Macbeth and the Witches

by José Goris, M.A.


In today's society witchcraft is very diminished; we do not really believe witches have power over us. But in Shakespeare's days they burnt witches at the stake. Both in England and on the Continent, witchcraft plays an important part between the 14th and the 17th centuries; witches are regarded with fear yet at the same time with respect among the community. They are often thought of as females, cast out of society, usually gaunt and ugly, with evil and clairvoyant powers and the ability to transform others. The witch in Grimm's tale, for instance, transforms the hero into a frog, and renders herself invisible. The stereotype of a witch is a very ugly old woman wearing a long black dress and a tall, black pointed hat. Most witches are credited with the power of flying on a broomstick and may be accompanied by helpers in the form of animals - often black cats- with demonic powers, the so-called 'familiars'. They tend to gather in groups to perform their rites; known as the companions of the Devil, they have traditionally been feared and often hunted.

A great many witches stand trial at Court; many of them are accused of collaboration with the Devil and convicted to death by hanging or burnt at the stake. This is basically due to the exertions of witch-hunters, often working in teams and most assiduous in their beliefs. A well-known name in 17th century British witchcraft trials is Matthew Hopkins, operating with his assistants in the countryside of East Anglia. He manages to identify 200 witches, mostly elderly women. Evidence is based mainly on confessions forced out of relatives or friends; women are held prisoner till they confess having contacts with witches. Seen in the light of primitive folklore, we could suggest that Macbeth is a victim of evil forces; that the witches have transformed him, not into a frog, but into a greedy, ruthless murderer and endowed him with limitless lust of power. Is this what Shakespeare believes, and wants us to believe? What power do witches have and what is their influence on Macbeth?

Witches: Mostly Female

'The Tragedie of Macbeth'(1605) is based on facts; someone of that name reigned in Scotland in the 11th century. It is a violent and troubled time. The play opens with the entrance of the three witches. They meet in foul weather; they speak of thunder, lightning, fog and filthy air. Their words seem to contradict each other; it is confusing: fair is foul and foul is fair - everything is not what it seems. These first scenes have an alarming impact if you come from a society that believes in witchcraft, where witches are seen as scary creatures, casting evil spells, and plunging people into turmoil with mysterious predictions of the future. Witches have been described variously in the cause of history. Banquo describes them as creatures 'so wither'd and so wild in their attire, that look not like th'inhabitants o' th' earth, and yet are on it'. Shakespeare's witches have no names: they are referred to as the 'Weird Sisters'. 'Weird'- or to be precise, 'Weïrd', with a diaeresis on the i, which probably indicates how the word was pronounced, is also spelled 'weyard'. It comes from the Old English word 'wyrd', Middle English 'werd', which means 'fate'.

One of the most well documented characteristics of people accused of witchcraft is sex: in most areas of Europe about 75% of those accused are women. But men are also accused of sorcery. Crimes in which male witches are involved often have links to heresy: in the year 1108 a York archbishop, who died in odd circumstances, was suspected of dabbling in the occult and refused burial within the cathedral. Another male crime is political sorcery: it is not uncommon for men to use ritual magic to advance their political careers. When a witch- hunt gets out of control, indiscriminate accusations are sometimes made, and thus men become more likely to be named. There are several reasons why women tend to be more susceptible to accusations than men, most of these related to attitudes to women and the places and roles they have within a society, here: a patriarchal society. o begin with, women are thought to be morally weaker than men. They are therefore more likely to succumb to the temptations of the Devil; this idea has its roots in the earliest of Christian teachings. Another common idea, especially amongst clerics and monks, is the belief that women are more carnal and sexually indulgent than men. In relation to the charge of witchcraft this aspect is important, as women are often thought to have made the pact with the Devil as the result of sexual temptation; they often take part in sexual activity as part of the pact.

Then there is the fact that medical care for the community is seen as part of the domestic task of women. Girls are brought up with knowledge of all sorts of home remedies against the most common ailments. There are no doctors in the Middle Ages; no medical science as we have it. The opportunity to commit harmful acts- for instance by working with herbs in the kitchen and preparing mysterious ointments as cures is a cause of suspicion, especially in cases when the illness gets worse instead of better. Thus, there is only a very thin line between the art of medicine and witchcraft; yet at the same time, the supposed healing powers of these women give them regard and esteem. Midwives form a particularly vulnerable group: they are easily blamed for the death of infants. In a period of very high infant mortality and also occasional infanticide, to charge the midwife with causing the death of the child through magical means is both functional and plausible. It also offers the grieving family a target for revenge. Once accused of maleficia, demonological theory can easily be employed by the judges. Witches need unbaptized babies as sacrifices to the Devil, feast on them and use the remains in potions. Midwives are in the perfect position to supply these infants. As such, they are thought more likely to give in to the temptations of Satan.

