Shakespeare utilized many sources of information when writing his plays. One of his sources for the witches in MacBeth was almost certainly Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584. In his book, Scot refuted many of the common notions regarding witches and their powers; nevertheless, the book created a basic outline for the typical witch, including physical descriptions and abilities. The witches in MacBeth are representations of those described in Scot's book. In the play, Shakespeare describes authentic witches in their physical appearance and behavior and MacBeth's character is made more villainous through his association with these terrifying figures.
Scot describes witches as being "women which be commonly old, lame, blearie-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles...They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them" (Scot 4). Basically, witches were thought to be poor old women with hideous appearances. Shakespeare obviously picks up on this notion, as the witches in the play are described as ugly old hags. During their first encounter with MacBeth and Banquo, Banquo is clearly appalled by their appearance and questions whether they are human: "What are these, / So withered, and so wild in their attire, / That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth" (1.3.40-42). From Banquo's description, it seems they are poor, as evidenced by their clothing, and old and unattractive because of their vile and wrinkled appearance. MacBeth later addresses them as "secret, black, and midnight hags" (4.1.48). This phrase also suggests that they are old and ugly women. Thus, these women fit th...
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...ers. MacBeth is the only character to become closely associated with the witches. He acts on their revelations of the future, whereas Banquo does not. In allying MacBeth with the witches, Shakespeare makes MacBeth seem even more evil. After all, the witches are the devil's servants, and by associating with the witches, he is indirectly associated with Satan. Therefore, it would have been very easy for Shakespeare's audience to find him just as appalling as the witches themselves. Thus, one of the reasons for writing the witches into the play was to make MacBeth a more despicable villain.
Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Montague Summers Ed. Dover Publications: New York,
Shakespeare, William. MacBeth. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine Ed. Washington Square Press: New
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