The figure of the witch is odious and frightening wherever it appears. The witch is the stereotypical dark power, witchcraft being the thing attributed to the meek and powerless to rule over the great and mighty, and to do so with a vengeance. Witchcraft and power always go together hand in hand, but witchcraft is power hidden in the shadows, it is the sin against nature and a crime against God. It is forbidden – and feared. When Shakespeare introduces the Three Witches into his play, the viewer already knows something is going to go amiss, and the witches will be a part of it, and not a part of the solution. We know that the witches will influence the story, and Shakespeare constantly taunts us, reminding of their power over people. Often, when the play is analyzed, a great part of the blame is placed precisely upon the witches, for, if not for their prophecies, nothing would have happened. And yet, could this be a classical case of killing the messenger? Are the witches really so powerful on their own? Could they really harm Macbeth, and do they truly have power over him? In this paper, I shall argue to the contrary.
Let us deviate somewhat from the chronological order of the play, and examine what it is, precisely, that the witches have power to do, and what they actually do when it comes to a man whose destiny was prophesied by their own means. That they have the power of prophecy is hardly doubtful – we learn of it the moment the witches step unto the stage, when they foresee the circumstances of their next meeting. At first it seems like a decision made, but it isn’t truly one, as the reference is to the battle which is to be over before they can meet (“When the battle’s lost and won” (I, i, 14)). If here their prophetical powers are, as of yet, doubtful, they prove themselves with certainty to Banquo and to Macbeth when they greet the duo. Though the characters themselves may not know it yet, but we know with a certainty that these prophecies will come true.
Besides the gift of prophecy, the witches seem to show a whole array of fantastic powers, traditional to English Renaissance beliefs that were held of witches. They are able to stir and quell the winds (“FIRST WITCH: I myself have all the other, /And the very ports they blow, /All the quarters that they know” (I, iii, 14-16)), they are able to divine a man’s fate from a short interaction with his wife, and, moreover, to influence it rather directly. They are able to vanish and appear at will, to summon spirits and to boil broths of a decidedly unwholesome nature, at least, judging from the ingredients. Even if they are mere herbs, as the infamous “eye of newt and toe of frog” case goes, the effect is, nevertheless, well created – the “liver of a blaspheming Jew” is certainly no herb, for instance.
They do not stop before ethical matters, being witches they “kill swine” (I, iii, 2), and it is difficult to understand what precisely is meant here by the word “swine” – whether it is people they do not like, or truly pigs. They’re certainly capable of easy killing, and would have been easily able to directly influence the main figures of the play, had they really desired to do so. To kill Duncan, were that their goal, to curse Macbeth, to enchant Banquo – there really is no stopping them, as the rest of the cast prove completely magically inept and do not utilize, for some reason, even the most basic of folk charms to defend against these creatures. And yet, they do not. For all of his depiction of the witches as powerful and evil, it is not they who are the main antagonist in Macbeth.
The question of who is the evil here has long been answered, and times too numerous to list at that. It is Macbeth himself and his Lady, and their lust for power and the desire for an easy way to it. The prophecies themselves hold neither ill meaning nor ill intention, it would seem. Though Banquo claims them as evil – (“Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But ’tis strange; /And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, /The instruments of darkness tell us truths,”(I, iii, 123-124)), Macbeth first dismisses them as being a manifestation of chance itself (“This supernatural soliciting /Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (I, iii, 130-131). He is passive, and at first would not harm the king, but rather wait for destiny to do its course.
Perhaps, had he retained that view, it would have been that he truly would not have had to harm the king. Macbeth is a man in good standing, known as brave and valiant and a good leader. Banquo’s sons might have become kings in other ways: prophecies of the English are notoriously many-layered. Had Macbeth not succumbed to ambition, it might have been so it were fulfilled in any case. The witches provided information, and that was their only function in this play. It did harm, and that is true. But we are not shown, for instance, Banquo trying to secure the throne for his children. He takes the prophecies with a grain of salt, he is rather ware of them. Macbeth, on the other hand, is entranced by the vision and made a gross error in judgment – and that is no one’s fault but his own. It would be much too easy for Shakespeare to place the whole blame on some outside evil and leave it at that.
That is why it seems in Macbeth the witches retain a thoroughly correct facade when dealing with Macbeth. In fact, the contrast between how they behave among themselves when they speak of their deeds and the actual deeds with Macbeth is rather striking. Of common people they make demands, Macbeth they speak to and, in fact, allow him to make demands of them. They make no suggestion, do not propose a course of action. For all of their power, they are never directly influence Macbeth: there is no evidence in the form of speech or action that they place any sort of spell on him or utilize any power besides the power of words. Not to be underestimated, words themselves form a powerful magic; yet, a ruler who succumbs to mere words is a bad ruler. They seem to act much more like creatures of fate, there to provide a moral crossroads, and themselves remaining outside morality.
