Of all the trios of witches depicted throughout history (from Hocus Pocus to Charmed), there has never been a more powerful or more briefly portrayed batch than the Three Witches (or Weird Sisters) of William Shakespeare’s famed and beloved tragedy, Macbeth.
Setting the tone for the sinister and dark vibe that pervades the play, these sisters appear in the very first scene of Act One, and establish the sense of impending doom with the opening stage direction, “Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches.” As the trio plots where they’re going to encounter Macbeth, they conclude the scene with that illustriously ominous line, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair:/Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
With that, we’re given further outsider perspectives on Macbeth, a revered general, from King Duncan himself. In many respects, all this buildup to actually being introduced to Macbeth is much like the first few scenes of Romeo and Juliet, in which Benvolio speaks of Romeo and his emotional state to the latter’s parents, the Montagues.
But, at last, in scene three, we’re given the chance to see the moody Scotsman himself, with the three witches infiltrating the same heath (always with the heaths during Elizabethan times!) to apprehend him on his way back to the kingdom of Duncan. Along with his friend and fellow general, Banquo, Macbeth listens to the three crones–who one can always picture cackling and writhing about at random in his mind’s eye–as they prophesy that he will be Thane of Cawdor in the wake of defeating Macdonald, the former holder of the aforementioned title.
But even before encountering Macbeth and Banquo on the heath, the witches are bestowed with an abundance of personality using only a few lines. First Witch in particular makes her snarky presence known with the description of a sailor’s wife as a “rump-fed ronyon.” Like the ringleader of any trio, First Witch is given the most utterances to work with, and yes, one could easily imagine her as a real Winifred Sanderson type.
Considering that Shakespeare wrote this at the height of persecution against witchcraft and so-called “black magic,” it is significant to take into account just how threatening witches were to those of a “common” standing. Like some version of Elizabethan rebels (think: what Pussy Riot is to Russia), witches were deemed menaces–a bane to the very fabric of morality. Thus, for Shakespeare to commence Macbeth with such, well, essentially satanic figures is telling of just how gruesome things are going to become as the narrative unfolds.
As they continue to foretell his rise to prominence, the witches subliminally intimate that Macbeth might need to take drastic measures in order to do so, which is, of course, how he ends up going to the extreme of murder so as to secure his purported destiny. Shakespeare, adhering to the notion that the devil need only be a thought in one’s mind that can either be accepted or rejected, paints Macbeth as the ultimate archetype of a person who gives in to temptation at the mere dangling of it. Banquo, on the other hand, resists it as the witches tell him of his fate to be a progenitor of great men who will be kings, in spite of the fact that he himself will never be one. As shadowy representations of the ultimate evil–Satan–the witches need only plant the seed of a certain self-perception to test and determine Macbeth’s true character. And sadly, many of us fall into the “protagonist’s” jurisdiction, damned to be our own worst enemy in matters of virtue.