Witches in Macbeth

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The Three witches in the tragedy Macbeth are introduced right at the beginning of the play. They recount to Macbeth three prophesies. That Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glams and King. These prophesies introduce Macbeth to ideas of greatness. Macbeth will eventually follow through on killing king Duncan. It was sometimes thought that the witches had the ability to reverse the natural order of things.


This brings into the play idea of fate and the role with which it has in the play. One can ponder if Macbeth ever had a chance of doing what was right after he met with the witches.


It is however, more realistic to believe that Macbeth was responsible for his own actions throughout the play and in the end it was he who made the final decisions.


The witches could foretell the future, they can add temptation, and influence Macbeth, but they can not control his destiny. Macbeth creates his own misery when he is driven by his own sense of guilt. This causes him to become insecure as to the reasons for his actions which in turn causes him to commit more murders. The witches offer great enticement, but it is in the end, each individuals decision to fall for the temptation, or to be strong enough to resist their captivation. The three Witches are only responsible for the introduction of these ideas and for further forming ideas


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in Macbeth head, but they are not responsible for his actions throughout the play. Lady Macbeth is shown early in the play as an ambitious woman with a single purpose. She can manipulate Macbeth easily. This is shown in the line That I may pour my spirits in thine ear. (I,V, 6)


She is selfless, and wants what is best for her husband. Before the speech that Lady Macbeth gives in act one scene five, Macbeth is resolved not to go through with the killing of the king. However, Lady Macbeth manipulates at Macbeths self-esteem by playing on his manliness and his bravery. This then convinces Macbeth to commit regicide. It is like a child who is easily guided. Lady Macbeth knows this and acts on it accordingly.


Although Macbeth has the final say in whether or not to go through with the initial killing, he loves Lady Macbeth and wants to make her happy. Lady Macbeth is the dominating individual in the relationship which is shown in her soliloquy in Act 1 Scene


It seems that she can convince him to do anything as long as she pushes the right buttons. On the other hand, as the play progresses, and Duncan is killed, there is a reversal of natural order, and Macbeth becomes the dominating partner. Lady Macbeth becomes subservient. She becomes pathetic and only a shadow of her former self. Ambition plays a large role in this tragedy. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have vaulting ambition that drives them. Lady Macbeths ambition drives her to manipulate Macbeth into committing regicide. Macbeths fierce ambition is present before the witchs prophesies. He would never have thought seriously about killing Duncan without the witches. Yet the combination of both his ambitious nature and the initial prophesies leads him to kill the king. It is Lady Macbeth who states Thou wouldst be great/ Art not without ambition. Macbeth states that it is his besetting sin I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition. Macbeths continued ambition is present in his wanting to have a succession of kings after him. Macbeths Ambition is deep within him and because of this, both the witches and Lady Macbeth are able to sway him to evil. It is this ambition that gets him into so much trouble initially.


Once Macbeth kills for the first time, he has no choice but to continue to cover up his wrong doings, or risk loosing everything he has worked so hard for. In the end, it all comes to Macbeth himself.


Everyone is responsible for his own destiny. This is an essential theme in this tragedy. Macbeth chooses to gamble with his soul and when he does this it is only him who chooses to lose it. He is responsible for anything he does and must take total accountability for his actions. Macbeth is the one who made the final decision to carry out his actions. He made these final decisions and continued with the killings to cover that of King Duncan.


The killing of Duncan starts an unstoppable chain of events in the play that ends with the murder of Macbeth and the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth chooses to murder Duncan. Macbeth, in the beginning had all of the qualities of an honorable gentleman who could become anything. This is all shattered when his ambition overrides his sense of morality. Although Macbeth is warned as to the validity of the witches prophesies, he is tempted and refuses to listen to reason from Banquo. When the second set of prophesies Macbeth receives begin to show their faults Macbeth blames the witches for deceiving him with half truths. While the witches are not totally responsible for the actions of Macbeth, they are responsible for introducing the ideas to Macbeth which in turn fired up Macbeths ambition and led to a disastrous and unnecessary chain of events.


The belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeares day, as demonstrated by the European witch craze, during which an estimated nine million women were put to death for being perceived as witches (The Burning Times). The practice of witchcraft was seen to subvert the established order of religion and society, and hence was not tolerated. Witch hunting was a respectable, moral, and highly intellectual pursuit through much of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries (Best ). The belief of the majority during the seventeenth century suggests that the witches are powerful figures who can exercise great power over Macbeth; however, strong arguments to the contrary were in existence at the same time. The intensity of the tragedy is dependent on whether the witches are perceived to be able to control the otherwise innocent Macbeths actions, or if he is entirely responsible for his own demise.


Although not a secret, black, and midnight hag (4.1.48), as an evil female, Lady Macbeth could be considered a witch according to the standards of Shakespeares day. In the same way that witches subvert the natural order of religion and society, Lady Macbeth subverts the order of the sexes and the family by trying to have more power than the head of the family, her husband. Not only does she act out of order, but several of her actions imply that she is actually witch-like. Firstly, it was widely believed in Europe for centuries that sorcery could cause impotence (Cotton 0). In the preface of Daemonologie, King James I asserts the power of witches to weaken the nature of some men, to make them unavailable for women (qtd. in Best). A major textbook for witch hunters, Malleus Maleficarum, describes how witches are able to make men impotent, or even make their penises disappear (qtd. in Best).


Although he is not made physically impotent, Lady Macbeth challenges her husbands manhood by being more aggressive than he is, taunting him, and suggesting, When you durst do it, then you were a man(1.7.55). Secondly, Lady Macbeth calls upon seemingly malevolent ...spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts (1.5.40-41) to aid her in her plot to overcome her husbands reluctance and to force him to kill Duncan. Although devotedly loyal, she rejects her subordinate role as wife and asks to be transformed ...into an instrument of death whose cruelty transcends the limitations of her sex and of her mortal nature (Truax 68). Finally, the fact that she works with the Weird Sisters to influence Macbeth suggests that she is at least indirectly allied with them.


Not all of Shakespeares contemporaries agreed with witch hunters. Reginald Scots The Discoverie of Witchcraft suggests that although witches do exist, they do not possess the powers attributed to them but instead their claimed effects were coincidental and the will of God, and that those persecuted as witches were ill, foolish, deluded, or senile (qtd. in Best) . Johann Weyer similarly argued that those who were normally burned as witches had not actually made a pact with the devil but were suffering from some sort of illness (qtd. in Estes 456).


The audiences beliefs of whether or not the witches actually have power over Macbeth influence their interpretation of whether his actions result from personal choice or from external influence. Macbeth retains a heroic aura as long as he either is able to use his free will and personal choice to resist the witches influence, or if he is believed to be powerless against the external evil influences of his wife and the witches. Thomas Cooper writes in his 1617 work The Mysterie of Witchcraft, Satan cannot preuaile effectually vpon any to their condemnation, vnless with full confent they yeelde themfelues wholy to his fubjection (Cooper 60). According to this, Macbeth should be able to resist temptation by not giving his consent. Initially Macbeth listens to the witches, rapt (I..14), but he is able to retain the ability to act as a morally responsible person and control his ambition.


After considering that he could commit murder to achieve what the witches propose, he stifles the idea, saying, If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/ Without my stir (1..14-44). However, in the second act, he no longer attempts to stifle his conscience, but instead seems to accept the murder as an inevitable act beyond his control, saying, I go, and it is done the bell invites me (.1.70). In my opinion, when Macbeth surrenders himself to his wifes demands and tauntings, he is not bewitched but merely has succumbed to his pride.


Despite Macbeths attempt to place the blame away from himself, Lady Macbeth retains her mortal form and temporal powers; she has simply touched on the deep-seated ambitions and greed that were already present in him (Truax 70). The fact that he no longer accepts the responsibility for his actions does not mean that the responsibility is removed, and eventually he must pay the consequences for his choice.


