Why do the witches in Macbeth speak in rhyme?

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The three witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth are some of the play’s most memorable characters. Part of what makes these characters memorable is that they tend to speak in catchy, lyrical rhymes. Sometimes all three witches rhyme in unison. For example:

ALL

Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.12–13)

Sometimes, they rhyme individually:

FIRST WITCH

I'll drain him dry as hay.
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev'n nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed. (1.3.19–26)

Overall, their rhyming speech makes the witches stand out as unusual or supernatural characters because they do not speak exactly like the regular humans in the play. The rhymes are reminiscent of witches’ spells that the audience may have heard elsewhere, adding to the ability of the audience to believe in the characters’ dramatic witchcraft ceremonies. In general, Shakespeare tends to use rhyme in his plays to suggest the ritualistic, the surreal, and the supernatural (Schwartz, 2005). The witches in Macbeth are a perfect example of this.

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In Macbeth, the witches speak in rhymed couplets most of the time:

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,

Other times, they speak in unrhymed iambic tetrameter.

Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!

OR prose:

A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munch'd, and munch'd, and munch'd:--
'Give me,' quoth I:
'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries.

This is an inversion of how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speak: they speak in blank verse most of the time, and in prose and rhymed verse rarely.  Not only that, but Macbeth gets the best lines, then Lady Macbeth, then the witches.

The differences in verse meter shows the divisions in rank and status according to the Great Chain of Being.  Here's the hierarchy of language:

1.  Poetry (Blank Verse):

•Macbeth: thoughtful, poetic iambic pentameter (elevates him above rest)

•Lady Macbeth: plain, unimaginative iambic pentameter

2.  Poetry (Rhyming Couplets)

•Witches: short,...

(The entire section contains 3 answers and 717 words.)

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