Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Witches as Omniscient Prophets of Doom?

Seminar Paper, 2019
24 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Origins of Supernatural and Superstition in England

3. Definition of Witches and their Power of Prophecy

4. King James VI of Scotland and I of England

5. Textual Analysis of The Weird Sisters Apparition in Macbeth
5.1. Act 1: Opening Scene - The Future is Set
5.1.1. “Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair”
5.1.2. The Revenge of the Witches
5.1.3. The Encounter with Macbeth
5.2. Act 3: Macbeth’s Insanity and His Thirst for More
5.2.1. Banquo’s Ghost as a Foreplay
5.2.2. Hecate: Mother and Goddess
5.3. Act 4: “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” and a Hell-Broth
5.3.1. Macbeth’s Subconsciousness
5.3.2. The Three Apparitions

6. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

This essay is dedicated to the influence of witchcraft and the power of prophecy of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. First, before going in to the textual analysis of Macbeth it is important to explain the believe in the supernatural and in superstition in England, especially during the Jacobean era. Second, on the one hand the definition of witches must be discussed and on the other hand, the definition of prophecy in the context of the word “prophet”. Chapter four explains the believe in witchcraft of James VI of Scotland and I of England and his measure of prohibition of sorcery regarding his witchcraft acts. The main part of this essay consists of the textual analysis of Macbeth concerning the so-called “Weird Sisters” and their goddess Hecate in the play. The analysis is chronologically divided into the three acts in which the witches appear: Act 1, Act 3 and Act 4. The opening scene shall explain the first apparition of the witches and their evil nature. This chapter is subdivided in their famous paradox line “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Furthermore, their thirst for revenge shown by the metaphor of the fate of the “Tiger’s” captain and his wife has to be compared to Macbeth. Afterwards, the first encounter of the witches and Macbeth shall be analysed. Act 3 depicts his growing insanity because of the murder on Banquo and discusses his ambition for the crown since he heard the prophecies of the “wayward” sisters. Here it is decisive to have a look at the banquet scene and the ghost of Banquo as a foreplay for the next apparition of the weird sisters in Act 4. Before that, the role of the mother-goddess Hecate has to be depicted. Finally, there is the “hell-broth” of the witches stirring Macbeth’s subconsciousness and preparing the three apparitions for him.

2. Origins of Supernatural and Superstition in England

Before talking about the power of witches it is crucial to look at the genusProximus of such evil forces. That is why, there has to be a clear definition of the supernatural in general e.g. by the Oxford Dictionary that quotes: “that cannot be explained by the laws of science and that seems to involve gods or magic” (Hornby and Wehmeier 1540). Thus, it gets clear that the supernatural includes superior forces and is unable to be proven. In a strong relation to the supernatural there is superstition that is defined as follows (Pleinen 11):

([O]ften disapproving) the belief that particular events happen in a way that cannot be explained by reason or science; the belief that particular events bring good or bad luck […] e.g. breaking a mirror brings bad luck. (Hornby and Wehmeier 1541)

Superstition contains the components of luck and misfortune which cannot be explained by human. That is why, there is the belief in supernatural forces like destiny and that everything happens for a certain reason may it be good or bad. Superstition also has to do with magic for example to heal somebody by casting a spell or to hurt somebody e.g. with voodoo magic1 (Pleinen 11).

Today superstition has changed but only slightly. Often it is still believed that it is bad to put shoes up on the table, a cat approaching from the left side, or the number 13 is might be a bad omen. However, it is very common to wear a lucky charm for exams or competitions, or to look at the daily horoscope.

In 16th and 17th century England the belief in the supernatural and superstition was much more deeply rooted than it is today, for example back then it was believed that childhood illnesses had something to do with witchcraft which will be defined in chapter 3 (Stallybrass 104). Hence, Superstition in Elizabethan and Jacobean England included ghosts, witches, fairies, magicians and demons. Dreams were regarded as prophecy which will play an important role when analysing Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the witches in the play . In addition to that, astrology had a very high standing among the Western World and especially among the English society. That is why, it was believed that a human’s life was predestined by the star under he was born2. Comets predicted the death of the king and meteorites were regarded as a symbol for evil forces (Pleinen 12-13).

