The Three Witches:
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Introduced to us in the opening scene, the Three Witches set Macbeth upon his fatal path. They tell Macbeth that he will be Thane (Lord) of Cawdor and later the King. Later by use of the Three Apparitions, they prophesy his doom. Symbolic of both the underworld and the mysticism of the 1500s, they are tantamount with the idea of immorality in this play.
The three witches drive the plot because of the power Shakespeare gives them. Their power gives them the upper hand, and drives Macbeth to lunacy. It is their prediction that leads Macbeth and Banquo to believe their fate is set.
Set in medieval Scotland, ‘Macbeth’ charts the gory climb to power and catastrophic downfall of the soldier Macbeth.
Macbeth begins in “an open place, with the appearance of the three “weird sisters,” as they later call themselves. The Old English word “wyrd” or “weird” means “Fate,” which is exactly the origin of these Witches: They are the Fates of classical mythology, one of whom spun the thread of a person’s life, one of whom measured it, and one of whom cut it. The bleakness of the scene is a dramatic representation both of the wild Scottish landscape in which the play is set and the more universal wilderness of man’s existence.
Macbeth’s opening words, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”, ironically recall the Witches’ “foul is fair” in Scene 1, but Banquo is the first to spot the weird sisters, remarking on the Witches’ ambiguous and confused appearance: They “look not like the inhabitants of the earth, / And yet are on it”; they seem to understand him, and yet he cannot be sure; they “should be women,” and yet they are bearded. Later in the scene, Macbeth remarks that the Witches “seem’d corporal [physical]” and yet they vanish like bubbles “into the air.”
In the opening scene of the play, the three witches introduce the contrary nature of this world with two paradoxes. The lines “When the battle’s lost and won” and “Fair is foul and foul is fair”, paradox suggesting that whatever appears good is “foul” implying the murder of Duncan appearing to be a “fair” idea to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, for Macbeth would accede to the throne.
The world of Macbeth is a world of contradiction. Good is bad. True is false. Light is dark.
The Three Witches’ speech is written in short rhyming verse that imitates the casting of a spell. Their language is also full of the imagery of witchcraft and of chaotic weather: thunder, lightning, rain, fog, and “filthy air.”
Already a successful soldier in the army of King Duncan, Macbeth is informed by Three Witches that he is to become “Thane of Glamis!”, “Thane of Cawdor!” and “king hereafter”. As part of the same prophecy, the Witches predict that future Scottish kings will be descended not from Macbeth but from his fellow army captain, Banquo.
Although initially prepared to wait for Fate to take its course, Macbeth is stung by ambition and confusion when King Duncan nominates his son Malcolm as his heir.
Great ambition, or inordinate lust for power, ultimately brings ruin.
After the witches play to his ambition with a prophecy that he will become king, he cannot keep this desire under control. He realizes that Duncan is a good king–humble, noble, virtuous. But he rationalizes that a terrible evil grips him that he cannot overcome.
……………… I have no spur
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………………To prick the sides of my intent, but only
………………Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
………………And falls on the other. (1. 7. 27-30)
Returning to his castle, Macbeth allows himself to be persuaded and directed by his ambitious wife, who realizes that regicide—the murder of the king—is the quickest way to achieve the destiny that her husband has been promised. A perfect opportunity presents itself when King Duncan pays a royal visit to Macbeth’s castle. At first Macbeth is loath to commit a crime that he knows will invite judgment, if not on earth then in heaven.
Although initially prepared to wait for Fate to take its course, Macbeth is stung by ambition and confusion when King Duncan nominates his son Malcolm as his heir, with the help of his wife, kills the King.
The assembled lords of Scotland, including Macbeth, swear to avenge the murder. With suspicion heavy in the air, the king’s two sons flee the country: Donalbain to Ireland and Malcolm to raise an army in England. Macbeth is duly proclaimed the new king of Scotland.
Just as the Three Witches’ prophesied Macbeth’s ascendancy to become King in Act I, Scene III, here they prophesy his doom with Three Apparitions (visions / ghosts).
The First Apparition tells an eager Macbeth that he should fear Macduff, saying “beware Macduff; / Beware the Thane of Fife….”
The Second Apparition reassures Macbeth that “none of women born / shall harm Macbeth” and
The Third Apparition tells Macbeth he has nothing to fear until “Great Birnam wood” moves to “high Dunsinane hill” near his castle.
Macbeth decides to kill Macduff to protect himself and takes the prophecies to mean that he is safe from all men since they are all born naturally and that only the moving of a nearby forest to his castle, an unlikely event will spell his doom. He arranges the murder of his fellow soldier Banquo and his son Fleance, both of whom represent a threat to his kingship according to the Witches’ prophecy. The hired murderers kill Banquo but mistakenly allow Fleance to escape. At a celebratory banquet that night, Macbeth is thrown into a state of horror when the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears at the dining table. Again, his wife tries to strengthen Macbeth, but the strain is clearly beginning to show.
When he is told that Macduff has deserted him, Macbeth begins the final stage of his tragic descent. His first move is the destruction of Macduff’s wife and children. In England, Macduff receives the news at the very moment that he swears his allegiance to the young Malcolm. Malcolm persuades him that the murder of his family should act as the spur to revenge.
…….The play continues to present contradictions, reversals, and impossibilities that become possible.
The following day, Macbeth returns to the same Witches who initially foretold his destiny. In the witches’ cavern, an apparition of a bloody child tells Macbeth that no one “born of woman.” can harm him. Subsequently another apparition, a crowned child, tells him that he cannot die unless the trees of Birnam Wood march against him. Dismissing both of these predictions as nonsense, Macbeth prepares for invasion.
Macbeth fights, Siward killing him. Macbeth is now confronted by Macduff, a man he has consciously avoided and one he refuses to fight. Macbeth famously exclaims that he has lived a charmed life and is unable to be killed by a man, naturally born. Macduff now explains that he has born by Caesarian section and the two men fight, Macbeth dying and order being restored when Malcolm is hailed as the new King of Scotland…
Macduff then hails Malcolm as the new king of Scotland.
In the final scene, Malcolm is crowned as the new king of Scotland, to the acclaim of all.
Thus we witness how the ‘bearded witches’ play a very masculine role and their prophecies hold great value because they are concrete, they cannot be changed. This proves detrimental by the play’s conclusion because Banquo, who never tries to modify his destiny, reaps the benefits of the witches’ foretelling. The witches have an even more masculine role than Macbeth, due to their control to see into the future and divulge the path of one’s life. Their prophecy leads to Macbeth’s psychosis. They have the power to make nothing seem normal, and they control the fate of Macbeth via their prophecies. Macbeth certainly holds no power of the like.