Discuss the Role Played by the Witches in the Tragedy of Macbeth Essay

A classical tragedy tells the story of the downfall of a great man. The hero always has good qualities and usually a high status. His downfall is bought about by some weakness “tragic flaw” in his character. The tragic hero’s downfall involves and affects those around him. The tragedy usually results in the audience’s pity for the tragic hero. When the play is named after the hero, he is called an eponymous hero. All the above apply directly to Macbeth. He begins with the impressive title: Thane of Glamis, he is a cousin of King Duncan and he’s a great War hero. He’s physically a very strong man, very brave and a great general. He’s very loving and affectionate towards his wife, he is loyal to the king at the beginning of the play and is naturally confident. The main flaw in his character is his ambition!

This driving ambition is played upon by circumstances. The witches encourage his ambition. Macbeth becomes falsely confident and his killing gets out of control. Many innocent people suffer: Banquo, Macduff’s wife and children and Kind Duncan to name a few. Once Macbeth becomes king he becomes a complete control freak and makes many, many enemies. Some of his subjects stay with him right through to his death but this is out of fear rather than loyalty. We pity Macbeth at the end of the play. He has lost everything. He has gone from being a powerful and respected Thane to a greedy, authority-seeking tyrant with no friends and lots of enemies.

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The play opens on a scene of the witches plotting to meet Macbeth. This scene introduces many themes and ideas. Immediately, we, the audience, are introduced to an evil and supernatural atmosphere. The audience at the time of Shakespeare would’ve believed in the witches completely. As we see in Shakespeare’s stage directions, there is a storm. We hear there is also a war going on and in reference to that, the witches begin they’re habit of talking in riddles. The war has a double meaning.

“When the battle’s lost, and won.”

This sounds odd but actually makes perfect sense. There was a war between Scotland and Norway at the time and obviously one side would win and one side would lose. That is what the witches mean. It could also be taken a different way. As soon as the war is over and Scotland has won, Macbeth begins the greedy and ambitious struggle to become king. The storm and the battle represent an upset in nature and things in turmoil. Another term with a double meaning is used at the end of the play. The first line of the quote tells us that appearances can be deceptive. Something that appears beautiful on the outside can actually be ugly and “foul” on the inside. This refers to many parts of the play. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself appear very normal and are positive characters at the beginning of the play. Macbeth and his wife become more and more evil as the play draws on.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,

Hover through fog and filthy air”

The final line of the scene (the bottom line of this quote) shows us what the typical impression of a witch was at the time of Shakespeare. The witches were expected to fly. The air they fly through is foggy and “filthy”. Undoubtedly an evil atmosphere has been created in the opening scene of this tragic play.

Act 1 scene 3 is a crucial scene. This is the scene that sets the plot in motion. It begins with the first witch telling the other two about the havoc she has just been wreaking on a sailor and his wife. When Macbeth enters the scene on horseback with Banquo, he also speaks of “foul and fair”. Maybe the day is foul because the storm still lingers in the air. Maybe the day is foul because the witches are very near. Perhaps the fact that Macbeth repeats the same phrase as the witches compares him to them and makes them appear very similar. I think it’s all the above. When Banquo and Macbeth happen upon the witches on this foul day, Macbeth is greeted by the hags and addressed by three titles. The first is thane of Glamis (Macbeth already owns this title), the second is thane of Cawdor and the third, final and strangest is King.

“FIRST WITCH: All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of

Glamis.

SECOND WITCH: All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of

Cawdor.

THIRD WITCH: All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King

Hereafter.”

At first it is Banquo who seems excited by this news and Macbeth appears cautious. This soon changes though. Banquo asks Macbeth why he isn’t excited by what the witches have said. Banquo also asks the witches about his own future. They reply in riddles.

“FIRST WITCH: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.

SECOND WITCH: Not so happy, yet much happier.

THIRD WITCH: Thou shalt get Kings, though thou be

none…”

The last line is most important. It basically says that Banquo will not be a king but his sons will be. This is important for later in the play. The witches predict in a different way for a reason. They tell Banquo less because they are secretly there to meet Macbeth. I think they tell Banquo something because it will stir up even more trouble later. After the witches predict for Banquo, Macbeth becomes more interested in his own future. He challenges the witches to reveal more. Macbeth doesn’t understand the predictions. He knows that he is Thane of Glamis but he thinks the Thane of Cawdor lives. And being King,

“Stands not within the prospect of belief…”

But the witches vanish and Macbeth and is left unsatisfied. Banquo and Macbeth start to engage in a conversation about whether or not this actually happened when two noblemen of Scotland enter: Ross and Angus. They bring news of a promotion for Macbeth. They say thank you from the King for Macbeth’s efforts in the war and inform Macbeth that he has been given the title of Thane of Cawdor. This news comes as a huge shock for Banquo and Macbeth. Banquo refers to the witches as the devil now,

“What, can the Devil speak true?”

