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The Relationship Between Macbeth and the Witches

Although most modern readers would agree that Duncan's murder is a direct result of Macbeth's ambition coupled with the pressure placed on him by Lady Macbeth, Jacobean audiences would have had a much different view, placing blame squarely on the powers of darkness. Shakespeare altered the sources he used in constructing the play to cater to this deep and prevalent belief in the occult. The following is an excerpt from my article on Shakespeare's dramatic changes (the full article is located in the sources section):

Notable changes are made by Shakespeare in his depiction of Holinshed’s three weird sisters, and it is apparent that the alterations are implemented partially to instill trepidation in the audience. Holinshed’s sisters are ‘creatures of the elderwood . . . nymphs or fairies’ (Chronicles 268). Nymphs are generally regarded as goddesses of the mountains, forests, or waters, and they possess a great deal of youthful beauty. And similarly, fairies are defined as enchantresses, commonly taking a small and dainty human form. Holinshed’s illustration of the creatures Macbeth chances upon is far removed from the portrayal Shakespeare gives us through Banquo:
What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? . . .
By each one her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so (1.3.39-46).
Shakespeare transforms the weird sisters into ugly, androgynous hags, and they take on a more sinister role than was assigned to them in Holinshed’s Chronicles. Shakespeare’s sisters are far more theatrically captivating than the nymphs found in Holinshed’s text, and as a guide, Shakespeare may have consulted Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft. The Discoverie contains a brilliant description of witches, and it is possible Shakespeare used it as a basis for purely dramatic reasons:
One sort of such said to bee witches, are women which be commonly old, lame . . . poor, sullen, superstitious . . . They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them (Discoverie, Chapter 3).
Shakespeare’s hags, fascinating and frightening, appeal to our interest in the demonic supernatural. Most people do not believe in fairies, but many acknowledge the presence of evil in our world. A known believer in witchcraft during the time Shakespeare was writing Macbeth was King James himself. King James was so enthralled with contemporary necromancy that he wrote a book on the subject, Daemonologie. As with the dramatist’s incorporation of the effects of the human conscience in Macbeth, it is probable that Shakespeare took into account his monarch’s position regarding witches when he altered the portrait of the weird sisters in Holinshed’s work, thus capitalizing on the opportunity to subtly acknowledge and please King James. In Daemonologie, King James writes:

For where the Magicians, as allured by curiositie, in the most parte of their practices, seekes principallie the satisfying of the same, and to winne to themselves a popular honoure and estimation: These witches on the other patre, being intised either for the desire of revenge, or of worldly riches, their whole practices are either to hurte men and their gudes, or what they possesse... (Daemonologie, Second Book, Chapter 3)

Compare this to the actions of Shakespeare's weird sisters in Act I, scene iii:
1 Witch: Where has thou been, sister?
2 Witch: Killing swine.
3 Witch: Sister, Where thou?
1 Witch: A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And mounch'd, and mounch'd, and mounch'd: 'Give me,'
quoth I:
'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries.
[So they seek revenge]
1 Witch: And the very ports they blow,
And all the quarters that they know
I' th' shipman's card.
I'll drain him dry as hay...(1.3.1-29)
King James also states that witches can 'rayse stromes and tempestes in the aire, either upon land or sea, though not universally; but in such a particular place and prescribed bunds as God will permitte them so to trouble' (Daemonologie Book Three, Chapter 5).

This is visible in Shakespeare's play (Act 1, scene 3), where the second witch can give the first witch a wind. Shakespeare's reshaping of Holinshed's weird sisters also performs the thematic function of introducing a significant presence of evil with which Macbeth is confronted. The malignant hags are the primary reason for our ability to feel true sympathy for Macbeth despite his heinous crimes. "[Macbeth and his Lady] breathe in a region so vast that good and evil, viewed from very high, become almost indifferent and much less important than the sheer act of breathing" (Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth, 24). The metamorphosis of Holinshed's nymphs into demonic agents lessens somewhat the tragic hero's culpability; "[Macbeth's] will to act diminishes, in favour of degrees of slavery to fate" (Ibid).

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. The Relationship Between Macbeth and the Witches. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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