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The Witches of 'Macbeth'

Have you ever wondered if the witches in 'Macbeth' were really necessary? Would everything have still come to the same ending without them? Let's find out.

William Shakespeare is one of the most well-known playwrights, but most people today have not read many, if any, of his plays because they are considered difficult or boring. Ask a room full of people which Shakespeare plays they have read and chances are that most will say Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth or maybe a few say, Hamlet. Almost everyone read them in high school, but the thing most specifically remembered about Macbeth itself is the witches because they are entertaining and different than the murderous tragedies surrounding them. Everyone has a fascination with the supernatural, especially during Shakespeare’s time, “when interest in witchcraft bordered on hysteria. Witches were blamed for causing illness, death, and disaster, and were thought to punish their enemies by giving them nightmares, making their crops fail and their animals sicken. Witches were thought to allow the Devil to suckle from them in the form of an animal” (Atherton). The fact that so many people remember the witches may seem strange since they only appear sporadically throughout the play for short periods of time, but the witches themselves are a driving force of the action in the play, especially when they play with Macbeth’s choices of free will vs. the destiny they prophesy for him.

Macbeth was written in 1606 when King James was taking over the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth. King James was a strong believer in the supernatural, especially witchcraft. In 1597, he even published a book, Dæmonologie, which, “asserts James’s full belief in magic and witchcraft, and aims to both prove the existence of such forces and to lay down what sort of trial and punishment these practices merit–in James’s view, death” (Dæmonologie). Seeing this shift in power from staunch Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth to more lenient beliefs under King James, Shakespeare may have felt more freedom within his writings and chose to write Macbeth with supernatural witchcraft and other aspects that would please King James, such as, “the limits of monarchal power, the extent of a subject’s loyalty to their king, to name a few” (Eastwood 1-2) as an important part of the storyline to show his allegiance to King James’ new reign. Many of the ideas of witchcraft included within Macbeth follow those inscribed in King James’ Dæmonologie, including, “ideas such as the witches’ vanishing/invisible flight, their raising of storms, dancing and chanting, sexual acts, their gruesome potion ingredients and the presence of animal familiars” (Dæmonologie). When writing Macbeth, Shakespeare could easily have found some other way to design Macbeth’s ultimate downfall, but he uses the witches, making them crucial in the action of the play.

In fact, the witches are the first characters introduced within the play, but to understand their true significance it is important for audiences to ask themselves a few questions. First, how do the witches introduce the play? Scene one’s stage directions list, “thunder and lightning” (1.1), which is soon followed by, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12). The witches talk of such dreary and dark times shows Macbeth will be a dark play, where evil (or darkness) will be prevalent. Afterward, Macbeth’s first words are then a similar line to the witches, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.39), which leads to the question of whether Macbeth is ultimately in control of his own destiny? Are the witches putting new ideas into Macbeth’s head that will lead to his downfall? Or was Macbeth already secretly thinking these things and hearing the witches just gives him the confidence to pursue his dreams?

The fact that this is Macbeth’s first line “is noteworthy not only because it reiterates a paradoxical statement, but because it refers to the very beginning of the play rather than to the sorceries which have just preceded Macbeth’s arrival. Macbeth cannot have overheard the "fair is foul" antithesis of the witches; instead, it seems to come to his mind out of the very thick air” (Kranz). When the first of the witches’ prophecies come true and Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor, the witches have proven their powers and have Macbeth under their spell (“The Witches”). From then on, Macbeth believes and comes to fear everything the witches prophesy. So, if Shakespeare had not used the witches, Macbeth would have no one else to blame for his dirty deeds. He would become a despicable character who murders to further his own agenda and who has no remorse for his actions or fear for his downfall.

The witches are the ones who warn him about his defeat, “Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife” (4.1.70-72). It is because of the witches’ prophecies that Macbeth continues with his murdering ways, believing it the only way to achieve the prophecy set out for him and then begins to fear for his own mortality when the witches warn him to fear, “The power of man, for none of women born shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.79-80). Without the witches, Macbeth would either have not believed himself capable of becoming king or would have had no fear of anyone overthrowing him if he had still murdered his way to kingship. Either way, Macbeth would have been a completely different play if Shakespeare had decided to keep the supernaturalism out of it. The witches are what move the play along with each of their prophecies pushing Macbeth towards his next goal and ultimately towards his downfall.

