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What is the Significance of the Three Witches in Macbeth?

"What is the significance of the three witches in Macbeth?"

In this essay, I am seeking to answer the question: "What is the significance of the three witches in Macbeth?". In order to answer this, I will look at the following things: what I believe Shakespeare intended the witches to represent; what the witches aim to achieve throughout the play; and what they do ultimately achieve and its ramifications by the end of Macbeth.

First of all, who and what are the witches? Clearly, they are not your friendly neighbourhood types (overplayed somewhat with the rather excessive pathetic fallacy) Some Shakespeare scholars have speculated that the three witches on Macbeth are intended to represent the three Fates of ancient mythology. However, as the latter are goddesses with powers far greater than the three hags of Shakespeare's tale, and the connection, I believe, is at best dim. Interestingly enough, three seems to be a recurrent figure in Macbeth. In Act I, Scene3, one of the "weird sisters" invokes magical powers:

"Thrice to thrice, and thrice to mine,

Again, at the start of Act IV, the first witch projects the time of Macbeth's second encounter with the weird sisters by noting:

"Thrice the brindled cat hath mew'd"

There are several other instances in the play in which the number three resonates with the incantations of the witches, as for example, in the three murderers of Banquo, or the hailing of Macbeth by the witches. Whether this is meant to echo the three hammer blows of fate or the three baths a day that was customary at the time, I don't know.

Some doubts about the nature of the witches in Macbeth have been aroused by the fact that they are called the 'Weird Sisters', a phrase that Shakespeare is believed to have borrowed from Holinshed's "Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland" (I577) - his source for the story of the play. In Holinshed 'weird' retains its older meaning of 'fate' (it was originally a n...

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