The Three Witches of Macbeth

In William Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is loosely based on the historical King Macbeth of Scotland and draws heavily from the account in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a history of Britain.

The three witches are present in only four scenes in the play, but his fascination with them motivates much of the play’s action. When they meet with Banquo and Macbeth, they address Macbeth with three titles: Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King Hereafter. Next, they predict that Banquo will father kings, though he will not be king himself. Refusing to answer questions, they vanish.

The Witches’ Spell

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Orson Welles directed and starred as the titular Macbeth in the 1948 film, with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.
Orson Welles directed and starred as the titular Macbeth in the 1948 film, with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.

Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, he murders King Duncan and takes the Scottish throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia.

Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler.

The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and his wife into the realms of madness and death.

By the end of the play he learns that the witches’ second set of prophecies have hidden meanings:

  • Malcolm’s army carries shields made from Birnam wood to his fortress in Dunsinane, and Macduff reveals that he was prematurely removed from his mother’s womb, meaning that he technically was not “of woman born”.
  • Beaten but still defiant, he declares, “Lay on Macduff, and damned be he who first cries, hold, enough!”
  • In the ensuing duel, Macduff kills Macbeth and cuts off his head, mirroring how Macbeth himself decapitated the traitor Macdonald at the beginning of the play.
The Dread Pirate Dave

David is the Editor in Chief of Postcards From the Edge. I was born on a cold November morning on the showy plains of Colorado. Like my father, before me, I am an American Nomad.

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