Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The significance of the Witches in Macbeth

What is the significance of the witches? What do they add to our understanding of the play?...

The witches are an extremely important literary construct in Macbeth, as they are the very essence of the Gothic that exists in the play. The witches are almost the trigger to honourable Macbeth's deep and hidden desires. The presence of the witches also conjures the dichotomy between Good and evil, Humanity & the supernatural and Morality and Macbeth's ambition. - enables Shakespeare to not only point out Macbeth's Harmartia (character flaw), but also emphasise these Harmartia's in humanity itself; at points, the difference between humanity and such unearthly powers seems fearfully little.

When the "weird sisters" tell Macbeth that he will become king, they refer him to the coming on of time, but do not specify when he will take his place on the throne. Therefore, their prediction violates time as it almost collapses the distance between the present and the future. The effect of this violation, could suggest that the witches predictions are riddles to be solved, and that the energies they release upon Macbeth, drive him from listening, to taking action. Therefore, this implies that the concept of the witches and their supernatural abilities, are conjured within Macbeth's mind and the temptation to obtain his desires, is merely testing his psychological state and sense of humanity; tapping into Macbeth's human instinct. 

The witches also add a sense of ambiguity; whether the existence of the supernatural is in fact true, as well as creating an uncertainty in Macbeth's character and his unstable state of mind of which deteriorates throughout the play. This allows the audience to ponder on Macbeth's intentions, whether he is fully conscious of his thoughts/actions, or whether he is actually being possessed by the witches and supernatural forces in some way. Also, this uncertainty in the plays considered to be, tragic hero, fluctuates with the audience's trust in Macbeth and essentially illustrates various sides of his character; His honourable and brave nature as a soldier, against the progressing thirst of his desires and the malicious methods he inflicts to obtain them, these being qualities of which humanity can acquire in itself.

Shakespeare's audience would have firmly believed that the "weird sisters" are fully responsible for Macbeth's dramatic change in character and essentially his assassination of King Duncan and his supposed best friend Banquo. Therefore, it is clear that Shakespeare's incorporation of the witches and their wickedly ways, are a means of conjuring terror for his 17th century audience. This is further emphasized by the witches close encounters and association with Macbeth (closeness with the natural world as well as humanity), because it would have struck fear in the minds of his superstitious audience.

The witches throughout the play not only question human morality, but also the paranormal accusations that were made in Shakespeare's era. The fact that the witches are portrayed in such an inhuman way "You should be women; and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so" clearly shows that the witches are neither man nor woman. This eludes the audience to the idea that the "Weird sisters" are something entirely different, unknown and almighty beings. This image that the audience are given of the witches, therefore reflects the great fear that Shakespeare's audience would of have had of the idea of witches. In fact, Shakespeare could be implicating that the civilians that were associated with the supernatural and accused of being witches, could have been falsely accused, as he gives the impression that nothing so abnormal and unearthly could ever be considered human; the definition of a witch is much greater than that of human comprehension.   

The elements of the supernatural and the intense presence of the witches could also represent the susceptibility of ones mentality, when it comes to obtaining ones desires; the extremes to which people will go to fulfil their dreams. Therefore, the witches could be symbolic of the evil that exists within Macbeth and ultimately humanity, but Shakespeare is illustrating that it is ones mortal choice that determines whether humanity conforms to each individual’s inner evil. This supports the idea that the witches are a fabrication in Macbeth's mind, as it could be that they are the spiritual form of his inner desires.  

The witches ultimately challenge Macbeth's character and the control he over his humanity. The witches are commonly thought of as the fuel to Macbeth's desires, in terms of their supernatural influence and the idea that Macbeth suffers from the witches’ possession. However, perhaps it is Macbeth that stimulates the witches; although the witches suggest a possible future for Macbeth, it could be seen that Macbeth utilises the witches words, to the point where he truly believes that he is invincible “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. This sense of invincibility is also shown near the end of the play when Macbeth states "put mine armour on, give me my staff", which ultimately shows that Macbeth believes that he is all powerful and has the assets of all elements within him.

The witches are essentially a significant construct within the play, as they not only aid in creating an authentic Gothic atmosphere, but also give the audience a greater understanding of the characters, and allow Shakespeare to touch upon the fears of his immediate audience. The witches directly challenge humanity, morality and desire; elements that exist within everyone.  


  1. Thanks. Comments and grade on printed version.

  2. This is good stuff! Although there's a lot of mention of how Shakespeare's audience perceive the Witches, a common mistake in this exam was that candidates focused too much on the context of the texts rather than the context of the Gothic genre, Macbeth is pre-gothic!! Also the Witches are not part of Macbeth's imagination or his 'heat-oppress'd mind', we know this because Banquo also sees them.

  3. THANK you SO MUCH!! this is AMAZING

  4. Really detailed and insightful, had to take some notes down for my hw!

  5. This is really helping me with my Macbeth homework! thanks. xx