In ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare’s usage of the witches is probably the most significant aspect of the play. They provide the pivotal to the plot and the catalyst to Macbeth’s life.
At the time ‘Macbeth’ was written, people were particularly cautious about the presence of so-called witchcraft within their society. Shakespeare, by using witches as the source of the turmoil in this play, was playing on and further stirring up their evident fear of the paranormal, thus making his dramatic techniques all the more effective. At this time, the audience were strong believers in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and would have been absolutely appalled at Macbeth’s and the witches actions in obtaining and maintaining the throne. I believe ‘Macbeth’ shows the general struggle between good and evil in today’s society, the individual struggle between either furthering your own ends, or choosing to help others. The witches’ are an outer and extremely visual manifestation of all the negative aspects of human nature, and ‘Macbeth’ shows perfectly well what our faults can make us capable of doing, if fostered in the correct way. It is didactic of the pain that human nature can create.
Any time the witches open a scene, Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy in that there is thunder and lightning present. The storm conditions signify an imbalance in nature, a bad omen that suggests the witches are supernaturally evil and wrong. Their image is presented in a way that suggest they are de-humanised, “So withered, and so wild in their attire, That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth, And yet are on’t?” and
“You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so”.
They choose to meet “upon the heath” which gives us an insight into their unnatural motivations as a ‘heath’ provides no protection against the harshness of the weather and is vulnerable and exposed to just about everything.
The fact that they are the very first characters to be seen in ‘Macbeth’ means that they play the main role in setting the overall tone and dismal atmosphere for the rest of the play. It is, at this point, where Macbeth is first mentioned; “There to meet with Macbeth”. This is significant as, straight-away, Macbeth’s name is associated with evil, i.e. the witches and this foreshadows later aspects of Macbeth’s life.
With the first encounter with the witches, in fact with the first few lines of the play, we see their supernatural influence immediately.
The fact that there are THREE witches adds to their overall effect on “Macbeth” further. The number three has long been associated with the supernatural and witchcraft. The repetition of some phrases three times; “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” emphasises the evil and cruel intentions of the witches and also resembles a ‘chant’.
The witches are arranged in a sort of ‘sisterhood’, an alliance of evil. Calling each other “sister” and speaking in unison. They bind together to create an unbeatable force, arranging to meet upon a “heath”, a place where they are exposed to harsh conditions and a place where they are given no protection against anything. Perhaps “fair is foul and foul is fair” and the inverse of natural way explains why they find this place desirable.
The ‘sailor’s wife’ scene brings to light the motivation of the witches, showing us their vengeful nature. They take revenge on the sailor for his wife’s actions,
“I’ll drain him dry as hay;
Sleep shall neither night nor day”
Good usage of alliteration here emphasises the harsh note of their speaking tone. Also present is Shakespeare’s use of the simile, “dry as hay” which acts as effective image to indicate the harshness of the witches desired actions on the sailor, therefore displaying their cruel nature.
Another significant point to note is Shakespeare’s use of language in all of the witch scenes. Most of the play is written in either iambic pentameter or prose (for written letters) but as for the witches, Shakespeare used rhyming couplets for their speech;
“But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail”
“And like a rat without a tail” is a fairly bizarre image and could be taken to appear rather unnatural as the witches and their deeds are unnatural, so their words are clear reflection of their nature.
This is a very effective technique as it heightens the awareness we have of the witches being different to everyone else, their abnormality and it therefore suggests that they are not human. The witches also have a unique rhythm to their speech that resembles an incantation, a supernatural chant;
“A drum, a drum!
Macbeth doth come.”
They speak to deceive people and by using the technique of paradox, Shakespeare has done this effectively, making it seem as though they are speaking in riddles; “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier.” His use of equivocation in the witches’ speech, the double meanings further the theory that they are out to deceive and manipulate people by playing on their human weaknesses.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air”.
This is an effective placing of an oxymoron and in this extract, we can see things are clearly not what they seem. To the witches, what is evil is life is good to them, and what is morally good in life they find repulsive. When this line is said, it shows that an inversion in morality and the natural order of things has taken place and alerts the audience of the witches’ attitude to life. It is effective in creating a sense of fright in the audience, who like I said before, lived during the reign of James l and were particularly sensitive to the topic of witchcraft. The language Shakespeare uses here, namely; the alliteration of the ‘f’, emphasises harshness with its repeated sound and makes it sound dirty and perhaps almost onomatopoeic. The use of the word “hover” suggests unnatural movement taking place and “the fog and filthy air” could perhaps represent the kind of atmosphere created by the three witches. “The fog and filthy air” is a good use of a metaphor. The imagery here presents a vision of darkness, mystery and dirtiness. Of course the air isn’t really in this condition. It is the general unpleasant aurora and evil that the witches create that brings this horrible image to our attention.
In scene three, when the witches plot revenge against “a sailor’s wife”. Phrases such as; “And munched, and munched, and munched” further highlights Shakespeare’s usage of the number three (repetition of ‘munched’ three times) to add the element of the supernatural into their words and intentions as well as their actions.
His use of stage directions also play a part in highlighting the supernaturalism of the witches. The very presence of ‘apparitions’ in the play add to its mysterious theme.
The witches’ ‘familiars’ in the very first scene provide their constant link with primal evil,
“I come Greymalkin!
emphasising their need to feed their desire for a constant presence of evil.
