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The Witches

Extended Character Analysis

The witches, often referred to as the three “weird sisters,” are Macbeth’s dark and mysterious guides on his descent into evil and tyranny. The play opens with their premonition that “fair is foul, and foul is fair,” establishing their moral ambiguity and suggesting that, in the world of the play, things aren't always as they seem. When the witches first meet Banquo and Macbeth in act I, scene III, they are described as androgynous and “not like the inhabitants o’ the earth.” However, their prophecies prove fairer than their foul appearances portended, and, after becoming king, Macbeth seeks them out a second time. The witches deliver three more prophecies, lulling Macbeth into a false sense of security that ultimately brings about his downfall. 

The first time Macbeth meets the witches they address him by his current title (Thane of Glamis), the title of the traitor he helped defeat (Thane of Cawdor), and the title of “king that shalt be.” Macbeth accepts their greeting as prophetic, especially since Ross greets him as Thane of Cawdor on his return. Though at first content to enjoy his newfound favor with King Duncan, the witches’ words prompt Macbeth to anticipate claiming kingship as well, revealing the way the witches appeal to Macbeth’s ambitious nature. 

The essential nature of the witches is a source of speculation. By one interpretation, they are agents of evil, manipulating Macbeth into committing sinful acts. In Jacobean England, witches were viewed as religious traitors who had turned their back on the Christian God in favor of devilish practices. In Macbeth, the witches appeal to Macbeth’s pride and greed, two of the cardinal sins in Christian theology, leading him to murder the divinely appointed King Duncan and disrupt the natural order of succession. Furthermore, their potions contain a variety of ghastly ingredients, many of which are associated with the wicked or damned. By reading the witches as agents of evil, Macbeth’s fall from grace is the product of satanic intervention. The witches are corrupting forces, joined in their dark machinations by Lady Macbeth, the four of them facilitating the downfall of an otherwise good man.

However, the witches can also be read as agents of chaos. They refer to the battle with the Norwegian forces as a “hurlyburly,” or a confused state, highlighting a lack of regard for human life and the order it requires. Furthermore, their second set of prophecies to Macbeth are all designed to...

(The entire section is 624 words.)