Updated: Aug 5, 2021
How to revise English GCSE set texts — some key tips on Shakespeare's Macbeth from top English tutor Toby.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble
One of the most commonly studied of all Shakespeare’s plays, especially at GCSE level, is Macbeth, the tragedy of a man who, spurred on by vaulting ambition, murders and succeeds his king. The rewards of treachery are slim: a barren throne; a creeping paranoia that denies him sleep, happiness, and friends; and then finally the removal of his head at the point of a sword. The fact that it is set for so many fifteen and sixteen year olds to study is often explained by the (when you think about it) worrying assertion that teenagers love all that “blood and guts” business. Perhaps we’re trying to teach them something about humility.
Who are the witches in Macbeth (a.k.a. "weird sisters")?
Regardless of the truth or untruth of this particular idea, the topic I want to address here is what to make of those strange old ladies whose prophecies seem so bound up with Macbeth’s fate. The first point is to note that I have not yet called them witches. Neither did Shakespeare: the text only speaks of “weird sisters.” Be that as it may be, witches are what we have always understood them to be, and witches they certainly are: women on the fringes of society, who meet at strange hours of the night to practise black magic. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck....But what exactly did witches mean to Shakespeare’s contemporaries? Did they really believe in women flying about on broomsticks and transforming unlucky children into newts? It is impossible to know for certain what people in their hearts believed, but we can make some intelligent guesses based on the evidence at hand.
Witches in Shakespearean times
It is clear, for instance, that according to English law Witches were very much a real threat. An act of Parliament passed in 1542 proclaimed Witchcraft as a crime punishable by death, which was repealed ‘47 and then restored in ‘62. This back and forth suggests an equivocation about witches in the courts themselves, which perhaps mirrors the doubts people must have had then as they have today about the powers of magic. But some people seemed to be more fervent in their views. James I (who was monarch when Macbeth was first performed, and believed he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the historical Banquo), passed a further law relating to witchcraft in 1604 and wrote a book about Demonology. The record also shows that people--innocent or guilty in their own conscience--were in fact executed under these laws.
This of course does not prove that everyone believed in the reality of witches, or that those who were punished had done something wrong. It seems likely, however, that people by and large believed there were such things as women (although men could be witches, this has always been less common in popular belief) who meant to harm their neighbours by arcane rituals, and probably in some cases the poor accused women themselves believed they had some kind of pact with the devil. Such delusions are still known today. (Astonishingly, the last person to be jailed in Britain for claiming to be a witch was in 1944!)
Perhaps a good modern parallel is Terrorism. In the last couple of decades the UK government has passed acts specifically designed at preventing terrorism, which some people think ought to be repealed. And while everyone would probably agree there is such a thing as a terrorist--an individual who attempts by violent means to induce widespread fear that damages the very fabric of our society--most people would also accept that not everyone who is arrested or imprisoned for suspicious behaviour is in fact guilty. Some would go further and suggest that the fear of terrorism has indeed been exaggerated by politicians, especially in America, for political ends.
Role of the Witches in Macbeth
But what about Shakespeare? In his play, are the witches genuinely creatures possessed of real power, or simply misguided outcasts? Ultimately, the play draws on the uncertainty and shades of doubt that must have characterised its audience. The only “proof” we are given of the witches power is their ability to predict the future. The first time they meet Macbeth, they tell him that he will be made Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. By the end of Act I he has Cawdor, and by the end of Act II all the kingdom is his. This would seem pretty strong evidence that the witches can indeed “look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow, and which will not.”
However, on closer inspection, we can see that this supposed foresight might be a simple conjuring trick. Duncan delivers the order to make Macbeth Thane of Cawdor in the scene before the Witches relay this forecast to Macbeth. So have they truly seen into the future, or simply heard the news first? If this doesn’t seem like deliberate authorial design, I would point out that Shakespeare takes pains to do exactly the same thing later in the play. When Macbeth meets the Witches a second time, they caution him “beware Macduff.” And what happens in the scene immediately before hand? We see Lennox talking to an unnamed Lord. In a moment of shameless expository dialogue, Shakespeare has this character that he doesn’t even grace with a name, tell Lennox (and the audience) that Macduff has gone to England to raise an army against Macbeth. Beware Macduff indeed.
What’s more, it can hardly be called a true prophecy to tell Macbeth that he is going to become King, when it is in part this revelation that leads him to murder Duncan in the first place. It’s more like telling someone that they are going to get an A in their exam in the hope that this might encourage them to work harder so as not to disappoint.
So what are the Witches then? Instruments of the devil, out to trap the soul of a good man? Or simply manifestations of Macbeth’s own dark nature, a metaphor for his least noble desires? We don’t know; Shakespeare didn’t tell us. He was much too clever for that.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.