Enter three sisters as thunder and lightning clash above. Their very presence inspires both fear and wonder of the unknown. William Shakespeare’s broad audience of commoners, merchants, and nobility all readily acknowledge their supernatural presence, the stuff of superstition. But what was Shakespeare’s intent for their appearance? What are they?

Imagine a smoking cauldron rising from the trapdoor of the Globe’s center stage as you hear echoes of thunder from the attics. Three bearded men cloaked in black rags and tattered capes slink onto the stage as they chant. It might be the middle of the afternoon, but Shakespeare has created an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding that is only perpetuated by the regular presence of these eerie figures throughout Macbeth.

Later editions call them the Weïrd Sisters, derived from the word wyrd meaning fate in Old English. That alone gives us pause. Are they meant to resemble the sisters of Fate in Greek myth or the three Norns of Scandinavian lore? If so, then they have the power to determine destiny. Like the three Norns, they boldly address Macbeth from the past, present, and future as he and Banquo return from battle:

All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis. [past]

All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor [present]

All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! [future]. (1.3.39-50)

This appearance in Scene 3 seems to confirm their role as sisters of destiny “indued with knowledge of prophesie” as Holinshed describes.[2] Albert H. Tolman asserts, however, that “the powerful conception of the three Fates is not maintained throughout the tragedy.”[3] His analysis shows how their characters are a decided mix of the Fates and witches. They are not directly called witches in the play itself but always “the weird sisters” or “the weird women.” The few exceptions are when one of them tells of the circumstances under which a sailor’s wife said to her, “Aroint thee, witch!” (1.3.6) and when a “witches’ mummy” is mentioned among the many foul things thrown in their cauldron in Act IV.

More so, outside of Scene 3, they do not appear to have the power that the great goddesses of destiny did. By Act III, their own queen Hecate reprimands them for not including her in the mischief, thus the witches appear inferior or disobedient, not powerful sisters of Fate. What was Shakespeare’s intent then? What are they?

What we can know is that from the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s scene note states “Enter three Witches” as we hear thunder and lightning. Shakespeare even costumes them as recognizable witches. Their very presence inspires both fear and wonder of the unknown. His broad audience of commoners, merchants, and nobility would all readily acknowledge their supernatural presence, the stuff of superstition. Here they stand ready to inspire fear and stir the pot of plot.

The first folio editions (1623) of Macbeth, however, never use the word witch but rather weyward.[4] Tolman and others insist this is but a copyist error, especially when considering the use of weird in other works from that time period.[5] Most would agree that Shakespeare intended wyrd as the root because it heightens the witches’ meaning and power.

But are we assigning them too much power? If we identify the witches as master manipulators of men’s lives, able to deceive and even perhaps control them, then we remove Macbeth’s free will. Frederick Morgan Padelford asks if the witches are “material existences, evil spirits in the service of the powers of darkness, or . . . merely the creations of Macbeth’s fancy?”[6] His answer is most revealing. They are undoubtedly not a fancy, “not ‘the internal spirit projecting its own workings into external forms, which rise up before it with all the certainty of a real object;’ they are the servants of the evil one.”[7] David Bevington speaks more broadly, describing how “a perverse ambition seemingly inborn in Macbeth himself is abetted by dark forces dwelling in the universe.”[8] A mind free of taint would see nothing sinister in their words.

Could Shakespeare have intended a different use, an ability to tempt and entice with greater spiritual import? Weyward as a word cannot be discounted entirely. Weyward means wayward. The witches purposefully led astray. Padelford also believes that the witches are present to draw out what is already in Macbeth’s heart, and so he examines both the internal and external evidence of the play, things implied and things overtly stated.

When the witches appear to Banquo and Macbeth, for instance, Macbeth physically starts and seems to fear words that should have evoked joy. Banquo then queries why a man should be unnerved by a promise of future happiness. He is interested in the prophecies but does not react emotionally as Macbeth did. This implies that Banquo is logically fascinated, as any healthy mind would be, with the singular phenomenon of the witches’ appearance.[9]

From an external perspective in Act I, Scene 7, at the point when Lady Macbeth is trying to screw her husband’s courage to the sticking-place, she taunts him with the reminder that he first had suggested the idea of the murder to her: What beast was’t then That made you break this enterprise to me? (lines 47-48). She further accuses him of having planned out the very time and place (51-52). Padelford stipulates, “Were Lady Macbeth the originator of the plot, as those critics contend who hold her for an arch-fiend, the destroyer of a noble nature, she could not so argue.”[10] These passages refer to a conversation predating the appearance of the witches, for Lady Macbeth already has the murder in mind, ruling Scotland together, as a desirable thing at the time she receives the letter from Macbeth.

