In the play ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare uses witchcraft and witches as dramatic and thematic devices. Witchcraft was considered a serious evil presence throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th Centuries, which meant that Shakespeare’s original witches would have had a great effect on the original audience, and they would have feared them.
Also, by using the theme of witchcraft, Shakespeare flatters James I, as it was a widely known fact that he was extremely interested in the study of demonology and had written a book on it called Demonology published in 1597.
Shakespeare’s witches in ‘Macbeth’ conform to the contemporary beliefs; this makes them even more powerful and greatly feared. They were considered to be part of the devil himself and their power was thought to be even more dominating then any human power. As the witches enter Act I scene I in a 3 it is as if they are the opposite of the holy trinity, also when the witches make a prophecy about Macbeth it is chanted in threes -Act I Scene3 ‘Thane of Glamis’, ‘Thane of Cawdor’, ‘that shalt be king hereafter’ this puts emphasis on the prophecies and makes them seem to be evil and powerful. The number three was seen to have magical powers, “And thrice again, to make up nine.” This shows us that the spell the witches are concocting is going to be almost indestructible because it is three times three, which makes nine; therefore, the spell is going to be three times as powerful.
The thematic effect that the witches have on the play is that they create a conflict between good and evil, and they relate disorder to witchcraft, which then contrasts to the order and goodness of the natural world. Elizabethan England was a strictly ordered society so, when the witches came on stage disorder came about and corrupted the orderly atmosphere, which the audience were accustomed to. This, in turn, allows Shakespeare to create disorder.
Act I Scene I is held in ‘a desolate place’, this conveys the witches as being outside of society. Whenever the witches enter there is always a pathetic fallacy of thunder and lightening indicating that something is wrong, and disorder rules. Every time the witches enter we are faced with this pathetic fallacy Act I scene 3 ‘Thunder. Enter the three witches’, Act 3 Scene 5 ‘a desolate place’, and ‘thunder’ as the three witches enter. The use of pathetic fallacy every time the witches enter conveys that like the setting and weather something unpredictable and unnatural is about to take place and it also creates more fear towards the witches as they arse so powerful that their presence is reflected in the weather each time they enter on stage.
The dramatic effect of the witches is that it creates a powerful benchmark of evil for Macbeth. At the time the play was set; witchcraft was greatly feared, and so, has an immense dramatic impact on the audience. The witches would have been easy for the contemporary audience to relate to and they would have automatically been frightened of them. They conform to the popular idea of witches as they have a confused sexuality, being the reverse of what a woman should look like ‘ upon her skinny lips; you should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.’ From this we can see that the witches’ unnatural form would disturb a contemporary audience and create fear.
In Act 4 Scene 1, we see the witches around a cauldron, performing some sort of incantation, “Eye of newt, and toe of frog.”
These creatures were associated with witches and witchcraft and in using these animals in their concoction, the witches are conforming to the typical beliefs of Shakespeare’s audience, and also they are coming across as evil, as all of these animals look disgusting and as if they are from the underworld and do not belong on earth, just like the witches.
The witches in ‘Macbeth’ speak in rhyming couplets to create a chant effect, ‘I’ll drain him dry as hay: Sleep shall neither night or day’ this is particularly powerful, and enhances what they witches are saying. It also creates the effect of a supernatural chant and makes it even more terrifying.
The use equivocation, ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is used to convey how something is neither one thing nor the other. This creates confusion amongst the audience and the characters in the play, such as Macbeth, who associates with the witches. When the witches say this in Act I scene I and Macbeth echoes this in act I scene 3, this makes Macbeth appear to be evil. This equivocation also gives the impression that nothing is as it seems, almost as if something, which could be trusted before, cannot anymore. In accordance to this Macbeth’s first words echo the witches’; “So foul and fair a day.” This shows us that Macbeth has not yet met the witches, but he is already beginning to talk like them, and thus implies that perhaps Macbeth has the potential to become evil and that is why he is chosen by the witches.
Once again, in Act 1 Scene 3, we are faced with “thunder” and the witches enter the play. The scene is set on “a heath” and from this we can see that wherever the witches go, disorder follows, giving the impression that, their powers are much greater in comparison to those of mere mortals, because as soon as they appear, chaos arises and the scheme and order of things is turned upside down. In this scene we are greeted with the theme of revenge, “in a sieve I’ll thither sail,” this shows us that the witches not only possess the power to upset the normal order of things, they also are vengeful creatures, who, with little provoking, are able to cast spells on their foes. This theme comes up again in Act 3 Scene 3 when Macbeth kills Banquo, “thy soul’s flight If it find heave;” this indicates that, like the witches, Macbeth desires revenge on Banquo, because he is jealous of the prophecy the witches gave Banquo. From this we can see that Macbeth is slowly becoming like the witches and is taking on their ways and thoughts. And this relates back to the equivocation in Act I Scene I.
Before Macbeth enters the stage in Act in 1 Scene 3, the witches claim, “a drum a drum,” this implies that the drum is a symbol of war and when it is heard it reflects a disturbance of the peace, indicating that, like the witches, when Macbeth enters the play, disorder follows, and this has become escalated to the whole of Scotland, since it has gone under the rule of Macbeth.
In this scene, Banquo realises that the witches are not what they should be like, “should be women and yet your beards.” This indicates that disorder is already beginning to turn the natural order of things upside down. The witches should be women, however, they do not completely look like them, and so there is confusion.
Hecate comes in as a supreme power, “How did you dare to trade and traffic with Macbeth.” This is ironic because, in a world where there is disorder, Hecate is personified as the representative of order and this is ironic because she is goddess of witchcraft and disorder, which shows us that, even in a disorderly world, there is still an orderly hierarchy. The three witches are told by Hecate that, “security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” This means that over-confidence is a man’s greatest foe, implying that Hecate has prophesised that Macbeth will become over ambitious and take matters into his own hands and will go too far. Therefore inclusion of this scene shows how even in a world of disorder there is order but how disorder is ruling.
The reason why the Hecate section could be missed out in some productions could be because she is meant to be the goddess of witchcraft and therefore a pinnacle of evilness, however, in this section, she is made to sound like a fairy, “upon the corner of the moon” this makes Hecate sound less evil than she should be portrayed as the ruler of the witches and the world of disorder and chaos. Many directors omit this scene in order to keep the drama and evil suspense of the scenes in which the witches appear, as this scene shows a slightly different side to the witches and this could make the audience feel more inclined not to fear them.
Witchcraft can be presented today as a modern form of “evil”, ranging from, witches as children see them today, to prostitutes and other forms of social disturbances or what people feel is “unacceptable” and “wrong”. Nowadays, people perceive that evil is based on factual evidence and events, rather than magic and superstition. A modern day audience would not fear the contemporary witches, as the Shakespearean audience would have. So in order for a modern day audience to perceive the witches as evil some directors choose to have men playing the parts of the witches to portray the confused sexuality of the witches as this would appear to be more supernatural and disturbing than having women disguised as witches.
In conclusion to this we can see that the witches knew what would happen once they had given the prophecies to Macbeth, however, they did not tell him what to do, therefore he acted out of his own intention and for his own personal benefit. This shows us that human nature, if provoked, can be destructive and can destroy that around us and should in all honesty be more feared than witchcraft itself. Even though, people in modern times are not frightened of witches and magic, it all comes back to hunger for power and money and that is how Macbeth came to become a murderous, over-ambitious man, because he feared that he would not become rich and powerful. So even though we are not still afraid of witches, we still kill for money and power, and this is an issue carried through from the 16th century and before, to today.