Discuss the role of the witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
In the Seventeenth Century it was thought that witches could raise evil spirits by concocting a horrible brew with nauseating ingredients. It was also thought that witches had diabolical powers, that they could predict the future, fly, sail in sieves, cause fogs and tempests, bring on night and daytime and kill animals. It was also believed that witches could curse enemies with fatal wasting diseases, including nightmares and sterility and could take demonic possession of any individual they chose.
People also believed in witches because they were very superstitious.
This was because there was no scientific method or test that could prove if a person was a witch or not. People also believed in witches because they liked to believe in the supernatural and if anyone had a red spot or birthmark, they would have been accused of being a witch. This was known as the “damned spot” where the devil had sucked blood from them. This was one of the ways they judged people as a witch.
People have always needed an explanation for their own mistakes and natural disasters. People feared damnation that awaited those who challenged Christian beliefs; therefore people blamed witches and not God for natural disasters.
Even the King ,James I, believed that witches tried to sink his ship by raising a storm. The witches’ plot was discovered and they were brought to trial at Berwick. One of the witches, Agnes Sampson claimed that she used toad venom to poison the king. She also claimed to have christened a cat, tied body parts of a dead man to it, sailed out to sea in sieve and thrown cat and body-parts overboard to raise a storm to sink the king’s ship.
After the witches attempted to murder King James I, and subsequent interrogations, the King was convinced that witches were the antithesis of Christianity, and therefore should be eradicated. This new found determination enabled the King to write the book “Demonology” which he then had published in 1597.
The Witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
In “Macbeth”, Shakespeare reflects the beliefs of the times and the witches are portrayed as very unattractive women who know peoples futures:
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth! Thou shalt be king here after.”
These were the witches predictions for Macbeth, and for Banquo they predicted; “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” These predictions all come to fruition , Banquo’s by “fate”, his sons becoming kings , whilst Macbeth’s fate was determined by his own hand in killing Duncan to take his place as King and fulfil the final prophesy.
The language of the Witches is in rhyming couplets and chanting. They use this language whilst making potions. Their voices increase in speed and get louder, especially when they are throwing ingredients into their couldron;
“Adder’s fork, and Blindworm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and Howlet’s wing.
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a Hell-broth boil and bubble.”
The language the Witches use is very interesting and unusual. They sometimes use similes and metaphors to express their actions more subtly;
“I’ll drain him as dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night or day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid.”
This is what the witch says she is going to do to the woman’s husband, who is a sailor. She will put a spell on him which will turn him into an insomniac and will force him into hallucinating due to a lack of sleep. By the end of a few nights his eyes will be as heavy as roofs of houses because of the spell placed on him by the witch.
Another time when unusual language is used by the witches is after they have discussed where they are going to next meet;
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
This means that whatever is good is bad, therefore whatever is bad or evil (i.e. The witches) is good.
Shakespeare uses more interesting language when the First witch is talking to the “Rump-fed Ronyon” who would not share her chestnuts with the witch:
“Aroint thee, witch!” – which is said by the woman to the witch. The Witch reacts to this comment very harshly by threatening to sink her husband’s ship:
“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the tiger:
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.”
Shakespeare calls the woman a “Rump-fed ronyon”, insinuating that she is fat-bottomed woman just because she did not share her food with the witch.
The woman insists: “Aroint thee, witch!” She says this to the witch because she wants her to go away and stay away from her.
The witch then goes on to chant that she will go out in a hole-ridden boat, looking like a rat swimming, but without a tail, ( Rats are good swimmers and very small so the sailor would not see her arriving) and killing the woman’s husband in the worst and longest way possible.
I think the language used by the witches gives you an image of the witches’ very short tempers and intolerance of common mortals. From their reaction to the refusal of goods, it shows their vengeful natures and willingness to use their powers to wreak revenge.
There are many examples of adjectives in the scenes where the witches are talking or conjuring up spells. These examples are:
“The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land.”
The witches call themselves “weird” which means “Supernatural”. They call themselves this because they believe themselves to have special powers which comes across to mortals as “weird” and I think they enjoy being known as different and supernatural.
There are more adjectives used by Banquo, towards the witches;
“What are these, so withered and so wild in their attire.”
Banquo uses this sentence towards the witches because he does not realise what they are. This is because they take no care in their appearance, unlike other women they have seen and because the witches’ skin seems to be a lot more weathered and rough. This seems strange to Banquo and Macbeth because their women are always well-turned out.
Banquo makes some more comments about the witches’ appearances:
“By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.”
“Choppy finger” is what Banquo uses to describe the witches fingers. It means that the witches fingers are chapped, rough and red. Banquo also mentions how the witches have “Skinny lips” and he mentions that the witches have beards.This is very uncouth for women and this is why Banquo thinksthat, although they should be women, they have very masculine features.
Banquo speaks about the witches again wondering if what was before his eyes was really there:
“Were such things as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the prisoner?”
Banquo starts to wonder whether the witches were really there or whether they had taken an “insane root” like hemlock which is hallucinagenic and that is what made them see the witches.
