The Character of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's Play
The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable
figures in the play.
* How does Shakespeare characterize the witches?
* What is their thematic significance?
How does Shakespeare characterize the witches?
In the play Macbeth, the witches have been characterised intimately.
Shakespeare has portrayed them as evil hags that are possessed by the
The belief that witches are part of reality was widespread. The book,
Daemonologie (published 1599), written by James I, shows that James
firmly believed in the power of witchcraft and the harm that it could
The witches in Macbeth are the antithesis of GodÂ’s divine commands.
They appear in bad weather, talk in riddles and their appearance is
somewhat inhuman. They have no respect for anyone and, as their
actions imply, they do their foretelling for their own good, not for
The witches could have originated from three possible phenomena: the
Three Fates or Norns, devils, or sorcerers. Historically the Three
Fates have the omnipotent power of controlling all things. The old
English word Â‘WyrdÂ’ was a noun meaning Â‘FateÂ’, forming the connection
between the Three Fates and MacbethÂ’s Â‘WeÑ—rd SistersÂ’ (act 1, scene
3). However, his Â‘WeÑ—rd SistersÂ’ have the traditional accessories and
attitudes of normal witches, like possessing familiars, and, unlike
Norns who control absolutely the past, present and future, the witches
only influence these factors. ShakespeareÂ’s intention in the play was
to show how Macbeth brings about his own downfall through moral
degeneration, influenced by the witches. The witches could therefore
not have been Norns or the Three Fates, as Macbeth would not have been
in control of his own destiny as Shakespeare intended.
Some people thought that the witches were devils, appearing as hags.
Devils, as was thought, could not predict the future, but they could
make specific prophecies, having a greater knowledge of peopleÂ’s ways,
than people themselves. In this view the devils adopt the form of
hags to scare Banquo and Macbeth, yet at the same time to encourage
them to believe in the existence of supernatural power. However, this
display of extraordinary power should have caused the two men to
distrust them, and to ignore their prophecies. Therefore, this would
not have been ShakespeareÂ’s intention, as Macbeth did indeed carry out
prophecy made by the witches.
The most believable idea is that the witches are sorcerers that have
sold themselves to the devil, in order to keep their supernatural
powers. Witches in those days were thought of as people who dealt
directly with the devil (acting as agents). They are as malignant as
devils and rejoice in the...