Can we think of Lady Macbeth as the fourth witch in "Macbeth"?What do you think?

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marilynn07 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We may, but we don't have to.  The concept of Lady Macbeth as a "fourth witch" is one of the standard interpretations of the character, and has been since the play was first written.  Not that we must view her in this way, it's just one of the regular critical views.  The three witches call forth desires and ambitions from Macbeth that are essentially "bad"- a desire for power at all costs, primarily.  Lady Macbeth causes these desires to take actual form in the "real world" of the play, thus giving physical form to the concepts introduced by the witches.  She exhibits a ruthlessness, intelligence and determination which to the audience of the time would have been seen as unnatural.

On the other hand, as noted above her mind becomes unhinged by guilt, so she is not a completely evel character.  She certainly is not in any specific manner like the three witches.

This entire question is indicative of the play as a whole- the most ambiguous of Shakespeare's works in both action and morality.  Ever since it was written (probably 1606), critics and theatre people have consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the abruptness of the ending, the ambiguity of "villians" like Macbeth and his wife who are not totally evil by any means, and the equal ambiguity of "heroes" like Malcolm and Macduff who are far from shining characters.  All of the female characters are exagerated and unnatural: the witches are unsettling and sexless; Lady Macbeth is obviously loving toward her husband but ruthlessly merciless; Macduff's wife is so perfect as to be unbelievable.

One of the reasons for all of this is probably the circumstances of the writing.  Queen Elizabeth I had recently died and named James Stuart of Scotland as her sucessor.  The characters of Duncan, Macbeth, Banquo, etc. were all based on historic personages, one of whom (Banquo) was a direct ancestor of King James, who had just taken on the sponsorship of the Globe.  To many Scots, Macbeth was a hero and Macduff and Malcolm considered traitors who delivered Scotland into the hands of the English monarchy.  Shakespeare, as an Englishman and a subject of James, would have obviously wanted to present this story in a manner acceptable to his audience and new patron.

robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I wouldn't advise it. The witches are an extremely enigmatic force in the play: they can certainly see into the future, and they seem to have evil intent (have a look at their revenge on the sailor's wife and their murder of the pilot as they report it in Act 1, Scene 3). Are they human? Are they spirits or ghosts? Do they just exist in Macbeth's head? You could read the evidence in the play to answer any of these questions 'yes' or 'no'.

Lady Macbeth is quite a different prospect. She's a real woman, married to Macbeth, who seems to have recently had a baby or a child die (she claims to have 'given suck', and she says that there is milk in her breasts - and yet Macduff says that Macbeth 'has no children'). And she has no evil powers at the start of the play: in fact, so nervous is she that she won't be strong enough to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan that she has to ask the evil spirits to fill her up with cruelty:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!

A woman who needs evil assistance in order to be cruel surely can't be a witch. And remember, Lady M. works by persuasion, where the witches work by prophecy. There's a big difference.

malibrarian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While the witches actually perform witchcraft, Lady Macbeth never takes the plunge and becomes a witch.  Even Macbeth is more witch-like with his willingness to participate in dark rituals involving a bubbling cauldron!

I don't think the witches are minor characters or unimportant to the story.  However, they are quite different from Lady Macbeth, who is definitely evil, but who doesn't sink to the depths of depravity that Macbeth does.

A great book is available that goes into this very subject in great detail - Witches and Jesuits - check the link for a great review of the book by Jamie Wheeler!

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question for the discussion board.

I would not think of Lady Macbeth as the fourth witch. The role of the witches is to plant in Macbeth's mind the idea that he might someday be king. Lady Macbeth takes that idea and immediately starts to work planning how to make it happen. Without her influence, he might never have killed Duncan or committed any of the other offences in the play. Rather than placing her among the witches, you might say that she represents Macbeth's ambition.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would not.  Instead, think of her as yet another very influential female in Macbeth's life...even though Macbeth isn't completely sure the witches are female (he comments on their beards), he is intrigued and influenced by their actions in the play.  By the same token, he is influenced by his wife's words and actions up until the point he begins acting alone to secure his throne by hiring murders to take care of the threat of Banquo and Fleance.

singer4freedom | Student

The answer is both yes and no. First of all, Lady Macbeth is a human being, not a witch or supernatural element. It may be said lady Macbeth as the fourth witch, but only on a symbolic level, for she is associated with evil and malevolent, and manipulates her husband into murdering King Duncan. She persistently eggs him on by questioning his courage and manhood, and from the first, we see her calling upon the evil ones, "Spirits that tend on mortal thoughts," to help her in her quest. On the other hand, being a human being, she also has the prick of conscience and the feeling of guilt, which certainly overdoes her, as we see in the sleepwalking scene. She certainly is not in any specific manner like the three witches.

kc4u | Student

To call Lady Macbeth the fourth witch and to hold her solely responsible for the tragic end of Macbeth would be an over-simplification of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition:the problematic of evil in a self-divided personality.

The three witches who met Macbeth on the heath hailed the victorious general futuristically as the king of Scotland, but didn't offer any suggestion as to how Macbeth could attain kingship.When Macbeth demanded more to know from them, the witches vanished leaving him in a trance-like state to the suspicion of Banquo.The proclamation of the supernatural agency was but an exteriorisation of Macbeth's own evil ambition, rather than any direct provocation or suggestion of any modus operandi.

It is true that Lady Macbeth stood by her husband's ambition with iron determination, and but for her active support, Macbeth could not have killed Duncan. It is also true that Lady Macbeth chose to subvert her natural self to assume unnatural cruelty so that she could see her husband wear the crown. But while keeping all this in view, we must consider the following points:

a) It was Macbeth's letter which predisposed Lady Macbeth to her husband's ambition and the endorsement by the supernatural. Why did Macbeth send the letter when he himself was just about to ride back ahead of Duncan's visit?

b) Macbeth killed Duncan as per the blue-print made by his wife, but he went on to kill the two chamberlains on his own to strengthen his alibi of innocence.Lady Macbeth nver suggested that.

c) Lady Macbeth fainted in public after the discovery of Duncan's murder. It was the first sign of her mental disorder which culminated in her sleep-walking. A witch never faints or sleepwalks.

d) There are many evidences that show how after Duncan's killing Lady Macbeth was losing her grip on Macbeth and was drifting away from her husband.

e) After the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth was no longer seen beside her husband, and Macbeth was pro-active to enhance his own doom.

f) The scene of Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking reveals her pathetic victimhood. Such a guilt-stricken, terrorised soul can not be a witch-like woman.


sarangij | Student

 Read the contents Posted by robertwilliam.Great!

Liked the the interpretative autonomy of the crtic;in-depth answer which cleared a few doubts in the mind.


frizzyperm | Student

I'm not saying you can't, but I wouldn't.

 The Witches are a dramatic device, they are very minor characters with no real personality who pop up (literally!) and offer the temptation of being king to Macbeth. Their function (apart from being entertaining and spooky) is to deliver a couple of mystic messages to Macbeth, that's pretty much it for them. They aren't developed. They have no character

 On the other hand, Lady Macbeth is a central character. She is very human and three dimensional. She is not a dramatic device. I don't think she is in the same category as the witches.  

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