Shakespeares Portrayal of the Witches in Macbeth

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  • Topic: Macbeth, James I of England, William Shakespeare
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?Discuss Shakespeare’s presentation of the witches in ‘Macbeth’

The play ‘Macbeth’ was written by William Shakespeare between 1603 and 1606. Shakespeare was born April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died in April. Macbeth is one of the four great Shakespearean tragedies along with ‘Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. It is set in 11th century Scotland. This play would have been performed in the Globe theatre and could have had an audience of over 16000 people. The theatre would have been very simple by today’s standards with little scenery or props. It did however, have a stage that protruded into the audience producing a sense of involvement between the actors and the audience. This would have made a play like Macbeth very menacing for the audience Music was used to create effects and convey meaning. There would have been trapdoors underneath the stage for the witches to disappear through. These effects, basic by our standards would have delighted the audience of the time.

Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” for King James 1 who had just come to the throne in 1603. Shakespeare had been well liked by the previous monarch (Elizabeth 1) and he wanted to ingratiate himself with the new monarch also. King James, like many people in the 17th century, was obsessed with the supernatural. Witches were used as scapegoats in society at that time. If the crops failed or farm animals died, people used to believe that witches were involved as they had no other medical or scientific knowledge to explain these events. Witch hunting was popular in these times. Most of the witches executed were old women who lived alone. If they had a pet like a cat then people would claim that the animal was a ‘familiar’ and was really and evil spirit given to the witch by the devil. People believed that the witches fed their ‘familiars’ on their own blood through a mole or a birthmark and during a witches trial they would be examined for such marks. These familiars are referred to in the play when the witches call up their familiars, the cat “Graymalkin” and the toad “Paddock”. King James was terrified of witches. He believed that they were responsible for creating a storm which destroyed his ship ‘The Tiger’ and that they had tried to kill him. He even wrote a book on the topic called ‘Daemonologie’. This led to hundreds of people being executed on suspicion of witchcraft. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after the Gun powder plot when Guy Fawkes attempted to kill King James I in 1605. James would have also enjoyed the play for this reason as he would get the chance to watch Macbeth die for trying to kill his own king. This play therefore, would have appealed greatly not only to the ordinary non educated people of the time but also to the educated and even the nobility like King James.

The play has five acts and each act contains several scenes.  The play starts with a prologue scene given by the three witches who occasionally appear between major scenes to foreshadow or comment on events. Shakespeare has some offstage action in several parts of the play - for Duncan’s murder and Lady Macbeth’s death. The plot is chronological and easy to follow. There are no flashbacks but there are some dream scenes, for example Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking.  Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other plays there are no subplots and the focus is always on Macbeth. The structure of the play reflects the idea of crime and punishment. What Macbeth does in the first half of the play haunts and destroys him in the second half. Shakespeare’s tone throughout the play is usually serious.  He uses the witches however, to laugh at the mistakes and misfortunes of the characters Other than these occasions, there is a constant mood of dreariness and bleakness throughout the play. This feeling is brought about especially at the beginning by the witches and their ominous predictions.

The play opens with a short but powerful scene of a dark wind- swept heath in the midst of a thunder storm....
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