Scabby Old Hags

Witches tend to be old, and there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, they are usually prosecuted after many years of suspicion; this keeps their age up. They also tend to be wise women and healers, titles that by definition involve age. Another explanation lies in the fact that older people, especially those who are senile, exhibit eccentric or anti-social behaviour, which makes people uncomfortable and invites accusations. Moreover, older people are less physically powerful and therefore more likely to resort to magic to defend themselves. Underlying the depiction of the old, sexually voracious witch is a deep male fear of sexually experienced, independent women. This is partly the reason that old widows are particularly susceptible to charges of witchcraft.

As to the marital status of witches when accused of witchcraft there is no definite trend; however, the percentage of unmarried (widowed or never married) is higher than of those married. In patriarchal societies, women who are not under the control of a husband or a father are a source of concern; these women are seen as a burden on society. Those married have their own sources of accusations, such as conflicts with spouse and children. These witches are believed to allow the expression of otherwise socially unacceptable feelings, such as a child rebelling against a parent, or a wife scolding her husband. Witches are often the village scolds, the person who often has harsh words for other people, who may curse and swear a lot: the sort of people you would not like to have as a neighbour. Another cause for conflict is when friction occurs over property, often belonging to the husband. Married women have no independent wealth or property, but they usually work alongside their husbands and therefore often find themselves involved in disputes over rents, labour or possession of land.

Most prosecuted from witchcraft are from the lower levels of society; they are often dependent on the community, which generates feelings of guilt and resentment. Some have to resort to begging to survive. The witch-hunts occur at a time when the level of poverty is becoming more severe and more widespread; this is partly due to an increase in population. While these unfavourable economic changes make people more likely to contemplate using magic to protect themselves, it also makes them more inclined to make accusations and to become less tolerant in their dealings with the poor, who are seen as the cause of the depressed state of affairs.

The text of 'Macbeth' does not provide much information on the personalities of the witches. Banquo, upon their first meeting on the heath, even doubts if they are female:

You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.'
(I, III, 45/47).

Probably this is an indication that they are old, untidy and uncared-for: they also have 'choppy fingers' and 'skinny lips'. They address each other as 'sister' and also Macbeth refers to them as such. Stage and screen versions of the play have interpreted their ages and personalities variously. Thames TV in 1979 sees them as old, haggard women, hanging out on the heath dressed in rags. They are pictured in a stereotyped way, and thus do not convey the power attributed to witches. The 1971 Polanski version also pictures them as old hags, cast out of society, but they look more disturbing and macabre; they certainly hold Macbeth's interest.

Our present-day generation no longer accepts the standard prototype of the witch as scaring. To make witches disturbing for a modern audience is a real challenge, as Amita Dhiri, a young British actress, describes in 'Shakespeare Shorts'(1999, BBC 2, Learning Zone): 'In the 1930s Orson Wells tried to do so by creating a rite-like atmosphere, using powerful images and music. The effect is frightening, it is as if they have created a baby out of clay.' Amita Dhiri herself has been asked to play one of the witches in a recent production, which has a modern setting, with Macbeth a returning war hero, from the Gulf War perhaps. It has reinterpreted the witches to make them more convincing to a present-day audience: as young and attractive women rather than old and haggard, strong personalities who are very much aware of their own sexuality, plotting together to ensnare their victim in an evil scheme.

The Evil Power of Witches: Maleficia

One of the most upsetting things about witchcraft to Europeans of the past is the 'fact' that witches sell their souls to the Devil. Church authorities are already desperate as it is to stamp out heresy, and outright devil-worship adds to their craze. Although some so-called witches practice only 'white' magic, such as working with herbs and ointments in healing, suspicions are aroused. Legal contracts made with Satan begin to appear in courts. These are taken as proof of heresy and high treason, both capital offences, whereas offences from blasphemy to practising medicine without a license would deserve lesser punishment. Once witches are regarded as, in effect, citizens of another country, the kingdom of darkness, sworn in fealty to another prince, the Devil, they are political enemies, and all that is fair in war is fair in dealing with them.

