Based on act 1, scene 3 of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Ryder’s Macbeth and the Witches presents the theme of supernatural intervention in human events and man's helplessness in his mortal confrontation with such forces. It appears that, in the face of a contemporary Darwinian worldview and the materialism of the Gilded Age, the aging artist returned to concerns with a moral order as expressed in myth and poetry. In a foreboding scene, Macbeth and Banquo, military leaders of the Scottish king, encounter the three Witches, who prophesy the chain of violent events to come. The turmoil is prefigured in the tortured landscape—the lone tree, looming mountain, and threatening sky.
As he did with interpretations of Wagner's operas, Ryder presented a complex image wherein the realms of man, nature, and the supernatural powerfully converge. The present surface of the painting has darkened and cracked, an object lesson in Ryder's unsuccessful experimentation with unorthodox media and methods. The long, arduous creation of Macbeth and the Witches typifies the works begun in the mid- to late-1890s. Chronic eye trouble, aggravated by age, further impeded Ryder's progress. Yet, according to his own account, time was needed to achieve the proper spiritual inspiration.