However, there is the fact that Macbeth could technically choose to ignore the witches and decide his own fate. The fact that Macbeth decides what the witches mean by deciding to kill King Duncan, shows that he still contains some free will in deciding his destiny.

“But however, or whenever the idea seized him, his foul purpose is radically sharpened by the forecast of the witches, intensifying whatever ambition lurks in his mind” (Yoder 114). Even if Macbeth had been thinking himself capable of becoming king, without the witches he probably would not have done anything besides dream about it. Everyone has that one dream or thought that they want, but are not capable of doing something about, but the question is, “If causation is at issue—and the supernatural ambiance demands its careful consideration–how is the paradox to be resolved? Is Macbeth, as seems essential for a tragic hero, free to choose between his compunctions and his ambition? Do the witches merely whet a preexisting ambition to a lethal edge, acting as accessories before the fact? Or is Macbeth somehow fated by their supernatural foresight to act as he does?” (Yoder 114).

It would seem by Macbeth’s willingness to murder and his later seeking out of the witches for the second round of prophecies, that Macbeth oversees his own destiny. He chooses to murder Duncan and he chooses to involve the witches a second time when he begins to doubt himself, but without their meddling ways, Macbeth may have been happy to continue being a loyal soldier. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is shown to be a good warrior and devoted to Duncan, which is why he is promoted to Thane of Cawdor in the first place. But once he and Banquo meet the witches, “their reactions give us an important insight into their personalities. Banquo is unafraid, but Macbeth is so mystified by their greeting that he is rendered speechless. Once he has regained his composure, he challenges the Witches to tell him more. They vanish, but it is not long before Macbeth finds that he is to become Thane of Cawdor–a ‘truth’ that immediately sets him wondering how the Witches’ final prophecy will come about, and losing himself in the ‘horrible imaginings’ (1.3.140) that will eventually lead to the murder of King Duncan. Later in the play, it is Macbeth who seeks out the Witches, cementing his willingness to give himself over to the ‘instruments of darkness’ (1.3.126)” (Atherton). Macbeth uses the witches and their prophecies as an excuse to grab what he really wants, Duncan’s power.

When looking at the witches, it does not matter if Macbeth had been thinking of usurping Duncan before meeting them or not, their importance lies in the fact that without them, Macbeth would have been unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Just because someone dreams of something, does not make it immediately come true, but when the witches prove their premonitions through Macbeth being named Thane of Cawdor, that is when Macbeth believes them and decides to help himself to Duncan’s throne. Macbeth then goes back to the witches to continue getting their counsel. He is incapable of making his own decisions without the permission of the witches. This means that if Shakespeare had not included the witches within Macbeth, there would be no action; there would be no play. How exciting could it be to have Macbeth come back from the war and just politely accept his promotion to Thane of Cawdor and then peacefully live out his life? Shakespeare needed someone to show Macbeth what he could be capable of and to make the play have a tragic plot line to entertain audiences. Technically, Shakespeare could have used someone else for this purpose, such as Lady Macbeth, but using witches to move the plot line along, gave Shakespeare a connection to King James to ensure he would like the play and continue funding Shakespeare’s theater company. 

Works Cited

Alexander, Catherine M.S. "'The Dear Witches': Horace Walpole's 'Macbeth.'." The Review of English Studies, vol. 49, no. 194, 1998, p. 131+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 11 Apr. 2018.

Atherton, Carol. "Character Analysis: The Witches in Macbeth." Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers, British Library, 19 May 2017, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Dæmonologie. 1597, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

DiMatteo, Anthony. "'Antiqui dicunt': classical aspects of the witches in 'Macbeth.'." Notes and Queries, vol. 41, no. 1, 1994, p. 44+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 11 Apr. 2018.

Eastwood, Adrienne L. "Macbeth, presented by the Berkeley Repertory Company at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley, California, February 19-April 10, 2016." Early Modern Literary Studies, pp. 1-2. Academic OneFile. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Kranz, David L. "The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth." pp. 346-83. Academic OneFile. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Shakespeare, William. "Macbeth." The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 3rd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 2721-73.

"The Witches." Bitsize, BBC, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Yoder Jr., Edwin M. "Cauldron Bubble." Arts, pp. 111-17. Academic OneFile. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

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