Monday, 6 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Macbeth - The Witches

One of the most memorable aspects of Shakespeare's Macbeth is the presentation and use of the three witches. They are typically Gothic, they develop the plot and the ambiguity surrounding them means you can talk about them in an exam without being limited to one or two interpretations.

The Witches - Context

Contextually, there's a lot to say about the witches. The play was written shortly after James VI of Scotland's succession to the throne, making him King James I. James was particularly interested in witches and believed in them so vehemently he decided to write a whole book on witches in 1597 (it was a slow year).

The book, Daemonologie, highlighted his insistence that witches existed and wielded supernatural powers. He took influence from the Bible, and he once blamed stormy seas on witches, because they were pretty much the perfect scapegoat for anything.

Shakespeare's witches are similar to the witches James spoke of so often. This, combined with the fact that James I was a big fan of Shakespeare's stuff, suggests that a huge source of inspiration for the characters was King James I himself.

So in an essay, you can use this contextual knowledge to form an interpretation that is contrary to your point; if an exam asks whether the witches are manifestations of Macbeth's guilt/products of his imagination/etc., you can provide the interpretation that the witches may just be included to appease King James I. I'd only go for this line of argument as a separate interpretation, though - I think to consider it and reject other interpretations provides a slightly narrow view on the play. But that's just me.

First Appearance/Interpretations

It's interesting to note that the play opens with the witches, and you can talk about this in terms of the play's structure. Do the witches frame the play, like Walton frames Frankenstein and Lockwood frames Wuthering Heights? (Of course not in the same way as the other two texts, but you get my point.) By 'framing' the play in such a way, are we to expect that they have control over the events of the play and what happens?

The first scene is very short, but establishes one of the most important quotes in the play (when I say 'most important', it's all subjective. Shakespeare didn't outline ten quotes at the end of each performance and say 'I hope you all noticed these ones, they were really clever'):

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair;"

This line is echoed by Macbeth - and it's actually his first line in the whole play:

"So foul and fair a day I have not seen."

So what does this mean? The echoed line may indeed suggest that the witches are in control of Macbeth - and if they control him, how can he be to blame? If an exam asks whether Macbeth cannot by sympathised with/is a cold-hearted villain/etc. then you can argue that he is none of these things because he has no freedom over his actions.

You could also argue that the echoing of this line enforces the interpretation that the witches are figments of Macbeth's imagination or are manifestations of his inner conflict. Alternatively, you could argue that the link between Macbeth and the witches blurs a line between "worthy Macbeth" and the 'evil' witches - perhaps suggesting that there is a darker side to the character who has been set up as a valiant hero. Later on the witches learn of Macbeth's imminent arrival and say:

"something wicked this way comes"

A phrase you may have heard from the novel or even from this. Anyway, the fact that Macbeth is called "wicked" by the witches is interesting, and not just in the omg-that's-rich-coming-from-three-witches way. If the witches are as hideous and evil as Shakespeare arguably presents them, what does it say about Macbeth that they consider him 'wicked'?

Furthermore, the witches aren't the only ones associated with the unnatural. Once Macbeth has killed Duncan, violating the divine rights of a king, it is said by the Old Man in 2,4 that nature has pretty much fallen apart. This notion of one man's actions rippling across the natural world is typical of a tragedy, and the violation of nature thanks to Macbeth's actions links to the witches, who are essentially the definition of unnatural. 

Gothic Nature/Supernatural Elements/Links to Lady Macbeth

The witches themselves are, of course, very Gothic. This is obvious from the moment Macbeth and Banquo lay eyes upon them:

"look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earth"

"You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so."

Firstly, the fact that the witches look otherworldly adheres to the Gothic aspect of the supernatural. Of course the witches are ridiculously supernatural in pretty much every way (prophecies, witchcraft, apparitions etc.). But what is also interesting is the fact that in terms of appearance, the witches seem to be a blur between male and female. They "should" be women, yet aren't - not quite. You could possibly link this to Lady Macbeth's "unsex me here" speech - is Lady Macbeth trying to emulate the androgynous nature of the witches? By removing her femininity, which constrains her, is she becoming more witch-like? The fact that the witches should be female but aren't doesn't only highlight the blurring of boundaries that is so common with Gothic texts, it also takes what is usually the womanly, protective and maternal role and violate it horribly, just as Lady Macbeth does when she goes on about dashing a baby's brains out. 

It's also interesting to note how Macbeth and Banquo differ in their reactions upon seeing the witches, but that's got more to do with those characters, who I'll probably cover separately. Still, it's worth noting that Banquo basically gets all sassy whereas Macbeth practically starts drooling at the prospect of becoming king. Does this say something about the witches being manifestations of Macbeth's inner desires, perhaps?

Furthermore, it's interesting to highlight the similarities - as I already have done, albeit fleetingly - between the witches and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth isn't the only one who echoes the witches. In 1,3 the witches say:

"All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be King hereafter!"

And in 1,5 Lady Macbeth greets Macbeth with:

"Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!"

I don't need to spell it out - the links between them aren't by any means tenuous. Is Lady Macbeth a 'fourth witch', as some critics suggest? It's also interesting (and I've only just though of this - I love English Lit) that Macbeth's first line is an echo of the witches, and Lady Macbeth's first line to Macbeth is an echo of the witches. The witches seem intrinsically linked to Macbeth, whether the links are explicit or implicit. 

AO2 and the Apparitions

You can also talk about the witches and link it back to AO2 (form, structure, language). They quite frequently speak using iambic rhythm and rhyming couplets. This gives them an eerie, supernatural unison that sets them aside from humanity and presents them as more of a collective 'force' - it also strengthens the interpretation that they are linked to Macbeth, since their language arguably makes them sound like an idea/concept rather than three individual characters. They also frequently use animal imagery which sets them apart as uncivilised/savage - and arguably links to the hunting imagery used to describe Macbeth at the beginning of the play.

This language pattern is also picked up by Macbeth in the latter half of the play; his language becomes more destructive:

"Even till destruction sicken: answer me / To what I ask you."

It starts to pick up on the rolling rhythm of the witches:

"you secret, black and midnight hags"

And some things he says are just inherently witch-like:

"I conjure you"

Also, his use of analepsis:

"Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down; / Though castles topple on their warders' heads; / Though palaces and pyramids do slope..."

Makes his language sound like something of an incantation.

This suggests that the witches have an influence on Macbeth throughout the entire play, and arguably strengthens the interpretation that they are controlling him. 

What is also important about this scene is the use of the three apparitions that warn Macbeth of what is to come: an armoured head, a bloody child and a child carrying a tree/branch. It's interesting to note that the witches are not necessarily presented as 'evil' here. Macbeth demands something of them, so they conjure up the apparitions. If anything, the apparitions are to help Macbeth and warn him of what is yet to come - the witches take a back seat, as if they know their work is done. Perhaps they've influenced Macbeth enough to the point where they no longer need to provoke him, and know that his inflated sense of self will only spiral downwards into a bloody and tyrannical reign?

That's not all there is to say about the witches, but I've gone on for long enough already. Don't worry, you don't need to know all of this in one go - obviously in an exam you won't be able to go into this much detail! Hope it helps!


  1. You're amazing, thank you so much!

  2. Thanks so much this was a great help!!

  3. i've got my A2 mocks coming up and this has been so incredibly helpful, thank you!

  4. i've got to say this has really inspired me to develop on the points that you have made, giving me an array of new ideas, thanks!