The witches, or weird sisters, of Macbeth have remained one of the most popular aspects of the play. The three witches, the first characters the audience encounters, are mysterious beings who set the tone for the rest of the play, most of which takes place in a similarly dark and stormy atmosphere. When the play was performed during the late English Renaissance, the witches would make their initial appearance coming up and out of the trap door on the stage of the Globe theater. Later productions included singing, dancing, and flying witches, attached to ceiling wires.
The witches also perform a more serious function than that of entertainment: their appearance in the play poses the question of whether Macbeth's actions are governed by fate or determined by his own free will. Critics have questioned the meaning behind the witches statement "All hail, Macbeth! That shall be King hereafter!" (I.iii.50). Is this statement a warning to Macbeth or does it tempt him to consider possibilities he may have thought of before? Or, is it a prophesy of the future? Through the witches, some maintain, Shakespeare questions whether our own lives are governed by fate or free will.
Questions regarding gender roles in Macbeth may also strike modern students as particularly compelling, as these roles in contemporary society continue to shift and evolve. Some observers read Lady Macbeth's persuasion of her husband to follow through on the murder of Duncan as being guided by her fascination with male power. She appeals to her husband's sense of manhood, and in effect, some maintain, uses seduction and humiliation to convince him to commit the murder. It has also been argued that Lady Macbeth rejects her own feminine "sensibilities" and takes on a more masculine role for herself because of her perception that femininity is equated with weakness. She assumes this masculine role for herself in an effort to act on her own ambition and desire for power.
Masculinity in this play appears to be defined almost exclusively by violent action, and Macbeth seems driven to prove his manhood through violent deeds, first in battle, then by murder. Macbeth's brutal slaying of Macdonwald is detailed by a sergeant: "he unseam'd him from the nave [navel] to the chops [jaws], / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (I.ii.22-3). When Macbeth begins to back away from the thought of murdering Duncan, telling his wife "We will proceed no further in this business" (I.vii.31), she questions his manhood, stating that when he initially broached the subject with her, then he was a man (I.vii.48-49). By the end of the scene, he has decided that he will kill the king. In addition to murdering Duncan, Macbeth murders the king's guards and then orders the murders of Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff s family. When Macduff learns of these last killings, Malcolm urges the grieving Macduff to take revenge, to act "like a man" (IV.iii.219).
It has been argued that Macbeth himself is distanced somewhat from the violence of the play in that he commits the murders of Duncan offstage, and he orders other people to commit the murder of Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff's family, rather than committing them himself. The notion that in the society in which Macbeth lived the stereotypical male was characterized by violence and that the violence was legitimized through warfare is agreed upon by many critics, however. Just as Macbeth uses violent means to further his own ambition, the play ends with Macbeth's violent removal from the throne and with Macduff appearing on stage with Macbeth's severed head.
Finally, the theme of ambition and how it relates to governance is a major issue in the play. Macbeth lets his ambition supersede his own judgment. In I.vii, he discusses the reasons why he should not kill Duncan. He states that his loyalty to the king has several layers: he is the king's subject, his kinsmen, and his host. After highlighting the king's virtues, Macbeth acknowledges that the only reason to kill Duncan is...
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