Exploration of a Theme
The supernatural is at the heart of the play, influencing the characters and creating gripping dramatic tension.
’A desolate place: thunder and lightning. Enter three witches’
• The opening setting establishes an eerie atmosphere which immediately highlights the ominous (dangerous) presence of the witches and makes the audience uncomfortable.
• The thunder and lightning reflects a disturbance in nature. The pathetic fallacy warns the audience that a troubled time is coming.
• Structurally, Shakespeare opens the play with the ‘three witches’, emphasising their vital role.
Context: The Jacobean audience believed that disruption in nature (the macrocosm) reflected the human world (microcosm); Shakespeare uses the disturbance in nature to symbolise the potential disruption in the world of men. This would have created a sense of unease, compounded by the presence of the witches. The Jacobean audience firmly believed in their existence and malevolent (evil) power; King James 1 was so convinced that he wrote his own book, Daemonologie, on the subject. There is nothing comical or childish about these witches and Shakespeare’s audience would have been chilled by their sinister presence.
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’
• The witches create a sense of confusion, showing us that things are not always as they seem.
• The use of paradox here highlights the power of the witches who will give Macbeth ‘fair’ prophecies yet these will end up with ‘foul’ consequences. The repetition of the ‘f’ sounds emphasises a sense of forceful power and the monosyllabic words enhance the sense of the chanting of a spell.
• Shakespeare establishes an atmosphere of malevolent (evil) power right at the beginning, establishing a world where nothing is as it seems and is therefore dangerous. We remember this spell when we meet Macbeth who says ‘so fair and foul a day’, immediately linking him with the forces of evil.
• When the witches complete their spell before meeting Macbeth, ‘thrice’ (three) is repeated to complete the spell of making the three prophecies (Glamis/Cawdor/King) that will convince Macbeth to kill the king.
• ‘Three’ was a number associated with magic in Jacobean times so the audience would have known that magic was at work.
Context: Shakespeare is perhaps referencing the fates in Greek mythology, the three sisters who controlled the fate of men. This connection shows us how much power the witches have over Macbeth, influencing him so that he allows his ambition to overrule his better nature.
‘Enter the ghost of Banquo and sits in Macbeth’s place’
• Supernatural elements are also evident in the ‘gory’ ghost of Banquo which adds enormous dramatic tension. It takes Macbeth’s seat, showing that he is still a threat. Banquo’s son, not Macbeth’s, will indeed one day sit in that same throne.
• The ghost is a visual and dramatic reminder to the audience of how fate cannot be stopped.
• It is perhaps also a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilty conscience.
‘All this is so’
• The witches state that the apparitions they show him in Act 4 are true predictions, that their words speak the truth and that ‘all this is so’.
• The simple, monosyllabic statement of certainty shows utter conviction and structurally, the next scene is of the murder of Macduff’s family to illustrate how quickly Macbeth acts on the witches’ words, completely convinced in their accuracy.
• It is ironic that, by trying to eliminate Macduff as a threat, Macbeth ensures Macduff’s anger and revenge that will end in Macbeth’s death.
‘Out, damned spot’
• As her mind disintegrates into madness, Lady Macbeth sees visions of blood.
• These visions could be sent by the evil spirits she once turned to in order to torment her and lead her to suicide.
• An alternative reading is that the visions could be hallucinations from a troubled mind.
Context: A superstitious Jacobean might well think the visions came from the supernatural while a modern audience would be more inclined to believe the psychological interpretation.
• Macbeth condemns the witches when Macduff reveals that he was born via Caesarean birth.
• The adjective ‘juggling’ shows that he finally understands that the witches have been playing with him.
Context: This is Macbeth’s moment of anagnorisis, which comes from the tradition of Greek theatre and is the moment when a character makes a critical discovery. Here, Macbeth realises that his faith in the witches has been misplaced.
Grade 9 Analysis
Look at the character in a different way.
Do the witches control the actions of the Macbeths?
Yes: The witches send the dagger in Act 2 to ‘marshall’st’ (guide) Macbeth towards King Duncan’s chamber. Macbeth might yet have decided against killing Duncan if the dagger had not guided him at this crucial time. The witches’ spells manipulate throughout the play.
No: The dagger is simply a manifestation of Macbeth’s own guilt. As the vision fades, he admits that ‘there’s no such thing’ and then with absolute purpose walks with his dagger to Duncan’s chamber. He is control of his own actions and the witches are not responsible.
The Jacobeans believed in predetermination which is the philosophy that everything in life is mapped out for us by God or fate. However, Shakespeare was interested in the idea of self-determination, the way in which people control their own lives. This exploration is evident in the examination of the witches’ role in the play; do they control the actions of the characters or do the characters have autonomy over their own decisions?