Although the weird sisters only appear in a few scenes throughout the entire play Macbeth, their role is imperative because they push Macbeth to murder King Duncan, seize the throne for himself, and eventually become the cause of his death.
There are very few scenes in Macbeth in which the witches appear, but when they do, the scenes are riddled with many important details. The fact that the play begins with the witches places emphasis upon their roles. “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (Shakespeare 1.1.1-2) says the first witch. Their entrance into the play is met with a storm which shows some magnitude of their evil powers and dark nature. They make plan to meet Macbeth and then agree to meet him at the “hearth” (Shakespeare 1.1.11-2) (which means moor). Although Shakespeare gives them power in Macbeth, he is very careful to limit the magnitude of it. This is due largely because of his audience when he wrote the play. King James was present when the play was first acted and it was a well known fact that the King had a fascination for the supernatural. He loved the supernatural so much that he even wrote a lengthy book on it titled Daemonologie. Shakespeare therefore had to make sure that, in order to keep face with the King, he must make sure the witches had powers similar to what King James believed (Mabillard).
Their limits are shown when one of the witches says: “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tost” (Shakespeare 1.3.24-5). Here they are talking about a sailor’s boat which one of the witches cannot destroy. By showing their limitations, Shakespeare instead bestows upon the witches other gifts which they use to their advantage. Shakespeare portrays them as very intelligent, instead of being powerful, and gives the reader a sense of foreshadowing that the witches want to use Macbeth. They seem to be able to sense his personality and strong ambition. Although Shakespeare does not tell his readers why, the witches seek to turn Macbeth’s ambition from fair to foul (B). The weird sisters also have no morals whatsoever as they appear throughout the play. In the first scene they say they will meet again “When the battle’s lost and won” (Shakespeare 1.1.4).
When they say “and” and not “or” when they speak of the battle, it shows they do not care about the outcome of the war. They know the war will be lost and they show no emotion to suggest they care at all. However, the most obvious fact that they have no morals is their exiting couplet in the first scene: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, /Hover through the fog and filthy air.” (Shakespeare 1.1.10-1). They speak of fair being foul and foul being fair; they find no difference between the two. Whatever the outcome, it all means the same to them. This shows that the business they plan with Macbeth cannot be good, and will be used solely for their unknown malicious purposes (Long).
The weird sisters begin their manipulating of Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 3, lines 48-50, as each takes a turn greeting him as he approaches them: “All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! / All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! / All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!” They foreshadow the fact that he will become Thane of Cawdor and then king. He is amazed by their prophecy and cannot rid himself of the thought of becoming king, though at this point he does not consider killing the current King Duncan (Zirinsky). He is content with the prophecy of Thane of Cawdor as he says: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me / Without my stir.” (Shakespeare 1.3.157-9). However, his wife hears of the prophecy from a letter that Macbeth sent her speaking of his perplexity and amazement when the witch’s prophecy was fulfilled. His wife begins to dwell on the possibility of becoming Queen and this thought consumes her.
She comes up with a plan and convinces Macbeth of it once he returns to her after being appointed Thane of Cawdor, according to prophecy. Her plan is to murder King Duncan in his drunken sleep, frame their servants, and allow Macbeth to smoothly take over the kingship. Through his wife the witches manipulate Macbeth and use his strong ambition against himself as Macbeth speaks of: “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on the other.”(Shakespeare 1.7.25-8). This is an analogy of his own ambition leading him forward. It drives him towards future events which will place him as king, events which require the death of the current king. A man who previously stated he was content with being Thane is now consumed with the witch’s prophecy of himself becoming king. Without their push, Macbeth would have remained Thane of Cawdor and would not even consider murder.
After the deed is done, after Duncan is murdered by Lady Macbeth’s plan and by Macbeth’s hand, they believe that everything is well. However, things go from bad to worse as the play progresses. By listening to the witches, Macbeth follows an evil path, a path that can only end in his downfall. As he and his wife hold a banquet celebrating his new position as king, Macbeth has a vision of Banquo whom he killed to keep silent the secret of Duncan’s murder. He has an episode of insanity in which he almost gives away the fact that he murdered Duncan. Through all this Macbeth never blames the weird sisters; he even visits them out of despair after the banquet episode. As he meets with them he understands their evil nature as shown by his greeting: “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags?” (Shakespeare 4.1.48). Although he comprehends their evil nature, he still does not realize he is being manipulated.
Through apparitions shown to him by the witches he is given more prophecy that only further leads to his downfall: “Macbeth ! Beware Macduff; Beware the Thane of Fife.” (4.1.71-2). “For none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.”(Shakepeare 4.1.80-1). “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until / Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” (Shakespeare 4.1.92-3). These three different apparitions shown to Macbeth by the witches only further push his ambition. The witches toy with Macbeth and cause him to murder Macduff’s family because of Macbeth’s fear of an heir, cause him to think he’s invincible, and cause him to believe he will reign until he is old and weary (Goris). Macbeth believes that he will keep the crown as he speaks of the impossibility of the forest moving: “Who can impress the forest; bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?” (Shakespeare 4.1.95-6).
He thinks he is secure in his position as he trusts the witch’s apparition telling him that no one who is born of woman shall kill him. Since everyone is born of woman, Macbeth trusts that his position as king is secure. However, as his enemies approach the castle for the last battle to defeat Macbeth, they bear branches of Birnham forest to Dusinane hill. At the head of the army is Macduff, who was ripped from his mother’s womb, therefore, according to common thought in that time, not naturally born. As he fights Macduff in Act 5, Scene 8, he finally realizes he has been had by the witches: Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cow’d my better part of man!
And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. (Shakespeare 5.8.17-23)
After being pushed by the witches to commit many murders, to give up his loyalty to Scotland, and to ultimately give up his own life, Macbeth finally realizes, before he is killed by Macduff, that the witches used him. They used his ambition for their own unknown means to Macbeth’s own detriment (Goris). Although the weird sisters only appear in a few scenes throughout the entire play Macbeth, their role is imperative because they push Macbeth to murder King Duncan, seize the throne for himself, and eventually become the cause of his death. Without the witches in Macbeth, Macbeth would not have considered the idea of kingship and would have remained a loyal subject of King Duncan. However, through their evil workings, Macbeth destroys his respect, friendships, family, and, in the end, his own life.
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