Banquo and Macbeth are greeted by three witches. From the University of Pennsylvania.

Those well-dressed women are witches?

This illustration is the one that Shakespeare would have seen in his source for Macbeth, Holinshed's Chronicles.

The striking thing about the witches in this woodcut* is that they are so well-dressed, so decent. The clear implication is that they are (or are imitating) noble women. The practice of witchcraft, real or imagined, was not limited to those of lower social status.

Holinshed's printer reused many of the woodcuts that are scattered throughout the work-- generic battles for example appear many times-- but this illustration appears only once and therefore must have been cut for the specific scene.

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Shakespeare chose to make his witches conventionally ugly and uniquely equivocal:

Banquo: . . . What are these
So withered, and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on 't?. . .
You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy fingers laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
(1.3.39-47)

Witchcraft Documents [15th Century] from the on line Medieval Sourcebook. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) by Sprenger and Kramer (1484 ).

Footnotes

  1. A unique picture

    Holinshed's printer reused many of the woodcuts that are scattered throughout the work-- generic battles for example appear many times-- but this illustration appears only once and therefore must have been cut for the specific scene.