Macbeth doesn’t believe them though and says that the Thane of Cawdor still lives. Angus explains that the old Thane of Cawdor has been striped of his title and lays in wait, in a cell, for execution. Macbeth thanks them for delivering the message and turns to speak to Banquo. Macbeth asks Banquo if he’s excited at his own predictions since part of what the witches said had already come true. Banquo appears sceptical and tries to calm Macbeth down. Unfortunately, Macbeth’s excitement is beginning and the ambitious and tragic flaw in his character is beginning to show.

“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 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…”

Banquo and Macbeth leave to see the King.

Although the witches do not appear again until Act 4, we can see their evil influence through the development of the plot and characters. The mood, atmosphere, language and imagery are also affected by the witches’ power over Macbeth. Their predictions take control of his life. In Act 1 scene 4, we learn that Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, has been promoted to prince of Cumberland and that King Duncan is coming to stay at Macbeth’s castle. Upon hearing the news of Malcolm’s promotion, Macbeth begins to feel threatened. He is convinced that he is going to be King now and he sees Malcolm as an obstacle he must “o’erleap” and conquer. I think Macbeth feels some guilt at his extreme ambition. He knows that it is wrong! In this quote we see that Macbeth want nobody to see what he is thinking and what he plans to do,

“Stars hide your fires,

Let not light see my black and deep desires…”

The reference to light and colour is important. The imagery of the stars is a very poetic symbol, the fire shows the extremity of his feelings and the black really expresses the present emotions in his character: anger, ambition and envy. We can see the witches’ influence already. Act 1 scene 5 opens with Lady Macbeth reading the letter sent to her by her husband. The letter informs her of Macbeth’s meeting with the witches, their predictions, the fulfilment of the prophecies and King Duncan’s intended visit. Our first impressions are that Macbeth’s relationship with his wife is very healthy and loving, “My dearest partner in greatness”. After reading her dear husband’s letter, Lady Macbeth engages in a long soliloquy. A soliloquy is a speech made by a character, unheard by other characters and revealing his or her deepest and innermost feelings and thoughts to the audience. In her soliloquy Lady Macbeth says that she doesn’t really believe her husband is man enough to take control and seize the crown for himself.

“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be

What thou art promis’d : yet do I fear thy nature,

It is too full o’ th’ milk of humane kindness,

To catch the nearest way.”

Lady Macbeth is clearly very influential in Macbeth’s decisions. She more or less decides that she will convince her husband to kill Duncan and gain the crown for himself.

“Hie thee hither,

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,

And chastise with the valour of my tongue

All that impedes thee from the golden round,

Which Fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

To have thee crown’d withal”

The reference to Fate is interesting. The Fates were some of the oldest and original witches. Here we see a reference to the supernatural. Even the word “spirits” adds to the atmosphere. After a messenger has entered, told Lady Macbeth her husband was coming and left, Lady Macbeth starts another speech. This speech itself is very witch-like. This is another indication of the witches influence spreading. Her speech refers to a raven- an omen of doom. She continues with “under my battlements”. This seems very similar to the Tower of London. The tower is associated with death; her castle is the same because.

The next part “Come you spirits…” another allusion to the supernatural. “…unsex me here…”. She doesn’t want to be the typical squeamish, weak, powerless girl. She wants the power and brutality of a man. “…make thick my blood…” this means she wants to be strong against the feelings of guilt, fear and “remorse”. She refers to “Nature”. This shows us another upset in nature and nature in turmoil. When her husband arrives alone she asks how long he will be staying. When Macbeth tells her it’s just the one night, she suggests that Duncan should be killed while he stays there. His face obviously displays his feelings and emotions well. Lady Macbeth responds by telling him he needs to disguise that if her plan is going to work. He must appear normal but be plotting underneath,

“…look like th’ innocent flower,

But be the serpent under ‘t.”

It is Lady Macbeth’s push that really gets Macbeth going.