By 1398, it has been officially decided that witches have pacts with Satan. Maleficia - sorcery - is now a crime treated as treason to God and country. In 1608 William Perkins writes in 'A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft' that 'though the witches were in many respects profitable, and did not hurt but procured much good, yet, because he hath renounced God his king and governor and hath bound himself by other laws to the service of the enemies of God and his church, death is his portion justly assigned to him by God: he may not live.' As treasoners and devil- worshippers, witches are accused of many things:

There are many ways of making a pact with the Devil. The 'Formicarus', a witch-hunting manual (1435) gives the earliest if not the most complete description of what happens. Supplied with friends who have already forsworn God, the applicant arrives at a church on a Sunday morning very early and renounces God and the One, Holy, and Apostolic Church. He pays homage to the Devil, drinks the blood of sacrificed children, and subscribes to the rules of the damned, which cover many things from diet to cursing and sacrificing. He expresses the desire to trade his soul for one or more favours from the Evil One; often wealth or power for a specified number of years. Actually signing the Devil's paperwork is difficult. It must be signed in the person's blood, drawn from the left arm. If it will not flow easily- human nature resists such an act- it is warmed with fire, representing passion overcoming intellect. After that the person is inscribed in the red book of death.

The Malleus Malificarum

Another much used witch-hunting manual is the 'Malleus Malificarum'. It is written in 1484 by the Inquisitors James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, and describes various methods to capture a witch and to properly torture her for effective confessions; the book is made up of three parts. Part One deals with 'Treating of the three necessary concomitants of witchcraft which are the Devil, a Witch, and the permission of Almighty God'. It describes the belief that there are such beings as witches as an essential part of the Catholic Faith; opposing this viewpoint is seen as heresy. The power of witches- 'chiefly women are addicted to evil superstitions'- lies in the ability to 'sway the minds of men to love or hatred', to 'hebetate the Powers of Generation or obstruct the Venereal Act', to 'work some Prestidigitatory (juggling) Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body' and even to 'Change Men into Beasts.' Furthermore, witches are supposed to cooperate intimately with the Devil, which may involve having sex with him. An additional question is raised about midwives, and the ways in which they kill the child conceived in the womb or offer newborn babies to devils.

Part Two is about the methods by which the works of witchcraft are wrought and directed. It describes how witches are thought to commonly perform their spells through the Sacraments of the Church, and are therefore wont to practise their witchcraft at the more sacred times of the year, especially at the Advent of the Lord and at Christmas. By doing so they are seen as guilty of not only perfidy, but also sacrilege, by contaminating everything that is divine in humankind. They so offend God their creator more deeply, damn their own souls and cause many more to rush into sin. As an example of such sacrilege a case is described of a certain witch who, when she receives the Body of Our Lord during Communion, suddenly lowers her head, places her garment near her mouth and takes the Body out of her mouth. She wraps it in a handkerchief and afterwards, at the suggestion of the devil, places it in a pot in which there is a toad, and hides it in the ground near her house. With the help of God's mercy this great crime is detected and brought to light. For on the following day a workman is going on his business near that house, and hears the sound like a child crying; when he comes near the place where the pot is hidden, he hears it more clearly.

Thinking that some woman has buried a child there, he goes to the Mayor or chief Magistrate and tells him what has been done by, in his opinion, the infanticide. The Mayor quickly sends his servants, and places a watch to see if any woman comes near the place; for they don't know it is the Lord's Body that is hidden there. And so it happens that the same witch comes to the place, and secretly hides the pot under her garment before their eyes. When she is taken and questioned, she discloses her crime, saying that the Lord's Body has been hidden in the pot with a toad, so that by means of their dust she might be able to cause injuries at her will to men and other creatures. The book further describes how the consequences of witchcraft may be successfully annulled and dissolved; it prescribes remedies for the unfortunate gentlemen referred to in Part One: 'those who by Prestidigitory Art have lost their Virile Members or have seemingly been transformed into the Shapes of Beasts'. Part Three relates to the judicial proceedings in both the ecclesiastical and civil courts against witches and indeed all heretics, and the verdicts and sentences.