Regarding other characters of “Macbeth”, the witches effectively influence a considerable amount of their actions in the play, the most obvious being Macbeth himself. You could say that the witches caused Macbeth to act in the way he did. It is rather more complex than that, I believe the witches sparked off evil inside him, evil that can be fostered from the general faults of human nature in some, easier than others. They were the catalyst to his selfish desires and he had invited them into his life; “Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more.” This line also presents Macbeth’s curiosity for what the witches have told him. They push him to the point where he questions his own actions and they are the trigger to his paranoia and hallucinations. The meal with the Lords is a prime example of how the witches affected Macbeth,
“If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back”.
He imagines the ghost of Banquo sitting before him, whilst no-one can see the apparition, thus showing us the extent of his psychological unstableness.
Macbeth had evil intentions and the witches provided the bait that lured him into evil-doing. They remove him of the ability to pray,
“But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?
I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’
Stuck in my throat.”
He has lost all touch with faith and by becoming involved with the witches, he’d lost all touch with God. “Macbeth” was written as a time when paganism was very evident and the way Shakespeare wrote about Macbeth losing faith in Christianity would be highly effective in creating a sense of fear in the Jacobean audience, who were very aware of the lack Christianity within their community. Another point to note, is how his very first words in the play echo that of the witches’ “fair is foul and foul is fair” paradox. Macbeth’s first line in the play is,
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”
This is an instant echo of what the witches say and immediately brings us to make a connection between them and Macbeth, before they have even met.
Another key influenced character would be Banquo. It’s interesting to note how he takes up an opposing reaction to Macbeth, when they first encounter the witches. He immediately recognises them immediately as evil, “What, can the devil speak true?”, whilst Macbeth ignores this as he becomes too interested in what they have to say about his future and too blinded by the prospect of becoming king. Banquo understands the real, full intentions of the witches. He knows that their sole aim is to cause destruction in people’s lives and effectively dehumanises them with his words,
“And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.”
This is rather unlike Macbeth who from day one, the witches had blinded by greed,
“If chance will have me King, why chance
may crown me.”
This line shows Macbeth’s trail of thought after encountering the witches and hearing their prophecies. In Shakespeare’s stage directions, Macbeth is saying this ‘[aside]’ which shows that this is his TRUE thoughts and feelings (he isn’t trying to fool anyone), and this highlights his increasing isolation from the other characters after meeting the witches. He is instantly thinks that perhaps wrong-doing doesn’t seem so wrong now. He’s already thinking of committing crimes,
“Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten. Kind gentleman, your pains
Are registered where every day I turn
The leaf to read them. Let us toward the King.”
In this extract he is actually attempting to rid thoughts of committing murder, only having just met the witches. It’s interesting how they never mentioned murder themselves in their prophecies. That he introduces this thought of “murder” by himself.. He progresses rapidly from saying “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” which is an indicator of murder only being simply an idea, a flicker in his imagination, not intending to act upon it, to actually trying to rid himself of serious ideas of committing murder.
However, on Banquo’s part, as he is not tempted by the witches like Macbeth, it shows that the witches will only affect certain types of people. That they cannot entice people who have the ability to resist the temptation they provide. Banquo demonstrates insight and wisdom in human nature,
“So I lose none
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised, and allegiance clear,
I shall be counselled.”
In this extract, Banquo is clearly laying down his intention to do nothing illegal and to reamin honourable in doing so. He attempts to guide Macbeth away from wrong-doing,
“At your kind’st leisure”,
showing that he believes his opinion to be a helpful, honourable influence on Macbeth. In other words he is saying, ‘listen to me, and you’ll do well’ to Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth is also influenced by the witches. She embraces the evil they represent and like her husband she is, ironically betrayed by the “instruments of evil”. Some people say that Shakespeare intended her to be the ‘fourth’ witch. However I don’t think that is true as, we learn that Lady Macbeth struggles to live with the conscience that evil was supposed to rid her off beforehand, after her and her husband kill King Duncan and his guards,
“‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.”
and as a result, she later commits suicide. If she were in fact one of the witches, she would not have a conscience and wouldn’t be full of regret concerning her actions,
“Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content.”
After the murder of Duncan, however, she says,
“A little water clears us of this deed.”
This is ironic, as throughout the rest of the “Macbeth”, she constantly washes her hand to rid herself of the imaginary blood she sees on them.
There is also an evident effect the witches had on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Conversations between them are completely dominated by the witches, their next murder victim and any plans they have for Macbeth to become king. They drift further and further apart from each other and the evidence can be seen in this extract,
“Did you not speak?”
“As I descended?”
This is written in a way that shows a shattered conversation, written in a layout unlike previous times. It’s disjointed and represents their shattered emotions at what they’ve done and their drifting apart from each other.
The actions of the witches go on to cause turmoil and chaos for most other characters in the drama. What is interesting is that the witches themselves are the primary cause of the problems and yet they go on unpunished and it is the innocent that suffer. This shows us they are true evil, motivated by chaos and they don’t give a care towards the people they destroy. I believe William Shakespeare was very effective in his portrayal of the witches. He makes it clear that they are nothing like other characters in his use of language and written format. That they are inhumane and they subvert normality as it stands in both Shakespeare’s and today’s society, creating a force of evil that will always find a way into our lives. Macbeth even goes on to orchestrate the murder of his best friend Banquo as he feels Banquo is standing in the way of his success. This shows that the evil the witches created had the capability of driving and pushing him towards doing absolutely ANYTHING in order to satisfy his nurtured lust for control. “Macbeth” presents the contemporary theory that suggests becoming heavily involved with evil-doing will eventually, down the line, lead to your own pain,
“Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague th’ inventor.”
In other words, what goes around, comes around.