Shakespeare’s Witches in Macbeth Essay

Shakespeare’s play Macbeth chronicles the story of a man prophesied to be king of Scotland who chose to bring this prophecy about by murdering the old king and framing the old king’s retainers for the crime. This prophecy was made by a group of three witches that met him on the moors following a decisive battle. Because they first predicted he would be made Thane of Cawdor and then king of Scotland, the news that he was indeed Thane of Cawdor turns his head to thoughts of royalty. After he’s attained this exalted rank, through his own machinations, he feels threatened by the number of nobles fleeing Scotland and he again seeks out the words of the witches, wanting reassurance that his reign is secure. This continued reference to witches throughout the play prompts one to learn more about why Shakespeare might have included them, how they were envisioned in his England and how an understanding of them might provide greater understanding of the play itself.

According to David Linder (2005), “Scotland’s witch-hunting had its origins in the marriage of King James to Princess Anne of Denmark.” According to the story, James and Anne were planning to be wed in Scotland, but Anne’s ship was forced to turn back from its voyage because of bad storms which were blamed upon the actions of witches back in Denmark. James then traveled to Scandinavia for the wedding ceremony, which did take place, but, upon the couple’s return voyage to Scotland, bad storms again made the crossing difficult and were again blamed on witches. “Back in Scotland, the paranoid James authorized torture of suspected witched. Dozens of condemned witches in the North Berwick area were burned at the stake in what would be the largest witch hunt in British history” (Linder, 2005). This illustrates the importance of the witch issue within contemporary English society as James first wrote his Demonology and pursued witches in Scotland and then, with his coming to the British throne, brought his ideas of witchcraft to England. Given that the play was written with James in mind, James claimed to be a descendent of Banquo, one should probably expect to find elements of both English witch lore as well as Scottish witch lore within the play.

Indeed, there are several elements of both English and Scottish conceptions of witches found throughout the first act of the play. One example of this is the witches’ association with animals found at the very beginning of the play. The first witch says, “I come, Graymalkin!” (I, i, 8) and the second announces, “Paddock calls” (I, i, 9). “The audience would at once understand that these are witches, since the cat (Graymalkin) and the toad (Paddock) were frequently to be found as familiars in witch trials in England” (Thompson, 1993). Animal familiars were thought to provide the witch with a means of exploring the world in another form, introducing the concept of shape-shifting, as well as to act as guardians, alerting witches to nearby or approaching danger. According to Thompson, the concept of a familiar animal spirit of this type was not a characteristic commonly attributed to witches in Scotland, but were a significant element of English legends. “They [familiar spirits] were almost the defining characteristic of English witches” (Thompson, 2005). Because the play was written for an English audience, it is not necessarily surprising that Shakespeare should start the play by identifying his witches with elements that the English audience would most easily identify with.

This English characterization is continued in this first act as the various activities of the witches are revealed. When they discuss what they’ve been up to, one witch answers she’s been out “killing swine” while another talks about begging chestnuts from a sailor’s wife and her plans to take the sailor as repayment for being turned away while the third produces “a pilot’s thumb, wracked as homeward he did come” (I, iii, 28-29). In each instance, the witches are engaged in activity for which they have been accused in England, either in the destruction of livestock, begging for food in the new economy or collecting body parts presumably for use in spell work. “Killing swine is malefice, exactly the kind of thing that accusations of witch craft in England turned upon. If having a familiar or a devil’s teat was good evidence that someone was a witch, there was generally little chance of a conviction in court unless it could be shown that actual harm had been done to someone’s person or property” (Thompson, 1993). Although these activities reflect the English legal code regarding witch craft prosecution, Shakespeare does not neglect to include elements of Scottish identification.

In giving his witches Scottish characterizations, Shakespeare presents them as a group and gives them other behaviors that were more commonly known in Scotland. “English witches were understood to be mainly solitary, or family groups of mother and daughter, at this time” (Thompson, 1993). By placing them in a group of three, Shakespeare illustrates the more sociable nature of witches in Scotland. “One of the most striking parts in the Newes from Scotland is the account of the witches being led in a dance at the graveyard by Gellie Duncan playing on a Jew’s Harp” (Thompson, 1993). This action is repeated to some extent in Macbeth in each scene in which the witches appear. When Macbeth and Banquo first meet them, they are engaged in a dance, indicated by the chant they engage in just before the men’s entrance: “The weird sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land, thus do go about, about, Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again, to make up nine” (I, iii, 32-36). They appear dancing again later in the play as they dance around a cauldron to provide Macbeth with more information about his future, “Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites and show the best of our delights. I’ll charm the air to give a sound while you perform your antic round” (IV, i, 127-130). This cauldron is not a part of either English or Scottish tradition, primarily because a solitary witch, as was conceived in England, would have no need of such quantities and a Scottish witch, part of a small social circle, was often considered too poor to have been able to own such a device. However, Thompson points out that this was a tradition often encountered upon the continent, where King James first began developing his concern about the possibilities of witch craft.

Through this investigation, it is shown that the concept of witches was heavily on the minds of the people and the leaders of England at the time when Shakespeare was writing his play. There was a wide variety of characteristics associated with them, with each country seemingly conceiving of their own rules and definitions of what comprised witch-like actions which were occasionally self-contradictory. An example of this is the idea in England of witches acting alone and the idea in Scotland of them acting in small social groups as opposed to ideas on the continent where they were thought to gather in large convocations. To some extent, it can be argued that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was an attempt by the playwright to provide his audience with a means of incorporating the ideas of James I from Scotland with the pre-existing ideas held in England.

Works Cited

  • Linder, David. “A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions before Salem.” Salem Witchcraft Trials Homepage. 2005. December 12, 2007
  • Thompson, Edward H. “Macbeth, King James and the Witches.” Lancashire Witches – Law, Literature and 17th Century Women. Lancaster: University of Lancaster, 1993.