Witchcraft Trials

Like in the rest of Europe, witchcraft trials in Britain are rampant as from the early Middle Ages. The first report of witchcraft accusation and conviction dates back to 900: a widow from the Ailsworth estate in Northamptonshire has been drowned in the Thames at London Bridge in punishment for her conviction on a charge of witchcraft. The accusation is laid against her when an effigy of her neighbour is discovered in a closet at her house with an iron pin driven through its heart. The widow's estate is transferred to the victim; meanwhile, the widow's son is branded as an outlaw. But the heydays of the witch craze, in which Christian doctrines play an essential part, lie between 1100 and 1700 AD. In 1233 the first Papal Ordinance directly dealing with witchcraft is published, bidding inquisitors to refrain from judging any cases of witchcraft unless there is some very strong reason to suppose that heretical practice could also be amply proved.

A shocking and sensational witchcraft trial grips Ireland in 1324: in County Kilkenny a rich woman from an Anglo-Norman family, Dame Alice Kyteler, and ten of her associates are found guilty of heresy. Dame Alice has added to her wealth by marrying four husbands, and her various stepchildren have an intense dislike for her. They accuse her of killing some of their fathers by witchcraft, and of attempting to murder her present husband, Sir John le Poer, by administering powders which destroyed his nails and left him in a wasted condition and without hair on his body. Rumours abound that sackfuls of horrible objects have been found by Dame Alice's maid and sent to Bishop Richard Leatherhead for examination, and she and her associates have been accused of demon worship and of boiling evil substances in the skull of a decapitated burglar. Her private demon is said to be a cat or a Negro who drinks the blood of cocks. The associates are burnt alive or excommunicated, but Dame Alice escapes to England.

There are Scottish examples, too: in 1597 King James VI of Scotland publishes a book on witchcraft he has written himself, and this fuels a steadily growing witch scare that threatens to plunge the country into hysteria. Witch hunts and trials are happening all over Scotland, with numerous accounts of confessions obtained under torture. Testimonies beaten and tortured out of men, women and children contain claims of night-flying, diabolical assemblies, sex with demons and sermons preached to stir the people. Upon this, the King attends some of the torture sessions, in the belief that there is a pact against the Lord's anointed, by whom he means himself. The mixture of demonic powers and a plot against the King urges hysterical suspicions to the trial of those charged with anti-Christian practises, and puts them in the light of satanic political enemies.

The most zealous witch-finder in Britain in the first part of the 17th century is the son of a Suffolk miner, Matthew Hopkins. His work identifies some two hundred alleged witches, leading to a rapid rise in the number of witchcraft cases brought to court in Britain, and ending in convictions, several of which being hangings. Hopkins travels the countryside of East Anglia, accompanied by a male assistant and a female searcher, charging a fee wherever he finds a witch. Suspects are stripped and searched for the supposed secret third nipple, and accused of fornicating with the Devil. Most of those implicated in witchcraft in England are elderly women, often living alone. With the exception of cases like Hopkins's, prosecutions are initiated by neighbours rather than magistrates or church authorities. The women are usually charged with causing harm to their accusers or their accusers' children, relatives or animals.

Of the tortures used to obtain confessions, there is plenty of evidence. There are the 'gresilons' (in Scottish: 'pennywinkis'), which crush the tips of fingers and toes in a vice; the 'echelle' or 'ladder', a kind of rack which violently stretches the body, and the 'tortillon' which squeezes its tender parts at the same time. There is the 'strappado', a pulley which jerks the body violently in mid-air, and the 'leg screw', much used in Germany and Scotland, which squeezes the calf and breaks the shin-bone in pieces, and many more of equally cruel devices. But in the long run nothing is so effective as the 'tormentum insomniae', the torture of artificial sleeplessness which has been revived in some cultures in our days. Even those who are stout enough to resist other tortures will yield to a resolute application of this slower but more certain form of torture, and confess themselves to be witches. Once a witch has confessed, the next stage is to secure from her, again under torture, a list of all those of her neighbours she has seen at the witches' Sabbath. Thus a new set of indications is supplied, clerical science confirmed, and a fresh set of trials and tortures about to begin.

The Stake

The most frightening way to punish a convicted witch is burn her alive at the stake. The best-known example of this is Joan of Arc (1412-1431), a French peasant farmer's daughter, one of the most inspiring women in history and a powerful national symbol of France. When she is only thirteen she hears 'voices' accompanied by a brilliant light, instructing her to serve the Dauphin - the French Crown Prince - and save France. Her attempts to join the French army are met by skepticism and derision, but she persists. Several of her prophecies are fulfilled, and finally she gets approval. Her first expedition is to relieve besieged Orléans in 1429, and she inspires her men with her visionary courage. In the same year she secures another important victory over the English troops, capturing Troyes. When the Dauphin is crowned Charles VII at Rheims in July 1429 Joan is at his side, but even at this pinnacle of her achievement she suffers mockery and suspicion among courtiers, clergy and soldiers.

