Sunday, 10 November 2013

What Purpose do The Witches Serve in Macbeth?

Daniel Gardner is a little more kind to the three
witches, making them rather attractive in his
1775 painting
Do the witches just offer an exciting theatrical spectacle? Are they responsible for Macbeth's downfall? Are they simply an attempt to flatter the king?

“What are these/So wither'd and so wild in their attire,/That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth…you should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so.” (I.ii)

This rather unflattering description of the witches, or Weird Sisters, is spoken by Banquo and aptly demonstrates one of the reasons Shakespeare uses these characters in the play: They made a great visual spectacle.

However, the role of the witches in Macbeth is multi-purposed. As well as creating a stage spectacle, they have an intriguing function within the plot and, moreover, their inclusion is a very deliberate (and, you might say, cynical), way of appealing to the newly crowned James I.

The Witches as an Exciting Theatrical Spectacle


When reading Macbeth, it’s easy to overlook the impact the appearance of the witches would have had on a Shakespearean audience. Banquo’s description above gives us a flavour of how they would have appeared, but this was likely to have been accompanied by sophisticated special effects of the day.

At this point in Shakespeare’s career, he and his company had been made very wealthy by their theatrical ventures and, therefore, money was no object in terms of purchasing costumes and the equipment necessary to ensure that the witches and their, “Double, double toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”(I.i) made a fantastical effect.

There may also have been an element of humour involved. As women were not permitted to act, all female roles were played by men (usually adolescents whose voices had not yet broken). However, Banquo’s “And yet your beards…” may suggest that fairly masculine, and facially hairy, men were cast as the Weird Sisters.

However, Shakespeare made sure that the witches weren’t all style and no substance. They also play a crucial, if slightly ambiguous, role in Macbeth’s downfall.


Can the Witches of Macbeth Really See the Future?


Do the witches really know the future? If so, wouldn't
Macbeth have killed Duncan without their intervention?
It’s clear that the Weird Sisters' prophecy comes to pass, but do they really have the ability to see the future or simply know what ‘could be’ if Macbeth is nudged in the right direction?

This is not a simple question to answer and it makes the role of the witches much more intriguing than the impressive, flashy aesthetic display mentioned above.

The problem is that, if they really can see the future, Macbeth’s destiny was assured regardless of what he or Lady Macbeth did. That’s a fine assumption to reach, but, if that’s the case, he can’t really be viewed as a tragic hero, because tragic heroes, according to Aristotle, all have a fatal flaw or ‘hamartia’, which leads to their downfall. In other words, they are the cause of their own tragic fall.

If Macbeth’s downfall is entirely mapped out and, in spite of his actions, he is just a "...poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage", where do we place the 'fault'?

Therefore, we could argue that the witches’ prediction that he shall become king is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is impossible to say with any certainty and this, to my mind, puts the witches among the most interesting characters of the play, surpassed only by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

How Shakespeare Flatters King James I With Macbeth


Was Macbeth just a way of impressing the newly
crowned King James?
You could say (but I wouldn't possibly suggest such a thing) that Macbeth is one massive attempt to impress and flatter the new king, in a way that verges on the sycophantic.

James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who lived and reigned in Scotland before ascending the English throne, would obviously have been pleased with the play’s locale and subject.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, he would also have been thrilled by the message of the play, which can be said to be: Kill a rightfully (Godly), appointed king and you shall bring disaster upon the country and yourself.

Bear in mind, Shakespeare has drastically distorted history to make Macbeth a cruel tyrant. In fact, the real Macbeth ruled successfully for seventeen years. In order to avoid giving any man, or woman, the wrong idea about regicide, Shakespeare has to twist the truth somewhat.

It’s also worth mentioning that James I was a descendent of Banquo, hence the witches’ clever line, “Thou shall beget kings”(I.iii) Indeed, Banquo’s begotten king is sitting among Shakespeare’s audience.


King James I’s Fascination with Witches


The witches of Macbeth are more than just a scary
dramatic sight, but that's certainly part of their appeal
However, Shakespeare does not stop there. The very inclusion of witches was, probably, done with the new king very much in mind. James I had an infamous fascination with witches and even considered himself an expert on the subject, writing a text entitled ‘Daemononlogie’, in 1597.

Although we have ideas of witches being burned regularly, the truth is that in England, and particularly London, during this period, the notion of witches was largely dismissed as nonsense. In Scotland, on the other hand, where James had worked his subjects into a frenzy, there were 300 women accused and executed for witchcraft, in 1590 alone.

It has to be noted, that his zeal for hunting witches tapered off after becoming King of England, probably because many people treated witchcraft and demonology as a joke.

Which brings up an interesting question, did Shakespeare write the witches into Macbeth in order to impress the new king or was it his way of subtly teasing James’ hobby and area of ‘expertise’? If so, it was a pretty dangerous game. But it wouldn't be the first time Shakespeare had played with fire where his writing is concerned. 

Of course, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure, but it is an interesting thought to ponder.

One thing that is certain, whether they were a joke or a dramatic tool of flattery, the witches play an important, interesting and multi-faceted role within Macbeth.

If you'd like to know more about the witches or any other aspect of the play, check out: What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your well balanced thoughts, very helpful with GCSE revision.

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    Replies
    1. Pleasure! I'm glad it was useful in your revision.

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