The role of the witches in Shakespeares Macbeth.
Macbeth was the last of William Shakespeares four great tragedies and was considered his darkest work. He was born in 1564 and Macbeth was written and set in Scotland 1606 and is still credible four hundred years on. The renaissance audience was hooked by a plot of treachery in which the main character; Macbeth, succumbs to temptation and manipulation that eventually destroys his life.
The play is based on fact and it is true that at the time in which Macbeth was written, people believed and were afraid of witches. It was a dark and superstitious time. Every misfortune in the world was blamed on these so called devils helpers and their animalistic familiars. It is thought that the witches could adopt the shapes or voices of these animals. The familiars we meet in the play are Grey-Malkin the cat, and Padock the toad. Witches were believed to be able to predict the future, and this is illustrated in the play when Macbeth first meets with them and they greet him as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and king to be. It was also said that they could bring disease to people, vanish, cast spells and potions, control the weather, sink ships and they would become your enemy if you refused them food. The latter two of the list were both shown when they were discussing their revenge on a sailors wife who refused to hand over some chestnuts that she had, so one of the witches sunk her husbands ship.
The use of the witches in Macbeth made the play more realistic to the audience because it agreed with the contemporary beliefs of that period of time. Witches were taken extremely seriously and witch hunts were carried out, in that if they found anybody guilty of witchcraft; they would be burnt at the stake or drowned on a ducking stool. Unless people believed in witches when the play was written, there would be no real point in the tragic story. James the 1st also played a key part in the writing of Macbeth. He too also believed in witches and even wrote the book Daemonologie (1597) which provided ways to recognize and defeat witches. This influenced Macbeth into involving witches into the tragedy.
William Shakespeare used literary devices he knew his audience would appreciate. Imagery is one of them. The physical disturbances such as thunder, lightning and rain serve as a metaphor for the emotional violence that was later to come. He also used similes in a form of evil, such as;
Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it.
Throughout the entire play Shakespeare used soliloquy, like when Lady Macbeth was sleepwalking and he also used personification numerous times for example;
Without my stir, Wherin you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? and also when he described the hope as drunk. His uses of significant words add the affect of his literary devices. The word hurly-burly means confusion and tumult and anticipates the dreadful deeds to come. This also applies for fog and filthy air which depicts an atmosphere of confusion and evil. A biblical allusion is used, for example when comparing the bloody scene of death on the battlefield to Golgotha which is the place of Christs death in the New Testament. The other allusion he used was mythological, for example in Macduffs comparing the dead Duncan to a Gorgon of Green mythology which could turn a person to stone because of the terror evoked.
Shakespeare uses rhyme for two purposes. These are; to emphasise lines which express a purpose or decision, and to mark the closing of a sentence. Rhyming occurred more in his earlier plays until he discarded it due to it making the rhythm of his lines too un lifelike. The main times he uses play in Macbeth is whenever the witches speak. He deliberately made them speak in rhythm to illustrate that they were not human and it would make their words stand out more.
When writing the play William Shakespeare had to show Banquo in a good light. People presume this is to show the comparison of good and evil between him and Macbeth. Banquo was faced with the exact same temptations but remained faithful to the king, which was the complete opposite to Macbeths behaviour.
Another reason for Shakespeare having to do this is because that Banquo was an ancestor of King James and Shakespeare would get in trouble with the king. Because of this Banquo had to be shown as an honourable man who wouldnt be disloyal to his king for himself or anybody else. By Banquo resisting to the witches temptations it showed that he was a much stronger character.
Dramatic effect is the effect which a scene has on the audience. Its what keeps you watching, and what influences how you feel during a scene. In my opinion the best piece of dramatic effect in the play occurs in the first scene where we meet the witches. This short scene opens the play in a dramatic and arresting way. It has an eerie, sinister opening and being in the audience in the Elizabethan times would have made the experience all the more exciting.