She continues to lead the army; a mission to recapture Paris in August fails, but in the following spring she sets out to relieve Compiègne, besieged by Burgundy, the ally of the English. She is captured there and handed over to the English, as King Charles makes no effort to save her. In Rouen Joan is charged with witchcraft and heresy; she is convicted and persuaded to recant. However, when she defiantly resumes the male attire she has promised to abandon, she is declared a heretic and burnt at the stake in Rouens. Twenty years later the case is reopened by a commission of Callistus III. A verdict of innocence is reached, but it is not until 1920 that Joan is canonized by Benedict XV. Joan has appealed to secular and literary minds as well as the pious, and many attempts have been made to explain her 'voices' and her significance as a patriot and as a woman in a male-dominated world.

The End of the Witch Craze

Gradually opinions opposing witchcraft are heard. The German physician Johan Weyer believes that most witches are melancholy mentally disturbed old women, incapable of harm. He thinks the belief in witchcraft is caused by the Devil and writes about this in his book 'De Praestigiis Daemonum' (1563). This book is denounced by Jean Bodin, a French judge, who claims that those who deny the existence of witches are themselves witches. In Britain Reginald Scot publishes 'The Discoverie of Witchcraft' (1584), suggesting that maybe witches do not really exist. In Spain an inquisitor by the name of Antonio Salazar de Frias steps in on the Basque witchcraft trials of 1611, where the Spanish Inquisition wants to do the usual burning of witches as heretics. After much deliberation and methodical research into the stories of witchcraft he decides that the men and women charged are under a form of mass hysteria and are protecting each other, and that witches are not harmful, but merely delusional and in need of help instead of condemnation.

The last witch to be executed in the whole of the UK is accepted to have been Jenny Horn of Loth in Sunderland. Details of the case are somewhat scanty; she is found guilty of witchcraft together with her daughter, but only she herself is executed. The daughter is seen as her victim. Jenny Horn is burnt at the stake one morning in 1722, even though there is some doubt as to whether it may have been 1727. In 1782 the last witch is burnt in Europe; yet up to this very day old people, mostly women, are still being killed as witches in South Africa.


Apart from the Weird Sisters, we occasionally come across the name of Hecate in the play; she is the only witch with a name:

'Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's off'rings'
(II, I, 52).

Hecate is the Goddess of classical and medieval witchcraft; she can be traced back to Greek mythology. As ancient myth has it, the universe is divided among three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. By drawing lots, Zeus has obtained the highest position, that of ruler of the world as God of Heaven. His dwelling is Mount Olympus, and his world that of light and warmth. Poseidon, who becomes God of the Sea, lives in the twilit bluish green magnificence at the bottom of the sea. The unfortunate Hades has got the worst cards: he is charged with the most difficult task, commanding the dead. His empire is hidden deeply under the surface of the earth, where not a single ray of light ever filters through, and where his subjects roam about in the shape of transparent ghosts. The only comfort for Hades is his young wife Persephone, whom he has abducted from the earth. She is with him only part of the year. Hades can make himself invisible by wearing a magical helmet, made for him by the Cyclops and thus visit the earth. However, he usually prefers to stay on his throne, surrounded by the Fates, three goddesses controlling people's fate on earth.

It is possible to enter the Underworld; several places on earth give access, for instance Cape Taindron, the cape south of the Peloponnese, and also in the West, past the Strait of Gibraltar on the other side of the Okeanos. Hermes, who accompanies the souls of the deceased on their trip from the earth to Hades, has his own route. By way of a long dark corridor he takes them to the dusky bank of the River Styx, a huge, drab and muddy river in the Underworld. There he asks Charon, the old ferryman, to take them across in his rickety, decayed boat- the ghosts are weightless, so it does not sink. Charon has strict orders only to transport souls of dead people who have been buried, or for whom relatives have held a burial ceremony. The others will never find peace and wander about forever on this side of the Styx. As soon as the sound of Charon's oars can be heard, the terrifying dog Cerberus appears. This is a monster with three frightful heads and a poisonous snake as a tail, appointed to guard the entrance of the Realms of the Dead. Following strict orders of King Hades, he does not permit a single living soul to enter, nor allows any unescorted ghost to leave. The only way they can sometimes return to the earth is in the company of Hecate, who picks them up from time to time to haunt their former earthly dwellings. Hecate is a Greek Goddess with three heads, symbolizing the three worlds in which she can manifest herself: the underworld, the earth and the air. The number 'three' and its multiples is important in later witchcraft tales: in 'Macbeth'there are three weird sisters, and their charms are affected by 'thrice' and 'nine':

'Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine
Peace! - the charm's wound up.'
( I, III, 35/ 37).

