By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
It is a popular quote in modern culture, due partly to the title of the very famous Ray Bradbury novel, Something wicked this way comes, which has very little to do with Shakespeare’s play. The line is a very striking piece of verse, not only because of the way it sounds but also because of its ominous announcement of some approaching monster.
And it does, in fact, signal the approach of a monster – a monster that the witches have themselves created, the monster that Macbeth has become.
On his way home from a battle that he has won, Macbeth, national hero and cousin of the king, is confronted by three witches, who tell him a few things about what the immediate future will bring him, and add that he is going to be king. When their minor predictions come true an ambition, so deeply buried in his mind that he hasn’t been aware of it, comes to the surface. That is to be king.
He knows that for it to happen the king would have to die and also that he would have to do something about Malcolm, the king’s son and natural heir. He tries to shove the idea aside but can’t, and he writes to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her about his encounter with the witches.
Lady Macbeth takes the idea up and when he arrives home with the news that the king is coming to stay the night she persuades her husband to murder him.
With the help of his wife Macbeth murders King Duncan, and from that moment on things change. He does become king but paranoia begins to affect him and he takes extreme measures, including more murders, to cover up his crime and keep his hold on power. He very quickly descends into a state of pure evil, and Shakespeare saturates the text with images of evil, hell, violence, darkness, associated with him. To show the extent of his depravity Shakespeare shows one of his agents murdering a child onstage.
The witches, supernatural creatures, are representatives of pure evil, their existence being entirely devoted to destroying human beings. Macbeth is their current big project and they watch his decline. When he can’t stand his guilt and fear anymore he decides to seek the witches out to find out what’s going to happen to him. They know he’s coming, and as he approaches, the second witch tells her sisters: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.’
He is now a thing, not a person, and very far from the hero he was at the beginning of the play. He is not just a thing, but something wicked, coming this way. It’s a terrifying image – the kind of thing that terrifies us in horror movies.
Shakespeare gets it just right with the line ‘Something wicked this way comes’. He invented a special kind of language to set the witches apart from the human characters in the text. They speak in couplets with a hypnotic rhythm (see below). This particular chilling couplet is about the finest of their utterances.
Other quotes from the three witches:
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
“Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.” (act 1, scene 1)
“I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.” (act 1, scene 3)
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” (act 4, scene 1)