Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank

Macbeth

Themes & Issues

The Witches

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Who are the Witches, or ‘Weird Sisters’? (1.3.32) Are they human at all, or are they simply supernatural beings? When Macbeth and Banquo first come across them on the heath they question what they are, unsure whether or not they are human:

What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth,
And yet are on it? (1.3.39-42)

The Witches appear to be women, yet they have beards like men, and while they initially appear as real to Macbeth and Banquo as any other person stood before them, they soon after vanish into thin air without warning, leaving them to question their own judgement. Banquo wonders:

Were such things here, as we do speak about,
Or have we eaten on the insane root,
That takes the reason prisoner? (1.3.83-5)

The Witches are unlike the rest of the plays characters, and in fact the more we see of them, the more we begin to notice the distinctions that set them apart from everyone else. As well as being distinguished from the other characters in their appearance and in the things Banquo and Macbeth say about them, they are also set apart from everyone else in the way that they speak. Most of Shakespeare’s verse is written in lines of 10 or 11 syllables and not rhyming: ‘What bloody man is that? He can report…’ (1.2.1). This is called ‘iambic pentameter’ (see the language section for more exploration) and it is the way that most of the characters in Macbeth speak for the majority of the play. The way the Witches speak however is very different:

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (1.1.1-2).

It only has 7 or 8 syllables and is much more rhythmic than much of the play’s speech; it therefore stands out against the dialogue of the other characters. Even before they interact with anyone therefore, the Witches are marked out by their speech as being unusual, unnatural or abnormal.

Many people in 1606, when the play was first performed, believed that witches were real, and carrying out dark magic in Britain. One of those people was King James, who saw a performance of Macbeth in that year. For James and others, the Witches in the play would have definitely been evil, and even accessories to the murders which Macbeth commits. This presents a problem, because the Witches are not punished at the end of the play – they simply disappear. This means that there is a base of evil in the play which goes unpunished. But what if the Witches aren’t evil? If they just tell Macbeth the future, and leave him to decide how to approach it, how can they be blamed for his actions? But if the future is already planned out, whether Macbeth tries to change it or not, then how can he be guilty? What the Witches do, then, is prompt us to question our free will.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Are the Witches evil?

Would the events of the play be the same if the Witches had not predicted them?

Would Macbeth have been king if he had not killed Duncan?

Can we really alter our lives if the future is already written out?

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