Why do the witches in Macbeth speak in rhyme?

The witches in Macbeth speak in rhyme to produce a number of effects. First, the rhyming speech makes them sound supernatural and odd. Second, the rhyming makes their speech sound as if they are always casting spells, appropriate for characters who conjure spirits. Finally, it adds to the idea that they know the future, that they can predict events to come as they can predict the next rhyme.

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The Weird Sisters likely speak in rhyme for a number of reasons. First, it makes them seem otherworldly and strange, as it differentiates their speech from the (usually) unrhymed speech of the other characters. Macbeth and the other nobles speak in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter, for much of the play, while the Weird Sisters are the only characters whose speech rhymes with any regularity. It is a sort of aural, linguistic clue that they are different from everyone else—that they are strange.

Second, their rhyming makes their speech sound more chant-like and hypnotic, as though they are constantly casting spells. It fits with what we might expect from witches who conjure spirits, as there is something that feels magical about characters who speak in rhyme. The play opens with this hypnotic speech, alerting the audience to the mystical, magical quality of the action as well as creating a sense of foreboding:

FIRST WITCH. When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH. When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

THIRD WITCH. That will be ere the set of sun (1.1.1-5).

Third, the predictability of the rhyming, especially because their speech is so rhythmic, seems to add to the sense that the witches do, indeed, know the future. If one is to speak in rhyme, one must constantly think ahead to the next word, phrase, or line, so that it is sure to rhyme with the one just before or after it. For the witches to speak in rhyme so consistently, and even to rhyme with one another at times (as we see above with the second and third witches), means that they certainly do have an eye toward, or even some ability to predict, the future.

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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:


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

Sometimes, they rhyme individually:


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, choppy iambic tetrameter

3.  Prose:

•Porter (servant): dark, bawdy common language; paragraphs

So, even though the witches are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they outrank only the drunken Porter in terms of language and importance in the play.  Their shortened lines show that they speak in a different tongue than nobility.  Their rhymes show that their riddles are meant to be remembered, as they resonate and echo throughout the play, both in Macbeth's and the audience's memories.

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The witches in Macbeth are unlike any of the other characters. They are "the weird sisters" - they have beards, and conjure up bizarre potions. Also, unlike the other characters, they are the only ones that use rhymed speech in the play. In a way, it sets them apart even more. It makes them seem slightly ridiculous, almost caricatures of the supernatural - jokes, in a way. They speak in rhyming couplets throughout (“Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” ), which also separates them from the other characters who mostly use blank verse to speak. A common technique that Shakespeare uses is to switch rhyme and meter to capture peoples' attention. Remember that these plays were viewed, not read, so playwrights had to use different techniques back in the day to make the audience pay attention. There were no special effects. What they did have were things like "iambic pentameter". Many times when Shakespeare wanted to make sure the audience was paying attention to an important part, he would go from blank verse to "iambic pentameter" which is very rhythmic in English.

So, he does this with the witches. He wants to call peoples' attention to what the witches say because the entire play hinges on their prophesy. If Macbeth had not heard their predictions, he would have gone his merry way and lived happily ever after..........well............maybe not.

The witches’ words seem humorous, like twised nursery rhymes. Despite the absurdity of their recipes (newt's eye, frog's toe, etc.), they are dangerous characters in the play. They are powerful and wicked and seem to have an uncanny sense of how to mess with Macbeth's head.

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