The belief in good and evil derives from the Christian faith: “The Good, pursued by those who submit to the law of God, and the Evil, inhabited by followers of the devil and demons” (Baroja 23). Thus, supernatural forces who do not serve God are of evil nature and “were attributed to witches and sorcerers, male and female, […] all those […] of ‘magic arts’” (23). Especially in superstitious Elizabethan- and Jacobean England was the common belief in such “magic arts” most of all in witchcraft. In addition, when the Catholic Church grew ever stronger the faith in superstition and supernatural got even bigger (24-26). A perfect example for the phenomenon of the evil power of witches is Shakespeare’s Macbeth who used the views and faiths of the simple population e.g. on the countryside like peasants derived from the folklore (Fergusson 59; Kingston and Brückner-Pfaffenberger 22; Mack 49-50; Pleinen 13).

3. Definition of Witches and their Power of Prophecy

Before talking about witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth the term itself accompanied by the term witchcraft must be defined. For a long time, there was no proper distinction between witches and sorcerers. Montrose describes such powers as follows:

The cultural fantasy assimilates Amazonian myth, witchcraft, and cannibalism into an anti-culture which precisely inverts European norms of political authority, sexual license, marriages practices, and inheritance rules. […] in such Renaissance texts [e.g. Macbeth ] is a mixture of fascination and horror. (486)

The term of “inversion” was back then connected with the power of the evil, political unrest and the misrule of the female power over the male. Thus, this inverts the values of the British Monarchy and its “divinely sanctioned order in the cosmos, state, and family” (Ankarloo and Henningsen 27; Braunmuller and Gibbons 29; Montrose 506). Hence, it was believed that witches and sorcerers were sent by the devil - the so-called “fallen angel” - in order to serve him (Kingston and Brückner-Pfaffenberger 24).

Derived from the folklore the imagination of witches is a mixture of facts and fantasy. That is why, witches were believed to be in a pact with the devil or Satan for who they sacrifice children and reject the Christian faith (Fergusson 59-60; Kingston and Brückner-Pfaffenberger 22-28). Especially they were feared for their prophecies which will be explained in the next subchapter because this ability will be decisive for the understanding of the witches repeatedly emerging in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Another attribute for witches was that they are mainly of female nature probably because of their low status in society3. They were regarded as the weaker subordinated sex, thus more predisposed to sin. Moreover, as the Satan is male, he prefers the female sex to be his servants (22). Montrose describe their power with “a collective anxiety about the power of the female not only to dominate or to reject the male but to create and to destroy him” (Montrose 486). Further he mentions that there was a dependence of men towards women i.e. for their mothers, for giving birth to them and for nurturing them. Later they were dependent from their wives or mistresses, “for the validation of their manhood” which will be recurring themes in Macbeth (486).

In England witches were mostly feared for their ability to see into the future, thus were said to be able to predict the death of a king or other evil forces who would threaten English monarchy (Stallybrass 105-106). This will occur in the very beginning of Macbeth when the three witches tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s sons will be kings as well. But what exactly is a prophecy and why have witches the ability to forecast the future? The word “prophecy” contains the word “prophet”, but can witches be regarded as prophets? Back then in the Elizabethan and Jacobean England a prophet was either a forecaster, or a preacher of the Holy Scripture. The ability of predicting was strongly connected with astrology, mathematics and religion. Prophets were chosen by God to inherit divine knowledge in order to forecast the truth - no matter may it be good or bad. Thus, a prophecy included two attributes: action, the theory of “praxis”, or “doing” and the product, the theory of “poiesis” which was defined as the “making” for a specific purpose. Nevertheless, there were only few prophets who were blessed by foreknowledge because men represent God but are not God himself. Consequently, most of the prophecies were not trustworthy they were only “learning gained by ‘the light of long experience’ and ‘signes [sic] of observation’” (Sarkar 87).

4. King James VI of Scotland and I of England

Macbeth was the so-called “Scottish Play” dedicated to King James VI of Scotland who also became also King of England and ruled from 1603 to 1625. Written in order to glorify the King it was thus used as an instrument in favour of his reign. He was publicly known for his believe in the power of witchcraft and was afraid of treason and for overthrowing his throne4. That was the reason why, James I published several Witchcraft Acts ruling the punishment of the usage of sorcery. His views concerning witches and witchcraft he wrote down in his book Daemonologie in 1596/975. According to literature Shakespeare used the King’s treatise and Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft as a source for Macbeth. But his main source was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland published in 1587 in which the “Weird Sisters” - occurring in Macbeth as well - were described as goddesses over destiny by their knowledge of prophecy the power feared the most by James I. That is why, Macbeth has to be seen as a tragic political play demonstrating the influence of the King on monarchy (Braunmuller and Gibbons 30; Mack 45; Shamas 18-22).

