firmly on the witches as they were associated with wrong-doings. In conclusion, I feel although the witches are only present in 4 scenes in the entire play, they still play a major role in ‘Macbeth’. The scenes are also placed in significant parts in the play such as the first scene. If they were not present in it, the play would have been vastly different.

Throughout the play, the witches are used as a metaphor to symbolise evil, darkness and they also add to the dramatic effect of the play. In terms of Macbeth’s actions, there are two theories that are each valid in different ways. It depends on how you interpret them. You could either think that his ambition for greatness is to blame for him making the decisions he made. On the other hand, you may blame the witches as they planted the seed of the idea of becoming King and opened his eyes to the possibility of power. After all, they are the ones that planted the actual idea of killing Duncan into his head.


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