Shakespeare’s handling of the Witches in ‘ Macbeth’


Write a note on Shakespeare’s handling of the witches.

Shakespeare’s handling of the witches needs to be discussed in the context of the introduction of the supernatural in tragedy. Shakespeare’s handling of the witches is part of the supernatural in the play. The appearance of the witches is part of the supernatural in the play. The atmosphere of the witches in the opening scene of the play builds up the atmosphere of supernatural mystery and horror in which gruesome murders take place. Most of the Elizabethan audience had a crude taste and they demanded horror on the stage. Shakespeare catered to their taste but presented them in his own inimitable style. Coleridge remarks, “They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external semblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act immediately on the audience.”

In the concluding couplet of the opening scene, the witches say in unequivocal terms that they are worshippers of evil. There is an absolute reversal of values in the gloomy and murky world they inhabit. They say in chorus:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair;/Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
as foul is fair to them, they hover in filthy air.

They stand for physical and moral contamination.

It is important to notice that Macbeth and Banquo react differently to the predictions of the weird sisters. Banquo straightway rejected the witches as, “the instruments of darkness” who, “tell us truths,/win us with honest trifles to betray’s / In the deepest consequence.” Although Banquo is curious to know about his future, he remains unmoved. Macbeth, on the other hand, Macbeth is visibly disturbed by the good predictions about himself. The second Witch addresses him as, ‘thane of Cawdor’ and the Third Witch addresses him as, “that shall be king hereafter.” In his aside Macbeth reveals moral confusion. After learning from Ross that the king had made him the ‘thane of Cawdor’, Macbeth begins to think

“This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth?

But the witches have conveyed some bad news to Macbeth. They say Banquo’s son will be the king. Now Macbeth becomes an impetus to get rid of Banquo and his son. In fact, Macbeth has already contemplated the murder of Duncan. This is what he has spoken in his aside,
If good, why I wield to that suggestion/ whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/ and make my seated heart knock at my ribs/ Against the use of nature?”

In Act I, Scene III, the witches reappear and expose more about themselves. The first witch’s determination to punish the sailor, whose wife has refused to give her chestnut reveals their infinitely evil and vindictive nature. The witches being what they are, they greet Macbeth with “greet prediction of noble having and of royal hope,” only, in the words of Banquo, “to betray’s /In the deepest consequence.” The witches are able to cast spells on Macbeth because there is evil in him. In his aside, he reveals that he has already contemplated the murder of Duncan.
There is vagueness about the material existence of the witches. The question about their existence remains inconclusive throughout the play. Shakespeare’s presentation of the witches is subtle, suggestive, and psychological. What Macbeth and Banquo say about them points to this sense of ambiguity. Although Banquo dismisses them “as the earth has bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them.” Macbeth wishes they had stayed. Macbeth says, “…what seems corporal melted/ as breath into the wind. Would they have stayed?” The witches are both objective and subjective. They are subjective in this that they make articulate the unuttered desires of Macbeth and relate to the psychology of the protagonist. In this context, Stafford Brooke remarks, “They (Witches) materialize themselves only for their purpose of temptation; their normal existence is impalpable, invisible, and unearthly.”

Work-cited page
1. Hubbard, S. (2016) Macbeth by William Shakespeare. London: Hodder Education.
2. Macbeth: Notes (2009). Toronto, ON: Coles Publishing.
3. Moschovakis, N.R. (2008) Macbeth: New critical essays. London: Routledge.

Leave A Response