The function and role of the witches in Macbeth

Topics: Plays

In the play of Macbeth the witches are regarded as immoral and unnatural in their behaviour. They play a huge part in Macbeth’s planning of becoming king. At the beginning of the play they are planning to meet Macbeth, “When shall we three meet again, In thunder lightning, or in rain. ” Disturbances in nature are represented by line of thunder and lightning, it is supposed to give the effect of ‘evil’ this idea of evil continues throughout the play. Banquo believes that the witches are people who are not inhabitants of the world and although they are women it is hard to tell because of their manly beards.

The witches prophecise that Macbeth will become the King of Scotland and know that he is the Thane of Cawdor before he does. At first Macbeth dismisses the idea of being king but then rethinks it. On behalf of both himself and Macbeth Banquo says, “Or have we eaten on the insane root, That tskes the reason prisoner? “.

Insane root was though to cause madness and Banquo’s very first reaction is that they have both gone mad. Macbeth also describes them as having the power to melt from a solid state when they vanish from his sight; he is obviously amazed by this.

Afterwards Macbeth receives a message from Ross and Angus telling him he is to become the Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth together with Banquo realise that two out of three prophecies the witches make are true, but Macbeth decides it is a coincidence.

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However, when Macbeth is aside he rethinks about the prophecies made by the witches and wanders if what they said is for good or bad because he thinks that if they have told him good prophecies then they cannot be evil: this is because it was commonly thought that truth cannot be told by the evil.

However, he cannot understand why there is a bad feeling in his heart about it and so he is very confused by this. He tries to decline this idea and decides that he will soon become king, we see this when he says, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir. ” This shows that he decides to leave it just to chance. Macbeth builds up an argument in his head to help him decide what to do using imagery, as he has strong opinions of right and wrong. He uses the imagery of light and dark for good and evil. This means that he asks for light not to see his dark and deep desires.

He wants murder, what the eye fears to happen but does not want the stars, God, to see what he is planning to do. This shows that Macbeth is willing to commit any evil in order to become king, what he wants so badly. At this point the witches have been a catalyst for the evil in Macbeth because this is partly due to the prophecies as they did not say anything about killing the king but only make Macbeth stir up the thoughts in his head. When the witches talk, they talk as if they have one mind.

Often they talk in riddles, shown in the quotation, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier. It gives an indication of their uniqueness because the two parts of each of the sentences contradict one another, which is unusual. When one or all of the witches have a speech of more than three lines they speak with couplets sometimes every alternate line, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air. ” This quotation is located in the first scene of the play. It has no initial definite meaning as it can be interpreted in a number of ways. This witches’ chorus can be said to be a prophecy where ideas and especially characters are not what they appear to be and describes how things on the play will change.

It also signifies the witches’ reversal of values and their view of good and evil. The witches give no direct indication of whether their intent is good or bad. But it is clear that their intentions are there to disrupt the balance of good and evil. There is no motive to their behaviour except in the case of revenge concerning the sailor and his wife. The only possible motive is that causing trouble is what they are meant to do because they are witches. The evil which they manage to unearth from Macbeth spreads resulting in murder, betrayal and above all the loss of humanity of two people who were once loyal to king and queen.

The witches have many functional roles in the pattern of the play. They manage to convert the soul of a good but potentially flawed man and it demonstrates their power. They do this not with force but with the ‘playing’ of the mind by offering it something, which is highly beneficial yet attainable, the kingship. The witches may also be moral devices who are a test for the main character of the play to see how loyal he is. Because Macbeth does not realise their intent he is not blinded by the fact that they are wicked so the decision of killing Duncan is entirely his own choice.

The witches act only as catalysts to the evil already present in him which had not yet emerged and which might not have if it wasn’t for their interference. Maybe Shakespeare’s purpose for the witches was to represent that no matter how good someone seems to be there will also be a little evil in each one of us. No matter how much influence the witches had on Macbeth’s notions of becoming king it was enough to cause anarchy in Scotland and the deaths of innocent people. When Banquo’s ghost returns to haunt Macbeth at the banquet, we are able to see the effect the prophecies have had on him.

He has a fit of madness and is outraged because he wonders why Banquo’s ghost has appeared to haunt him. He tells himself that before, when a person had been killed, they would die and that would be the end of it but now it is no longer the case, “The times had been, That when the brains were out, the man would die, And there an end;” In Macbeth’s fit, he nearly manages to reveal the truth about Banquo’s death but Lady Macbeth strains to hold the situation together and stops him from saying anything even though she doesn’t know about Banquo.

She questions his manhood, which is a similar argument to the one, which she used to persuade him to kill Duncan, “Are you a man? ” but this time it does not succeed. Macbeth becomes so insecure that he has a spy in Macduff’s house because he believes that he is an enemy. Macbeth decides with no pressure from Lady Macbeth to visit the witches. He wants to know what is going to happen in the future, as he is uncertain. He realizes that they are the worst means to discover what the future holds in store for him yet he is determined. He is almost endeavouring to commit evil.

His visit to the witches demonstrates his obsession in that he believes he has enemies everywhere and has evidently placed himself under more suspicion at the banquet. He has reached a point where he is willing to do anything to satisfy himself. The deaths of Duncan and Banquo have left him in a highly dangerous, unstable physical and mental state. Nevertheless, Macbeth in his own mind believes he has everything under control. The scene in which Macbeth goes to the witches of his own accord is an important one because it sets the mood for his approach to the rest of the play.

It opens with the witches cooking animal body parts in a couldron. This type of behavior is stereotypical of witches and represents how abnormal they are, “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,” When Macbeth approaches, they indicate his approach, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. ” Unlike on the moor after the battle, Macbeth finds the witches instead of them coming to him.

