With close reference to Act 1 scene I and III, and Act 4 scene I, explore both the dramatic and thematic importance of the witches in the play ‘Macbeth’.
The three witches hold great dramatic and thematic importance within Shakespeare’s play, ‘Macbeth’. The idea of evil and witchcraft was of great significance to a Jacobean audience. People in that era greatly believed in the ideas of the supernatural and unearthly evil. King James himself was particularly interested in witchcraft and believed in the existence of witches, as would have his populace.
However, people of a modern audience nowadays would be sceptical of that idea and do not believe in things such as witches and black magic. Those ideas are at present very diminished, thus they do not have as big an impact on us as they most probably did on a Jacobean audience.
The dramatic importance of the witches in the play centres on the way with which Shakespeare stages them. He introduces the witches, who are the first characters the audience see on stage, using the stage directions, “thunder and lightening. Enter three witches”. This evokes a sense of evil and the presence of a storm throughout this opening scene creates an atmosphere of tension and suspense.
This beginning to the play is powerful and makes and impact on the audience. This is also thematically important, as by starting the play in this fashion, Shakespeare leaves you in no doubt about what it is going be about; which is the struggle between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness. Also, the witches’ dramatic importance lies in the way they speak. They talk in short rhyming sentences, containing weird, peculiar words, “when the hurly-burly’s done…” and “the rump-fed ronyon cries.” They speak to a different manner than the other characters within the play, and this adds to their dramatic importance as it sets them apart and shows that they are magical, supernatural beings.
When the witches mention Macbeth in their speech, it makes the audience begin to wonder about him and what his role is in the play. Shakespeare establishes his ‘hero’ of the play with creatures which appear evil and destructive. The witches mentioning Macbeth is thematically important as it introduces the idea of good and evil into the play. It is significant as we see a link between Macbeth and the witches, who are evidently evil beings, and the audience see that link even before Macbeth. This induces dramatic irony.
The witches also introduce thematically important ideas throughout the play, such as the battle between good and evil, appearance and reality, kingship and the divine right of kings, equivocation (double dealing or half truths), and loyalty and betrayal.
In Act 1 scene I, the witches appear in a very tense and suspenseful setting, in thunder and lightening. The chaos in that atmosphere grips the audience and introduces to them the malice in which the witches are shrouded.
The witches in this scene mention Macbeth, “Upon the Heath/There to meet with Macbeth.” They seem to know when and where they will meet him, as though they can foresee it. This is dramatically significant, as the Witches’ abilities to foretell the future will manipulate Macbeth’s actions throughout the play.
The witches introduce the theme of appearance and reality to the play by saying, “fair is foul and foul is fair…” This suggests that within the play, goodness and evil seem almost interchangeable and impossible to disguise.
In Act 1 scene III, Macbeth meets the Witches for the first time in the play, and in turn, we are first introduced to him. The first line Macbeth says is, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen…” this is dramatically important as by making Macbeth echo the witches, Shakespeare enforces the link formed between the witches and Macbeth from the start of the play. It is also thematically important as by Macbeth saying the same thing as the witches, it images the theme of appearance and reality; we hear in Act 1 scene II about Macbeth’s bravery in battle from King Duncan himself, “…noble Macbeth hath won.” This gives the impression that Macbeth must be a honourable, good person and well known for those qualities amongst the people and the Royal court. But when the audience hear him echoing the words of the witches, it throws the gained image of Macbeth’s honour and chastity into uncertainty.
Also, this further mystifies the witches to the audience; how did the witches know of Macbeth’s words before he uttered them? This further enforces the dramatically important idea that the witches can see the future.
Also, the witches can feel Macbeth’s approaching twice in the play. Before Banquo and Macbeth meet the witches, one of the witches says, “a drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come…” and in Act 4 scene I, before Macbeth goes to the witches for further prophecies, “by the pricking of my thumb/something wicked this way comes…”
Banquo’s description of the witches in Act 1 scene III is significant, “so wither’d, and so wild in their attire/that look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth/…you should be women/yet your beards forbid me to interpret/that you are so.” This is dramatically important as Shakespeare stages the witches and their appearance in this way to sustain their malice and their unearthly evilness to the audience. It is also thematically important as this corresponds with the theme of appearance and reality. As although the witches are mysterious and shrouded with evil, they help Macbeth to reach the top by encouraging his ambitions through their prophecies and apparitions.
