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What is the role of the witches in “Macbeth”

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  • Category: Macbeth

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I see a tragic hero as a character who is admired and loved and followed throughout the play, and is bought down by a flaw in their character followed by fate. Macbeth is a brave hero, highly ranked by his own family and society, as well as the country. I see the reason for this, however, as the following: He is a brute. He is a violent, blood-loving butcher, and these are the activities, which got him to the status at which he is, a general in the king’s army, and Thane of Glamis.

The witches would be seen as a supernatural presence in the play to the Shakespearian audience, whereas the modern audience would see logical explanations to all that happens. Macbeth has a violent character, and these witches could just be mad women who provoke his “dark side”. However, the witches are presented in the play as women with supernatural powers who make the day turn to night (which can be explained simply by a solar eclipse) and who make him hallucinate; “is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand…

I have thee not, yet I see thee still… ” The dagger leads Macbeth to the bedside of the king, where Macbeth kills king Duncan. This could have been controlled and planned by the witches, or could be Macbeth’s mentality combined with his violent nature. However, if it is all controlled by the witches, this would show that Macbeth is not exactly responsible therefore the audience symapthise with him. King James I was very fascinated by witches and witchcraft, as was most the population at the time of shakespear.

When Shakespeare wrote this for king James he made sure it would appeal to him. King James believed in witchcraft and supernatural powers. He believed that a group of witches attempted regicide against him. Including his ancestor, Banquo, in the story also assisted in allowing the king to see his own reflection in the play, especially in the scene of the 8 kings, where king James is the 8th king. “Thou shalt get kings, thought thou be none” this was said to Banquo in act 1 scene 3, coincidentally; Banquo is king James’s ancestor.

Even after the Shakespearian period, the public were fascinated by witchcraft. So fascinated, that they added another scene in the play, featuring Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. (Act 3 scenes 5) The Shakespearian audience and the Elizabethan audience would have thought the witches to be the most powerful element in the play. The first scene and act of the play is of the witches. Theatrical effects, like thunder and lightning, are staged to add effects and intrigue the audience.

Dark, gloomy and “evil” effects are used to represent the witches and their control over Macbeth. The first scene contains a mention of meeting Macbeth; this provides a clear link to him. The witches also discuss in which weather conditions they wish to meet; this could be waiting for the next particular conditions to meet in or choosing what weather situation to create for their meeting with Macbeth. The witches plan to play with Macbeth’s minds and lead him to the dark path on which they tread.

This would interest the Elizabethan audience greatly, as they did not have our modern science and reasoning. The believed that witches did indeed exist, and had supernatural powers to control and amuse themselves with average human minds. An Elizabethan audience at Hampton Court in 1606 would have found this powerful and intriguing, and Shakespeare’s portrayal of the witches on stage may have even left them feeling weary or shaken. ] The atmosphere the witches seemed to create was magical; it was dark and dull yet powerful, and in some cases, amusing.

They always seemed to appear when the weather conditions are poor or within a storm, and in darkness. “… Her choppy fingers… skinny lips… your beards… ” This is Banquo’s description of the witches in Act 1 Scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo’s first encounter with the witches. “Her choppy fingers”, meaning chapped, red and rough, would be common as they worked with their hands, in sowing, cooking etc. along with skinny lips. These were popular features for lower and working class women.

However, they have beards, which were recognised as the uttermost ugliness in women, and showed that they are either cursed, or had a presence of masculinity in them. The speech is convincing yet fascinatingly powerful, for example, the use of riddles and antitheses “when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battles lost and won” What else makes their speech interesting is that they use rhyme constantly, almost as if everything said is part of a bewitching continuous chant.

When describing what they had done to the sailor’s wife in Act 1 Scene 3, it is obvious that they had no respect or sympathy towards ordinary human beings: “Give me”. Rather than asking the sailors wife to give her a chestnut, the witch ordered her to. “Rump-fed ronyon” -this is an amusing quote but again shows the lack of respect the witches have for ordinary people. However, when they meet Macbeth and Banquo they use respectful terms; this may be mockery or an attempt to gain their trust so as to play on their minds.

“All hail… this phrase is used repeatedly, I believe it is to flatter Macbeth and to make him believe what they predict. The audience would be surprised and would have more reasons to believe in the witches as the predictions are revealed. The first prediction is “hail Macbeth, Thane of Cowdor”. This would be a surprise as no one knows of the death of the Thane of Cowdor but the King and his court, and Macbeth believes that he still lives. There is no other explanation for the witches to know, other than that they have powers to get whatever knowledge they want.

