THE WITCHES IN MACBETH
The Witches or Weird Sisters play a major role in the brilliant tragedy Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The role of the Weird Sisters represents that equivocal evil in the nature of things which helps to deceive the human will. They are not mere witches although they have some of the powers of witches. Even though they were produced by nature, they share with angels a freedom from limitation of space and time, a power to perceive the causes of things, and to see some distance into human minds (Kermode 1309). The Witches have malicious intentions and prophetic powers that entice Macbeth and captivate his mind. Although they have no power to compel Macbeth, the Witches appeal to Macbeths desires, eventually leading him to his tragic end.
The most obvious interpretation of the Witches is to see them as manifestations of evil in the world. They exist to tempt and torment people, to challenge their faith in themselves and their society. The Weird Sisters work on Macbeth by equivocation, that is, by ambiguous promises of some future state. These promises come true, but not in the way that the victim originally believed. The Witches have no power to compel belief, but they can obviously appeal strongly to an already existing inclination to force a persons will onto events to shape the future to fit deepest desires (Corson 224-229).
At the beginning of Macbeth, there is no interpretation of the meaning of the storm. Dimly the audience is aware of the ongoing war, but Hecate creates an infernal trinity. Lightning, thunder, and rain all whirl into existence the three hideous curses upon humanity, the three Weird Sisters (Walker 146).
1Witch: When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2Witch: When the hurly-burlys done,
When the battles lost and won.
3Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
1Witch: Where the place?
2Witch: Upon the heath.
3Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
1Witch: I come, Graymalkin
2Witch: Paddock calls
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.(I.i.1-10).
These creepers of darkness that guide the Witches invoke the evil that eventually destroys Macbeth. Graymalkin, the night-seeing cat, the nameless toad under the cold stone, whisper to the Weird Sisters perversion of natural order: fair is foul, destroy it; foul is fair, nurture it (Walker 148). Only seconds later an echo of what the Witches said is merely repeated by the words of Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen(I.iii.38). The same epithets are used as in the last line of the Witches in scene one. It is intended that an unseen relationship has been established between the Witches and Macbeths soul (Corson 231).
Macbeth and Banquo notice the Witches simultaneously. The Witches inflame Macbeth, but Banquo shows no magnetic connection. Foul as the Witches are, Macbeth is still fascinated with them; Banquo, however, sees foul as foul (Walker 149).
Macbeth: Speak, if you can: what are you?
1Witch:All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
2Witch:All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
3Witch:All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter! (I.iii.47-50).
The All hail of the Third Witch shows that the Sisters have had a look into Macbeths minds construction and have discovered there what they can stimulate into regicide and moral destruction (Corson 231).
The speech of Banquo indicates the effect of this All hail upon Macbeths mind, and the no affect upon his own: Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear/ Things that do sound so fair?(I.iii.51-52). There is not anything within the heart of Banquo to cause him to start; and he continues with words that show he has kept his heart with all diligence. He serves admirably as the foil to Macbeth.
Banquo:In the name of the truth,/Are ye fantastical, or that indeed/Which outwardly ye show? My noble partner/ You greet with present grace and great prediction/ Of noble having and of royal hope,/ That he seems wrapt withal: to me you speak not./ If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear/ Your favors nor your hate.(I.iii.52-61).
Banquo is not frightened nor enchanted by these witches. He sees foul as foul, but Macbeth is still paralyzed by what the witches predicted and can not see the evil before him.
In reply to Banquos command to speak to him, the Witches answer:
1Witch:Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
2Witch:Not so happy, yet much happier.
3Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
1Witch:Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!
Macbeth:Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
By Sinels death I know I am Thane of Glamis, But how of Cawdor?Speak I charge you. Witches vanish (I.iii.65-72,78).
It is plainly indicated that Macbeth wants to know more. Without knowing anything of the nature or trustworthiness of the strange beings before him, he is ready to gulp all he can draw from them. Macbeth is wholly absorbed and inflamed by what he has heard and begs of the Sisters to stay. The Witches have set about stimulating and arousing what has originated within his heart already, subjecting him to the temptations he is least able to withstand (Kermode 1309).
Upon Ross and Angus arrival the prophecies of the Witches keep repeating in Macbeths mind. The thane of Cawdor? He is stunned, and king hereafter? Macbeth knows not what to think. Ross and Angus announce Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and immediately excitement flows throughout Macbeths veins by the fulfillment of one of the salutations of the witches.
