The witches are vital elements in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, not just to make it successful in Jacobean times, but also to add depth and atmosphere to the play. They are the root of disorder and are the trigger factor for the chaos that unfolds throughout the play. Shakespeare considered their role very carefully and included them for important reasons. In 1604, a year after he came to the English throne, James passed many laws on witchcraft, having shown much interest in the subject, to the extent of writing his own book seven years previously, entitled ‘Daemonologie’.
In this book he put forward his arguments in favour of belief in witchcraft and demonic possession, beliefs that were made evident through his involvement in a number of trials of alleged witches. It is known that Macbeth was performed for James I and is assumed that the plot of the effect of witchcraft on the monarchy was devised to please the King, with James being said to have claimed to be a descendent of Banquo. Shakespeare would have been paid a large amount of money to have his play performed for King James, so it was in his interest to include a subject that the King was passionate about.Order now
For an audience living in the17th century, witchcraft and the forces of evil were very real, a part of their everyday lives, something that they had to come to terms with, making the play instantly popular and successful. Shakespeare uses the witches to instantly create an atmosphere of terror and evil, setting the theme of the play, which is the struggle between good and evil. Shakespeare creates an air of darkness, chaos and mysticism with his first stage direction of ”Thunder and lightening. Enter three witches.
This is reiterated towards the end of the first scene when the witches state “Fair is foul and foul is fair”, telling the audience that it is often difficult to distinguish between good and evil, and often the two become intertwined. This entanglement of the two is shown with Macbeth’s first line ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’, giving an example of what the witches implied and so informing the audience that the relationship between Macbeth and the witches, or good and evil at this stage, is going to be an important theme in the play.
The witches’ capabilities are shown in Act 1 Scene 3, when the ‘weird sisters’ are discussing the punishment inflicted on the husband of a ‘rump-fed ronyon’ who refused to give one of the witches some chestnuts. The first witch has cursed the boat on which the husband is sailing so ‘it shall be tempest-tost. ‘ The witches create storms, with each of the other witches saying ‘I’ll give thee a wind’, thereby making the water extremely choppy so the husband is unable to dock his boat. However, the first witch states that ‘his bark cannot be lost’.
By the ‘bark’, she is referring to the boat, showing that there is a limit to the evil they can perform, as they are unable to destroy the man’s boat or life, but are simply able to interfere with the elements. This shows that there is a limit to the damage and chaos they can cause and that there is a hope that good will prevail, as the witches are unable to destroy things. However, the witches can bring about death as, if the man is unable to dock his boat, he will starve at sea or his boat will be swept onto rocks.
This is proved as, at the end of the witches’ conversation, the first witch produces ‘a pilot’s thumb’, which is that of the sailor, whose boat was ‘wreck’d as homeward he did come. ‘ Although the witches cannot directly bring about death, they can have a hand in the elements that cause it. The witches can only create the climate for evil, as man alone causes chaos by destroying order, as is proved further on in the play when, through the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth kills many of those around him. Shakespeare uses the witches to display on a small scale what will happen throughout the play.
In many ways the sailor and his boat are representatives of Macbeth when he is ruling Scotland. There will be many turbulent and stormy times and Macbeth will be powerless when it comes to controlling the country in such conditions, but he has brought about the circumstances through the pressure of his wife, as the sailor’s wife caused the witches to curse his boat. Similarly, Shakespeare uses the witches to show how everything around Macbeth, although it seems solid to begin with, will deteriorate until it is nothing but a lingering memory.
At the end of his first meeting with them on the heath in Act 1 Scene 3, following line 78, the ‘witches vanish’. As Banquo likens them to bubbles in the earth or water, which can be seen but are nothing, Macbeth says that ‘what seem’d corporal melted as breath into the wind’. This represents the way in which all order in his life continues to deteriorate after he has heard the witches’ prophecies, and how all that seems close and certain, such as King Duncan and Banquo, will be destroyed and become nothing. Macbeth is close to Banquo at this point and is loyal to his king, as he has just fought for him.
It seems unthinkable to consider that Macbeth will kill them both, just as it seemed unthinkable that the witches would disappear when they had been physically present just moments ago. In conclusion, it is clear that there were two main reasons why Shakespeare included the witches in ‘Macbeth’. Firstly the witches are a central element and are vital for creating an atmosphere and basis for the play, and secondly witchcraft was an important issue for people in the early 17th century and was a main interest of the king at the time, James 1 of England.