However, this prediction (in my opinion) should not be counted as so, as, even though Macbeth does not know, he has already in the previous scene been appointed Thane of Cowdor “Go pronounce his present death, and with his former title, greet Macbeth” The second prediction is “Hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter… ” There is already a king, king Duncan of Dunsinane. This causes confusion, but also, this is where the plot thickens, so to speak. Both Macbeth and the audience see this and wonder if it has a deeper meaning.

The way the witches continue to speak with rhyme and rhythm and in riddles; the rhyme and rhythm make the speech interesting whilst the riddles provide the element of mystery. The audience are bound to jump to conclusions from the predictions, as Macbeth does. The predictions will draw the audience more into the play. Macbeth at first is surprised with the quick disappearance of the witches, and wishes that they would have stayed and told him more, this (myself and probably the audience would believe) was the witches plan, to leave Macbeth with this ‘craving’ for more information.

In Act 1 Scene 4, Macbeth states “let not the light see my black and deep desires”, Macbeth is hoping that the prediction is true and has faith, as the witches predicted that he would become Thane of Cowdor, and upon his arrival, Macbeth was given the title. He actually wishes to become king and hopes for his prediction to come true as the previous one did. This quote was said to king Duncan himself, and so he did not wish to reveal his desires to take king Duncan’s place. When the King spends a night at Macbeths castle, Macbeth and his wife see the opportunity to murder him.

Upon hearing of the witches, Lady Macbeth was eager to fulfil her own and her husband’s ‘destiny’ that she believed lay in these prediction; she encouraged the murder of king Duncan. They planned the murder, and she encouraged him though this is only my view. The witches seemed to have played a stronger part in the murder of Duncan. Macbeth visualized a dagger before him leading him to Duncan’s bedside, he was unable to touch the dagger until then; “Is this a dagger which I see before me…

I have thee not yet I see thee still… ” Macbeth murders the king and continues his life casually; this shocks the audience, as they no longer know whether to consider him a villain or a hero. In act 4 scene 1 Macbeth returns to the witches greedily, in my opinion, to find answers and more predictions. He wishes to know his future. When Macbeth first hears that he cannot be defeated by anyone “Woman born” he accepts his fate thinking no person can kill him, but he feels that he must know if Banquo blood will reign? Shall Banquo’s issue ever reign this kingdom? ”

This is where the 8 kings are shown and in the eighth king’s hands, a glass, which were to show king James reflection. King James was very fond of this particular play because he could see himself, his ancestor and his beliefs playing upon the stage before him. At the end of act2 scene 1, Macbeth realizes that whatever predictions the witches had made had and would continue to come true, and it was his own impatience that bought him the problems that he s now suffering.

Before Macbeth is killed, he says “these juggling themes no more believed that patter with us in a double sense that keep the word of promise to ear, and break it to our hope, this is where he had realized the witches had given him a double meaning. Macduff had been born through a caesarean section, which meant he was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb, not born naturally. I think Shakespeare intended us, as his audience, to feel a mixture of sympathy & offence, against Macbeth. He is shown throughout the play as a cold-blooded killer under the influence of witchcraft.

At the end of the play the Elizabethan audience would have felt sympathy for Macbeth because he realizes he has been misled by the witches “these juggling themes no more believed that patter with us in a double sense”(act 5 scene 8) The witches show indications throughout the play of there affect on Macbeth. For example his trace-like state, “look how our partners rapt” (act1 scene 3). Also Macbeth’s changed appearance ” why do u make such faces” (act1 scene 4), this maybe through the witches influence or his own guilty conscience.

Macbeth also has an inability to pray, ” Amen/ stuck in my throat… ” This could e the witches and their evil ways distancing Macbeth from god, or Macbeth’s own conscience punishing him for his own evil thoughts and doings. Hallucinations and visions “what is this I see, a dagger before me? ” there are numerous reasons for hallucinations, but because the Elizabethan audience would not have thought of any of these, only that the witches were responsible.

There are other examples also, that the Elizabethan audience would consider the witches responsible for, like Macbeth’s lack of fear, disturbed behaviour, indifference to life and also invitation to evil spirits. When focusing mainly on the supernatural details of the play, the witches seemed to me as the most powerful element of the play, otherwise, Macbeth seemed like a power-hungry mad murderer, but again, this is only my opinion. The Elizabethan audience would almost definitely consider the witches to be the most powerful element into the play.

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