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Throughout Shakespeare's life, witches and witchcraft were the objects
of morbid and fevered fascination. A veritable witch-mania
characterised the reign of Elizabeth I and persecution reached
terrifying proportions. Between 1560 and 1603 hundreds of people were
convicted as witches and executed.
Macbeth was written by William Shakespeare in 1606 for King James I
who was obsessed with the supernatural and had even gone as far as to
write a book on the topic titled Daemonolgie.
Act 1 scene 1 opens with thunder and lightning, which on stage would
open the play in a dramatic way with loud noises and flashes of light.
This would immediately capture the audience's attention and they would
be focusing on the stage as the witches appear.
The thunder and lightning create a frightening and menacing atmosphere
and this sets the tone for the horrifying events that are about to
unfold on the stage. The mood and atmosphere are set in this way but
the effect of this scene is wider than simply the setting of mood and
atmosphere. It also gives us information about the events that occur
later on in the play. It seems that the play opens while a battle is
raging and the three witches will meet again when it is all over. They
seem to have foreknowledge that that will be before the end of the
The name of Macbeth is introduced and a connection is therefore
established between themselves and Macbeth.
Their closing lines,
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air," gives us a major clue to what
the witches' objectives are.
They find whatever is good, evil and whatever is evil they find good.
They seek therefore, to turn goodness into evil and this directly
links to the events concerning Macbeth that develop in the play.
Shakespeare uses dramatic methods to display the witches in Act 1
scene 3. We can see the evil in the witches by the way they torment a
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chestnuts. They could have tortured his wife physically but they
decided to do it mentally. The witches did this by torturing her
husband, the sailor, by denying him sleep. They appear to get great
pleasure from being malicious in the way that they torture the sailor.
As well as denying him sleep they produced a great storm, it was so
great because it would last, "Sennights nine times nine," and "drain
him dry as hay."
The spell and the way they chant it adds to the mystery surrounding
the witches, like the way the use the pilot's thumb to help in the
The witches dance in a circle to the beat of Macbeth's drum in
movements of three,
"Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine."
The number three seems to have a magical significance in Macbeth
concerning the witches.
On Banquo's first encounter with the witches, he describes their
physical appearance as,
"So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earth,
And yet are on't."
We begin to get a clear picture of the witches' appearance, Banquo
"You should be women
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so."
Elizabethans believed that women could lure men into committing sin
and they became known as temptresses.
We can see that Banquo is nearly amused by the witches and queries
their prophecies calmly, unlike Macbeth who reacts very differently to
the witches and what they have to say. Macbeth seems to be dumbfounded
by them, "rapt withal."
The prophecies are in rhyming couplets. They do not tell Macbeth or
Banquo how to act; instead they stay neutral and let them act on their
The audience are more aware of the witches than Macbeth and Banquo, we
know that Macbeth became Thane of Cawdor by his own actions. The
witches are successful in challenging Macbeth's morals.
Perhaps Macbeth was all along planning to murder Duncan to become King
and all the witches have done is brought this thought to the fore.
Macbeth tries to discard the first thoughts of murder playing on his
mind, announcing that he will leave everything to chance, "If chance
will have me King, why, chance my crown me without my stir."
At the end of the scene Macbeth still has some unanswered questions
and in his mind is trying to plan out his future.
Macbeth takes sanctuary in a lie, pretending that his, "dull brain was
wrought with things forgotten," when in fact, he has been reflecting
on the future and not in the past. This minute lie may seem harmless
but it is the first sign of evil developing in Macbeth, the fact that
he feels that he must cover these thoughts up shows us that he knew
what he is thinking is wrong.
Later on in the play we start to consider Lady Macbeth as a possible
fourth witch by the way she calls on evil, "Come ye spirits that tend
on mortal thoughts," would immediately make Elizabethan audiences
distinguish her as a witch. She wants to become a witch and remove all
the goodness within her, to persuade her husband to murder Duncan.
I think that Macbeth is under the witches' control when later on in
the play, he goes to them instead of them coming to him, "I will
tomorrow to the weird sisters, more shall they speak. For I am bent to
know by the worst means the worst."
The three apparitions forewarn Macbeth's fate: a head foretelling his
decapitation of Macduff, a bloody child, representing Macduff being
"untimely cut from the womb", and a child crowned with a tree in his
hand, representing Malcolm coming to Dunsinane carrying a bough. These
apparitions suck Macbeth deeper into the witches' confidence.
Macbeth takes the witches' advice too seriously, he does not realise
that they are only showing him his fate. He takes what he wants from
the apparitions and nothing else, which is an unwise mistake that
makes death unavoidable. Macbeth even thanks the witches, "Whate'er
thou art, for thy good caution thanks."
Macbeth is continually giving into evil, and letting the witches
entice him into more and more danger.
In Macbeth, I think that the witches play a big role in Macbeth's
eventual downfall. Although they do not directly instruct him on what
to do, in my opinion I think that they persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan
in order to be King.
In every Shakespearean tragedy, the hero always has a tragic flaw,
which leads to his or her own downfall. Macbeth's tragic flaw in my
opinion is that he is too weak, easily led and does not think of the
consequences of his actions.