The dramatic impact and significance of the witches in Macbeth
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The first scene of the play is anything but calm. There are three evil and unnatural looking witches meeting on an isolated moor. Before any of the witches speak there is a bolt of lightening and thunder sounds. There is a misty fog and it is dark. Although there is nothing to indicate it here, the witches are far from a pleasant sight.
They are not dressed in a normal fashion.
“What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you?”
Neither do they look femine.
“You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so”
This is Banquo’s reaction on seeing them later on. -Their appearance startles and puzzles him, as it would the audience in the first scene.
When the witches speak, it is in rhymes and riddles.
“When hurlyburly’s done,
When battle’s lost and won”
There are contradictions and alliteration.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air”
They mention animals: greymalkin meaning grey cat and paddock meaning toad. The Shakespearean audience would recognise these as typical witches’ familiars. At the end of the scene all three witches speak in unison like a chant.
Even though this scene is only twelve lines long, it would have had a large impact on the audience as they actually believed in witches. The scene suggests that the play is about evil. In the near future something bad will happen. The thunder and lightening suggest the havoc, chaos and uncontrolled nature of things to come. It is full of mystery. A lot of questions will remain in the audiences’ minds. Who is Macbeth? Why is he involved with the witches? Is he good or evil? In the following scene Macbeth is the brave hero of a battle. Why is a valiant hero wanted by the witches? This was probably the intention of Shakespeare. -He would have wanted to arouse interest and curiosity so that the audiences would want to watch on to see what would happen next.
The witches appear again in Act 1, Scene 3. They discuss their resent activities. A sailor’s wife wouldn’t give one of the witches a chestnut and so she cursed her husband so he could not sleep.
“I’ll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall he neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid”
This shows that they are spiteful and petty. The audience would recognise this idea as witches were notorious for causing nightmares, and were blamed fore misfortunes that befell people. She talks about making the wind blow the ship. -They have control over nature.
They are very powerful.
“But in a sieve I’ll thither sail”
Also they are unpleasant and child like.
1st witch: “Look what I have”
2nd witch: “show me, Show me”
1st witch: “Here I have a pilot’s thumb”
The numbers three, six and nine are mentioned which are typically associated with witches and the devil.
When Macbeth enters, they greet him with:
“All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee,
Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee,
Thane of Cowdor!
All hail, Macbeth! that shall be king hereafter!”
Macbeth is the Thane o Glamis already. He will be Than of Cawdor and although the audience knows this, Macbeth doesn’t. Neither the audience nor Macbeth knows if the third will happen. Here is another question is in the audiences’ mind. Will Macbeth become King?
Macbeth tries to boss the witches around.
“Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more…speak, I charge you”
At this the witches vanish. This would impress the audience, as it would once again demonstrate the powers of the witches. This shows that the witches will not be told what to do by mere mortals.
Afterwards Macbeth battles with himself. Should he leave fate to take its course? Or to become King does he have to make it so? He then finds out that he is to be Thane of Cowdor.
“Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:
The greatest is behind”
But Banquo is right in saying:
“The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence”
When he tells Lady Macbeth of these predictions she thinks it obvious what has to be done. Macbeth must kill the King. She persuades him, when he has battled with his conscience, that he must make the most of the opportunity that has presented itself -Duncan is to stay overnight at the castle. After killing the King, he then kills two guards, Banquo, Macduff’s son and Lady Macduff. All these murders take place because of the effects of a simple sentence: “that shall be King hereafter!” Though probably wouldn’t have even crossed his or Lady Macbeth’s minds’ if it weren’t for the witches.
It is suspected that Act 3, Scene 5 was not actually written by Shakespeare. It sounds very out of place, written in a different style to the other scenes. Everything rhymes without there being a natural rhythm to the words. Also, lines 30-31 are so accurate that they could certainly have been added afterwards.
“He shall spurn fate, scorn death and bear
His hopes ‘bore wisdom, grace and fear”
Not only is this too accurate, it is unlike the usual behaviour of the witches. They are secretive and mysterious. They wouldn’t state facts.
It is thought that this scene could have been added because the audience liked the witches or there was an actor who wanted a part.
Hecate has again been added in Act 4, Scene 1. What she says has no relevance to the scene what so ever. It has obviously been slotted in.
Act 4, Scene 1 is set on a moor in a cave. The three witches are standing around a cauldron making a potion. All the ingredients the witches are adding were poisonous, or known to be so by Elizabethans.
