The Role of The Witches in Macbeth


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 in the opening scene of the play builds up the atmosphere of supernatural mystery and horror in which gruesome murders take place. The majority 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 not 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.” Because foul is fair to them, they Hover in filthy air. They stand for both physical and moral contamination. In Act 1, Scene 3, 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 “great prediction of noble having and of rotal 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 questions about their existence remain 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 seemed corporal melted/ As breath into the wind. Would they had stayed”. The Witches are both objective and subjective. They are subjective in that they make articulate the unuttered desires of Macbeth and are connected with the psychology of the protagonist. In this context, Stafford Brooke remarks, “They (Witches) materialises themselves only for their purpose of temptation; their normal existence is impalpable, invisible and unearthly.”







Work Cited Page

  • Shakespeare, W., Mowat, B. A., & Werstine, P. (2013). The tragedy of Macbeth. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  • Shakespeare, W. (1998). Macbeth. Penguin.


One Comment on "The Role of The Witches in Macbeth"
  • Soumyadip Reply
    September 4, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    This really helps me alot. Thanks.

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