After the witches prophesise that Macbeth will be the next Thane of Cawdor and next King, news reaches Macbeth and Banquo that the King has appointed Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor, “He (king) bade me, from him call thee Thane of Cawdor…” Subsequently, Banquo says with surprise, “what, can the Devil speak true?” this further reflects to us how much the Jacobeans thought of witches as evil and associated with the devils. People in that time, like Banquo, believed that knowledge of the future could only come from the Devil. The witches’ stature in the play is therefore demonic. Also, in Act 4 scene I, Macbeth saying, “For now I am bent to know by the worst means, the worst…” because he is “…steep’d in blood” further demonstrates to us how much witches were known as evil and wicked, and how much Macbeth himself is clearly aware that the witches are evil and malicious.
The way Shakespeare stages the witches Act 4 scene I is dramatically important. He has them acting in the stereotypical way of witches as we know them today; brewing a potion in a cauldron and adding in disgusting and vile ingredients, “eye of newt, and toe of frog/finger of birth-strangled babe…” the effect of this would have been more powerful during the Jacobean times, but wouldn’t have much effect on an audience today.
The way with which Macbeth begins to ask the witches and gain further prophecies from them shows to us how much he has become dependent on their words and how strongly he has come to credit and trust their prophecies. Him returning to the witches clearly emphasizes the reliance he now has on them. “I conjure you, by that which you profess… answer me to what I ask you.” He is begging and appealing to the witches to confess to him further signs and predictions.
As the witches begin to show Macbeth the apparitions, again Shakespeare uses the stage direction “thunder” as way to induce a dramatic effect and importance to the witches and their deeds.
The witches show Macbeth what he wants to hear. The first apparition, an armed head warning him of Macduff, echoes Macbeth’s inner thought about Macduff. Macbeth is wary and vigilant of Macduff, that he keeps a “…servant fee’d.” as a spy for him in Macduff’s house. Macbeth’s thoughts about Macduff come about from Macduff being the first to find King Duncan murdered, him missing Macbeth’s coronation as King, and his absence from the Banquet, “How say’st thou that Macduff denies his person/At our great bidding?” Macduff’s actions show that he has become suspicious about Macbeth and distrusts him. This in turn makes Macbeth wary of Macduff, and what he might do to uncover the truth about Macbeth. The witches being able to bring those inner thoughts of Macbeth to light is thematically important, as this corresponds with the theme of loyalty and betrayal.
The apparitions that the witches show to Macbeth and their words have a dramatic effect on him. The second apparition the witches present to Macbeth, tells him to “…be bloody, bold and resolute…” as “…none of woman born/shall harm Macbeth.” and the third assures him that he “…he shall never be vanquish’d/until Great Birnham Wood (comes towards) Dunsinane Hill (Macbeth’s castle)” Both apparitions reflect Macbeth’s inner thoughts, and give him great confidence that he is powerful and invincible. The witches make Macbeth feel reassured and confident, and he is no longer afraid. Those feelings of confidence and invincibility blind him, that he decides to murder Madcuff’s family, “…give to th’ edge o’ th’ sword/His wife, his babes…” He has become cold blooded, spiteful and evil. This is the effect the witches and their words have on Macbeth.
What Macbeth doesn’t realise, is that the witches deliver their prophecies and predictions as half-truths, in equivocation. The witches’ predictions to Macbeth of power and greatness do come true, but they are short lived. What they don’t tell him is the price he will have to pay. This is also thematically important, as equivocation is a theme in the play. Also its dramatically important, as it shows how much the witches’ cunning and ambiguity controls and manipulates Macbeth changing him gradually throughout the play. Macbeth seems to willingly allow himself to be trapped by their prophecies.
Macbeth realising in the end that he has mistakenly believed the witches is dramatically effective, and also ironic. This is because the witches’ prophecies and apparitions incited Macbeth and fuelled his ambition throughout the play. He believed the witches and became highly dependent on them.
