What Was the Witches\' Role in Macbeth?


In Shakespeare\'s time, many people were superstitious; they believed
that that their lives were strongly influenced, if not dictated by fate. They
also thought that the world was full of supernatural creatures, such as witches,
ghosts, and many other such beings. Shakespeare incorporated these aspects of
belief in his play Mac Beth. The witches, although accurately predicting what
would occur, i.e., Mac Beth would be king, they did not specify how their
prophecies would be realized.

The witches did possess some sort of power (unless they were privy to
some political information which MacBeth was not aware of), otherwise, how could
they have known that MacBeth had been appointed Thane of Cawdor? Of course,
once MacBeth, who, living in such a society, was superstitious, is presented
with Cawdor\'s title, he believes that the other prediction, namely his kingship,
must come true. Banquo notes the danger inherent in believing (and subsequently
acting on) the witches\' predictions; he says, "Were such things here as we do
speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason
prisoner?" Act I, scene 3, ll.83-85.

MacBeth is quite overwhelmed when he hears that he is now the Thane of
Cawdor. However, almost immediately, he starts thinking about how to bring
about his rule as king.

"Aside} Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.—I thank you, gentlemen.
Aside} This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am the thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings;
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise; and nothing is
But what is not." (1.3.127-141)

MacBeth seems to be fantasizing about having a direct role in Duncan\'s
downfall. He apparently believes that the only way to make the witches\'
predictions come about, is to act on his urges (although he attained the title
of Cawdor without any extraneous effort).

A wife has a large influence on her husband\'s thinking. Lady MacBeth
tries to persuade MacBeth to murder Duncan. Throughout Act I, scene 5, there
are many speeches in which she tries to convince him. However, the monologue
most relevant to my theme is Lady MacBeth\'s first speech:

"Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o\' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou ‘ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, "Thus thou must do, if thou have it"\'
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have crowned the withal." (1.5.10-24)

Lady MacBeth believes that although the titles were promised to MacBeth,
he needs to possess ambition in order to bring about his fortune. This belief
is what drives MacBeth and his wife during the first two acts of the play.
Although they feel that they need to make some effort, they do not seriously
consider the possibility that the predictions would be realized without any
effort- MacBeth might still be king without having to murder Duncan.

Towards the middle of the play, in act three, the witches meet with a
goddess of evil, Hecate, who demands that they lead Mac Beth astray, so he will
become arrogant, thinking that he is invincible. She says:

"How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call\'d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not