The Weird Sisters: these characters elevate the story of Macbeth from typical regicide (you know, casual) to the supernatural. Think about it — without those three witches, would Macbeth have the same dark, creepy, mystical energy that we associate it with today? Would it even be a play at all?
But these witches didn’t come out of nowhere. When Macbeth was written, witchcraft was considered a real, threatening force in daily life. This fear was intensified by the new king, James I of England, who took over the English throne in 1603 after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. HistoryExtra explains that James became obsessed with witchcraft after his mother (Mary, Queen of Scots) died in 1587.
He believed her death had been prophesied by witches — and, well, it doesn’t take much to see how that connects to Macbeth. James not only tried witches himself, but also commissioned and wrote various pamphlets and treatises on witchcraft, including his own Daemonologie (or, “Demonology”), which Shakespeare likely took into consideration when writing the play.
So, let’s take a look at who Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters are, how they tie into King James’s paranoia about regicide and witchcraft, and how their inclusion in the play might have been interpreted… for better or for worse.
Who are the Weird Sisters?
The Weird Sisters are the three witches who appear at the beginning of Macbeth. Unlike the witches of Harry Potter or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, these witches aren’t exactly human. But, then again, they aren’t exactly inhuman, either.
They are genderless, appearing as women, but, says Banquo, “your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.III.48-49). Unlike the accused witches of 17th century England, who were often ordinary members of the community, these witches are “wild,” and possibly not even alive — Banquo actually asks, “Live you?” (I.III.41, 43).
But if their appearance or reality is uncertain, their effect on the play certainly is not. The witches give Macbeth the prophecy that he will become king, and that no man of woman born will be able to harm him. To Macbeth, that prophecy says two things: “I will have power over everyone, and I will be undefeatable.” Oh, if only he knew how wrong he was. Without the Weird Sisters, the story of Macbeth would never have gone anywhere.
The idea for the three witches came from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a book of the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland compiled by Raphael Holinshed in 1577 (and then reprinted in 1587 – the edition Shakespeare would have used, according to the Folger Shakespeare Library). This book was a primary source for many of Shakespeare’s histories — and, even though it isn’t marketed as one, Macbeth is, at its core, a history play.
Holinshed’s Chronicles tells the story of the historical Kings Duncan and Macbeth (yeah, they actually existed!) who reigned in the early 11th century. The book even details Macbeth and Banquo’s meeting with the Weird Sisters (though they were called the “wyrd” sisters, from the Anglo-Saxon word for fate).
The text of the Weird Sisters’ interaction with Macbeth is nearly identical in Macbeth and in Holinshed’s Chronicles: Holinshed writes, “The first of them spake and said; All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis … The second of them said; haile Makbeth thane of Cawder. But the third said; All haile Makbeth that hereafter shalt be king of Scotland.” (you can see the page here). Compare to how Shakespeare has his three witches greet Macbeth:
FIRST WITCH: Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
SECOND WITCH: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
THIRD WITCH: All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!
Shakespeare basically only deviates from Holinshed’s text to make it fit the iambic pentameter. So, the Weird Sisters’ prophecy that sets the whole play into motion? Yeah, essentially based on historical record (as much as otherworldly prophecies can be, anyway, and with some inaccuracies).
But there was one major difference: Holinshed describes the Weird Sisters not as evil hags, but, Shakespeare Online says, as nymphs and “goddesses of destinee.” So why does Shakespeare change them to sinister-seeming witches? Well, a lot of that had to do with King James and his obsession with witchcraft and demonology.
What was King James’s Daemonologie?
Daemonologie (1603) was one of many texts about witchcraft that made a buzz in England in the early 17th century. Others included Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witches and a pamphlet called Newes from Scotland (which King James commissioned). But Daemonologie was especially important because it was actually written by the king (can you imagine a political leader taking a few years to compile and proudly publish a book about witchcraft? Yeah, probably not).
In addition to his mother’s death, James believed that other events in his life were caused by witchcraft, as well. HistoryExtra points out that in the year 1590, at least 70 people were tried for witchcraft under suspicion of starting a tempest that nearly wrecked James’s naval fleet while he and his new bride were aboard. James commissioned the pamphlet Newes from Scotland to detail these trials, many of which he presided over himself. The public were certainly afraid and aware of witches after this pamphlet was distributed, but King James went the extra mile.
