The Witches in Macbeth Show the Power of Ambition and Prophecy
Shakespeare uses the witches in Macbeth for two main reasons. Firstly, to show how desire, ambition and greed are often more powerful than reason, and secondly for dramatic effect which comes from the confusion surrounding their identity and the vagueness of their prophecies. These two reasons, and the characters they represent, can be seen as two of the main, but somewhat hidden, factors behind Macbeth.
The witches are fundamental characters because they are able to prophesize the future. In many situations, characters are faced with the decision of whether or not to rely on faith that these prophecies are true, or to act upon them to ensure that they do come true. Shakespeare uses the witches to show how people act when there is the possibility of obtaining more power. In these situations, avarice and aspiration usually cloud the minds of the characters. Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 23), shows the heinousness that the weird sisters can cast upon those they wish. The witches first plant the seeds of greed and ambition in Macbeth when they meet him after the battle. They promise him that he will be Thane of Cawdor and, later, King of Scotland.
Once he becomes Thane of Cawdor, he thinks only of soon becoming the King. Even shortly after becoming Thane, his thoughts are already on murder. If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir. (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 143-144). Macbeth says this because he does not wish to take any action. If it is his destiny to be King, then fate will determine that regardless of his actions. However, Macbeth does not stick to this plan. Instead he is persuaded by his wife, whos judgment is clouded by the witches prophecies and dreams of being Queen of Scotland, to murder Duncan. It can be said that both Macbeths actions and those of Lady Macbeth, are a result of the prophesy of the weird sisters and that when the sisters told Macbeth that he would one day be king, they were meddling with his mind. All the rest of Macbeths evil deeds can be traced back to the prophesies of the witches.
The closer Macbeth comes to living out the predictions of the weird sisters, the more greedy and heartless he becomes. It comes to the point where Macbeth is willing to murder one of his friends. He has Banquo killed so that he can have no more children because the witches predicted that Macbeth would be succeeded by Banquos children. He also tries to murder Banquos son, Fleance, but is unable. When Macbeth returns to the witches for a second time, he is told to fear Macduff.
Upon hearing this news, Macbeth takes a bond of fate, and decides that he must kill Macduff to make sure that fate keeps its word. When Macbeth finds out that Macduff has fled Scotland, he sends some of his men to kill Macduffs wife and children because he believes that Macuffs children may harm him. The weird sisters role is best summed up by Banquo, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray [us] in deepest consequence. (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 124-126). The instruments of darkness are the witches who tease Macbeth by forecasting power and then convincing him that everything will come true. Macbeth then decides he must ensure the rest of the prophecy, and by doing so, betrays everyone, including himself.
The second use of the witches is first indicated by Banquo. What are these so witherd and so wild in their attire, that they look not like the inhabitants o the earth, and yet are ont (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 40-43) shows how Banquo observes the physical state of the weird sisters and it also shows the confusion that surrounds them. The weird sisters seem to inhabit the gray areas. The witches are classed between the supernatural and the physical worlds. The witches are categorized between the nobility and peasantry. The witches are classed between human and non-human. This basic ambiguity stretches even to gender. You should be women, says Banquo, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 45-47). This extreme uncertainty is the main reason why the Sisters are such strong figures of evil in the play.
The witches are powerful, and yet powerless. They cannot directly kill anyone, but they can introduce thoughts and ideas to someone, such as Macbeth in the case of Duncan. They cannot murder anyone, but they can create situations where the person is harmed. When the soldiers wife is rude to one of the weird sisters they do not harm the woman, but rather cast a spell on her husband. Ill drain him dry as hay: sleep shall neither night nor day. (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 18-19). They avoid, because of their indefiniteness, the classification which is necessary for a government like that of Macbeth, based on distinctions between nobility and peasantry and between man and woman. At the same time, they are bad subjects, plotting the downfall of the rightful King, and bad citizens, who take revenge for any act against them and cook their spells out of everything that is considered foul. In Macbeth, treason is considered feminine.
Macbeths act of murder under Duncans trust was considered womanish and it is associated with Lady Macbeths, unnatural influence over her husband. Since the Weird Sisters are neither one thing or the other and because they are shaped by so many different elements, they are coincidentally the opposite of all concepts of a good kingdom at this time. They are seen as symbols of rebellion against the natural order, which is Duncan. The Sisters are unnatural because they refuse to, and cannot be fit into any category defined by the views of this time. So, with the views of this time, witchcraft changed from being an act of rebellion against God and an act of rebellion against the King, to being an act of rebellion against the very nature of the universe. In this way, although the witches never actually commit any of the crimes of the play, they become perhaps its ultimate villains.
Basically, much as the witches commit a deed without a name, they are themselves nameless. The reason why they provoke such consternation in the other characters, and subsequently in the audience, is that it is as impossible to decipher exactly what they are, or what theyre doing. They are possibly, as a result of this ambiguity and its effects upon the other characters, the perpetrators of all the evil deeds in Macbeth.