When Duncan arrives at the castle, he uses very soft and innocent language: “pleasant”, “nimbly”, “sweetly” and “gentle senses”. The King is clearly oblivious that death is awaiting him. When he greets Lady Macbeth he is totally deceived by her exterior performance. He is very polite and grateful for her allowing them to stay. Lady Macbeth tells him she is glad to have him staying. This is quite ironic. The king thinks she is being gracious but in fact she has her own plans for him. Lady Macbeth escorts him to Macbeth.

In Act 1 scene 7 Macbeth recites a soliloquy in which he is contemplating the murder of Duncan. He isn’t confident at all. He doesn’t want to go through with it for the many reasons. He is the King’s host for the night and he is not only the King’s cousin but also his subject. Macbeth knows there will be consequences to his actions, “plagues the inventor”. He also knows he might fail. Macbeth thinks Duncan is a good King and Duncan has just rewarded his faithful subject, Macbeth, with the title: Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth enters the stage to ask Macbeth how things are going. She is surprised Macbeth has left the King’s side before he’s retired to bed. Macbeth attempts to tell his wife that things will go no further but she won’t agree. She uses several tactics to make her husband comply.

First she calls him a coward and says he isn’t a true man. She also makes him feel guilty. She tells him she would never break her word to him. Lady Macbeth said she would always keep her word to him even if it meant killing her own baby. Macbeth then pleads with her, “If we should fail?” and she replies, “We fail?” She clearly believes that they are such a strong team and that nothing can go wrong. Lady Macbeth has been plotting herself. She explains to Macbeth that she will get the King’s chamberlains drunk so the murder will be possible. Macbeth ends this scene with what seems like a sad line. He knows what he is doing is wrong but he must fight against that feeling for his wife. The woman he sees as his dearest partner in greatest. The same woman who is almost forcing Macbeth to kill Duncan.

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

Lady Macbeth really comes across as a villain in this scene. She takes a powerful, confident and well-loved man and turns him into her servant. She knows exactly how to get her own way with him and is very manipulative in this scene.

In the first scene of Act 2, a great mood is created. There are all sorts of unnatural happenings going on. An atmosphere of darkness and evil is introduced as early as the second line of the Act. Banquo addresses his son, Fleance, and asks, “How goes the night…” Fleance replies, “The moon is down…” This adds to the atmosphere. They are stood almost in darkness. We’re led to believe that it’s after twelve o’ clock. The witching hour. Macbeth approaches Banquo and Fleance and Macbeth and Banquo talk of “…the three weird sisters…” The talk of the witches reminds us what evil still lurks around the two of them. Banquo says he is dreaming of them and wonders if Macbeth does also as one of the predictions for Macbeth came true. “I think not of them…” Macbeth replies. Fleance and Banquo leave.

Macbeth proceeds to the King’s chamber. On his journey to his chamber he embarks upon an apparition. He sees a dagger hovering in front of his eyes. The very word “dagger” fills us with excitement. We know that something is about to happen and the anticipation builds through Macbeth’s soliloquy. Macbeth understands that the dagger isn’t real. His explanation for this vision is his “heat-oppressed brain”. The fact that Macbeth goes on and on about this dagger being “…a false creation…” leads us to believe that he is trying to convince himself, not us. Macbeth hears his wife ring a bell and Macbeth’s last words refer to superstition, “…Heaven, or to Hell.”

In Act 2, scene 2, the state of mind of both Macbeth and his Lady are completely different to their normal selves. Lady Macbeth has drugged the guards and is awaiting her husband. She jumps at the sound of an owl. She’s on edge. “Death and Nature…” are mentioned again. We understand that this is all unnatural and nature has been turned upside-down. As Macbeth goes to join her in the darkness they are both very jumpy. Lady Macbeth is afraid the servants she drugged have “awak’d” and that the murder hasn’t gone to plan at all. Macbeth tells her that he has killed Duncan. Macbeth tells his “…dearest partner in greatness…” that as he walked past a servant’s room he heard one speak and Macbeth himself could not say “Amen”. This is obviously very important to Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth tries her best to make him forget it but he goes on. She tries to make him understand that if he thinks like that after the murder, he will go insane. This is quite ironic because at the end of the play, it is Lady Macbeth who goes mad and Macbeth, himself, who becomes strong. Macbeth also thought he heard a servant cry out in his sleep “Macbeth does murther Sleep” and so “Macbeth shall sleep no more.” Macbeth has bought the knives he used to kill Duncan with him to meet Lady Macbeth. She tells him to return the knives and cover the servants in blood to make them look like the guilty party. He is far too nervy for that though. Lady Macbeth does it instead but not before making Macbeth feel very cowardly.

