Examine the Presentation of the Witches in Macbeth

Macbeth is one of the better-known plays written by Shakespeare, where the audience are drawn to sympathise with a cold-blooded murderer. Convinced by his wife and the witches’ prophecies, that he shall become King, Macbeth’s fatal ambition results in his downfall.

Macbeth was written during a period where many women were tried for witchcraft, and they were subsequently executed. As well as this, women were persecuted and misogyny was an accepted issue of every day life. Many Elizabethans believed, that witches controlled almost every aspect of their existence, they were able to predict the future and change the weather Shakespeare took this as his back ground and displays them in Macbeth, making the play very much a product of the time, however, the play still enjoys the same reactions today because of Shakespeare’s use of imagery and themes of which blood and guilt appear frequently. This allows the modern day audience to find relevance with it, despite the play’s age.

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Earlier audiences would describe Macbeth and his Lady as seized by demonic possession.

Amen/ stuck in my throat.

(Act 2 scene 2)

Macbeth’s inability to pray shows that he has been ensnared by evil.

Come, you spirits

(Act 1 scene 5)

Here lady Macbeth’s inviting of evil spirits to possess her would also be seen to be abnormal, even in today’s society. She is inviting the consequences of believing in the witch’s prophecies. In some ways you could see lady Macbeth as the one who began the plot she was quite able to employ the witches to capture Macbeth, this may explain why she persuaded Macbeth to kill Duncan, the king and why Hecate was so annoyed with the witches for helping lady Macbeth and Macbeth fulfil their dreams. Hecate finds in the end that they both were to lose everything and Hecate honours the witches for their evil practices.

When Christianity developed witches began to be associated with the devil, people accepted this as it fell inline with their beliefs. Further on in the play Lady Macbeth seems to describe the devil’s mark. As the spot symbolises the area where the devil is said to have taken blood.

Out dammed spot! Out I say!

(Act 5 scene 1)

Nowadays filmmakers rely on powerful imagery to make the same threatening statements, to induce the same reaction. The witches’ prophecies bear resemblance to astrology or tarot cards today. Some people find they have stereotypical beliefs that therefore make the play have some significance that, subconsciously, they cannot escape from. This helps to portray the play as it was recognized in Elizabethan times, as Shakespeare was able to use the belief in and the fear of witches at the time. What Shakespeare did was physically display the audiences’ fear. In the eyes of a modern audience the witches are not seen as threatening, which they do need to be.

At this present time audiences would be ready to diagnose both Macbeth and lady Macbeth as needing psychiatric help, given that they are both hallucinating. Depending on how you see Macbeth, you may feel that Macbeth is of stable mind and he is captured by evil over which he has no control.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

(Act 2 scene 1)

Although some scenes have incorporated a sword like object into the scenery, in the form of a shadows cross for instance, some performances used this scene to show the mental instability of Macbeth.

A dagger of the mind, a false creation, (imaginary) Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

(Act 2 scene 1)

The physical appearance of the witches is disputed and they are portrayed in diverse ways; other productions have tried to display the witches with more normality, from young women to even children, but you will never drift from the stereotypical hags, which the text seems to be intended for.

Banquo, Macbeth’s compatriot, has a fascination for these “weird sisters”

That look not like the inhabitants o’ th’ earth, And yet are on’t?

(Act 3 scene 5)

He speaks with confusion and questions his words. He believes that they are women but the fact that they have beards contradicts this belief. This emphasizes the disruption of nature; there are evil happenings that are not controllable. Their appearance is “So withered and so wild”. We imagine the witches to be old and withered like the heath, where they sit hunched, weather beaten in the cold; a bleak picture comes to mind. He describes the witches as “things that sound so fair.” From the use of antithesis or opposites this phrase is contradicted.

Fair is foul and foul is fair.

(Act 1 scene 1)

This changing of words singles the witches out from the other characters.

We may see the witches as young attractive women, who have maybe be chosen to live without men and therefore isolated from normal community. This is where the fair is foul phrase would involve the witches themselves creating a sense that there appearance is a disguise and in effect the beards and wild exterior hides their fairness so foul is fair, this could explain Banquo’s confusion at the beginning of the scene.

Banquo goes on to describe them as “fantastical” (imaginary) he feels his logic has been taken away, he is so perplexed he feels that he is hallucinating.

