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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Act I, Scene 3

Summary

This scene is the culmination of the witches' prediction in Scene 1, where they promised to meet Macbeth "ere the set of sun" and "when the battle's lost and won". It also furthers the theme that runs throughout the play -- that everything is not always as it seems - that appearances lie. The three horrid creatures from Scene 1 have met again on a heath, an unproductive barren waste of land, close to the recent battlefront. Once again the "weird sisters" are stirring up their magic while holding hands and dancing round and round 9 times.

One of the witches says she has been out killing swine and another says she has been putting a curse on a sailor's wife who refused to give her some chestnuts to eat. During this somber scene, the witch vows to destroy the sailor, as punishment to the wife, by depriving him of sleep and draining him "dry as hay", much as Macbeth will later be drained. As the witches cackle out their magic spells, a drum roll is heard, and Macbeth and Banquo enter. It is ironic that the first words that the reader hears Macbeth speak in the play are an echo of the words of the three evil witches in the first scene.

The main character enters and says to Banquo, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." On the surface, Macbeth is pointing out the contrast of the foul weather, plagued by darkness and thunderstorms, and the glory of his fair victory over the enemy. At a deeper level, his words predict the true foulness of his soul that will be revealed throughout the play. It is Banquo who first describes the witches as "withered and wild in their attire" and who don't look "like inhabitants of the earth, and yet are on it." He notices their horrible skinny lips, their chappy fingers, and their beards, which make them appear to be men, and yet they are not. It is also Banquo who first speaks to them by asking, "Live you or are you aught?"

In turn, Macbeth asks the witches to speak. They respond by hailing Macbeth three times and by greeting him as something he is not -- the Thane of Cawdor (which he soon will become) and the future king (which he will become in the course of the play). Macbeth is shocked at the witches' words, and Banquo begs to hear about his own future. The witches then offer predictions that reinforce the appearance vs. reality theme of the play. They tell Banquo that he will be "lesser than Macbeth and greater" and "not so happy, yet much happier". They also foretell that he shall beget kings. Macbeth then begs to hear more from the witches -- to know why and how they have made their predictions, but the three horrible creatures quickly vanish without answering, and the men are left to discuss their strange encounter. Macbeth again emphasizes the key theme of appearance vs. reality by stating "what seemed corporal melted into air".


They are soon interrupted by the arrival of Ross and Angus, the Scottish noblemen sent by King Duncan. The two messengers tell of the king's appreciation for Macbeth's bravery and victory and reveal that he has been bestowed the title of Thane of Cawdor - just as the witches had predicted. Banquo is shocked by the accuracy of the witches' words and asks, "Can the devil (in the form of 3 witches) speak true?" Macbeth's reaction is to question how two men can bear the same title, at which point Angus explains that Cawdor is to be executed (much like King Duncan and Macbeth). Then Macbeth turns to Banquo and says he cannot believe that the witches spoke such truth. He is already beginning to think of the third greeting as the future king and is wondering how he can make such a prediction come true.

Banquo warns him that evil (in the form of the witches) only speaks half truths in order to stir up trouble and to make appearance seem like reality. Macbeth ignores Banquo's warning and thinks more about becoming king, which bodes both good (having the power) and ill (having to kill the king to gain the power).

He ends his musing (that comes in his first spoken soliloquy) by saying, "Nothing is but what is not", which succinctly summarizes the appearance versus reality theme. At the end of the scene, Macbeth chides himself into believing that he will not take evil action against the king but let fate take its own course.

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