Macbeth enters. He has not learnt from his previous experience with the witches and again tries to command them. They decide to play along, probably to make him think he is powerful.
1st witch: “speak”
2nd witch: “demand”
3rd witch: “we’ll answer”
Macbeth hears the prophecies of the witches’ masters.
1st Apparition: “beware Macduff;
Beware the Thane of fife”
At this he says he had suspected it.
2nd Apparition: “none of a woman born
Shall harm Macbeth”
3rd Apparition: “Macbeth shall never vanuish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him”
What Macbeth doesn’t realise is that the second and third apparitions’ words are not as they seemed. If Macbeth had looked behind the surface he would have found that the second apparition meant someone born by Caesarean and the third would not necessarily take place in the literal sense but appear to do so.
Unfortunately, the effect these had on Macbeth was like a boost of confidence. Perhaps subconsciously he knew that the prophecies were of a different meaning but he did not want to believe it. I think that the witches/the witches masters worded these is a misleading way on purpose and they got the desired effect; they have once again said things that have puzzled in one respect but still reassured in another. Macbeth thought he was invincible.
The audience would probably have not realised the real meanings of the prophecies either. They would be confused and would wonder if maybe Macbeth was untouchable.
The apparitions and prophecies were likely to have been presented in this way not only to make Macbeth think he was unbeatable but to keep the audience watching. -Will Macbeth get away with all that he has done?
It is most likely that the apparitions would rise and descend through a trap door in the stage. This would have a large dramatic impact on the spectators.
After this, Macbeth slowly sinks into madness but still clutches on to the prophecies with all his might, still believing that he will be safe. Lady Macbeth starts to sleepwalk and continuously tries to ‘wash the blood from her hands’ and finally she commits suicide. Macbeth realises the true meaning of the second prophecy when the wood appears to move as soldiers use the branches of the trees to camouflage their number and movements, but still, he reassures himself of the third.
That was not born of woman?”
As Macbeth and Macduff are about to fight, Macduff tells Macbeth that he was delivered by Caesarean section, “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. Macbeth realises that the witches are evil and trick people.
“And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d,
That palter us in a double sense:
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope”
‘Macbeth’ was written and performed for James I who had studied witches and written several books on the subject. The ending would have pleased him as well as the audience as it makes Christianity the more powerful force over the Devil; the old battle between good and evil, with good triumphing. The audience would have been less than happy if the ‘baddies’ got off scot-free. Also, it is said that Banquo helped Macbeth kill the King but it wouldn’t exactly have been appropriate to include this detail, as Banquo was one of James’ ancestors.
The Shakespearean audience would probably have found this play quite frightening. It would have been believable. Even today, the play is quite creepy.
Throughout the whole play you can feel the evil of the witches, yet they only appear four times. Their contribution is quite minuscule, yet they succeed in completely ruining Macbeth by exploiting the evil side of his nature. They influence his actions, but they didn’t make him do anything. They never even mentioned anything about killing anybody. The play suggests that the witches just bring Macbeth’s evil and ambition to the surface.
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes”
There is some irony in this. -After all, nothing could be more evil then them.
Also, Macbeth’s opening words are:
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen”
This is an echo of the witches’ earlier words:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”
This indicates that there is some kind of connection between them. He is similar to the witches and shares their evil.
The witches cause Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to plunge from sanity to madness. The fact that the apparitions contradict themselves and everything the witches say seems to have double meanings drives Macbeth even more insane.
The witches have said one simple line that seems to have triggered off the evil inside him.
I think that he trusted the witches for two reasons. The first is that they did seem to speak the truth. The second is that they told him what he wanted to hear. People do pick and chose what they want to believe to a certain extent. For example I suspect that most people believe in heaven or reincarnation not because it is realistic or logical but because it is nice to comfort yourself with the thought that when you die that is not it: the end. -Something else follows. Many would like to believe it.
Macbeth and the witches both have power but in very different ways. Macbeth’s is just a title, a position whereas the witches are all seeing, all-powerful and can manipulate people’s lives. They play with people, to them it is just a game, something they seem to do for their own amusement.
There is quite a transformation in Macbeth. At first he is weak.
“Yet I do fear thy nature:
It is too full o’ the milk of human-kindness
To catch the nearest way”
He then lusts after position and power. He was so in love with Lady Macbeth at the beginning and cared about what she thought but he doesn’t even seem bothered when she dies.