We are able to see how obsessed he his to know his future when he lists destructive events that he wants to happen and that he does not care about them if they do because he just wants to know what will happen to him, “Even till destruction sicken- answer me, To what I ask you. ” The witches agree to answer all his questions and call upon apparitions. The first apparition is an armed head. It says, ”beware Macduff; Beware the Thane of Fife,” and confirms what Macbeth thinks because he already fears him. The second apparition is a bloody child.

The image represents the Caesarian birth of Macduff because Caesarian is not considered to be, ‘woman born’. He is told that he cannot be hurt by anyone born from a woman so he believes he is secure. With this in mind he decides to make sure Macduff does not irritate him any more by planning to kill him and his family. The third apparition is a crowned child, with a tree in his hand. The child crowned is the child of Duncan, Malcolm explains things that are yet to come but Macbeth does not realise this. The apparition tells Macbeth that he will only die if Great Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill.

The tree in the baby’s hand symbolises this. Macbeth is clearly pleased with the prophecies as they bode well for him. Still wanting to discover more he asks about Banquo and his descendants. The witches refuse to say anymore but he persists and says, I will be satisfied: deny me this, And an eternal curse fall on you! ” They finally agree to show him even though it may grieve him. A show of eight kings, the last with a glass in his hand with Banquo following appear. The kings resemble Banquo in spirit and appearance. The images of the kings being Banquo’s descendants are confirmed when he smiles and points to them.

Macbeth is amazed by the sudden turn of events and questions the witches about its reliability. They say that the apparitions tell the truth and then they begin to dance in an attempt to cheer him up. They realise the trouble which they have caused by the display of the apparitions. By resisting Macbeth’s wishes for the telling of the future up to a certain point, Macbeth becomes even more desperate and compulsive. When they dance at the end it can be said that it is not for Macbeth’s sake but for their own as they are happy with the vast mischief that they have caused.

Because of their attempt to tip the balance between good and evil through the medium Macbeth, he seals his fate when he kills Macduff’s wife and son. By killing his family, Macduff looks for revenge of Macbeth. This scene demonstrates how low Macbeth has sunk to by ordering the death of an innocent child and mother. The witches’ role in the previous scene has ultimately forced him into committing this wicked crime. Macbeth’s behaviour aroused suspicion especially in Macduff causing him to go to Malcolm for help in the form of troops.

Malcolm initially is suspicious of Macduff as he could be a spy but learns to trust him when he sees how troubled Macduff is when he pretends that he will be a greater dictator than Macbeth as he has more vices. When Macduff discovers his family and servants had been slain he swears an oath to take full revenge and he is now motivated to killing Macbeth. In Act 1 Scene 5 Lady Macbeth calls on the powers of darkness in order to, ”unsex her” but now she continually has light by her side as she is frightened by her guilty conscience.

By killing Duncan, she is now morally sane not morally bad. Earlier, she would sacrifice anything for the kingship but now she realises whilst sleeping that the murder was not worth all the effort. The fact that it is happening in her sleep is an important theme throughout the play. This is because sleep was taken from the sailor and Macbeth had murdered sleep because he had upset the balance of nature. When Lady Macbeth says, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have Had so much blood in him. Macbeth said when he killed Duncan that all the blood will not even be washed by the sea yet Lady Macbeth said that only a little water was needed but now she says that all the perfumes of Arabia will not rid the smell from her hands, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. ” We see that she is morally sane but is mentally insane. Macbeth does not realise what the witches have done to him. Although there is an English army of ten thousand soldiers approaching he comforts himself by thinking of the prophecies. He knows he can never be defeated until the forest moves and he believes that he is secure.

He tells himself that he is not frightened but when his servant enters the room he shouts and curses him suggesting insecurity. He perceives the fact that he is decaying in his mind and his heart, where he says, “I have liv’d long enough: my way of life Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;” At this point he is in despair unlike before where he was defiant. He calls upon Seyton his servant which is a clear hint for Satan. He asks the doctor how is wife is but is actually referring to himself as he is sick himself. When Macbeth hears of his wife’s death he cannot react. He feels life has no meaning and that it carries on.

He says that it signifies nothing and if he lives it will be a long time until he dies. Macbeth is now feeling sorry for himself. He hears from a messenger that Birnam Wood is moving. He tells the messenger if he is lying he will be hung from a tree but if he is telling the truth then he can do the same to him. Macbeth gives a last attempt at bravery by saying that he will die fighting. Even until the end Macbeth is selfish in his ways, as he does not want to pay for his crimes. Although Macbeth knows he is nearing the end he still demonstrates that he is courageous and a fighting force by killing Young Siwar.

He is testing the witches prophecy about not being killed by a man born of woman. Macduff enters entirely motivated by revenge. He will only use his sword against Macbeth. Macbeth does not want to kill Macduff as he has already killed part of his family. When he learns that Macduff was born differently through Caesarian not directly out of the womb he no longer desires to fight but due to his pride he is going to die trying. When Macduff exits with Macbeth’s head he says that everything is back in order. Malcolm knows that nothing will be the same since Macbeth.

The witches although bad in nature help the greater good to succeed. Much of the play deals with the struggle between light and darkness. Macbeth begins as a good character but because of their involvement he begins to symbolize darkness. The ‘light’ in the first two acts is King Duncan, but when he died the struggle went in favour of darkness. Macbeth seems to have control throughout most of the play until his conscience came back to haunt him. Macduff is the hero of the play but not a character who stands out as a hero. He symbolises the light, which will defeat darkness that is Macbeth.

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The function and role of the witches in Macbeth. (2017, Oct 22). Retrieved from

The function and role of the witches in Macbeth
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