Two early scenes (Act 1: 1 & 3) deal with Macbeth's initial contact with the three witches. They confuse
him with promises which are true and yet appear to be contradictory.
In this way, the audience is introduced to the theme of fate and the supernatural. Be aware, however, that
Scene 1 was probably not written by William Shakespeare but was a later addition to the play!
WITCHES & WITCHCRAFT
Witches and witchcraft played a natural role in medieval society.
Life in medieval times tended to be very short, with the average life-span for the townspeople being only
about 29 years. Cause of death was mainly squalid and unhygienic conditions, poor food, disease and
Women particularly were prone to short lives, often dying during childbirth or shortly thereafter --
post-natal disease and loss of blood being the chief reasons for their deaths. It was common for a man,
therefore, to have two or three wives during his lifetime.
Elderly people were usually a country phenomenon, largely because country folk had access to better food
and cleaner water. Towns were quite literally cesspits whereas the country villages were much cleaner
Country women tended therefore to live much longer and, in doing so, hoarded up masses of knowledge
about natural herbal medicines -- both for healing and for poisoning.
These women also acted as doctors in a pre-medical society. They then passed this knowledge on to
their daughters who, in turn, became medicine women for their villages.
Because many of these country women were old, they showed typical signs of post-menopausal aging:
facial hair in the form of moustaches and beards, long noses with warts, and a wrinkled skin.
Because the menfolk often died younger through accidents or fights, most of these women were widows.
They therefore wore black clothing and lived alone -- often with cats for company.
They came to be termed witches. Indeed, are not all the aspects mentioned above still seen as common
attributes of witches -- even today?
These women were probably skilled in magic of both the black and white forms. If someone needed a
blessing, the witch would be consulted. If someone needed a curse, the witch could help.
It was a time of superstition and these old women preyed on this to make a living. So did the priests who
charged people for their magical trick of turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus at the
It was also believed that witches had a remarkable ability to see into the future, with the result that they
tended to be consulted by everyone -- especially by the rich and powerful.
Even kings hesitated to make any major decisions without first consulting the oracles, who were usually
It was considered a major crime to kill a witch. Indeed, it was originally so great a crime that it demanded
the death sentence. Witches were therefore relatively immune from revenge.
Macbeth is not surprised when he sees the three witches and he immediately believes everything they tell
him. He still does not doubt them even after their so-called prophecies start to go wrong for him -- and
he certainly never considers taking revenge on them.
The very honourable Banquo also believes what the witches tell him, although he rightly realises that their
prophecies might not come true in precisely the manner in which they expected.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?