“SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES "
Imagine a smoking cauldron rising from the trap door of the Globe’s center stage as you hear echoes of thunder from the attics. Three 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 witches throughout Macbeth.
Later editions call them the Weird Sisters derived from wyrd in Old English meaning fate. That alone gives us pause. Are they meant to resemble the sisters of Fate in Greek myth? If so, then they have power to determine destiny. The first folio editions (1623) of Macbeth, however, never use the word witch but rather weyward. Shakespeare repeatedly refers to them as the weyward sisters yet costumes them as recognizable witches. 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.
But are the witches effective as antagonists just because of the typical evil they represent? Many Shakespeare scholars identify the witches as master manipulators of men’s lives, able to deceive and even perhaps control them. If we view them as Shakespeare intended, as the weyward sisters, however, then their ability to tempt and entice has a greater spiritual import. A truly wayward soul is likely to lead others astray along its already crooked path, but three sisters? The influence is compounded. The weyward sisters are confident in their influence, for “The charm’s wound up,” and we know the stage is set and ready for Macbeth’s choice. 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 publically 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. Shakespeare never crafted the weyward sisters as the ultimate controllers of Fate after all, but as an influence equal to temptation, a temptation that potentially controls destiny through sin.
Though the witches continue to reappear throughout the play and thicken the growing evil, Shakespeare adds even more as he introduces their leader Hecate in Act III. Pouty as a child, Hecate is at first upset that she wasn't included in the fun of enticing Macbeth, yet her continued presence is a more dire warning. This goddess of witches, a sometime queen of the underworld, is as intent as the weyward sisters to cement Macbeth's demise. No, it’s not enough that Macbeth seeks the witches for affirmation and guidance. One choice of ambitious desire or greed leads to another, the choice to control others, to control Scotland. With the shedding of blood, Macbeth's first sin in murdering the divine King Duncan, he has fully opened the door to evil and every dynamic sin. In fact, the witches’ relationship with Macbeth is much like the progression of sin. It all begins with one choice. For Macbeth, the greater question is what propels this desire, this clinging to follow the wayward choice?
Somehow the witches knew of Macbeth's hidden ambition and desire for power. They recognized his rebellious nature. And that perhaps is the root of things for Macbeth. As a rebel, he was self-sourcing and independent from a king appointed by God or by God himself. His self-will was practically a root sin. It's as if the noble warrior of the first scenes had a narcissistic evil twin noted for pride, arrogance, sabotage, and conspiracy. In the end, the weyward sisters were indeed effective in destroying Macbeth, but only because he listened to and followed their words. Perhaps the witches wanted to annihilate Macbeth's family line and Scotland itself. But in the end, the true heir Malcolm, blessed by his father Duncan—thus a divine choice—returns with reinforcements. Shakespeare is careful to show us that Macbeth's choices did not destroy the country, yet Macbeth himself remains a moral lesson of not only the snowball effect of sin, but also the importance of choice.