In the 17th century, the English believed in the power of the supernatural and the ability of evil to influence otherwise honorable people. Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Mac.) is the story of a loyal and honorable Scottish Thane who becomes a murderous and tyrannical King because he succumbs to the influence of three prophesying witches. Macbeth would never have become a murderous tyrant without the evil actions and influence of these witches.
In the opening scene of the play, the witches reveal their evil strategy to meet with Macbeth and sow the seeds of their plot (Mac. 1.1.1-7). “War plows the soil. Who wins is not what counts. It is what seeds are planted…that determines the future” (Goddard 494). The witches intend to turn Macbeth’s world upside down by planting the seeds of evil that will lead to his downfall.
When the witches tell Macbeth he will be Thane of Cawdor and then King, he insists that the thane of Cawdor is in good health and that “to be king / Stands not within the prospect of belief” (Mac. 1.3.72T74). Macbeth has no thoughts of regicide when he hears the prophecy. Still, “in these opening scenes, the triple repetition of the adjective ‘rapt’ (1.3.55, 141; 1.5.5), connoting a seizing from high, emphasizes that Macbeth is acted upon by forces external and above: the witches, or the three weird sisters” (Langhis 4). The witches focus on manipulating Macbeth’s ambitions to an evil end and he is unable to resist them.
The witches do not provide details and disappear when Macbeth would ask them more information. Soon thereafter, Macbeth learns that he has been chosen to be the new thane of Cawdor, and he starts to take the prophecies seriously, even though Banquo warns that evil may speak truth to cause harm (Mac. 1.5.23-24). Banquo recognizes the danger and exercises his free will: he hears his fate but does not act to hasten it, lest he fall prey to evil influences.
In 17th century England, people believed in the power of witches. “Though England never had witch hunts of the sort seen in Continental Europe, there was a legal framework for the punishment of witchcraft, and witches were an accepted reality” (Lander 8). The fact that Macbeth is manipulated by the witches indicates that this is a play about sin and the effects of evil influence.
After meeting the witches, the prophecies are obviously on Macbeth’s mind a great deal. In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth reads from a letter that mentions them. She remarks that he is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” (Mac. 1.5.16-17), implying that on his own, Macbeth would never resort to regicide. She decides to convince him to murder King Duncan to expedite the prophecy that Macbeth will be king. He loves his wife and allows himself to be influenced by her.
“The sense of urgency which incites the protagonists to commit their errors gains force from the internal necessity of the tragic plot” (Habington 11). Macbeth’s hamartia is directly related to the evil actions and manipulations of the witches; it is similar to that of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Both Macbeth and Brutus underestimate the urgent expressive force that blood will acquire after it has been shed, and both will be marked for death when the allies of their victims rally to oppose them” (Habington 73). Macbeth is a warrior who has just participated in a bloody war on behalf of King Duncan. The world is in upheaval. Urged by his wife to commit a murder that he feels ambivalent about, Macbeth miscalculates what the response will be to his having murdered Duncan. That is Macbeth’s fatal mistake.
“Macbeth’s adversaries do not prosecute and sentence him for high crimes and misdemeanors; he is hunted down and killed as a sinful blight on the body politic. The first crime is complete early in the second act, but the sinfulness of that one crime alone lingers as a momentous issue until the end of the play” (Colston 61). Macbeth isn’t a play about crime; it’s a play about a man who subverts the natural order of loyalty and murders family and friends at the prodding of unnatural influences.
By the fourth act of the play, Macbeth actively seeks out the witches. When the second witch says “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this was comes” (Mac. 4.1.44-45), she is referring to Macbeth. The witches have won. They have taken an honorable man and made him into a wicked one. He demands to know further prophecies, regardless of their evil origin.
The apparitions yield ambiguous prophecies, but Macbeth is so consumed by his arrogance and his drive to maintain his kingship, that he misinterprets them; the witches do not correct his misinterpretation. Two of the three final prophecies occur during the play: Macbeth should beware Macduff, none of woman born kills Macbeth, and he is safe until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. The last prophecy is only an image of eight crowned kings walking by, with the last carrying a mirror and followed by Banquo’s ghost. (Mac. 4.1.112-123). The witches refuse to tell him the meaning of the final vision and once again disappear. Macbeth is doomed, even if he fails to see it himself.
In act 5, scene 5, Macbeth receives news that the trees of Birnam Wood are advancing and recognizes that he has misjudged that prophecy, but he still clings to the prophecy that no man born of woman can harm him and fights Malcolm’s forces. Macbeth meets up with Macduff in act 5, scene 5 and learns that Macduff was born by caesarian section. Evil has triumphed and the great man has fallen. Audiences experience catharsis when Macbeth dies, and the way is paved for the final prophecy about Banquo’s heirs to come true. Sadly, had Macbeth exercised the free will that Banquo did, he would have resisted the witches’ evil influences, and the entire story might have been different.
Colston, Ken. "Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin." Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 13.4 (2010): 60-95. Project MUSE. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Print.
Habington, William Andrew. "Necessary Evil: The Interplay of Compulsion and Necessity in Doctor Faustus and Macbeth." Order No. MQ36458 Dalhousie University (Canada), 1998. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.
Lander, Jesse M. Introduction. Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Ed. Jesse M. Lander. New York, NY: Sterling Signature, 2012. Print.
Langhis, Unhae. “Character and Daemon, Fate and Free Will.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Critical Contexts Series. Ed. Boris Drenkov, Howrah: Roman Books, 2013. Academia.edu. Web. 9 Mar. 2014.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Ed. W.G. Clark and W. Aldis Wright. Vol. 2. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n.d. 792-815. Print.