The Partial Responsibility Of The Witches In William Shakespeare's Macbeth

4576 words - 18 pages

It is the purpose of this assignment to explore whether the witches
influenced Macbeth sufficiently to cause him to commit murder, treason
and regicide, or whether Macbeth was capable of committing these
crimes on his own and the witches only made this happen a little
earlier and a little more certainly. We will also explore the
Elizabethan audience, their superstitions, and how they would react to
the character of the witches as seen in Macbeth.

Historically, the witches have been seen as evil beings that gain evil
powers from the devil to use during their lifetime, in return for
their souls when they die. In the United Kingdom, man's belief in
witches and the supernatural was very strong during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. Laws were passed by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and
James I prohibiting witchcraft and making the practise punishable by
death.

Witches were used as scapegoats in Elizabethan society. During the
years 1580-90 there was a famine and rebellion throughout the land,
160 witch trials took place in south-east England alone. In the years
1620-30, there was relatively little famine only 25 trials took place,
the Civil War then broke out in 1642, the number of trials rocketed to
75.

If the crops failed or if an animal was sick, people would
automatically suspect that a witch was involved because the people at
this time had very little medical or scientific knowledge to explain
these occurrences.

The majority of witches executed were old women who lived alone, if
they kept any sort of animal for company, e.g. a cat, then people
could claim that the animal was a "familiar", an evil spirit given to
the witch by the devil and the woman would be tried. Shakespeare shows
that these women are witches, because in Act 1, Scene 1 the witches
call their familiars:

"I come Greymalkin!"
"Paddock calls!"
"Anon!"

People believed that witches fed their familiars on their own blood
through a mole or a birthmark. During trial the "witch" would be
searched for such a mark, or even tortured into a confession.

James I was terrified of witches, who he believed destroyed his ship
"The Tiger" and tried to kill him. The populace would follow the
example of their monarch and as a result people hated witches and were
horrified by the accounts they heard.

The effect that the witches would have had on the Elizabethan audience
would have been phenomenal. The audience would be filled with fear and
awe every time the witches appeared on stage, and they would be
shocked to see Macbeth consulting with witches, which was an act
punishable by death at the time.

Shakespeare uses numerous special effects where the witches are
concerned. This is especially true of the four scenes where the
witches directly appear, scenes Act 1 Scene 1, Act 1 Scene 3, Act 3
...

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