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

Their prophecies fuel Macbeth's thirst for power

Witches in Macbeth. Getty Images

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. This review of these influential characters reveals how the plot of Macbeth would be non-existent without them.

The "Macbeth" Witches

Why are the witches in the play so important? Simply put, because they provide Macbeth’s call to action.

Their prophecies not only drive his thirst for power, but they also enable Lady Macbeth to pursue her own ambitions. Therefore, 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 (also referred to as the “weird sisters”). For example, the witches speak in rhyming couplets, which distinguishes them from all other characters in the play and have made their lines among the play's most memorable. Also, the Macbeth witches are said to have beards, making them difficult to gender. Lastly, they are always accompanied by storms and bad weather. Collectively, these traits give them an otherworldly cast.

Five Predictions of the 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, but 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. Do you? You could base a persuasive essay on whether or not you believe the witches and why.

While 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).

Shakespeare's Age Old Question

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?

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.


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Jamieson, Lee. "Why the "Macbeth" Witches Have Key Roles in the Play." ThoughtCo, Sep. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-witches-in-macbeth-2985023. Jamieson, Lee. (2017, September 13). Why the "Macbeth" Witches Have Key Roles in the Play. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-witches-in-macbeth-2985023 Jamieson, Lee. "Why the "Macbeth" Witches Have Key Roles in the Play." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-witches-in-macbeth-2985023 (accessed November 22, 2017).