Shakespeare showing Macbeth’s noble qualities in the beginning and the end of the play is both dramatically and thematically significant. The impression we receive of Macbeth in the beginning of the play, in Act 1 scene II, is that Macbeth is a brave warrior who is skilled in battle. “For brave Macbeth… with his brandish’d steel… carv’d out his passage” and also “…he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops” show us how ruthless Macbeth is with the enemy and how fearless he is in battle. Macbeth’ reputation as a victorious hero is strengthened to the audience when King Duncan appoints him as the new Thane of Cawdor, “what he has lost, noble Macbeth hath won.”
In Act 1 scene 7 Macbeth weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of killing King Duncan. He says that killing the King would be wrong as he is his “kinsman” (cousin), his “subject” and also his host. This implies that if Macbeth were instinctively evil, he would have killed Duncan without conscience.
Shakespeare further suggests to us that Macbeth is a good person in Act 2 scene II. Macbeth is being tortured by his conscience, and the guilt is tormenting him for killing King Duncan. He laments the fact that he shall “…sleep no more”, as only “…the innocent Sleep.” He questions whether “…all great Neptune’s Ocean…” would “…wash this blood clean…” from his hands. Here the imagery suggests that his guilt will never be washed away. This shows us that Macbeth is genuinely regretful about murdering King Duncan.
Macbeth also seems aware that evil deeds return to afflict the wrong doer, “Bloody instructions…/return to plague the inventor.” which is ironic as this is exactly what happens to Macbeth in the end; his malicious murders cause him to fall in the end.
Although Macbeth became “steep’d in blood” when he got involved with the witches, and became a cold-blooded slayer who murdered on instinct, he still dies nobly and gallantly in the end. “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be/hack’d/give me my armour.” Shakespeare suggests by this that Macbeth is innately righteous and noble.
The witches could be staged differently than how Shakespeare portrayed them in Act 1 scene I. Shakespeare uses urgent, alarming “thunder and lightning” prior to the entrance of the three witches, to incite a dramatic atmosphere for the audience, and suggests that the witches are evil and malicious. This is successful in creating a sense of unfathomable, demonic power to the witches, and portray them as complete outcasts of society. Another way of staging the witches in this scene that will maintain the sense of power to the witches and keep up their dramatic role is to use a quiet, suppressed storm. The storm sounds as if its going on outside, making it sound muted. This creates a relaxing, safe atmosphere, and makes the audience think that they are hearing this storm from inside a calm, secluded place, which is where the witches abide. This suggests to the audience, just like Shakespeare did, that the witches are outcasts of society, separated from it, as they do not conform to it.
The witches would appear on stage by stage-lights pointed at each witch prior to each one saying he line. They could wear white, and have white hair, which will give the audience a feeling that the witches are wise and mysterious.
When they speak, the witches’ voices are calm and mysterious, but not sinister. Their voices are feminine, with calm, composed tones of voice. This shows that the witches are confident and sure about what they say. This is dramatically effective, as what they say will manipulate Macbeth later in the play.
After each line, the witches could pause. This creates suspense and mystery, and makes the audience cling to the words of the witches, eager to know what they shall say next.
The third witch can pause slightly longer after she says the line “There to meet with…” This will make the audience alert and greatly anticipate whom the witches shall meet with. This creates tension and drama. The witch could then whisper, “…Macbeth.”
I think that the witches should stop after the line, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” As the next and last line in the scene is sinister and sounds evil, which the witches are not meant to be in this version of the play. Also, the witches making “fair is foul, and foul is fair” their last line in this scene is dramatically significant, as this is the first thing that Macbeth says when we first meet him in the play.
In conclusion, the witches in Macbeth hold significant dramatic and thematic importance within the play. This lies in the way with which Shakespeare introduces them to the audience and presents them as outsiders, in a shroud of evil and malice throughout the play. Also, he establishes his hero in a connection with the witches, and this sustains the suspense and dramatic tension that the witches’ generate when they interact with this character, Macbeth. They help Macbeth to reach the top by encouraging his ambitions and weaknesses through their prophecies and apparitions, which were also the means of his downfall in the end.