The Weird Sisters in Macbeth

Presentation (Elaboration), 2004

8 Pages

Free online reading

The Role of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth

The great masterpiece Macbeth, which is written by William Shakespeare, deals with many different themes. Macbeth is a play which truly represents violence and it is a play with graphic images of treason and murder. In the same way, Macbeth is also known for its connections to the world of supernatural. At the time Macbeth was written, witchcraft had developed into a real and ever-present social problem[1]. In 1606, James commissioned Shakespeare to write a play for his amusement. When Shakespeare decided to include the art of witchcraft, he knew that he would have to be authentic, as James was an acknowledged expert on the subject[2]. Shakespeare had some experiences with witches as he grew up in the Warwickshire villages which was home to several known witches. Despite this fact, as Coles points out, “Shakespeare may or may not have believed [in witches] but his audience certainly did.”[3]. The three witches play a major role in Macbeth and their meaning was discussed by many critics. Some say the Weird Sisters take over Macbeth’s action and others hold the opinion that Macbeth acts as a free agent. However, before discussing this important issue one has to focus the question what the Weird Sisters actually are. Are they supernatural beings – part of pagan superstition or just visions, in other words part of an overheated imagination?

To begin with, I will have a look on the Weird Sisters as apparitions. It is quite obvious that the Weird Sisters are able to vanish, as described in Act I. 3[4]. This becomes even more clear in Act IV. 1, when Macbeth asks Lennox, “Saw you the Weird Sisters?” (IV.1. 136) and he aswers with, “No, my lord.” (IV.1. 137). In addition, to Banquo the Weird Sisters are just “bubbles” (I.3.79) and to Macbeth whiff of “breath” (I.3. 81-82). Above all, the most convincing argument of this interpretation is that the Weird Sisters are supposed to be “symbolical representations of thoughts and desires which have slumbered in Macbeth’s breast and now rise into consciousness and confront him.”[5]. However, as Bradley states this interpretation is not rounded. Macbeth might have had the desire to be king and he might have known of the danger of Macduff later on but Macbeth surely could not have had an idea of the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor. Furthermore, how could Macbeth have known of a “man, for none of woman born” (IV.1, 80)[6]. Consequently, this interpretation is disproved.

The interpretation that the Weird Sisters must be witches is not as incomplete as the interpretation I mentioned before. First of all, the belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare’s day. People that lived during the Elizabethan period were very superstitious. The hate stemmed mostly from the “supposed satanic beliefs of the witches and their heretical partnership with the Devil”[7]. Others thought of witches only when something of value had been damaged. They automatically assumed that a witch or one of her familiars must have done it, and “the one thing everyone [knew] about witches [was] that they were women”[8]. It was believed that to become a witch, a woman had to sell her soul to the devil, “who later presented each new witch with a familiar, a devil in form of a […] small animal”[9] An animal without a tail was the distinguishing mark of a witch’s familiar. During the Elizabethan period a woman had to be the perfect example of femininity. As a result, the opposite of this femininity meant the possibility of being labeled a witch. Older women were the easiest targets for witch-hunters because of their haggard appearance. Reginald Scott describes witches as being “leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them “[10]. One of the most common things that was said about witches was that they were women of “unbridled feminine sexuality”[11], meaning that they did not conform to the Elizabethan idea of what a woman should be. An Elizabethan woman’s “outer appearance was merely a reflection of inner condition”[12]. To be considered beautiful and desirable, a woman was to be very feminine, as said earlier, and have “Ivory skin, rosy cheeks, a round face, rounder hips, and yielding flesh”[13]. Women labeled as being witches were the opposite of a beautiful Elizabethan woman. The Elizabethans believed that witches had power over the atmosphere. The giving and selling of winds were thought to be a practice of witches. They were “supposed to have the power of creating storms and other atmospheric disturbances”[14]. The Weird Sisters carry these characteristics of witches. Banquo describes them as being “so withered and so wild in their attire, /That look not like th` inhabitants o’th’ earth” (I.3. 40-41). Next, the Weird Sisters are described as not even looking like women at all. They are so skinny and unfeminine thatn on seeing them Banquo says, “You should be women, /And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.3. 45-47) – “the beard, also,[…] was the recognised characteristic of the witch”[15]. Then, the Weird Sisters do have power over the atmosphere, “I’ll give thee a wind” (I.3. 11). Furterhmore, Macbeth reveals the Weird Sisters’ power of being able to create storms when he says, “Though you untie the winds and let them fight / Against churches, though the yeasty waves / Confound and swallow navigation up, / Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down” (IV.1. 52-55). Another striking argument is that the Weird Sisters have familiars. In the play, the first Weird Sister says, “And like a rat without a tail / I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (I.3. 8-10). It was the job of the familiars to carry out tasks for the witches and help them in their daily chores. The Witches’ familiars are named in the play. The First Weird Sister’s familiar is called Grimalkin and in Act IV.1 she makes it clear that Grimalkin is a cat when she says, “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d”(IV.1. 1). According to Dyer and Oxon “the cat was said to be the form most commonly assumed by the familiar spirits of witches”[16]. The second Sister’s familiar was Paddock, a toad. The name of the third Sister’s familiar is Harpier, which suggests that her familiar is a raven because the Elizabethans often called a raven “a harpy, a food-snatcher”[17]. On the other hand, this familiar could have also been an owl. There is a reference to the owl in Act II.2, when Lady Macbeth says, “ I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” (II.2. 16). Even though, the arguments on the Weird Sisters being witches are very convincing, Shakespeare leaves it open who they are. But in fact, they do have supernatural powers,

