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"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 noun) - they are referred to as 'the weird sisters, that is . . . the goddesses of destiny'. However Shakespeare may well not have known this older meaning of the word, which survived only in the North, furthermore, the activities described by the witches at the beginning of Act1 Scene1 are characteristic of the traditional witches of popular belief, rather than of goddesses of destiny. In all respects they do actually conform to the popular belief regarding witchcraft at the time: they have no power of their own, but gain it by selling their souls to the devil. This is reinforced when Banquo calls the witches the following:
Shakespeare's witches refer even to the apparitions that they raise as:
Incidentally, it was believed at the time that the devil taught witches to steal unbaptised children, which explains the significance of the appearance of the apparitions to some extent.
The trio of witches' interactions with Macbeth play a vital role in his thinking about his own life, both before and after the murder of Duncan. Banquo and Macbeth both recognize them as something supernatural, part of the landscape but not fully human inhabitants of it:
"That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth"
They have malicious intentions and prophetic powers. Yet they are not active agents in the sense that th
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Macbeth, Shakespeare, Banquo, Duncan, King James,
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witches, Macbeth, three witches, evil, Shakespeare, weird sisters, Banquo, thrice, seventeenth century, light and darkness, Thane, Cawdor, goddesses, before and after, pathetic fallacy, magical powers, Act IV, active imagination, Scene1, human, human mind, compel, ruthless people, Holinshed, moral, natural world, temptation, Polanski, supernatural, destiny, prophecies, back there, essay, brindled, trifles, hags, astray, intrude, instruments, seduce, endlessly, incantations, betray, chink, murderers, prophesy, beliefs, three fates, potions, soliciting,