The Witches and Macbeth
The belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare's day, as demonstrated by the European witch craze, during which an estimated nine million women were put to death for being perceived as witches (The Burning Times). The practice of witchcraft was seen to subvert the established order of religion and society, and hence was not tolerated. Witch hunting was a respectable, moral, and highly intellectual pursuit through much of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries (Best ). The belief of the majority during the seventeenth century suggests that the witches are powerful figures who can exercise great power over Macbeth; however, strong arguments to the contrary were in existence at the same time. The intensity of the tragedy is dependent on whether the witches are perceived to be able to control the otherwise innocent Macbeth's actions, or if he is entirely responsible for his own demise.
Although not a "secret, black, and midnight hag" (4.1.48), as an evil female, Lady Macbeth could be considered a witch according to the standards of Shakespeare's day. In the same way that witches subvert the natural order of religion and society, Lady Macbeth subverts the order of the sexes and the family by trying to have more power than the head of the family, her husband. Not only does she act out of order, but several of her actions imply that she is actually witch-like. Firstly, it was widely believed in Europe for centuries that sorcery could cause impotence (Cotton 320). In the preface of Daemonologie, King James I asserts the power of witches to weaken "the nature of some men, to make them unavailable for women" (qtd. in Best). A major textbook for witch hunters, Malleus Maleficarum, describes how witches are able to make men impotent, or even make their penises disappear (qtd. in Best).
Although he is not made physically impotent, Lady Macbeth challenges her husband's manhood by being more aggressive than he is, taunting him, and suggesting, "When you durst do it, then you were a man"(1.7.55). Secondly, Lady Macbeth calls upon seemingly malevolent "...spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts" (1.5.40-41) to aid her in her plot to overcome her husband's reluctance and to force him to kill Duncan. Although devotedly loyal, she rejects her subordinate role as wife and asks to be transformed "...into an instrument of death whose cruelty transcends the limitations of her sex and of her mortal nature" (Truax 368). Finally, the fact that she works with the Weird Sisters to influence Macbeth suggests that she is at least indirectly allied with them.
Not all of Shakespeare's contemporaries agreed with witch hunters. Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft suggests that although witches do exist, they do not possess the powers attributed to them but instead their claimed effects were coincidental and the will of God, and that those persecuted as...