I think the adjectives make the scenes more interesting by adding humour to the play, for example, when Banquo mistakes the witches for men. This is humour added by Shakespeare purely to get a laugh out of the audience and to give a more amusing image of the witches. I also think that Shakespeare uses adjectives well to describe how the witches look and how they appear to other characters in the play.
There are many examples of similes and metaphors used by the witches to express their actions more subtly including;
“I’ll drain him dry as hay”
The witch threatens the woman who did not give the witch her chestnuts. She says that because the woman did not give her some chestnuts, she will put a spell on her husband, so his mouth would feel as dry as hay and he will die of thirst.
Another simile used in “Macbeth” by Banquo is:
“What are these, that look not like th’ inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on ‘t?”
This is used by Banquo towards the witches. He compares them to aliens from another planet, although they cannot be because they are on Earth.
Another simile which is said to Banquo about the witches by Macbeth is:
“Into the air, and what seem’d corporal melted,
As breath into the wind.”
This is how Macbeth describes how the witches vanished into thin air. He compares the witches vanishing like his breath blowing away in the wind.
A metaphor said by the first witch is:
“Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
Look what I have………..Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
This is what the first witch says to the other witches. She will raise a storm (tempest) to sink the sailor’s ship.
One more metaphor asked by Banquo to the witches is:
“If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not.”
Banquo asks the witches to look into the future and tell him if he will become king or not. He asks this because Macbeth is supposed to become “Thane of Cawdor” and then “King hereafter” and Banquo wonders if he has any royalties in the near future.
I have designed a tally to show who makes the most frequent use of each kind of language.
Banquo uses the most adjectives.
The First witch/Banquo use the most similes
The First witch/Banquo use the most metaphors
Banquo has the most adjectives, similes and metaphors because he has the largest proportion of the speech and because his language seems to be the most obscure of the characters.
There is great use of alliteration in the language of the witches which is the most noticeable. For example, “Rump-fed Ronyon”
“So Foul and Fair a day”
The most memorable part for me is when the first witch threatens the woman who refused to share her chestnuts because it shows you what short tempers the witches had. I also like this part because it is Shakespeare’s way of “getting back” at the public for what they did to people who were thought of as witches because they were a little different. Shakespeare reverses the power so the witches are in control and not the common mortals.
The Witches in Macbeth appear to be ethereal supernatural creatures. Even Banquo does not know if the witches are male or female;
“You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that
you are so.”
Banquo also describes their clothing to be; “Withered and wild” and believes them to have come from another planet. Their disappearance after meeting Macbeth and Banquo on the heath is described as “Into the air, and what seem’d corporal melted, As breath into the wind.” also adds to their unearthly appearance.
The witches believed they had many powers including sailing out to sea in sieves and controlling the weather, as they mention prior to their meeting :
“But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, and like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do and I’ll do.
I’ll give thee a wind.”
Before the Witches saw Macbeth and Banquo, the witches had predicted that they would meet Macbeth after the battle;
“When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won,
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place? Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
Once the Witches had predicted Macbeth’s future, both Macbeth and Banquo thought the predictions were unlikely. But when Macbeth had found out he had newly become “Thane of Cawdor”, he felt fated to become King. This made Macbeth feel excited at the prospect of becoming King and fuelled his avarice and ambition.When he was presented with the Apparitions , he misinterpreted the meanings which led subsequently to his downfall.
The first Apparition : a armed Head
“Beware Macduff ; Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough”
The Second Apparition : A bloody child
“Be bloody, bold, and resolute ; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of women born shall harm Macbeth.”
Macbeth “Then live, Macduff : what need I fear of thee?”
This shows that Macbeth thinks he is immortal as no man born of a woman can harm him. Therefore he has no fear for his safety from Macduff.
The third Apparition
“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”
Macbeth “Of Birnam rise, and our high placed Macbeth shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath to time and mortal custom.”
Again Macbeth believes he is invincible as there is no possible chance of the forest ever moving to his castle. The Witches have therefore instilled in Macbeth the belief that he will become King and remain so, as only a man born not of a woman can harm him and Birnam Wood should move to Dunsinane, both of which to Macbeth’s understanding are impossible. Even so, when he enquires “Shall Banquo’s issue ever reign in this kingdom?” The Witches respond with “Seek to know no more.” They have therefore misled Macbeth again showing that they are devious and evil to toy with Macbeth.
In “Macbeth” Shakespeare depicts the witches as having all the traits of which appealed to the morbid fascination of the people of the times. These would include the ability to foretell the future; their appearance was unearthly, ‘withered and wild’, they could conjure apparitions, sail in sieves and control the weather. However the most serious characteristic was that of being evil and malicious towards Macbeth.
Setting a scene based on Witches
In Polanski’s version of “Macbeth”, he has depicted his version from the book. By this, I think that Polanski’s version is very well presented and his witches are as you would have thought to have found witches in the Seventeenth Century.
If I was to stage the witches in “Macbeth”, I would use the “Spin Doctors” who are behind Tony Blair or any popular public figure whilst they do not have the outward appearance of witches, their skills in manipulation and deviciveness are very much the same as those of all the historical witches.
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