Why the 'Macbeth' Witches Are Key to Shakespeare's Play

Their prophecies fuel Macbeth's thirst for power

3 witches

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"Macbeth" is known to be a story about the desire for power of the protagonist and his wife, but there's a trio of characters that shouldn't be left out: the witches. Without the "Macbeth" witches, there would simply be no story to tell, as they move the plot.

The Five Prophesies of the 'Macbeth' Witches

During the play, the "Macbeth" witches make five key prophesies:

  1. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor—and eventually King of Scotland.
  2. Banquo’s children will become kings.
  3. Macbeth should “beware Macduff.”
  4. Macbeth cannot be harmed by anyone “of woman born.”
  5. Macbeth cannot be beaten until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane shall come.”

Four of these predictions are realized during the course of the play, but one is not. We do not see Banquo’s children become kings; however, the real King James I was thought to be descended from Banquo, so there could still be truth to the "Macbeth" witches' prophesy.

Although the three witches appear to have great skill at prophesying, it's not certain if their prophecies really are preordained. If not, do they simply encourage Macbeth to actively construct his own fate? After all, it seems to be part of Macbeth’s character to shape his life according to the predictions (whereas Banquo does not). This might explain why the only prophecy 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” prophecy).

The 'Macbeth' Witches' Influence

The witches in "Macbeth" are important because they provide Macbeth’s primary call to action. The witches' prophesies also affect Lady Macbeth, albeit indirectly when Macbeth writes his wife about seeing the "weird sisters," as he calls them. After reading his letter, she's immediately prepared to plot to murder the king and worries her husband will be too "full o' th' milk of human kindness" to commit such an act. Although Macbeth initially doesn't think he could do such a thing, Lady Macbeth has no question in her mind that they would succeed. Her ambition steels him.

Thus, the witches' influence on Lady Macbeth only increases their effect on Macbeth himself—and, by extension, the entire plot of the play. The "Macbeth" witches provide the dynamism that has made "Macbeth" one of Shakespeare’s most intense plays.

How the 3 Witches Stand Out

Shakespeare used a number of devices to create a sense of otherness and malevolence for the "Macbeth" witches. For example, the witches speak in rhyming couplets, which distinguishes them from all other characters; this poetic device has made their lines among the play's most memorable: "Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."

Also, the "Macbeth" witches are said to have beards, making them difficult to identify as either gender. Last, they are always accompanied by storms and bad weather. Collectively, these traits make them appear otherworldly.

The Witches' Question for Us

By giving the "Macbeth" witches their plot-pushing role in the play, Shakespeare is asking an age-old question: Are our lives already mapped out for us, or do we have a hand in what happens?

At the end of the play, the audience is forced to consider the extent to which the characters have control over their own lives. The debate over free will versus God's preordained plan for humanity has been debated for centuries and continues to be debated today.