What appeal would the witches in Macbeth have had to the Shakesperean audience?  I

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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It is highly probable that Shakespeare fashioned his fascinating and frightening hags for two distinct audiences: the commoners crowding the floor of the Globe Theatre, and the king himself, James I. Shakespeare's principal historical source for Macbeth was Holinshed's Chronicles. In that document the reader finds the three weird sisters depicted as nymphs "creatures of the elderwood" or as fairies - a far cry from the witches of Macbeth which are - in Banquo's words - "so wither'd and so wild".  It seems almost certain that Shakespeare - with his unerring eye for the dramatic flourish -radically altered the form and purpose of the weird sisters to instill dread into his audience. Another source which Shakespeare probably used for purely dramatic effect was Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft. There we read that 'to the horror of all that see them" witches were "lean and deformed". The metamorphosed witches of Macbeth achieved a triple purpose for the playwright: they terrified an audience avid for the supernatural; lessened the culpability of an otherwise evil Macbeth caught in their deceitful machinations; and they would have enthralled the principal audience for the play, King James I himself. It is probable that Shakespeare's subtle motive for altering the portrait of the weird sisters in Holinshed's work was to appeal to James, not only a known believer in witches but also the author of a book on the subject, the Daemonologie.  In that work the king writes: "... their whole practices are either to hurte men and their gudes, or what they possesse..." Thus, in exploiting the dramatic power of installing witches at the heart of Macbeth, Shakespeare also succeeded in acknowledging and delighting the king, his pricipal patron.


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