The Witches

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Last Updated on October 5, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

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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 be misleading. By lulling Macbeth into a false sense of security, they steer him towards his fall, which suggests that they don’t necessarily want Macbeth to succeed. Instead, they seem bent on causing confusion and chaos, which is further reinforced by Hecate’s declaration that “security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” By this reading, the witches seek to cause chaos amongst mortals, offering Macbeth fuel for his ambitions so that he can disrupt the natural order of the world. 

The witches have also been associated with the mythical fates of Norse and Greco-Roman mythology, allowing for an additional interpretation of them as agents of destiny. By this reading, the witches are a more passive presence, telling Macbeth only what is already inevitable. Rather than harboring a specific motive, the witches are simply a neutral, amoral force of prophecy. The witches never directly interfere with the events of the play, and they never tell Macbeth to do anything, instead delivering statements of fact about the future. It is ultimately Macbeth’s hand that murders Duncan, kills Banquo, and slaughters Macduff’s family. This reading positions Macbeth as the true evil within the play, the immoral and disloyal thane who uses the predictions of fate to justify his own murderous ambitions.

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