Macbeth

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Weird Sisters Character Analysis

Three witches, whose prophecy helps push Macbeth's ambition over the edge, and convinces him to murder Duncan in order to become King. The witches' knowledge of future events clearly indicates that they have supernatural powers, and they also clearly enjoy using those powers to cause havoc and mayhem among mankind. But it is important to realize that the witches never compel anyone to do anything. Instead, they tell half-truths to lure men into giving into their own dark desires. It's left vague in Macbeth whether Macbeth would have become King of Scotland if he just sat back and did nothing. This vagueness seems to suggest that while the broad outlines of a person's fate might be predetermined, how the fate plays out is up to him.

Weird Sisters Quotes in Macbeth

The Macbeth quotes below are all either spoken by Weird Sisters or refer to Weird Sisters. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Ambition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Macbeth published in 2003.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker)
Related Symbols: Visions and Hallucinations
Page Number: 1.1.12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

In the play’s opening scene, three witches gather in a storm and discuss their upcoming meeting with Macbeth. Together they chant these lines about the moral uncertainty and decay in Scotland.

That “fair is foul” means that what seems genuine is in fact evil, while “foul is fair” inversely means that what appears negative is actually positive. Thus the witches point out the fickle quality of appearances—a recurring theme throughout the tragedy—contending that foul and fair things can easily be mistaken for each other. This line is an example of the rhetorical device chiasmus: when elements of a text are arranged in the form ABBA. Here, “A” is “fair” and “B” is “foul.” Chiasmus can have many different meanings depending on the circumstance, but here it gives a rhythmic quality to the text and points out a paradox between two terms.

The image of “fog and filthy air” similarly foreshadows how the senses will be muddled in the text, preventing characters from accurately perceiving what would be fair or foul. More generally, this image showcases how symbols and ethics will become mixed up in the tragedy. As supernatural creatures, the witches themselves seem decrepit and “foul” at times—but their prophecies are also accurate, which would make them “fair.” Thus these lines do not only make a distinction between false appearance and honest reality, but rather question the very ability to determine the moral goodness of any such reality.

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Related Characters: Banquo (speaker), Macbeth, Weird Sisters
Page Number: 1.3.135-138
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth and Banquo have just learned that Macbeth has become Thane of Cawdor, which confirms the first part of the witches’ prophecy. In response, Banquo notes that the stories told by the witches may be attempts to manipulate Macbeth.

These lines pose an important question about the role of supernatural forces in this tragedy: Are the witches dictating these mens’ destinies or do men maintain the ability to avoid or affect the prophecies being presented? When Banquo says they “win us to our harm,” he contends that the witches are actively exploiting him and Macbeth, yet he also notes that they “tell us truths”—which would seem to imply that nothing they recount is false. The resolution comes in a similarly paradoxical phrase: “Honest trifles” that “betray.” What Banquo means is that aspects of the witches’ prophecies are genuine, but that those components are ultimately insignificant. He believes that these “instruments of darkness” will use the prophecies to gain control over him and Macbeth and then later manipulate them.

Banquo thus argues that he and Macbeth should resist believing the witches too much, even though they have thus far been correct in their prophecies. This belief posits a worldview in which humans can act freely from the influence of supernatural forces—choosing to believe them or not. Macbeth, on the other hand, represents the position that direct adherence to their prophecies will allow him to thwart his fate. Shakespeare thus uses these two characters mixed responses to present two different ways of viewing the supernatural forces in his work: as either maneuvering or merely recounting fate.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker), Macbeth
Page Number: 4.1.44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

The witches prepare for Macbeth’s arrival by mixing an unnatural brew in the cauldron. During their incantation, one makes this pronouncement on impending evil.

These lines firstly verify the supernatural powers of the witches. They are able to sense from physical stimuli—“the pricking”—in their bodies that something “wicked” will take place in the future. Although the audience might be skeptical of the actual mystical powers the witches possess, this image confirms that they have at least a limited capacity to make sense of the future.

At the same time, by describing the wicked phenomenon as a separate external force — the phrasing of “this way comes” is a passive construction — the witches also present themselves as observers of fate, rather than active agents that bring certain events to pass. So while other human characters may see the witches as manipulative spirits willing bad events into existence, their actual incantations show them to be mere bystanders and oracles for fate. The witches comment describes Macbeth as the wicked one, implying that while their prophecy may have been accurate, it was Macbeth's wickedness that caused him to pursue it as he did (or perhaps that his choice to pursue it as he did has made him wicked).

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Weird Sisters Character Timeline in Macbeth

The timeline below shows where the character Weird Sisters appears in Macbeth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Fate Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
As a storm rages, three witches appear, speaking in rhyming, paradoxical couplets: "when the battle's lost and won" (1.1.4); "fair is... (full context)
Act 1, scene 3
Fate Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
On the heath the witches appear. They call themselves the "weird sisters" (1.3.30) and brag of their dread and magical... (full context)
Fate Theme Icon
Macbeth and Banquo enter. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and "king hereafter" (1.3.47). Banquo asks... (full context)
Fate Theme Icon
Macbeth asks how the witches know this information. But the witches vanish, making the two men wonder if they could... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
...sisters. Macbeth claims never to think about them. But he suggests they talk about the witches soon, and adds that if Banquo supports him when the time comes he'll reward and... (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
In the royal palace of Forres, Banquo states his suspicion that Macbeth fulfilled the witches' prophecy by foul play. But he notes that since the prophecy came true for Macbeth,... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
...fact that Macduff does not appear at the royal court. He decides to visit the weird sisters to find out more about his fate. (full context)
Act 3, scene 5
Fate Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
The weird sisters meet with Hecate, the goddess of witches. She rebukes the sisters for meddling with Macbeth without first consulting her. But she says... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Ambition Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
...One witch cries out "Something wicked this way comes" (4.1.62): Macbeth enters. He commands the witches to answer his questions. (full context)
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
The witches conjure up three apparitions. First, a floating head appears and tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. (full context)
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
Macbeth wants to know one more thing: will Banquo's heirs have the throne? The witches perform a final conjuring. Eight kings appear walking in a line, the eighth holding a... (full context)