iconWitches and Witchcraft

“Fair is foul and foul is fair”

Throughout the ages and in all countries there have been people who have believed in witches and witchcraft. The people of Shakespeare’s day were no different. Shakespeare drew on the popular traditions of his time and used them for his own purposes. In Macbeth he used popular beliefs about witches and witchcraft.

Witches were associated with the dark and death. In Christian countries they were thought to be the agents of Satan going about their business at night, and they were believed to gather near graves to conduct their evil rites and make poisons.

When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, witchcraft was a topic of considerable interest.  The new king of England, James I, had written a book called Demonology which was published in 1597.  Until the time of Queen Elizabeth, no-one could be executed simply for being a witch.  But in 1604, witchcraft became a capital offence.  Evidence of a relationship with evil spirits condemned a suspect to death by hanging, burning or drowning.  Whether Shakespeare himself believed in witches does not matter.  He used them for his play, and many of his audience would have believed in them as thoroughly evil servants of the devil.  For the people of Shakespeare’s time, the devil was very real who they believed spent his time trying to trap men and women into his power.  Note that very early in the play Banquo realises this and says as much to Macbeth.

Witches were supposed to be capable of doing all the things that the three weird sisters are said to perform in Macbeth. It was believed that they could see into the future; that they could create storms, hail, thunder and lightning; that they were able to sink ships; dry up springs; stop the sun and change night into day and day into night. They could also cause the death of their enemies, and could make themselves invisible.  In order to work their charms they would open graves and steal parts of the bodies to make potions. For this purpose the bodies of unbaptized babies were especially prized. And witches could call up the dead.

For a king like Macbeth to visit and have dealings with witches would have seemed both a crime and a sin.

Macbeth is easily captured by their power and by their prophecies.  But note that they never tell him a lie.  However, they do allow him to deceive himself.  The devil does not lie...but leads us into temptation.

Task: As you read Macbeth, be alert to the role of the witches in the play, their influence on the characters and the events during the play.

witchesThe three witches from Polanski's Macbeth
Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches in a woodcut from Holinshed's Chronicles
The three witches from Welles's film of Macbeth


Find out more about the role of witches in Macbeth

Macbeth: An English Website unit ©
developed and designed by George Marotous. 14 February 2011. English Faculty

Melbourne High School