When Lady Macbeth returns Macbeth feels that “…all great Neptune’s Oceans…” couldn’t wash the blood from his hands. Neptune was the god of the sea. When Macbeth talks of washing the blood from his hands, part of it is metaphorical. What he partly means is wash the guilt from his hands. Lady Macbeth is totally the opposite. She says,

“A little water clears us of this deed.”

She clearly doesn’t feel guilty at all. She seems quite evil in the sense that she doesn’t seem affected at all by Duncan’s murder. She has calmed down now and has to be in control for both their sakes. Macbeth is a wreck! Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland making them appear guilty. Macbeth inherits the throne.

In Act 2, scene 4, Ross enters accompanied by an old man. The scene that follows is very important when it comes to creating mood and atmosphere. The first thing they talk of is how dark the daytime is not. The following passage refers to how unnatural the light of the earth is. The passage also alludes to life and death a lot. Line three implies that the world has been enveloped (“entombed”) by death and that is why it’s so dark. I think this idea is very clever at creating a doomed feel to the play and characters. If the world is “entombed” by death then there is no escaping it. Clearly the “Light” in the last line is a reference to life. There is a supernatural absence of that at the minute.

“…dark Night strangles the travelling lamp:

Is’t Night’s predominance, or the Day’s shame,

That Darkness does the face of Earth entomb,

When living Light should kiss it?”

Many unnatural things have been happening. There have been severe upsets in nature and it is really in turmoil. The old man speaks of seeing an owl attack and kill a falcon. Even Duncan’s horses are acting very strangely. They broke loose and began to “…eat each other…” There is clearly some upset somewhere. This chaos and mayhem must be caused by something. The audience would’ve been convinced it was the witches.

Not only is Act 4, Scene 1 the most famous scene in the play but I believe it is the evil centre of the play as well. This is the last scene in which the witches appear. Strangely though it is their most powerful scene. Right at the start of the scene we see the witches brewing a potion. They add many unusual, disgusting and evil ingredients including “Witch’s mummy”, “eye of newt”, “baboon’s blood” and “finger of a birth-strangled babe”. The foul potion they concoct at the beginning of the scene emphasizes the evilness of the witches. A huge atmosphere us created by all the evil components of this terrifying potion. A very interesting line is,

“By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes…”

Macbeth approaches. I think the audience do view Macbeth as evil by this point, but it would still be strange to hear a “witch” calling a man evil. Macbeth is out looking for the witches. The witches are the most important and influential characters in the play at this point. Macbeth is king but his actions are controlled by his driving ambition, which is controlled by the witches. Through this scene, the witches appear obedient to Macbeth’s demands,

“FIRST WITCH: Speak.

SECOND WITCH: Demand

THIRD WITCH: We’ll answer.”

I think this is to lull Macbeth into a false sense of security. If he thinks he’s in control of a situation, he’ll go ahead making rash decisions without gathering all the facts. That is his downfall in this scene. He is too self-righteous. The witches show Macbeth three apparitions. As each of the apparitions appears, there is a crack of thunder. This makes the mood even more sinister than before. The first apparition: an armed head. This is probably the most straight forward of the three. The head tells Macbeth to beware Macduff, Thane of Fife. The head descends and Macbeth gives thanks. Macduff was Macbeth’s main fear, “Thou hast harp’d my fear alright.” The second apparition: A bloody child. This child tells Macbeth that he has no need to fear any man of woman born.

“…for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth”

Macbeth begins to get cocky. He thinks (as most of us would) that no man could kill him, as it’s impossible not to be born by a woman. At first he says that Macduff may continue to live. But he wants to make “…double sure…” Macbeth swears that Macduff will not live. A third and final apparition manifests. This time: “A child crowned, with a tree in his hand” This final apparition warns Macbeth that he need only worry if “Great Birnam Wood” moves to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth doesn’t see this as a warning but as a message. He thinks it’s impossible for a whole wood to move from one place to another. Macbeth seems happy with his own outlook. The witches have supreme power over him and have lead him to believe what he wants to believe, that he is invincible. He then asks of Banquo’s future and the future of his name.

The witches warn Macbeth not to ask any more. Macbeth responds very strangely to this. He threatens a curse on them if they don not answer his question. This seems strange to me, as it is usually the witches being accused of putting curses on people. They’re obviously having a huge affect on Macbeth. The witches finally agree to show Macbeth what he’s asked to see and he’s not happy with the sight. The witches show Macbeth a row of eight of Banquo’s descendants. All the descendants are dressed as kings with sceptres.