Have we eaten on the insane root,

(Act 1 scene 3)

Shakespeare creates an eerie atmosphere when the witches enter they are clouded by mist and are shrouded by thunder. I imagine them to talk quietly under the thunder and the mist gives a sense of mystery. The audience begin to associate the coming of the witches with these intimidating devices and they create a degree of suspense. The scenes before and after the witch scenes are also important in creating the right ambience. Shakespeare may use the change of scene to isolate the witches or to enhance the similarities between them and characters like Macbeth. The first time we see the witches we go from a desolate heath to an army camp. The use of antithesis spoken by Duncan echoes what the witches have said in the previous scene

What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won

(Act 1 scene 2)

When the hurly-burly’s done when the battle lost and won.

(Act 1 scene1)

In the witches eyes this has a very different meaning to what Duncan says. The witches may mean by the winning of the battle Macbeth has sealed his fate.

Before the appearance of Hecate we are shown that Macbeth has suffering from lack of sleep emphasizing his troubled mind and even hallucinations.

You lack the season of all natures, sleep.

(Lady Macbeth to Macbeth, act 4 scene 3)

The language of the witches denotes their character, the audience are able to distinguish between characters and sense their personality by their words. Macbeth has some similarities, with the witches, in the language that he uses. He echoes their words using opposites.

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

(Act 1 scene 3)

Macbeth also uses rhyming couplets in some of his lines, as do the witches in their chants and spells.

Pour in sow’s blood, that hath eaten

Her nine farrow; grease that’s sweaten

(Act 4 scene1)

To time and mortal custom. Yet my heart

Throbs to know one thing; tell me, if your art

(Act 4 scene1)

The witches’ language is very distinctive in the spell scenes. The witches are united, the three of them representing the magical number. They talk in rhyme with a regular rhythm; we could describe this as supernatural.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

(Act 4 scene1)

Shakespeare writes it using a certain amount of syllables to make the text flow; your brain is able to use these syllables to say the lines as intended. Each line is arranged in rhyming couplets to make it into an incantation, as described before this links Macbeth to the witches giving their language a ritual feel. The words of the spell have a greater connotation and uses imagery to achieve the desired reaction, from the audience. Ominous animals are used in the text to create a fearful atmosphere and to play on their destructive tendencies, which are like the witches.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf.

(Act 4 scene1)

Shakespeare uses familiars in this way to include the Elizabethan belief that witches had evil servants. To an earlier audience this might make the witches more realistic.

Paddock calls


I come Greymalkin

(Both from act 1 scene1)

The witches are controlled by the animals and not in the customary way of man over animal.

In the apparition spell, towards the end of the play is where the adding of the strange and perverse ingredients occurs

Finger of birth strangled babe

(Act 4 scene 1)

This line illustrates the vulnerability of Macbeth.

Cool it with baboon’s blood

(Act 4 scene 1)

The mention of blood at the end of the spell contributes to the atmosphere of murder; it breeds bloody stereotypes of what it is to be a man.

This doesn’t appear viable, as most people would see blood as hot, representing anger. It may have been put into the text to show contrast between disorder and stability. This may create pathos in the audience. Throughout the play the witches speak in riddles the audience are never sure of what their implication is.

Something wicked this way comes.

(Act 4 scene 1)

This is referring to Macbeth. They talk in half-truths but unfortunately for Macbeth he only acknowledges the good side and chooses to ignore the warnings

Hail Banquo father of kings

(Act 1 scene 3)

When the witches hail Banquo with this title Macbeth was too preoccupied with what had been said before to realise what this might mean. Finally the witches’ prediction comes true and Macduff, Banquo’s son prevails king of Scotland after killing Macbeth. Ironically it was the witches who convinced Macbeth that Macduff was not a threat by stating

no man born of a woman would ever harm Macbeth

(Act 4 scene 1)

tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped

(Act 5 scene 8)

The witches force Macbeth to turn on his friends as they make him believe they are a threat. Macbeth is being manipulated; the reason that the witches succeed is that they made Macbeth feel that it was his own doing.

The witches are crucial in the play, and without the witches, to bring up the suggestion Macbeth’s ambition he would not have realised it, however with the lack of Lady Macbeth he may not have met the same fate. Lady Macbeth’s ambition, to be queen, was almost as strong as Macbeth’s to be king, therefore giving her the perfect motive to encourage Macbeth. The witches are central to Macbeth’s downfall because everything he did was subject to their predictions. His death was the result of his belief in the witches’ use of equivocation that no man born of a woman would hurt him, among others. Overall I feel that the witches represent the part of Macbeth that he did not see until the suggestion of his power was foretold. The witches are a portrayal of Macbeth’s evil within him.

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Examine the Presentation of the Witches in Macbeth. (2017, Oct 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/examine-presentation-witches-macbeth/