The Macbeth witches are essential to the plot of Macbeth because they provide Macbeth’s ‘call to action’. Their prophesies drive his thirst for power and enable Lady Macbeth to pursue her own ambitions.
The Macbeth Witches
Shakespeare used a number of devices to create a sense of otherness and malevolence for the Macbeth witches (also referred to as the “weird sisters”). For example:
- The Macbeth witches speak in rhyming couplets which distinguishes them from all other characters in the play
- The Macbeth witches are said to have beards, making them difficult to gender
- They are always accompanied by storms and bad weather
During the play, the Macbeth witches make five key predictions:
- Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor
- Banquo’s children will become kings
- They advise Macbeth to “beware Macduff”
- Macbeth cannot be harmed by anyone “of woman born”
- Macbeth cannot be beaten until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane shall come”
Four of these predictions are realized; one is not. Although Banquo’s children do not become Kings during the course of the play, Banquo’s children do escape murder and could return at some point in the future. At the end of the play it is left for the audience to decide whether or not they believe the Macbeth witches.
But are the witch’s prophesies preordained? Or do they simply encourage Macbeth to become active in constructing his own fate? It is perhaps part of Macbeth’s character to shape his life according to the predictions – whereas Banquo does not. This might explain why the only prophesy not realized by the end of the play relates directly to Banquo and cannot be shaped by Macbeth (although Macbeth would also have little control over the “Great Birnam Wood” prediction).
By writing the Macbeth witches in this manner, Shakespeare is asking an age old question: are our lives already mapped out for us or do we have a hand in what happens to us? Therefore, at the end of the play the audience is forced to consider the extent to which the characters have control over their own lives.