You can find Hecate and her ghosts at three-forked roads at night, and the best thing to do is to put her in a good mood by favouring her with images and gifts. Without her help not a single soul will get away from the underworld, and not a single sorceress, magician or witch can successfully perform magic. Her name appears in several of Shakespeare's plays to picture a dark and sinister atmosphere:

'Ere the bat hath flown his cloister'd flight,
ere to black Hecate's summons the shard-born beetle
there shall be done a deed of dreadful note'
( Macbeth III, II, 41/ 44).

Here, 'black' suggests evil as well as darkness; compare 'pale' in the first quote. 'Hecate' is properly another name for 'Diana' and 'Luna', moon goddesses, so that 'black' seems to be an appropriate epithet to symbolize the dark forces of the moon and 'pale' its 'wan face'. In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1594) Hecate is described almost as a personification of Night:

Puck:'And we fairies, that do run,
by the triple Hecate's team,
from the presence of the sun,
following darkness like a dream'
( V, I, 391 / 394).

In 'Hamlet' Hecate is invoked as Lucianus pours the poison in the King's ear in 'The Murder of Gonzago' , the play within the play:

'Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected
With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property,
On wholesome life usurp immediately'.
(III, II, 294 / 297 ).

In 'Macbeth' her appearances also serve to display hierarchy in the realms of witchcraft: she scolds the Weird Sisters for not consulting her in their trading with Macbeth, and for wasting their energy on such a 'wayward son', who only 'loves for his own ends'. Most critics see Hecate's appearances in the play as non-Shakespearean interpolations. 'I believe that the Hecate passages were written by a writer, not without poetic talent, in order to explain and introduce the two songs and the dance.'(Kenneth Muir, Introduction to the Arden Shakespeare). The instances where she appears with the other witches have most likely been added to introduce the music and songs in the play. The writer of these passages is supposed to be the playwright Middleton, as two songs of his play 'The Witch' are sung in the Hecate fragments in Act 3, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 1. It has not been possible to determine when the two songs were added to 'Macbeth', but presumably this was after the 1611 performance, without Shakespeare's knowing. It was then found necessary to make certain alterations, which would account for cuts in Act 1 and the possible rearrangement of several scenes later in the play. Several screen and staged versions of the play have left out the Hecate scenes, reflecting the belief that if Shakespeare, if he had been available, would have been asked himself to carry out the revisions.

The Influence of the Witches on Macbeth

Even though the witches first meet Macbeth in foul weather, on a dismal, lonely heath; they have chosen the right moment, for Macbeth is in a victorious mood after the successes in battle. The society Shakespeare pictures - Scotland in the 11th Century- is full of conflict and tyranny; kingship is not a safe position, fighting and killing to get to the throne is not uncommon. Macbeth cannot resist the thought of himself as King and is immediately lost in thought at the suggestion of the witches, who are using their magic power to predict his future. Their speech is choreographed and they speak as if in one voice; as if their message to Macbeth is written down somewhere. This makes their language very powerful. We do not know if at this point he already considers murdering the King, but the witches' predictions are excellently timed to echo his innermost desires. Banquo is not half as impressed; he notices that Macbeth starts and is 'rapt withal'. He cannot quite understand why, he thinks the prospect of being a King is 'fair':

'Good Sir, why do you start, and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?'
(I, I, 51/52).

Macbeth obviously does not simply interpret the witches' words as a happy foreboding; his mind is tormented by their riddles. 'Stay, imperfect speakers, tell me more', he begs of them, but they leave him to his own devices. Banquo gets his friend's feet back on the ground:

Banquo:'Have we eaten on the insane root,
That takes the reason prisoner?'
Macbeth: 'Your children shall be kings.'
(I, III, 85).