The first witch engages in a cocky little speech directed at Macbeth. The witch asks why Macbeth stands so amazed. Macbeth is horrified at the sight of Banquo’s eight heirs but doesn’t get chance to speak before they vanish. The witches know how horrified Macbeth is but they feel they have taught him a lesson by letting him see what he really asked for! Three apparitions have warned Macbeth but he still feels invincible. The witches have succeeded in tricking him. I think Macbeth is left feeling confident on the outside but slightly scared of Macduff and Banquo’s descendants on the inside. As a result of his own insecurity, Macbeth orders Macduff’s family to be murdered in their own home.

In the final act we really see how much the witches and their apparitions have influenced Macbeth and the crucial decisions he is about to make. When news reaches Macbeth that Malcolm’s marching 10,000 men up to Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth still remains fearless, convinced that he will not be slain by any man of woman born.

The fact that Macbeth ordered Macduff’s family to be mercilessly slaughtered shows us that he no longer cares about anyone but himself. Macduff’s family were certainly of no threat to Macbeth but he had them killed anyway. The witches have clearly turned him into a thoughtless killer. Macbeth proves to us all that he has become heartless since the murder of King Duncan. In Act 5, scene 5, Macbeth is telling his soldiers what do when a woman’s scream is heard from within the castle. Seyton rushes to see what it is and while he is gone, Macbeth confesses that he has almost forgotten how to feel. He admits how he has changed but now that kind of scream is normal to his ears,

“I have almost forgot the taste of fears:

The time has been, my senses would have cool’d

To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair…

…I have supp’d full of horrors,

Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts

Cannot once start me.”

Seyton returns to tell Macbeth that the queen is dead. Macbeth is numb. He cannot mourn because he’s seen so much death around. Macbeth goes into a soliloquy about how short and “brief” our lives are. His soliloquy and defiance ends when a messenger bears some astounding news,

“As I did stand my watch upon the hill,

I look’d toward Birnam, and anon methought

The Wood began to move.”

Macbeth gets furious with the messenger and threatens execution if he’s lying. One of the apparitions is coming true. Macbeth is terrified. He thought the apparitions’ predictions could never come true. Macbeth knows it’s time to fear and he gathers his men to fight. He remembers that he still cannot be killed by a man of woman born. He says to his men some inspiring lines,

“Ring the alarum-bell, blow wind, come wrack,

At least we’ll die with harness on our back.”

At the beginning of Act 5, scene 7, Macbeth says he feels “bear-like” as if “tied…to a stake”. Macbeth feels he cannot escape anymore. His courage continues through his fight with young Siward. Macduff afterwards confronts Macbeth. Macduff is furious about the slaughter of his family, “…thou bloodier villain…” Macbeth refuses to fight Macduff at first on the grounds that he has enough Macduff blood on his hands already. I think Macbeth feels guilty for killing all his family. Macbeth warns Macduff that he leads “…a charmed life…” and explains that he cannot be killed by any man born of a woman. Macbeth is confident he has won already, until Macduff shatters everything with some amazing news. Macduff was born by a caesarean section. Macbeth’s bravery and confidence is stolen from him and he feels helpless.

“Accursed be that tongue that tells me so;

For it hath cow’d my better part of man…”

Macduff calls Macbeth a “coward” and a “tyrant”. But Macbeth refuses to give up and be a prisoner to Malcolm. He will go out fighting as he promised. Macbeth finally challenged Macduff. The pair fight and leave the stage. Macduff returns moments later with Macbeth’s head. I think Macbeth let himself believe he could lose and that’s why he lost. He was probably a better war hero than Macduff and he’s fighting skills would’ve been magnificent. The only thing that stopped him killing Macduff first was his own self-doubt.

Macbeth was a fine fighter until he realized that Macduff fitted the witches’ description. Macbeth relied so much on what the witches had told him that his whole life revolved around getting and keeping power. He killed his cousin, his best friend, whole families and countless innocent others. His wife died because of his ambition and so did he. Macbeth was a highly respected, rich, happy, strong, loved and admired Thane at the beginning of the play and ends up seen as a “dead-butcher” and his wife a “fiend-like queen”.

All this because of his uncontrollable ambition encouraged, undoubtedly, by the sick playful games of the witches. Once Macbeth obtained the power he was too much of a control freak to let the killing stop there. Anyone who threatened his crown was to be killed. I don’t think that the witches or Macbeth were solely to blame. Neither one would’ve achieved the same results alone; I think this was just unfortunate circumstances that may have been controlled and most definitely encouraged by certain individuals.

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