Further it is crucial to refer to the principles of Calvinism in which the AngloAmerican church as well as King James VI and I believed. The theory of the reformer of the Lutheran church Johannes Calvin said that life itself is predestined and that men cannot change their fate. Each person is thus led by God who has already determined every single life may it be good or bad. That is why, there is the central question of the free will in Macbeth. Since the first act, the prophecies of the witches lead Macbeth to his complete downfall like his life would already be determined by supernatural, evil forces.

5. Textual Analysis of The Weird Sisters Apparition in Macbeth

The main part of this essay is the textual analysis of the witches’ role in the play. In the beginning of the play there are three witches but later there will be Hecate the forth witch who rules over the others. Since the beginning they are the engine of all action by prophesying Macbeth’s fate and appealing to his ambition of once being King of Scotland (Schormann 95-96).

Shakespeare’s source The Holinshed Chronicles offer two descriptions for the witches: “’The weird sisters’ signify the Fates of Greek or Scandinavian mythology, who are three goddesses with supernatural powers over human beings. The word derives from Old English ‘wyrd’, which means fate or destiny” (Nostbakken 84). The other explanation is Holinshed described them as “wayward sisters” which in the course of time simply turned to “weird sisters” (Braunmuller and Gibbons 32; Nostbakken 84).

5.1. Act 1: Opening Scene - The Future is Set

As already mentioned above, Macbeth’s fate seems to be set right at the beginning of the story by the three witches’ appearance and their prophecy of Macbeth becoming Thane of Cawdor and finally King of Scotland. But at the play’s beginning the country experiences a rebellion by Macdonald against King Duncan which is why the witches enter with thunder and lightning - a typical quality of witches to influence nature e.g. by causing bad weather (Pleinen 88; Schormann 95)6:

FIRST WITCH When shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH When the hurly-burly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won.

THIRD WITCH That will be ere the set of sun. […] (1.1.1-5)

The first witch asks the other witches when they shall meet again “[n thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (1.1.2). The second witch answers by referring to the “hurly- burly”, the tumult going on in Scotland and when this battle is “lost and won” (1.2.3-4). The third witch already seems to know that the battle will be ended before sundown (1.2.5). Thus the “weird sisters” show her ability not only to influence nature, but also to see into future which reveals them as omniscient supernatural beings. Nevertheless, their knowledge about future seems to be limited because the outcome of the battle is a logic consequence and the ambiguous statement “lost and won” does not say if the battle will finally be lost “or” won (Lindecke 246). Another interpretation of “hurly-burly” could be the fight of Macbeth for his own soul which gets more and more seduced by the powers of evil throughout the play (Pleinen 88). Further it goes on:

FIRST WITCH Where the place?

SECOND WITCH Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH There to meet with Macbeth.


1 Def.: a religion that is practiced especially in Haiti and involves magic and witchcraft (Hornby and Wehmeier 1709).

2 according to Calvinism either for heaven or for hell (Pleinen 12-13).

3 According to literature witches were not only female, there were male sorcerers as well who had been punished and burned in case of witch-persecution. But the number of persecuted female witches was higher and they were poor old women from the countryside pushed away from society (Kingston and Brückner-Pfaffenberger 22).

4 He triggered of the witch craze in Scotland and over 1000 people of who 85% women lost their lives due to persecution (Shamas 19).

5 Based on the German document Malleus Maleficarum the so-called “The Hammer of Witches/Witchcraft” published in Germany in 1486, and on Reginald Scot’s book TheDiscoverie of Witchcraft published in England in 1584 (Shamas 19).

6 This scene was the hardest one to realize on stage especially in Shakespearean times. Today special effects can be used, but back then thunder and lightning was produced by “drummers, rolling cannon balls, fireworks on a wire and bursts of resin smoke” (Shamas 44).

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Witches as Omniscient Prophets of Doom?
University of Passau
Elizabethan Tragedies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, Macbeth, Witchcraft, spell, curse, doom, dark, prophets, hexen, hexerei, aberglaube, superstition, england, Hecate, James of Scotland, sisters, schwester, Prophezeiung, fair, foul, Banquo, unterbewusstsein, psychology
Quote paper
Juliane Breit (Author), 2019, Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Witches as Omniscient Prophets of Doom?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/535013


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