The Role of Witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth
Shakespeare has made the witches and their prophecies play a major
part in the storyline and overall feeling of the play Macbeth. When he
was returning from Denmark after his marriage, James first came in
contact with witchcraft. A coven of witches in North Berwickshire had
tried to practice the black arts against him. Being unable to obtain
any of his clothes, they had christened a cat, tied to it parts of the
body of a dead man and carried it out to sea before the town of Leith,
'sailing in their riddles or sieves'. They raised a storm which
delayed the King's return and wrecked a ship carrying gifts for his
new Queen. The Danes on the ship convinced him that the bad weather
was caused by witchcraft. James at first doubted this story, but
agreed that the winds had been strangely contrary to his own ship, and
he was finally convinced.
The play 'Macbeth' displays many Elizabethan beliefs about witches and
witchcraft. For instance, they believed that witches could raise evil
spirits by concocting a brew from disgusting ingredients. This is
shown in the first scene of Act 4 where the witches are making a
'hell-broth' to conjure up apparitions for Macbeth. They include
repulsive ingredients such as, 'Liver of blaspheming Jew,' 'Nose of
Turk,' and 'tongue if dog.' The fact that they call it a 'hell-broth'
reflects the Elizabethan belief that these potions were linked to the
Witches were thought to be able to have an effect on the weather. They
could trigger fogs and tempests. In the very first scene of the play
the witches enter along with 'Thunder and Lightning.' The words of the
first witch indicate that the witches can create any type of weather
'When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning or in rain?'
It was also believed that witches could take demonic possession of any
individual by casting a spell over them. This is shown when the
trance-like Macbeth and his 'raptness' when the witches first tempt
him and he sees Banquo's ghost, indicate he was the victim of demonic
possession. He behaves compulsively, as if he is controlled by evil
spirits rather than by his own conscious mind. Macbeth's inability to
pray in scene 2 of act two is another symptom of this condition.
Macbeth returns from murdering Duncan and whimpers to Lady Macbeth,
'List'ning their fear, I could not say 'Amen'
When they did say 'God bless us.'
Witches were thought to have allowed the Devil to suck their blood in
exchange for an evil servant or a 'familiar' such as: a bird, beast or
reptile. This is again displayed in the first scene, where the witches
mention their 'beasts'.
'I come, Graymalkin.
It was thought that witches could predict the future
The witches have an...