The 3 Witches prophecied to Macbeth that he would be king, thus setting the play into motion. Why did they do that? Did they realize that they were basically giving a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what the result of their prediction would be?
The Witches are supernatural in character and Satanic. They delivered a self-fulfilling prophecy to tempt Macbeth into willingly committing evil deeds to secure his soul.
A common motif in mythology is that of the three Fates. Greek and Roman, Irish and Norse legend all have versions of these figures with each of the women representing past, present and future respectively.
The Witches in Macbeth are often compared to the Fates, particularly their Norse incarnation, known as the Norns. They are described in the play as:
The weird sisters, hand in hand
And the word "weird" is derived from the old Norse "wyrd", meaning "fate". The Norns, unlike their classical counterparts, were outcasts who lived far from human habitation. It is clear from the events of the play that, like the Fates, are in the habit of predicting the future. But look at the way they greet Macbeth:
- All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
- All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
- All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
He has been Thane of Glamis for some time. He is - although he does not know it - Thane of Cawdor. And he will be King in the fullness of time. Each statement is made by a different Witch, suggesting that, again like the Fates, they represent past, present and future.
Why does this matter? Because the purpose of the Fates was to control destiny. Indeed the Norns were so powerful that they held the destiny of not only men but gods, as well. So if we are to equate the Witches with the Fates, it strongly suggests that they knew full well what the result of their prophecy would be, and were fully able to ensure it would come about.
This begs the question of why they bothered to get involved at all. A possible answer is that Shakespeare's time is not so long after the days of witch trials. Audiences were still willing and able to believe in the supernatural, and in Satanic forces. And the Witche's modus operandi, which is essentially to tempt Macbeth into murder with their prophecy, echoes the classic behaviour of devils. Fates they may be, but by leading Macbeth willingly to his fate, they are ensuring his rejection by God and that his soul will go to hell.
Their Satanic allegiance is made clear at the very opening of the play. The first two witches call out
- I come, Graymalkin!
- Paddock calls.
"Graymalkin" (literally "grey cat") and "Paddock" are their familiars, helper devils in the form of animals. The belief in familiars dates back to the witch trials of earlier centuries and was central in many prosecutions.
Which brings us on to why they'd bother in the first place. To which the answer is that, as allies of the devil, they are simply and clearly agents of evil.
Look at the conversation they have among themselves prior to Macbeth's entrance, in which they are boasting of the wicked deeds they have done. The first witch has been killing pigs, offering no reason and thus leaving the audience to presume it was for the sheer hell of it. The second has bought down the most awful, ruinous curses upon a sailor for no better reason than his wife refused to share her chestnuts. If they are the Fates and servants of Satan, they need no further motivation.
- Frye, Roland Mushat. "Launching the Tragedy of Macbeth: Temptation, Deliberation, and Consent in Act I." The Huntington Library Quarterly.