According to the British Library, the purpose of writing Daemonologie was to express the king’s belief in witchcraft, to validate and educate the public on its existence, and to lay out the framework for the punishment of witchcraft. The book was written in a dialogue format, a common teaching tool in writing (think of Plato’s Republic).
How does Macbeth use Daemonologie?
James broke Daemonologie into three books: the first on magicians and necromancers, the second on witches, and the third on fairies and nymphs. He details the types of magic witches can use, and they translate pretty clearly to Shakespeare’s witches’ abilities: they can cause storms, brew potions, and even (though James usually attributes this skill to magicians) predict the future. That last one is pretty clearly what Shakespeare chose to run with.
In the book, James expresses fear that magic and witchcraft, including twisted predictions of the future, could work their way into the monarchy itself. He writes:
““Yea, he [the devil] will make his schollers [wizards] to creepe in credite with Princes, by fore-telling them manie greate thinges; parte true, parte false”
(Book 1, Chapter 5). (Excuse his spelling — they didn’t have that whole “universal spelling system” thing figured out in the 17th century).
So, Shakespeare definitely took James’s interest in witches and his writing of Daemonologie into account, from the kinds of magic possible to how it might be used by the Weird Sisters.
So, why does all this matter? What sort of commentary might Shakespeare have been making with the Weird Sisters?
Of course, we can never know exactly what Shakespeare’s intent was — we have the plays, but it’s not like we have his secret diary explaining why he wrote them (wouldn’t that be cool, though?). But it is interesting to guess what Shakespeare might have been doing by including witches in a play for the new King James (James was crowned in 1603, and Macbeth was written in 1606).
Queen Elizabeth was certainly a monarch who favored theatre, and Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, frequently performed for her. But under the rule of King James, the company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men — the monarch himself was their patron. This was new for Shakespeare and his company, and Shakespeare may have felt an extra duty to write for his new king.
But it’s difficult to tell whether the inclusion of the Weird Sisters as witches in Macbeth was meant to please King James or to subtly critique him. The plot of the play itself seems almost intent on playing out James’s fears before him: seriously, two instances of regicide in one play? Both Duncan and Macbeth? That’s a lot, even for Shakespeare.
It was known that James was paranoid about plots against his life, and he certainly had reason: just the year before Macbeth was written, the infamous gunpowder plot (you know, the basis of Guy Fawkes day) was thwarted; if the perpetrators hadn’t been caught, James may not have been alive to see Macbeth.
Evidently, though, two instances of regicide wasn’t enough of James’s fears acted out for Shakespeare. Though King James was fascinated by witchcraft, it also terrified him. The ideal play about witchcraft for James probably would have looked something like: “Witches try to do big evil but fail. I see their big evil because I am smart and put them on trial. They confess and say they are so sorry, but we burn them at the stake anyway. The end.”
But is that what Shakespeare wrote? Not even a little bit. Instead, he chose to make the witches’ prophecy of Macbeth’s demise… come true. The witches end up being right in the end, while Macbeth, the king, is the one who dies. In other words: James’s worst fear.
Seriously, like, down to the prophecy element. Think of that quote before, where James claims that magicians could deceive princes with statements that are “parte true, parte false.” Sounds a lot like “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.I.90-91). That’s a tricky move by the weird sisters that would have scared James.
In that case, why wasn’t Shakespeare accused of treason? His saving grace was that if Macbeth hadn’t believed what the witches said, he wouldn’t have killed Duncan or become king, and in the end he would not have died. In a way, the fact that the play places the blame on Macbeth’s hubris and reckless ambition is a blessing: it says, “Hey, this guy made a mistake by buying into what the witches said. But you know who’d never trust a witch? Our King James. Look how he can predict their crafty ways!”
So, while we definitely know that Shakespeare was influenced by Holinshed’s Chronicles, the gunpowder plot, and Daemonologie, it’s difficult to tell in exactly what way the Weird Sisters were meant to strike King James. It’s likely that Shakespeare intended their inclusion to be fitting for the king, but also a little subversive.
As it almost always is with Shakespeare, nothing is ever quite what it seems on the surface. But one thing is for sure: “Double, double, toil and trouble” would have had King James I sleeping with the lights on.