The Witches' Influence on Macbeth

By Jennifer Riedel

The essay that follows was researched and written by Jennifer Riedel as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1995; it is reprinted here with her permission. While copyright is retained by Jennifer Riedel and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.

Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

The belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare's day, as demonstrated by the European witch craze, during which an estimated nine million women were put to death for being perceived as witches (The Burning Times). The practice of witchcraft was seen to subvert the established order of religion and society, and hence was not tolerated. Witch hunting was a respectable, moral, and highly intellectual pursuit through much of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries (Best ). The belief of the majority during the seventeenth century suggests that the witches are powerful figures who can exercise great power over Macbeth; however, strong arguments to the contrary were in existence at the same time. The intensity of the tragedy is dependent on whether the witches are perceived to be able to control the otherwise innocent Macbeth's actions, or if he is entirely responsible for his own demise.

Although not a "secret, black, and midnight hag" (4.1.48), as an evil female, Lady Macbeth could be considered a witch according to the standards of Shakespeare's day. In the same way that witches subvert the natural order of religion and society, Lady Macbeth subverts the order of the sexes and the family by trying to have more power than the head of the family, her husband. Not only does she act out of order, but several of her actions imply that she is actually witch-like. Firstly, it was widely believed in Europe for centuries that sorcery could cause impotence (Cotton 320). In the preface of Daemonologie, King James I asserts the power of witches to weaken "the nature of some men, to make them unavailable for women" (qtd. in Best). A major textbook for witch hunters, Malleus Maleficarum, describes how witches are able to make men impotent, or even make their penises disappear (qtd. in Best).

Although he is not made physically impotent, Lady Macbeth challenges her husband's manhood by being more aggressive than he is, taunting him, and suggesting, "When you durst do it, then you were a man"(1.7.55). Secondly, Lady Macbeth calls upon seemingly malevolent "...spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts" (1.5.40-41) to aid her in her plot to overcome her husband's reluctance and to force him to kill Duncan. Although devotedly loyal, she rejects her subordinate role as wife and asks to be transformed "...into an instrument of death whose cruelty transcends the limitations of her sex and of her mortal nature" (Truax 368). Finally, the fact that she works with the Weird Sisters to influence Macbeth suggests that she is at least indirectly allied with them.

Not all of Shakespeare's contemporaries agreed with witch hunters. Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft suggests that although witches do exist, they do not possess the powers attributed to them but instead their claimed effects were coincidental and the will of God, and that those persecuted as witches were ill, foolish, deluded, or senile (qtd. in Best) . Johann Weyer similarly argued that those who were normally burned as witches had not actually made a pact with the devil but were suffering from some sort of illness (qtd. in Estes 456).

The audience's beliefs of whether or not the witches actually have power over Macbeth influence their interpretation of whether his actions result from personal choice or from external influence. Macbeth retains a heroic aura as long as he either is able to use his free will and personal choice to resist the witches' influence, or if he is believed to be powerless against the external evil influences of his wife and the witches. Thomas Cooper writes in his 1617 work The Mysterie of Witchcraft, "Satan cannot preuaile effectually vpon any to their condemnation, vnless with full confent they yeelde themfelues wholy to his fubjection" (Cooper 360). According to this, Macbeth should be able to resist temptation by not giving his consent. Initially Macbeth listens to the witches, "rapt" (I.3.142), but he is able to retain the ability to act as a morally responsible person and control his ambition.

After considering that he could commit murder to achieve what the witches propose, he stifles the idea, saying, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/ Without my stir" (1.3.143-44). However, in the second act, he no longer attempts to stifle his conscience, but instead seems to accept the murder as an inevitable act beyond his control, saying, "I go, and it is done: the bell invites me" (2.1.70). In my opinion, when Macbeth surrenders himself to his wife's demands and tauntings, he is not bewitched but merely has succumbed to his pride.

Despite Macbeth's attempt to place the blame away from himself, Lady Macbeth retains her mortal form and temporal powers; she has simply touched on the deep-seated ambitions and greed that were already present in him (Truax 370). The fact that he no longer accepts the responsibility for his actions does not mean that the responsibility is removed, and eventually he must pay the consequences for his choice.

For most of Shakespeare's contemporary audience, Macbeth would appear to be at the mercy of the witches and therefore not entirely responsible for his actions. In my opinion, it is easier to muster sympathy for a person who is not entirely to blame for their actions; in the case of Macbeth, the tragedy is more successful if the popular seventeenth century mentality is adopted and thereby the witches and Lady Macbeth are made partly to blame for his downfall.


Works Cited

  1. Best, Michael. Shakespeare's Life and Times. CD ROM. Santa Barbara, CA: Intellimation, 1994. Version 3.0.
  2. The Burning Times. Direct Cinema, 1990.
  3. Cooper, T. The Mysterie of Witchcraft. London: Nicholas Okes, 1617.
  4. Cotton, N. "Castrating (W)itches: Impotence and Magic in The Merry Wives of Windsor." Shakespeare Quarterly. 38, 1987: 320-326.
  5. Estes, L. "Reginald Scot and his Discoverie of Witchcraft: Religion and Science in the Opposition to the European Witch Craze." Church History. 52, 1983: 444-56.
  6. Shakespeare, W. Macbeth. Ed. W. Wright. New York: Pocket Books, 1957.
  7. Truax, E. "Macbeth and Hercules: The Hero Bewitched." Comparative Drama 23. 1990:359-76.

[Top] | [List of research resources] | [Shakespeare by Individual Studies]

This page last updated 26 February 1966