Dramatic effect also allows you to think about your response to different characters and especially towards Macbeth as towards to end of the play you start to sympathise towards him as you watch his life fall to ruins. Entrances and exits of characters build up tension and fascination especially when the witches vanish into thin air, for example. The use of dramatic irony, in my opinion is extremely effective in how you feel about the play because if we know something that other characters dont it increases tension and our enjoyment for the tragedy. Finally, one of the most obvious dramatic effects would be a visually spectacular event such as a swordfight or just the costumes, scenery, lighting and sound. Once again, the first scene comes to mind with the three haggard sisters gathered on the heath in the thunder, lightning and rain.
There are five main themes in Macbeth. The main one of these is of course, evil. A powerful sense of is hangs over every scene in the play. Each character is either fighting against it or giving into it. Evil tears all human feeling away from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and by the end of the play; both characters have been destroyed from within. Another point on the topic of evil is that it disrupts all natural order and society is disordered. A few examples of this occur in the play such as when it starts becoming dark in the day, horses eat each other and owls kill falcons. But when Macbeth is killed and Malcolm takes his place, all natural order is restored. My final point is the idea of evil acting as a disease; infecting people until they become sickened with killing and lying until they die. The second theme would be the contrast of appearance versus reality; the witches appear to be giving good news to Macbeth about success but instead their words lead to death and destruction and ruin his life. Honour and Loyalty is another highly important theme in the play because Macbeth commits the ultimate sin and kills his king which goes against the divine right of kings. Banquo proves to be the opposite of him by refusing to give into the witches temptation and staying loyal to his king. The final theme is that of fate and destiny. Macbeth goes against fate and tries to take it into his own hands and his action brings him nothing but tragedy and despair. On the other hand, Malcolm trusts that all things will work out by the grace of Grace.
Any audience of a play would enjoy being informed of events before the characters and this tends to happen a lot in Macbeth. A good illustration would be Macbeths lack of awareness towards his new title, Thane of Cawdor. Another would be Duncan commenting on the pleasant appearance of Macbeths castle while the audience know that he has just plotted Duncans murder. The most powerful example would be Macbeths acceptance of the apparations seeming assurances that no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth and that he is safe Birnam Woods move.
The biggest and most controversial debate in the play is the question; who is responsible for Macbeths tragic downfall? A popular suggestion is that it is once again, the witches fault. I do not agree with this statement because although the three witches tempted him of his future, it was out of his own free will and uncontrollable ambition that he went ahead and took fate into his own hands to make it happen. He was not patient enough to wait for it to happen in natures way. It was Macbeths own blood thirsty lust for power that caused his own downfall.
As far as the idea to kill Duncan to become king, that was never suggested by the witches and Macbeth himself pictured a dagger in his mind as soon as the witches mentioned him becoming king. This hints to us that Macbeth may have had the thought of murdering Duncan as soon as he heard of his possible future. He could have backed out at any time, but due to his fatal flaws he continued on the path towards what would eventually be tragedy for him. I think Lady Macbeth has quite an input into her husbands downfall, because although her intentions started off well and she just wanted her husband to succeed, by pushing him too far she actually contributed to his uncontrollable lust for ambition.
It is a common theory that Lady Macbeth was the fourth witch, as early on in the play she shows signs of malevolence by asking to be unsexed. By doing this and requesting evil she shows witch like qualities. On the other hand, she also displayed human like qualities such as when she told her husband that she herself could not kill Duncan because he resembled her father. Another example of her still remaining to have human feelings is that after Macbeth does kill Duncan, she loses her sanity and cannot sleep. She sleepwalks and practically confesses to the murder whilst imitating washing blood off her hands. Eventually Lady Macbeth becomes too greatly disturbed and takes her own life. I think this rules her out as being the fourth witch because in the end; even though she encouraged Macbeth to do the evil deed, she felt guilty about it and deeply troubled her.
In conclusion to the tragedy of Macbeth; I think that although the witches play a part of the treachery, they only acted as catalysts. If Macbeth was a strong enough person, he should have resisted their temptations and just let it happen the way nature intended it to.