The Macbeth’s Witches and their Controversial Nature

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

The nature of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a controversial subject. Mildred Tonge suggests in her essay Black Magic and Miracles in Macbeth that the witches represent women that serve a dark power, most likely Satan, or even that they are a form of Satan himself (Tonge, p. 1). Other critics propose that the three are a figment of Macbeth’s imagination—apparitions he conjured to provide justification for killing Duncan, a thought that he had harbored long before the play began. However, careful observation of the text suggests that the witches are far more connected to humanity than they at first appear. Though not illusions of Macbeth’s mind, nor evil beings in and of themselves, the three witches are outside manifestations of human vice, which appear for the purpose of providing temptation to the unwary, giving voice to their secretly abhorrent desires.

The witches make notable appearances twice in Macbeth, both in Act 1 Scene 3 and in Act 4 Scene 1—two crucial times in the title character’s development. The first time they arrive, it is to accost Macbeth and Banquo on their way back from war. It is at this point, when Macbeth is arguably more powerful than at any time before in his life, that the witches decide to tempt him. If there was ever a time in which his political ambition would be at the forefront of his mind, it is at this moment. His success had won him accolades and moral support from his peers and superiors, and had gained him renown far above that of other men. The weird sisters approach him and prophesy that he is destined to become a king, and Banquo, a father to kings. They tempt them both with the prospect of achieving great power, bringing them to the crossroads of morality. Banquo continues down the road of loyalty and justice, while Macbeth takes a darker path. Despite hearing the prophecy, Banquo decides to leave fate be. Macbeth’s mind, however, is immediately plagued with thoughts of killing Duncan, much to his disquiet: “Why do I yield to that suggestion/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair” (1.4. 137-138). The witches’ divinations take hold of Macbeth so easily, because ascending to the rank of king through regicide was a thought Macbeth had already subconsciously entertained. By voicing his aspirations aloud, and predicting his success, they give Macbeth the justification he needs to turn his thoughts into actions. He then uses the witches and the fate they prophesied for him as an excuse to delve into the bogs of murder and corruption, so he doesn’t have to acknowledge his own immorality.

This is proven by the fact that Macbeth supposedly kills Duncan in order to fulfill the prophecy and achieve his destiny, but numerous times thereafter Macbeth spurns fate, in his attempts to subvert it. The witches are, as Banquo later declares, “instruments of darkness [that] tell us truths” (1.4. 126-128). They act as the instrument through which Macbeth is able to see himself. They reveal to Macbeth not only what waits for him in the future, but also the inner makeup of the man himself. Furthermore, the three witches are projections of Macbeth’s mindscape.“[The witches] merely betray Macbeth by reflecting him, and in that way they do resemble [a] dark mirror” (Favila, p. 17). Though the witches are dour, spiteful creatures, they show no proof of being inherently evil. They simply parallel the qualities of the man on whom they’ve cast their attentions. The negative stigma attached to the witches is due, in part, to their grotesque, unearthly appearance. They are described as being haggard and withered women, with beards. Banquo describes them as “look[ing] not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ Earth” (1.3.42). They are depicted as something inhuman because they represent the base, inhuman desires of man. This is exhibited in Macbeth, particularly, whose actions can be described as no less than bestial. Throughout the play the weird sisters parallel Macbeth’s psyche in their actions as well. This becomes most apparent in Act 1 Scene 4, when they are making a spell for him just before he arrives. Using “birth-strangled babe” and “witch’s mummy”, along with “tooth of wolf” and “tiger’s chaudron” they brew an incantation made from pieces of murderers and murder victims (Favila, p. 17)(4.1.23-33). These powerful images, such as the “poisoned entrails” and the “maw and gullet” that are also thrown into the cauldron are reminiscent of Macbeth’s poisoned soul, and his ravenous hunger for power. In this scene in particular, the sorceresses appear as nefarious entities casting hexes made from dismembered animal parts, but in truth they only appear evil because they are reflecting his subconscious mind (Favila p. 17).

One of the great ironies of this play is that the witches—traditionally evil creatures—are not shown to engage in any crime, while Macbeth—who originally appears as being ostensibly good—commits many heinous acts. In a paradoxical moment at the beginning of Act 4, the witches hail the arrival of Macbeth with the phrase: “By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes” (4.1. lines 44-45). The fact that three sorceresses, of all people, describe him in this fashion emphasizes how truly evil he is. The sad truth is that throughout the play the witches offer Macbeth little to no help, though he is more than willing to sacrifice his ethics for the sake of gaining power, and is aware that he is giving up a part of himself every time he appeals to them (Tonge, page 7). If anything, they contribute to his downfall by conjuring apparitions to give him false confidence. This, in a way, causes them to be among the heroes of the play, as Macbeth grows increasingly more villainous. Shakespeare himself purposefully leaves the nature of the witches ambiguous. They are characters that cannot be expressly defined or described: “[Shakespeare’s] witches represent a force of evil which cannot be altogether apprehended through the senses, but which takes shape in tangible forms” (Tonge, p. 3). Superstition was very prevalent in Elizabethan England, and therefore the idea of witches and witchcraft permeated the culture. If nothing else the archetype carries with it an atmosphere of enigma and foreboding. It was necessary for Shakespeare to instill this sense of mystery, in order to leave the overarching plot of the play up to the audience’s interpretation.

Depending on the way one interprets the three weird sisters, one could reach a variety of different conclusions. By not explicitly stating the nature of these characters, Shakespeare gives the play a sense of timelessness, making the themes applicable across different cultures and generations. It can be surmised from Macbeth that the witches, though they appear to be servants of the Devil, are not expressly evil. Instead, they represent the characters’ darkest desires in tangible form, tempting them by bringing their own wicked thoughts to light. This is demonstrated in Macbeth. As he steadily descends into villainy and madness, in a complete role reversal, the witches seem to be heroes in comparison, begging the question of who is the man and who is the monster.

Works Cited

Favila, Marina. “”Mortal Thoughts” and Magical Thinking in “Macbeth”” Modern Philology 99.1 (2001): 1+. Web.

Tonge, Mildred. “Black Magic and Miracles in Macbeth.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 31.2 (1932): 1-7. University of Illinois Press. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

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