Macbeth, baffled by what has just happened, excitedly asks Banquo: Do you not hope your children shall be kings,/ when those that gave the thane of Cawdor to me,/ promised no less to them?(I.iii.117). According to Corson (234), The reply of Banquo, under the circumstances, makes him appear as the very spokesman of Macbeths good angels. Banquos response:
That trusted home/ Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,/ Besides the thane of Cawdor. But tis strange:/ And oftentimes to win us to our harm,/ The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/ Win us with honest trifles, to betray/ Us in deepest consequence.(I.iii.120-126).
The entire moral of the tragedy is expressed through this speech. Banquo appears to have been specially designed by Shakespeare, as a counter-agency to the agency of the Weird Sisters. Macbeth could choose to listen to Banquo, but his own evil thoughts bind him to the Witches (Corson 235).
The next scene, in which the Witches appear, Hecate enters, scolding them for not inviting her to play along with the destrution of Macbeth. She commands that the three sisters meet her in the morning by the pit of Acheron where Macbeth will come to know his destiny. Macbeth is now in the firm grip of fate. His self-determination is lost, and he is now given over to the powers of evil.
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
2Witch: Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake:
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adders fork, and blind-worms sting, Lizards leg, and owlets wing.
For a charm of powerful trouble;
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.(IV.i.10-19).
The disgusting ingredients of the hell-broth the Witches are brewing symbolize the relationship of these demons with the night side of nature. These additives add fuel to the sin-inflamed soul of Macbeth to draw him on to his destruction. With the powers of darkness; poisoned entrails, the toads sweltered venom, fillet of a fenny snake and other revolting things, nature becomes tormented by these hags (Corson 240).
Upon the entry of Macbeth, the second witch upturns her nostril into the murky air and exclaims: By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes. Open locks, whoever knocks.(IV.i.43-45).
A speech of deep significance reveals the nature of these horrible sisters. They have a magnetic sensitiveness to whatever is akin to their own evil nature. Their readiness is open to every one who knocks.
The fated career, towards which Macbeth has drifted through the irresistible current of evil forces, now awaits him. The several apparitions which are summoned to address him, are the artificial sprites which Hecate says by the strength of their illusion/shall draw him on to his confusion.(III.v.27-28).
The first apparition: an armed head, is generally understood as prefiguring Macbeths head, cut off and brought to Malcolm by Macduff. Macbeth begins to address the apparition with the words: Tell me, thou unknown power–, but is interrupted by the First Witch: He knows thy thought:/Hear his speech, but say thou nought.(IV.i.66-68). Here, it is again indicated that everything originates in Macbeths mind. The Witches caution him: Beware Macduff!(IV.i.69). Macbeth replies that he is grateful for this caution, and it fulfills his already established fear of Macduff (Corson 240). It spurs him to kill Macduffs family and followers.
The second apparition: a bloody child, represents Macduff untimely ripped from his mothers womb. The powr of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.(IV.i.79). The Witches vanish, and Macbeth learns from Lennox that Macduff has fled to England. The Witches give Macbeth a gratuitous warning against Macduff, and secure for themselves his faith in their guardianship of him. Their warning is not for his safety but for his destruction (Corson 241).
The third apparition: a child crowned, with a tree in his hand, prefigures the Kings son, Malcolm, who, as he advances against Macbeth, will order every soldier to take wood from Dunsinane Forest for camouflage. Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him. (IV.i.90-92). Macbeths confidence in the Witches protecting power has been strengthened by the predictions of the first and second apparitions. The prediction of the third apparition clinches his confidence; Macbeth is positive that moving Dunsinane Forest is impossible, and he now believes his end shall never come. That will never be,(IV.i.93), he replies, as the Witches listen and laugh in silence knowing they have defeated Macbeth by encouraging equivocations.
The Witches are gleeful over their victim whose eyeballs have been seared by what has been shown to him. The First Witch says:
Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites,/And show the best of our delights:/ Ill charm the air to give a sound,/While you perform your antic round,/That this great king may kindly say/Our duties did his welcome pay.(IV.i.125-130).
This expresses implicitly all that has been set forth in regard to the relations of the Witches to Macbeth. He is the first to welcome them as guest to his bosom, and they do their duty by him as agents of the devil (Corson 242).
Although the witches have no power to compel Macbeth, they appealed to what he has previously desired, eventually leading him to his tragic end. They have originated nothing within him. They have but harped upon what was already evil and stimulated these thoughts into acts (Corson 242). In his last scene, the Witches urge him on by more flattering equivocations, each turning false, luring Macbeth to an evil end.
Work Cited Corson
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