They can “raise haile, tepests, and hurtfull weather; as lightening, thunder, etc.” They can “passe from place to place in the aire invisible”. They can “keepe divels and spirits in the likeness of todes and cats”, Paddock and Graymalkin. They can “transferre corne in the blade from one place to another”. They can “manifest unto others things hidden and lost, and foreshew things to come, and see them as though they were present”.[18]

The Weird Sisters fortell Macbeth the future, they give him the prophecy that he will be king and as the play goes on, Macbeth murders Duncan to get the crown. Here, the reader and the audience might believe that the Sisters guide Macbeth to do the deed. Indeed, the question is whether Macbeth acts as a free agent or whether the Sisters take over his action.

First, I want to examinate the play under the point of view that Macbeth was under supernatural power, in other words that the witches took over his actions. There are quite a few arguments which underline this interpretation. Very important is the fact that there is a connection between Macbeth and theWeird Sisters before they even meet. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” (I.1. 11-12). The final lines in Act I.1 are spoken by all witches, which reinforces that it is the end of the scene but also highlights it for future reference. The audience does not know at the time what connection these lines have with Macbeth, but the fact that it is said by all three makes it tend to stick in the mind, and the connection will be spoken about further on. The main purpose of the first scene is to create anticipation for the audience about what the witches will do to Macbeth when they meet with him, “There to meet with Macbeth” (I.1. 8). Here it becomes clear that the Sisters are planning to do something with Macbeth. The audience does not actually meet Macbeth; only the Sisters appear, but we are introduced to his figure. One becomes curious about him at this stage and will ask oneself, “Who is Macbeth? Why do the Sisters want to meet with him?”. Here, the Sisters are already judged as evil so the audience wonders what will happen when they meet Macbeth. The second time, the Sisters appear is in Act I.3 and the audience’s judgement of the Sisters gets stronger – the Sisters must be evil. After the Sisters finish talking about their power to make trouble, a drum sounds and the tree say together, “A drum, a drum! / Macbeth doth come.” (I.3. 30-31). The Sisters’ evil presence once again pushes the plot along; Macbeth is mentioned again and the audience anticipation grows stronger and they get introduced to Macbeth through the line, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I.3. 38). This repetition by Macbeth of the Sisters’ last words imply that he is already, though subconsciously, connected with the Sisters. It also anticipates the blurring of good and evil; fair is the opposite of foul but he sees the day as being both. The day is fair because the crown was prophezised to him and foul because this prophecy is going to be his fall. Then, Macbeth does have ambition but the influence of the witches brings it out of him to take action, he cannot stop thinking of the Sisters – he has them always in his head. It also becomes clear that Macbeth was a faithfull man, even his wife says, “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’the milk of human kindness” (I.5. 12-13). His faithfull thoughts toward the king change immediately after the prophecies of the Sisters, “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” (I.3. 140). It seems as if the Sisters bewitched Macbeth. Later on in the play, Macbeth himself refers to Hecate and witchcraft (II.1. 50-56) and seeks the witches for council (VI.1.). Finally, if we assume that the familiar of the third Sister is an owl, there is a connection between this familiar with the murder of Duncan. There is a reference to the owl in Act II. 4., “A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.” (II.4. 12-13). This suggests that the supernatural is to blame; and the Sisters still influence the plot even when they are not directly involved. Another reference to the owl, or to the Sisters, is in Act II.2., which is mentioned above. This represents the Sisters influence on Macbeth and his actions. A last argument for this interpretation is stated by Schlegel, “the Witches did foreknow Macbeth’s future; and what is foreknown is fixed; and how can a man be responsible when his future is fixed?”[19]. However, A. C. Bradley refutes this argument by saying, “but, in so far as it relates to the play, I aswer, first, that not one of the things foreknown is an action. This is just as true of the later prophocies as of the first.”[20]. This, in fact, is one of the most important arguments of those who hold the opinion that Macbeth is an individual and acts as a free agent.

