‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is William Shakespeare’s shortest play, yet one of the most prominent. The plot follows the protagonist – Macbeth – as he succumbs to his downfall due to his ambition. Yet the characters that provoked the Scottish general’s greed in the first place were The Weird Sisters; a group of three witches who are intrinsic to the plot of the play. They set the mood of this dark tragedy as soon as it begins with their pathetic fallacy, besides introducing several themes that are consistent throughout the play – the Supernatural and Fate. ‘Macbeth’ was written during the Renaissance in 1606, soon after King James VI of Scotland became King of England, marking the end of the Tudor era. The people of this time were extremely religious and god-fearing, the King was no exception. He was convinced of the reality of witches, leading to the trials that began in 1591. In Scotland alone, around 4400 women, most of them innocent women, were executed, and even more so in England. This persecution was fuelled by the strong belief in superstition, misogyny (hatred of women), and a firm conviction that religion and morality were being upheld. This belief was further boosted by popular Shakespearean plays like ‘Macbeth’, which has many references to the supernatural.
The first scene of ‘Macbeth’ opens up with three witches meeting up and discussing their plans. Starting the play with The Three Witches was a calculated decision, as it engages the audience due to their religious beliefs. Also, it establishes the themes of the supernatural, along with denoting a sense of disorder, mystery, and deception. It’s also interesting to note that King James had recently given his patronage to Shakespeare’s company, making them the King’s Men; so starting the play with the object of the King’s fascination could be a sign of gratitude. As stated in the stage directions, the weather is of ‘Thunder and lightning’ as the 3 witches enter the stage. The technique Shakespeare uses here is a pathetic fallacy, which hints at the theme of the supernatural that is present throughout the entire play. It mirrors the ominous feeling and the sense of foreboding danger in the atmosphere, enhancing the eerie sense of the supernatural beings entering on stage. Stormy weather tends to connote the unexplained and deadly power, in addition to being common symbols used by Shakespeare to indicate political upheaval and instability, foreshadowing the political unrest later in the plot. The Witches’ language in this scene is quite interesting, as it sets them apart from the other characters. They speak in iambic tetrameter, which is an unnatural pattern of speech, as it differs from the usual iambic pentameter every other character speaks in. A consistent triad structure is also maintained; the first witch speaks, then the second, then the third, and then again starting with the first witch. This suggests a cyclical form of speech – or a cumulative effect, as in the end, they speak together, symbolizing their unity. Knowing what the others might say conveys the idea that they have done this before, likely knowing how this situation will end. Another language technique that is commonly referred to as that of the witches is the use of paradoxes. The famous quote, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair, is a paradox – creating a riddle-like effect, as well as emphasizing their intent to turn good into bad, as bad should be admired. Shakespeare uses this contradictory statement to highlight how ambiguous the witches can be, so this line has several interpretations. Some people say that this foreshadows Macbeth’s very first line in the play (‘Such foul and fair a day I have not seen), suggesting that the Witches have some form of supernatural power over him. Several others say that the line links with the theme of deception; how things are not always as they seem. As the Weird Sisters reject all things good, they would also reject any morality or law, making them true outsiders of the Jacobean society. The second line of the play – ‘In thunder, lightning, in rain?’ – sets the setting they will meet up again in. Here, the First Witch (the one asking the question) is suggesting three possible weather conditions that they could work in i.e, in stormy weather. As explained earlier, bad weather has several negative connotations, as well as being rather unsettling for the audience at the time as storms wreaked havoc on crops, destroying many livelihoods. It also hints that the Witches could have some sort of power over the weather conditions which emphasizes the supernaturalness of themselves. This first scene of the play also mentions who the Weird Sisters are planning on meeting with – ‘Macbeth’ – foreshadowing their intent. The main character is introduced in the opening scene of the play, yet he is not present. This could imply a deeper connection between them – nonetheless, Shakespeare tactfully puts the audience on edge as it’s clear that anything the Witches plan on doing is not of good intent; so appear to be marking Macbeth as their victim.
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