However, his skepticism is not for long. Rosse arrives and brings him the news: Macbeth has been made Thane of Cawdor. The first part of the prediction has proved true, and this 'supernatural soliciting' triggers off Macbeth's darkest thoughts, which may well involve murdering Duncan; a conflict between a violent passion and complacent reason ensues:

'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?'
(I, III, 134).
'If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me,
without my stir.'
(I, III,144).

In his letter to his wife he wins her over by mentioning 'what greatness is promis'd thee', the implication being that if he is King, she will be Queen. As from then they are in it together. For the ambitious Lady Macbeth half a word is enough; she instantly seems to grasp that an evil scheme is needed for such a prediction to come true and she is the last person to allow her husband to back out of his ambitions. Even though the witches have plunged him into turmoil, Macbeth does not blame them for his entering such a murderous track. He willingly visits them again; even though he is driven by despair, his visit is premeditated and made of his own accord. Again they- or rather: their apparitions- seem to see what lies ahead in Macbeth's future:

'Macbeth ! Beware of Macduff;
Beware the Thane of Fife.'
(IV, I, 71/72).
'For none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.'
(IV, I, 80/81).
'Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be, until
Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.' (IV, I, 92/93).

In his utter loneliness, alienated from his wife, haunted by the ghost of his best friend and tormented by guilt of his murderous actions, Macbeth is craving for support: and this is what he - falsely - gets. Again the witches know their man, and play upon his innermost desires: this time his desperate need for a sense of reassurance and security. Again their influence on his mind is overwhelming; he believes them unconditionally and feels invulnerable and heroic until the end:

'Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?'
(IV, I, 82).
'That will never be:
Who can impress the forest; bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root?'
(IV, I, 95/96).

He discards his servant who tries to warn him for the approaching soldiers (V, III, 14/19), and calls the messenger who brings the news of the moving wood a liar. (V, V, 33/35). Not until the soldiers are at his gate does he begin to doubt 'th'equivocation of the fiend' (V, V, 43). And even then he is still convinced he bears 'a charmed life; which must not yield /To one of woman born' (V, VIII, 12/13). His sense of security does not give way until the very end, when he realizes he has been told a lie:

'Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cow'd my better part of man:
And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.'
(V, VIII,17/23).


Belief in witches fulfills an important social function in mediaeval times. Just as black magic or in our present time forms of New Age and religious sects are invoked to predict the future and explain seemingly inexplicable events, disasters, particular illnesses, unhappiness or suffering, so witches provide a visible and comprehensible object to be burdened with the responsibility for such happenings. A convenient one, for that matter, for they usually belong to the community itself, where small-town fear and jealousy trigger off suspicion of demonic powers.

My research has shown that belief in witches is very much the product of an obsessively Catholic and patriarchic society. Accusations made against witches are based on prejudice and superstitions, and very little, if at all, on facts. Their history dates back to and is connected with ancient Greek mythology. Witchcraft basically belongs to the period of the Middle Ages, with its belief in the Almighty and the supernatural. In Renaissance times, when man's reasoning powers and logical thinking become more prominent, superstition gradually dies out. The influence of witches on society is considerable; they upset the status quo and cause unrest in the community. They have a strong influence on people's mind and bring about hysterical reactions.

This can be seen in Shakespeare's play, too: the witches serve to create an atmosphere of darkness and foreboding. Banquo even dreams of them. They thoroughly disturb the peace of mind and the life of Macbeth, who had hitherto been a brave warrior and a loyal subject but, once put upon his murderous track, suddenly seems to be transformed into a mad butcher. Whatever power witches really have, the Weird Sisters certainly possess a strong female intuition, and use it in a wicked and hypnotizing way. They certainly 'know their man' and his vulnerabilities.

To a modern audience, the way the predictions of the apparitions materialize in the end is rather farcical. However, it must have been very convincing in Elizabethan times when superstition and foreboding were strongholds. The role of the witches in Shakespeare's plays are symbolic for the dramatic effect of sin in which men may be triggered by evil forces

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Macbeth / The Arden Shakespeare
Larousse / Dictionary of World Folklore
Mythen en Sagen van de Griekse Wereld / Dr. Sophie Ramond
The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger / Montague Summers
Witchcraft Craze History / Stella Australis
Longman's Dictionary of the English Culture
Chronicle of Britain
Hecate's Shrine
The Witches' Page
A Time Line of Witch Trial History
BBC - Broadcast: Shakespeare's Shorts, BBC Learning Zone 1999.