Shakespeare is pretty well known for writing in iambic pentameter. One important exception to this are the witches in Macbeth, who speak in everything from trochaic meter:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

To catalectic trochaic tetrameter:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

To occasionally iambic tetrameter

Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.

And everything in between.

Why are the witches speaking in a primarily trochaic meter and not an iambic meter?


The metre in Macbeth is already fairly irregular but the lines spoken by the Witches or "Weird Sisters" still stand out.

In Act 1, scene 3, Banquo describes the witches as follows (quoted from Open Source Shakespeare):

(...) What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? (...)
(...) you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

Based on their appearance, they clearly stand apart from normal human beings. Giving them tetrameter to speak instead of iambic pentameter carries over this "weirdness" into the verse. What's more, many (though clearly not all) of their lines also rhyme. This can be seen in the first examples quoted in the question. There are also a few examples in Act 1, scene 3, before the arrival of Macbeth and Banquo:

I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I' the shipman's card.
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.
Look what I have.

Rhyme isn't just a bit of fancy dress for verse; it makes verse more memorable. It has even be argued that the rhyming tetrameters do not simply set them apart from the other characters but put them above nobility. ("Ordinary people" speak in prose, noble characters usually speak in blank verse, while rhyming lines are normally reserved for a special purpose. See Why do the witches in 'Macbeth' speak in rhyme? on eNotes.)

  • This answer is good, but is a link to eNotes really the best this site can do? – user111 Nov 28 '17 at 18:09
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    I know what you mean but the eNotes link only supports the "It has even be argued that ..." of my answer. – Christophe Strobbe Nov 28 '17 at 18:12
  • I realize that; there's a reason I haven't downvoted this answer. But I do think that spending some time with books.google.com and scholar.google.com would improve this answer; that way researchers who have this same question will have resources that they can peruse if they want to learn more. – user111 Nov 28 '17 at 18:17
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    I actually consulted printed editions of Macbeth last night but did not find anything useful in the time I had available. I avoid Big Brother Google like the plague. I'll try some other sources later. – Christophe Strobbe Nov 28 '17 at 18:18
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    Although academic substantiation is always nice, this is pretty straight-forward and a valid answer doesn't require it, imo, so long as the argument can be fully supported. (Christophe, see my comment to the question if you need some ammo to expand your points.) It's a literary device, plain and simple. – DukeZhou Nov 29 '17 at 0:19

Trochaic meter (consisting of singular trochees) is the exact opposite of iambic meter: trochaic meter a metrical foot made up of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. Conversely, iambic meter is made up of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. As a result, this puts emphasis on the beginning of the words in the line:

DOUble, DOUble, TOIL and TROUble.

FIre BURN and CAULdron BUbble.

This haunting 'loud-then-quiet' effect acts to intimidate the audience and gain attention to what they are saying as the first syllables are weighted, with the end syllables (perhaps less important) melting away. You may have noted a similar device at the beginning of many of Shakespeare's plays where they open with a loud scene such as a fight (like in Romeo and Juliet) or a shipwreck (like in The Tempest) or even the three scary witches from Macbeth! Contextually, this was because the crowds were often rowdy and so a loud opening to a play was essential in arresting the audience's attention. This mainly creates distinct chanting rhythm that characterises the witches' speech and aims to evoke a sinister atmosphere, as oppose to the poetic, songlike iambic meter - the trochaic meter is almost hypnotising. It sets the scene (reference 1) (reference 2)

Also, the Elizabethans had a preoccupation with the supernatural and there is a pattern between trochaic meter and supernatural beings in his plays (reference). Not only is it used by the witches, but also the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream; here, Puck addresses Oberon, King of the Fairies:

CAPtain OF our FAIry BAND,


(this programme is very good if you're interested).

So overall, the use of trochaic meter adds a chanting, arresting quality to the witches' spells as well as separating them from the mortal world who mainly speak in iambic pentameter in the instances when they speak in verse or blank verse.

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    This answer is more detailed and better than the first, so I'm glad you posted it. But schmoop really isn't a good source to cite; it's not trustworthy or reputable. I'm sure a bit of time with books.google.com and scholar.google.com could find a much more reputable resource. – user111 Nov 28 '17 at 18:13

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