The Significance of the Witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth - Aatif Syed

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The Significance of the Witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It was tailored to his contemporary Elizabethan audience, who had firm beliefs in the supernatural - especially witches; ugly old women who possessed evil powers. The three, unnamed witches in Macbeth could be described as key characters throughout, by virtue of their prophecies and socio-historical context. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that the human characteristics of ambition, or even Lady Macbeth herself, are far more significant in the play.

A modern audience may find the play entertaining, but Shakespeare’s own audiences believed that witches played an active role in their very own day-to-day lives, a trait which he had certainly picked up on when he wrote the play. In a way, the prospect of witches was a core element of Elizabethan societal values and social construction; women were not meant to possess power, authority, or superiority. Any woman who did was declared an evil, supernatural force; a witch, and executed, thus upholding, legitimising and regulating societal norms.

This does not only show us how seriously witches were taken, but also hints at the interest this would have brought to the play. Most notable of these was King James’. To a monarch placed there by divine will, as God’s representative, unholy, devil-guided witches constituted a direct threat to the throne. The King had already had his interest in witches sparked by events in Europe, and who better for Shakespeare to appeal to than he, along with the more noble classes who were patrons of the arts? It could be said, therefore, that the royal nature of the play, especially the infiltration of Macbeth, under the witches’ influence, into good King Duncan’s monarchy, is no accident, designed to captivate royal audiences and commoners alike. Shakespeare is careful not to upset his Highness, however, rounding off the play with the restoration of God’s kingdom in the form of Malcolm.

Indeed, Macbeth itself could be mapped as an ideological battleground; the stage of a battle between Heaven and Hell. A noble kingdom, under a just king, is sabotaged by the fiends of Hell - of course, the witches. However, this is only possible due to the choice that one man faces - Macbeth. He is, obviously, corrupted by the devil’s own temptation, though his wife plays no insignificant role. Macbeth and his partner become vessels of evil, though are eventually overthrown by the Good of Malcolm. Thus it could be concluded that Shakespeare is making a statement about the nature of our lives, and the human condition; We are all presented with choices in our lives, and though evil may seem the better path, pursuing the vices of greed and ambition will ultimately lead to hell and downfall. Conversely, the quest for honour and good faith will lead to the restoration of justice.

Perhaps, then, the implication of the witches is merely a seed of evil thought; a temptation;

“All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!”

In light of the aforementioned statements about the human condition, this would indeed seem to be the case. Perhaps Shakespeare is indicating that it takes otherworldly forces to corrupt pure human soul. This paranormal interference is similar to the structure of Greek theatre, which itself evolved from celebration of the gods. Studying Greek theatre in Stratford, perhaps Shakespeare was inspired by the great tragedies, where external powers influence mortal life. In reality, the witches are far more than just a ‘seed’ – it seems, in fact, that they influence and almost guide Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their evil doing throughout the play;

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…
…That my keen knife see not the wound it makes”

Though Lady Macbeth is clearly asking the ‘weird sisters’ - as they are referred to...
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