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The Witches in Macbeth: Quotes, Analysis & Prophecy

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  • 0:02 Witches & Macbeth
  • 0:35 Banquo & Macbeth Meet Witches
  • 2:51 Impact of Prophecies
  • 5:03 Analyzing Prophecy
  • 6:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
The witches in 'Macbeth' are key characters that serve as the impetus for Macbeth's ambition and his eventual decision to commit murder. Explore more through quotes from the text, an analysis of the witches' character role, and a discussion on the role of prophecy.

The Witches & Shakespeare's Macbeth

Shakespeare's play Macbeth, written in 1606, features an interesting hybrid cast between the natural and the supernatural. The witches, who are present from the opening scene, give Macbeth five prophecies that spark his ambition and set into motion the key events of the tragedy. In keeping with the times, the play uses the witches to explore themes of fate versus personal responsibility and the consequences of ambition in the ruling class. Let's take a closer look at the role the witches play through some excerpts.

The Witches Meet Macbeth and Banquo

The first time Macbeth and his companion, Banquo, encounter the witches, we see a glimpse of the witches' overall look and impression:

BANQUO: How far is't call'd to Forres? What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so...

The witches are the supernatural element in the play; they have the appearance of women, and yet they don't look like inhabitants of the earth. Banquo also notes that they are difficult to gender because of their beards. These unusual initial characteristics spark intrigue and mystery because the very appearance of the supernatural usually cues a major kind of change or transition for the human involved.

This could not be more so the case for Macbeth and Banquo, as the witches give them both prophecies that have the potential to change their lives forever:

MACBETH. Speak, if you can. What are you?

FIRST WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

SECOND WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

THIRD WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!...

And to Banquo they say:

THIRD WITCH. Hail!

FIRST WITCH. Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.

SECOND WITCH. Not so happy, yet much happier.

THIRD WITCH. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!

At the time, Macbeth is Thane of Glamis (a Thane is a titled landholder), but the witches foretell here of a time when he will not only be the Thane of Cawdor but also king. For Banquo, the witches infer that while he will not be a king himself, he will 'get kings', which we presume to mean that his line will have kings in it. Upon hearing this, Macbeth is not certain it will come to pass, but his wife, Lady Macbeth, has no doubt of its truth. It is her ambition that first sparks him to take drastic action in order to secure the titles the witches allude to.

The Impact of the Witches' Prophecies

It is Lady Macbeth's desire for Macbeth to be king that prompts her to seize the details of the witches' prophecy and interpret them as a future she must order and control. In fact, Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to kill the current king on the throne, King Duncan, the very night the witches gave the prophecy.

What would have been an interesting debate in Shakespeare's time was the role the witches played in the events that unfolded. Contemporary society at that time viewed witches and their craft as a deviant force that countered religion and the religious milieu that seeped into political structure. The common man may have wondered about the witches' tie to the other world and how much insight they have into the future or future possibilities that are beyond the range of normal human knowledge. This play embodies the central question of many myths: Does man control or have responsibility for his own destiny, or is there some kind of god or fate that has already mapped his way out for him?

Interestingly enough, supernatural forces seem to guide Macbeth. A vision of a bloody dagger leads Macbeth to Duncan's room as Macbeth is on his way to kill him. Some argue that this is the presence of evil after Macbeth has already taken responsibility to act in an evil manner.

It is Macbeth's interpretation of the prophecies that incite his ambition and ultimately drive him to the worst betrayal - he murders his companion, Banquo, and attempts to murder Banquo's sons in order to prevent them from taking the throne.

After he becomes king, the witches give Macbeth yet another set of prophecies after they've conjured three apparitions from a cauldron. In short, the apparitions warn Macbeth to 'Beware Macduff.' They also show him the image of a bloody child and then show him the image of a child crowned like a king. Finally, they warn he will not be defeated unless, 'Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.' Macbeth again takes drastic action and orders Lady Macduff and her children to be slain. In the end, Macduff, out of revenge, does come after Macbeth and behead him.'

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