Why the 'Macbeth' Witches Have Key Roles in the Play

Their prophecies fuel Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's thirst for power

3 witches

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To say that the witches in William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" play crucial roles in the drama would be an understatement. Without the witches, there would simply be no story to tell, as they move the plot. 

The Five Predictions of the 'Macbeth' Witches

During the play, the Macbeth witches make five key predictions:

  1. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor.
  2. Banquo’s children will become kings.
  3. They advise Macbeth to “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 action, but one is not. Although Banquo’s children do not become kings during the course of the play, they do escape murder and could return at some point in the future. At the end of the play, it is left for the audience members to decide whether they believe the "Macbeth" witches. 

Although the witches appear to have great skill at prophesying, it's not certain whether their prophecies are preordained. If not, 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 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” prediction).

The 'Macbeth' Witches' Influence

The witches in "Macbeth" are important because they provide Macbeth’s 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 ready right away 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 he doesn't think he can 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 popular and intense plays.

How Shakespeare Made the 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. 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 give them an otherworldly cast.

Shakespeare's Age-Old Question

By writing the Macbeth witches as he did, 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.