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Lady Macbeth: The Fourth Witch?

Updated on November 10, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

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Are there any witches in Macbeth?

The first thing one must remember is that Shakespeare never uses the word "witch" in Macbeth. They are referred to as "weird sisters". The sisters themselves mention it in Act 1: "The weird sisters , hand in hand, Posters of the sea and land".After all, his source material (Holinshed) never called these women witches. Holinshed's sisters are 'creatures of the elderwood . . . nymphs or fairies' (Chronicles 268). There is rather a hint of pagan Wiccan rituals in their actions. There is also a connection made between the weird sisters of Macbeth and the three sisters of fate. If we check the philological root of the word weird, we get back to the Old English word "wyrd" which means "fate" or destiny. This helps us understand that Shakespeare never intended to present the three weird sisters simply as agents of witchcraft but rather as agents of fatality. Within this framework there is no room for a fourth person if we are to follow the Classical portrayal of the sisters of destiny. Therefore, Lady Macbeth is NOT a witch.

Unsex me here: Lady Macbeth and Feminity

As per Banquo's description, the weird sisters exhibit masculine traits: "you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret". Sexuality is a shady region for the weird sisters. They do not, at least in the play Macbeth, show any signs of feminine fertility. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a woman. This is precisely why she needs to appeal to the higher powers of darkness to freeze her feminity:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts,unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty...

Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall..."

She is strong, even stubborn to a fatal degree, but there is absolutely no doubt regarding her sexuality. She never shares the dubious womanhood of the weird sisters.

Lady Macbeth: Too Human to Qualify

In spite of her strong invocation of the dark spirits, lady Macbeth hardly acquires the moral indifference and dire cruelty of a murderer. She fails miserably, repeatedly, whenever she confronts her conscience. She could not hold the dagger against the king even when she had intended to do so:

Had he not resembled

My father as he slept, I had done ’t.

Later, we see her getting worried about Lady Macduff and finally face the complete neurosis towards the end of the play.

We see Lady Macbeth succumbing to the "compunctious visitings of nature" much before Macbeth shows any signs of repentance or regret. If she is more human than Macbeth, she can never be a witch, or her conscience would have been completely annihilated.

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth Oil on Canvas (Johann Heinrich Füssli)
The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth Oil on Canvas (Johann Heinrich Füssli) | Source

Who Provoked Whom?

Macbeth had written a letter to Lady Macbeth where he had narrated the events about the prophecies. We see LAdy MAcbeth jumping to conclusions that there is a shortcut that Macbeth needs to take. We conclude that she is almost as vicious as the witches and, therefore, is the fourth witch. However, we need to examine the details over again.

first, the witches made no prophecies. They greeted Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (which he knew he was) and Thane of Cawdor (which also was something that he had already become by that time. However he was still unaware of this). They further greeted him as the future king. Now, being a king is not a prophecy but an ambition. The weird sisters deliberately stirred a raw nerve in Macbeth. So, there was already a raw nerve present!

When we see Macbeth crumbling under pressure and deciding to not kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth chastizes her and we begin to feel that she is a vicious woman. However, if we pay attention to her exact words, we could get a different picture:

"What beast was ’t, then,

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place

Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.

They have made themselves, and that their fitness now

Does unmake you. "

What is clear here is that, Macbeth was the one to "break this enterprise". He was the one who had first given his wife the idea of Duncan's assailability. "nor time nor place did then adhere": this shows that Macbeth had a conversation with his wife about killing Duncan before he wrote that letter since, after his arrival we find them both already aware of each other's intention and leanings. Therefore, Macbeth had this idea about regicide even before meeting the witches. Lady Macbeth was only trying to remind him of his own desires. Macbeth was not a puppet in her hands after all. She was only an agent of persuasion and her tools were definitely not witchcraft but something more human and more earthly.


Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth        (Smirke, c. 1790-1810)
Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth (Smirke, c. 1790-1810) | Source

Lady Macbeth: More than just a Witch

The most important factor which determines whether Lady Macbeth can be called the fourth witch is her involvement in the action of the play. The witches (or weird sisters) are portrayed as external agents, just like catalysts, who trigger a certain chain reaction of events. Their motivation is purely perverse entertainment. Macbeth is, for them, a candidate with potential for downfall. For Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is her companion. She is his "partner of greatness", his confidant, his comrade. She is so deeply involved in Macbeth's affairs that she pays the highest price for it, first with her sanity, then with her life. She made errors in judgement, but she also realized them and regretted them. Her choices were wrong but she took responsibility of her choice and that makes her character admirable despite her despicable crimes.

She is way too involved in the plot to be equated with the witches who only act as choric (albeit sinister) characters. She is not situated at the periphery but at the centre of the play's action

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© 2017 Monami

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