Of course, it could be possible that this is some particularly devious plan on the part of the witches, and that their evil is simply that great that they desire to destroy Macbeth from the inside. Still, it would seem that would not be the case, for several reasons. The first being a lack of motivation. Throughout the play we constantly see two sides of these hags. One is petty and spoiled: these are the critters who kill for a kind of fun, or for a very small offense. The other is the witches among themselves: and there we do not see within them any concern for the world. They are concerned with their work and their goddess, Hecate, who merits a separate look.
The Goddess of Witches is all-too-often seen as the Goddess of Evil. This, however, is not the case, as anyone acquainted with Greek mythology knows. Hecate is known as the Torchbearer, the light in the darkness, and the Goddess of the Crossroads. She is one who shows the way in dark times, allows one to see the different roads that lay before him. This Goddess represents not evil so much as she represents fate. She is angry with the Witches not so much for revealing the future, but unveiling it to one unworthy, and, moreover, doing it without her consent. “And, which is worse, all you have done/ Hath been but for a wayward son,/ Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,/ Loves for his own ends, not for you.”(III, v, 10-13). She orders the Witches to correct their folly – from which stem the visions in act four.
The vision is act four is different in that the author admits it artificial, through Hecate: (”And that distill’d by magic sleights/Shall raise such artificial sprites/ As by the strength of their illusion/ Shall draw him on to his confusion:” (III, v, 26-28)). Still, the prophecy is accurate, and, as previously, completely neutral. The warnings are absolutely true, and, had Macbeth been in a better state of mind, he might have actually heeded them.. But it would seem that Hecate knew beforehand what would await Macbeth once he heard this prophecy – out of a knowledge of his soul, already corrupted and fallen, she knows that he is a dead man. (”He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear/ He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:/ And you all know, security/ Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” (III, v, 30-34)).
It is interesting to note that neither Hecate nor her witches sound pleased (also being the second reason their relation to evil is dubious). They seem concerned only for their own fame and value: this is the first thing that Hecate scorns her witches for: (”And I, the mistress of your charms,/The close contriver of all harms,/ Was never call’d to bear my part,/ Or show the glory of our art?” (III, v, 6-9)) The rest does not matter – except that which has already begun must be closed. The witches care about their art and that all the rites are done correctly: Macbeth can be seen as an important prop in their game among themselves, and not more. Their influence of him is secondary to their existence on the margins of society, playing their part when needed. They seem completely unfazed by the drama unfolding around them: it is the source of some humor and of some annoyance, but it does not prompt them to take any serious action., in fact. They seem like examiners, like those who put steel to the test, and do not cry much when it breaks. With their power, they could have easily made the game more complicated and cruel, perhaps devising other events, perhaps influencing someone within them in a more direct fashion. And yet they do not: they provide information, show off their art, and do not stay to watch the results. It is difficult to say whether the other visions in the play are their products, but it would seem unlikely – there is never even a hint of the fact that they influence beyond their meetings with Macbeth. They are not puppeteers, they are, for lack of a better word, an element of existence, indifferent, though negative in the sense that they provide a difficult test to measure up against.
So, could it truly be said that the witches are the powers behind the scenes? No. No more than a mirror is a factor of suicide for an ugly, teased, child. One who cannot cope with his nature cannot hope to stand up to being shown possibilities in any way more direct than mere musings: it is deadly when it breeds ambition, as Shakespeare illustrates well. Their prophecies contain truth, a truth in many ways independent of the witches – there is no evidence that they have made Banquo’s sons kings. The only element of evil here lies in their apparent snickering at the folly of humanity, and the fact that they – bearded hags on the margins of society – know more and are more in control than those who are prone to the rising and waning tide of fortune.
There is no need for the moon to influence the tide. It just exists, and by its mere existence, waters are brought forth. This is the true role of the witches in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: to be mirror to the main hero and the tide – which can be fought against or succumbed to. There is no “power” in the human sense of the word where there is no choice – and the witches are not creatures of human choice, but of circumstance, and their influence upon the play is no greater than the influence of any other circumstance. A more dramatic plot device, misleading and demonstrative, by showing that outside evil only mirrors the inside – but merely a mirror, nonetheless.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, March 1, 2007 at http://library.thinkquest.org/2888/
Johnston, Ian, Introduction to Macbeth, 2001. March 1, 2007 at http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/eng366/lectures/macbeth.htm
Article on Hekate from Theoi.com March 1, 2007 at http://www.theoi.com/Ouranos/Hekate.html
A consideration of daemonology in Macbeth from Burton to Freud. March 1, 2007 at http://stjohns-chs.org/english/shakespeare/Macbeth/macdev.html
Renaissance theories of ghosts and demons. March 1, 2007 at http://stjohns-chs.org/english/Renaissance/Ren-gh.html