For most of Shakespeares contemporary audience, Macbeth would appear to be at the mercy of the witches and therefore not entirely responsible for his actions. In my opinion, it is easier to muster sympathy for a person who is not entirely to blame for their actions; in the case of Macbeth, the tragedy is more successful if the popular seventeenth century mentality is adopted and thereby the witches and Lady Macbeth are made partly to blame for his downfall.


Macbeth’s Evil Witches





The witches are seen as being evil. This is because at the time, witches were accepted as being real and evil. Shown in the play because the first scene is thunder and lightning, which is associated with terrible happenings and things so suggests witches are terrible things. They speak in rhymes and use many equivocal terms e.g. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’. This suggests reversal and unbalance, which leads to chaos and disorder in Macbeth’s life. This is suggested because they immediately mention Macbeth so he is already associated with the witches and seen as being evil. The chaos is also shown in the natural world by the weather and natural events.


Act 1 Scene , there is thunder when the witches meet again. The idea of them being evil is reinforced because in this scene because they are cursing a sailor. This suggests that Macbeth will also face a similar type of treatment. The mystery of the witches is increased in this scene because they know Macbeth is coming when the third witch tells the other two, ‘Macbeth doth come.’ This raises the question of how they knew he was coming and reinforces the link between Macbeth and the witches, which suggests to the audience that Macbeth is evil from the beginning of the play. This link is further reinforced when Macbeth’s first line using the same equivocal as the witches, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’.


Banquo is wary of the witches and does not really want to believe that they really because he says ‘That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth’, which adds further to their mystery because they are described as being unnatural. However, the suggestion that Macbeth is somehow acquainted with them is again shown when he talks to them directly without fear and asks What are you?’ Nevertheless, this shows to an extent that Macbeth also saw the witches as being unnatural because he enquires about what they are but he does not appear to be afraid.


They then avoid this question and tell Macbeth his prophecies as though this was the purpose all along. Their prophecies give rise to the question whether they knew that he was already Thane of Glamis and the next Thane of Cawdor. This adds to the mystery of the witches and provides some more evidence of the suggestion that they were well acquainted with Macbeth.


After the witches have told Macbeth his prophecies, Banquo begins to ask about himself and is told with an equivocal that his children will be Kings but he will not. I believe that during this time Macbeth is thinking deeply about what he is told because as soon as the witches have finished telling Banquo, Macbeth becomes even more inquisitive. He says to them, ‘Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more’. This tells us that he has also picked up the fact that they are speaking equivocally because he says that their speech is imperfect. Nevertheless, he asks them to tell him more, which suggests that he understands the speech of the witches, reinforcing the idea that he is well-acquainted with them and understands them. He speaks to the witches without fear and says to them ‘Speak, I charge you’. However at this point they disappear, which reinforces the mysteriousness of them and suggests that even Macbeth cannot control them, giving us the impression that they are the most powerful characters in the play.


However, Macbeth does not seem it unusual that they have disappeared and simply answers to Banquo ‘Melted, as breath in the wind. Would they had stay’d’. This reply tells us that he is more concerned with what the witches had to tell him.


He tells Banquo ‘Your children shall be Kings’, which was the one prophecy the witches told using an equivocal. This further reinforces the suggestion that Macbeth fully understands the language and nature of the witches. This conversation between Macbeth and Banquo, after the witches leave, are the first signs that tell us that Macbeth is deeply interested in the prophecies of the witches and what they had to say.


The point at which Macbeth begins to believe everything the witches tell him is when Ross tells him that he has become the Thane of Cawdor. However, Banquo is prepared to say that the witches are evil, which suggests that he is a good character because the witches were seen as evil and anyone thinking otherwise would be seen as being evil. We know that Banquo sees the witches as being evil because he calls them ‘the Devil’.


Macbeth immediately asks Banquo whether he hopes his children will be Kings, which tells us that he trusts the witches fully. However Banquo is much more wary and knows the evil nature of the witches and so refuses to believe them.





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