This paper is about the role of the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth, which was written by Shakespeare in 1606. His main source were Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is the story of Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, who was originally a successful and respectable man, but becomesevil. Encouraged and influenced by the strange prophecies of the Weird Sisters and his wife, Lady Macbeth, he becomes a traitor, a tyrant and finally a murderer throughout the play. The Weird Sisters put him to the test and make promises which are not to be realized without cruelty, violence and murder. The Weird Sisters, their supernatural nature and witchcraft in general are in the focus of thefollowing investigation.
It is also necessary to take a look at witchcraft theories and the images and features ascribed to a witch by the people in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in continental Europe as well as in England and Scotland. The main focus is on the function of the three Weird Sisters. The question what role Shakespeare ascribes to them and how they get the action going, is goingto be answered. In addition, the Weird Sisters have to be compared to the stereotypes of witches, which are portrayed in the previous paragraphes. Another aspect is the role of Lady Macbeth and the question whether she can be compared to the Weird Sisters in any way.
2. The origins of witchcraft
The term witchcraft refers to the practice of maleficium by means of a mental act, the performanceof ritual and charms, the use of instrumental aids or the involvement of evil spirits by a female person with a malicious intention. The concept of witchcraft was developed in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. All different magical, religious and criminal practices has been united under the term witchcraft. In many regions of Europe thousands of witches and sorcerers weretortured and executated, which made the interest in witchcraft increase in the nineteenth century.
Although the origins of witchcraft are difficult to trace in the history of mankind, several explanations and examples are given as an approach to that issue.
Stone-Age civilizations knew fertility and hunting rites which contained magical elements. Signs of such rites were found in cave drawings inEurope and North America. It is very difficult to distinguish between magic, ritual and religion in these testimonies. An easier way to find stronger evidences of magical practices is to take a look at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt.
Manfred Lurker remarks that for the prophet Zarathustra the universe was governed by two principles. On the one hand Ahura Mazda, the king oflight. On the other hand Angru Mainyu, the prince of darkness and evil demons.
In the Greek antiquity, religious beliefs were divided into two principles: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian was the rational world, the other a world made by ecstasy and chaos. The Dionysian principle nourished a belief in demons, spirits and witches. The festival of Dionysos formed an important source ofmedieval and early modern belief in the wiches’ sabbath. People believed in the devision of the world into two spheres in the underworld. This underworld was thought to be ruled by the god Hades. One can compare this sphere to the Christian notion of hell. The other sphere was a place called Elysian fields, where the good were sent. Another important aspect of the Graeco-Roman world picture wasthe belief in terrifying mythological creatures. People thought that evil female demons and spirits came from the underworld. The two of the most famous sorceresses, Circe and Medea, were some of them. J. C. Baroja remarks that “Circe symbolized seduction and was the archetype of the woman who by being ‘enchanting’ or ‘bewitching’ as well as by her skills, made all men bow to her will”. He adds...