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English Literature   >   Shakespeare and Witchcraft

Why Were Witches in Macbeth?

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Shakespeare and Witchcraft

In this course, Professor Diane Purkiss (University of Oxford) explores the historical context around the witches in Shakespeare’s plays, especially Macbeth (1606). In the first module, we consider why Shakespeare might have written witches into Macbeth. In the second, we dispel popular myths around Early Modern witches, exploring what witchcraft really looked like in Shakespeare’s day. In the third, we focus on the Early Modern understanding that witches commonly spoiled food, and disrupted maternal processes. In the fourth, we examine the relationship between witches and storms at sea. In the fifth, we consider the connection between witches and bodies, namely between Roman Catholic relics and witchcraft. Finally, in the sixth, we do a close reading of Lady Macbeth’s two speeches in Act 1, Scene 5 and Act 1, Scene 7, understanding how these mark her as a witch according to the norms of her time.

Why Were Witches in Macbeth?

In this module, we explore why witches were featured in the play Macbeth, considering: (i) Macbeth’s temptation by prophecy, (ii) in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), witches do not appear, (iii) the appearance of witches as a way of distracting from prophecy, as real rebellions were being caused by prophecy, and (iv) the popularity of witches on stage.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Purkiss, D. (2022, October 27). Shakespeare and Witchcraft - Why Were Witches in Macbeth? [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Purkiss, D. "Shakespeare and Witchcraft – Why Were Witches in Macbeth?." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 27 Oct 2022,

Image Credits


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Prof. Diane Purkiss

University of Oxford