The Sisters do not take over active action, they only talk and give visions and as Bradley argues, “The prophecies of the Witches are presented simply as dangerous circumstances with which Macbeth has to deal”[21]. In addition, there is nothing strange or guilty in the words of the Sisters. The Sisters make their appeal to Macbeth’s and Banquo’s desire. Banquo takes over an important role at this point. The different response toward the Sisters is another issue which underlines the point that Macbeth is independent of the Sisters. They hail Macbeth deferentially and prophesy that great honours await him (I.3. 48-50). When Banquo asks to be told his fortune too (I.3. 51-61), the Sisters hail him as well, though in more enigmatic and more openly ambiguous words, promesing that he shall be the forefather of kings (I.3. 62-68). When the Sisters vanish, Macbeth wants to know more from them. He is fascinated by them and their message. Banquo, in contrast, is not impressed, for him they are simply uncouth beings, ugly old women acting as fortune tellers, they are “bubbles” (I.3. 79), ephemeral creatures without much substance to them but possibly as treacherous and gruesome as the boggy ground he treads. Macbeth and Banquo subtly characterize themselves by selecting what they perceive of the witches. Macbeth’s emotions are so deeply roused that he reveals his confusion and professes his anxiety. Therefore, how Bradley puts it,

Banquo, ambitious but perfectly honest, is scarcely even startled by them [the Sisters], and he remains throughout the scene indefferent to them. But when Macbeth heard them he was not an innocent man. […] no innocent man would have started, as he did, with a sart of fear at the mere prophecy of a crown, or have conceived thereupon immediately the thought of murder.[22]

When Ross tells Macbeth that he has become the Thane of Cawdor, Banquo says, “What! Can the Devil speak true?” (I.3. 107). Macbeth says to himself, “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind” (I.3. 117). While Banquo is thinking about the nature of the witches’ intentions, Macbeth is thinking about his next promise, to be crowned King. Banquo seems to be aware of Macbeths’ thoughts and so warns him against letting himself become caught up with what the Sisters said (I.3. 120-127). So, even after a warning of Banquo Macbeth commits the crime. Last, Macbeth already plans the murder of Macduff before meeting the Weird Sisters a second time, therefore, he alone is responsible for his deeds.

Thus, everyone is responsible for his own destiny, This is an essential theme in this tragedy. Macbeth chooses to gamble with his soul and when he does this, it is only him who chooses to lose it. He is responsible for anything he does and must take total accountability for his actions. Macbeth is the one who made the final decision to carry out his actions and continued with the murdering to cover that of Duncan. The killing of Duncan starts an unstoppable chain of events in the play that ends with the murder of Macbeth and the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth, in the beginning had all of the qualities of an honourable gentleman who could become anything. This is all shattered when his ambition overrides his sense of morality. Although, Macbeth is warned as to the validity of the Sisters prophecies, he is tempted and refuses to listen to reason from Banquo. Certainly, Macbeth’s freedom of his own will and own decision is in the foreground because he the one who plans the deeds without an influence of the Sisters and concequently gets to the apex of being a tyrant.


Primary Literature

Shakespeare, Williams.: Macbeth - Text and Context, ed. William C. Carroll, Boston/New York: Macmillian Press, 1999

Secondary Literature

Bradley, A.C..: Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. With a Foreword by John Bayley. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1991

Briggs, Robin: Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking Penquin, 1996

Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare Studies: Macbeth. New York: R.R. Smith, 1938

Dyer, Rev. T. F. Thiselton and Oxon, M. A.: Folk-Lore of Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1966

Eaton, Harold T. (ed.): Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. Massachusetts: D.C. Heath Company, 1933

Huggett, Richard.: The Curse of Macbeth and Other Theatrical Superstitions. London: Picton Publishing, 1981

Jorgensen, Paul A.: Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth. California: University of California Press, 1971

Papp, Joseph and Kirkland, Elizabeth: Shakespeare Alive!, New York: Banton Books, 1988

Stallybrass, Peter: “Macbeth and Witchcraft” in: John Russell Brown (ed.), Focus on Macbeth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. 189-209

Wills, Garry: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995


[1] Richard Huggett, The Curse of Macbeth and Other Theatrical Superstitions (London, 1981), p. 136

[2] Peter Stallybrass, “Macbeth and Witchcraft” in: John Russell Brown (ed.). Focus on Macbeth. (London, 1982) p. 191 f

[3] Blanche Coles, Shakespeare Studies: Macbeth, (New York, 1938)

[4] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. William C. Carroll (Boston/New York, 1999) All quotes are taken from this edition

[5] A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. (London, 1992), p.303

[6] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 304

[7] Joseph Papp and Elizabeth Kirkland, Shakespeare Alive! (New York, 1988) p. 43

[8] Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York, 1996) p.259

[9] Harold T. Eaton, Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth, (Massachusetts, 1933) p. xxxiv

[10] Paul A. Jorgensen, Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth, (California, 1971) p.118

[11] Briggs, Witches & Neighbors, p. 259

[12] Papp and Kirkland, Shakespeare Alive, p. 74

[13] Ibid, p.75

[14] Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer and M. A. Oxen, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, (New York, 1966) p. 31

[15] Ibid. P.28

[16] Ibid. P.30

[17] Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, (New York, 1995) p.82

[18] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 299

[19] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 302 f.

[20] Ibid., p. 303

[21] Ibid., p. 301

[22] Ibid., p. 301

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The Weird Sisters in Macbeth
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Linda Dittmann (Author), 2004, The Weird Sisters in Macbeth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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