The first suggestion of the murder could not have come from the witches. It was already within Macbeth. Macbeth was not the victim of wyrd or fate; the witches came to him because the wickedness of his thoughts made his mind fertile soil for the sowing of corrupt seed.[11] Leading him astray took little effort.

Once Macbeth acts on the initial temptation by plotting and committing Duncan’s regicide, his spiritual, emotional, and mental states begin to decline into further evil. Temptation is a progression. The witches simply lit the match and blew the flame. Consider just one of the brooding evils brought to light in the scene with the murderers as Macbeth charges Banquo with the oppressions he himself inflicted:

Macbeth: Well then, now Have you consider’d of my speeches? Know, that it was he in the times past which held you so under fortune, which you thought had been our innocent self. This I made good to you in our last conference; pass’d in probation with you, how you were borne in hand, how cross’d; the instruments, who wrought with them, and all things else that might to half a soul and to a notion craz’d say, ‘Thus did Banquo.’

First Murderer: You made it known to us.

Macbeth: I did so, and went further, which is now our point of second meeting. Do you find your patience so predominant in your nature that you can let this go? Are you so gospell’d, to pray for this good man and for his issue, whose heavy hand hath bow’d you to the grave and beggar’d yours forever?

Second Murderer: I am one, my liege, Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world Have so incens’d that I am reckless what I do to spite the world.

First Murderer: And I another So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune, That I would set my life on any chance To mend it or be rid on’t (3.1.74-113).

A truly wayward soul is likely to lead others astray along its already crooked path, and this has been the long slow work of Macbeth. It is but a picture of the lord’s oppression of his subjects because it is not fate but the nature of evil. From the scene with the witches to the conversation with the murderers, the letter to Lady Macbeth, and her soliloquy upon receiving it, Macbeth’s heart is clearly evil.

The weyward sisters are confident in their influence, for The charm’s wound up. It seems unfair that the same Macbeth who slew traitors left and right and who “unseamed” the rebel MacDonald in the first scenes should be the target of the witches. Before King Duncan even publicly honored Macbeth, the witches approached him on the outskirts of a bloody battlefield. To be told you have received a new title in addition to the one you have and then to magnify that success with a prophecy to be king is that much the greater temptation. What propels this desire, this clinging to follow the wayward choice? “Does Macbeth, either before the murder or after it, show any adequate appreciation of the eternal issues with which he is trifling; does he show a nature sensitive to the abuse of right, or one that, incapable of abstract devotion to holiness, shrinks only from the consequences of evil? In a word, does Macbeth show remorse, or simply fear of retribution?”[12]

Shakespeare never crafted the weyward sisters as the ultimate controllers of Fate after all, but as an influence equal to spiritual temptation, a temptation that could potentially control destiny and determine the soul’s fate. Macbeth’s choice is entirely predictable, not preordained. And he himself understood “with a terrible clarity not only the moral wrong of what he [was] is about to do, but also the inescapably destructive consequences for himself.”[13] Only Banquo saw truly the nature of temptation: The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence (1.3.123-125).

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[1] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1606, ed. Roma Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

[2] Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1577. London: J. Johnson [etc.], 180708.

[3] Tolman, Albert H. “Notes on Macbeth.” PMLA 11, no. 2 (1896): 206.

[4] William Shakespeare, 1564-1616. Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Printed by Issac Iaggard and Edward Blount. Folger Digital Libraries.

[5] Tolman, 202-203.

[6] Frederick Morgan Padelford, “Macbeth the Thane and Macbeth the Regicide.” Modern Language Notes 16, no. 4 (1901): 113.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 3rd ed. (Scott Foresman & Company: Glenview, IL, 1980), 1216.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 116.

[13] Bevington, 1217.

The featured image is “The Weird Sisters” (1783) by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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