Witches, Supernatural, and Evil in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Satisfactory Essays
The Witches and Evil in Macbeth

No discussion of evil in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth would be satisfactory without considering its’ most famous symbols of evil: the coven of witches whose interactions with Macbeth play such a vital role in his thinking about his own life. Banquo and Macbeth recognize them as something supernatural, part of the landscape but not fully human inhabitants of it. They have malicious intentions and prophetic powers. And yet they are not active agents in the sense that they do nothing other than talk and offer visions and potions. The witches have no power to compel. If we are to explore the significance of these witches we must do so by treating them as vital poetic symbols in the play, essential manifestations of the moral atmosphere of Macbeth's world.

The most obvious interpretation of the witches is to see them as manifestations of evil in the world. They exist to tempt and torment people, to challenge their faith in themselves and their society. They work on Macbeth by equivocation, that is, by ambiguous promises of some future state. These promises come true, but not in the way that the victim originally believed. The witches thus make their appeal to Macbeth's and Banquo's desire to control their own future, to direct it towards some desirable ends. They have no power to compel belief, but they can obviously appeal strongly to an already existing inclination to force one's will onto events in order to shape the future to fit one deepest desires.

Banquo's importance in the play stems, in large part, from his different response to these witches. Like Macbeth, he is strongly tempted, but he does not let his desires outweigh his moral caution:

But 'tis strange,

And oftentimes to win us to our harm

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles to betray's

In deepest consequence. (1.3.120-124)

Macbeth cannot act on this awareness because his desires (kept alive by his active imagination and his wife's urging) constantly intrude upon his moral sensibilities. Hence, he seizes upon the news that he has just been made Thane of Cawdor, using that information to tell him what he most wants to believe, that the witches tell the truth.

This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success
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