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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3

Page Index:
Enter the three witches:
As they said they would, the witches meet upon the heath. The first asks the other two what they've been doing. The second witch answers simply, "Killing swine" (1.3.2). Then the third witch asks the first one where she's been, and we hear a story that tells us quite a lot about who witches are and what they do.

Here's how the first witch's story starts:
A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munch'd, and munch'd, and munch'd:--"Give me!" quoth I:
"Aroint thee, witch!" the rump-fed ronyon cries.   (1.3.4-6).
The sailor's wife is a "have" and the witch is a "have-not." The sailor's wife, though she is a "ronyon," a scabby thing, gets to eat all the good food, so she is "rump-fed" and has a lap full of chestnuts, which she eats right in front of the "have-not," who can't stand it, and bursts out with "Give me!" But that only makes the sailor's wife call her a "witch" and order her to go away. (This sort of scene was probably played out many times in the real life of Shakespeare's time, because poor, old women often received little food and less respect.) Naturally, the witch wants to get back at the sailor's wife.

The first witch continues by boasting about how she will get her revenge. Interestingly, the object of her revenge is the sailor, not the sailor's wife, and the revenge has very definite limits. The witch, with the help of her sister witches, will control the winds so that the sailor won't be able to come into port. Contending with the storm, he won't sleep and so he will "dwindle." The witch gloats that "Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-toss'd" (1.3.24-25). Then the witch, apparently to prove what a wicked witch she is, shows the others a thumb she took from a drowned pilot.

This little story shows that the witch is like a very bad child. She impulsively demands chestnuts, and when she gets only insults, she becomes spiteful and plans (or perhaps fantasizes) a sneaky revenge, not on the woman, but on her husband. And, by the way, she keeps a severed thumb as a kind of toy.

Just as the first witch is showing the thumb to the other two, they all hear a drum, so they know that Macbeth is coming. (We never see the drummer, but apparently the idea is that he is beating out a marching rhythm for the army that Macbeth and Banquo are leading. However, when they speak to the witches, they are quite alone.) To get ready for Macbeth, the witches chant and dance. The chant begins with them calling themselves "the weird sisters" (1.3.32). The word "weird" comes from an older word that means "fate," but by Shakespeare's time, "weird" had come to also have the sense of "wayward"--that is, unpredictable, peculiar. "Weird" in this sense is a good description of how the witches operate. They are unpredictable and can make a lot of trouble, but they aren't necessarily agents of inevitable fate.

Enter Macbeth and Banquo:
As their dance ends, the witches tell each other "Peace," which means "be quiet," and they wait silently. When Macbeth and Banquo appear, we see that the two men are on their way back to the King's palace at Forres. Macbeth remarks "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38), which simply means that it's one of those days when fog is followed by sunshine, then a thunderstorm, some hail, and more sunshine. Then Banquo sees the witches.

They are "So wither'd and so wild in their attire" (1.3.40) that Banquo asks them, "Live you?" Instead of answering, they each put a finger to their lips, as though they have a secret. Banquo remarks that they look like women, but he won't call them women, because they have beards. Then Macbeth asks them to speak, and that seems to be what they were waiting for. They hail Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis," "Thane of Cawdor," and "King hereafter." Macbeth's reaction is described in Banquo's next words: "Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?" (1.3.51-52). Where Banquo uses the word "start," we would use the word "jump." It's as though someone had just come up behind Macbeth and yelled "Boo!" A little later we learn that Macbeth is thinking very hard about becoming king by killing King Duncan, so we can guess that it now might seem to him that the witches are reading his mind.

Macbeth doesn't reply, so Banquo--as if to show Macbeth how to act--challenges the witches. He says that if they really can predict the future ("look into the seeds of time"), they should "Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate" (1.3.60-61). The witches respond by hailing Banquo as the father of future kings, and then they begin to leave, or fade.

Macbeth tries to stop them, calling out, "Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more" (1.3.70). Actually, he does not want to hear more. He only wants to know that what he has heard is true. He says that he knows that he is Thane of Glamis because his father, Sinel, died, leaving him the title, "But how of Cawdor?" he asks.

At this point it seems that Shakespeare wants us to see how people can lie to themselves. Macbeth says that "The thane of Cawdor lives, / A prosperous gentleman; and to be king / Stands not within the prospect of belief, / No more than to be Cawdor" (1.3.72-75). In the previous scene Ross told the story of how Macbeth fought and won the battle against the rebel Cawdor, so how can Macbeth be surprised that he might get Cawdor's title? It would be only reasonable to guess that a rebel would be put to death and his title given to someone else. Therefore, it appears that Macbeth's desire to be king blinds him to himself. He says that he can't believe that he can be king any more than he can believe that he can be Thane of Cawdor. But if he secretly knows that it's very possible that he will be Thane of Cawdor, he might also be thinking that it's possible he could be king.

As Macbeth is demanding that the witches tell him how they know what they know, they vanish. For a moment, he and Banquo are alone again, and they both begin to deny what they have seen. Banquo speculates that the witches were illusory, "bubbles" of the earth, and Macbeth remarks that their bodies melted into the wind. Banquo asks if they have "eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner" (1.3.84-85). Then they mockingly repeat the witches' prophecies to each other, until they are interrupted by the arrival of Ross and Angus.

Enter Ross and Angus:
Ross and Angus deliver the news that's not news to us: The traitorous Thane of Cawdor is to be executed, and Macbeth is to be given his title. What is interesting is how Macbeth turns this unsurprising news into a sign that he is destined to be king.

Before Ross and Angus tell their news, they deliver the King's high praise, beginning with Ross' "The King hath happily received, Macbeth, / The news of thy success" (1.3.89-90). Angus adds that the King sends his thanks "Only to herald thee into his sight, / Not pay thee" (1.3.102-103). He means that the King's praise and thanks are not payment for all of Macbeth's heroic deeds; the King just wants to trumpet Macbeth's accomplishments to the world. However, the King does have an immediate reward for the hero: Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor.

When Ross hails Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor, Banquo wonders (probably to himself), "What, can the devil speak true?" (1.3.107). Meanwhile, Macbeth responds to the news by asking, "The Thane of Cawdor lives; why do you dress me / In borrow'd robes?" (1.3.108-109). Thus Macbeth gets Ross to tell him what could be easily guessed, that the Thane of Cawdor is going to be executed as a traitor.

When he's sure that he really is Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth says to himself: "Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor! / The greatest is behind" (1.3.116-117). "Behind" means "next," and of course "the greatest" is the kingship; Macbeth is already looking forward to being king. Macbeth then asks Banquo, out of the hearing of Ross and Angus, if Banquo now believes that his children shall be kings, since the witches were right about Macbeth being Thane of Cawdor. Banquo doesn't really answer Macbeth's question; instead, he says:
That trusted home
Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But 'tis strange:
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.   (1.3.120-126)
This is a blunt warning that the witches could be tricking Macbeth into evil, and it shows that Banquo has a strong suspicion that Macbeth's ambition could make him go bad.

Banquo then steps aside to have a few words with Ross and Angus. Meanwhile, we hear Macbeth thinking. At first he's elated. He says, "Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme" (1.3.127-129). But then he has second thoughts. If the witches' prophecies are good, he asks himself, "why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature?" (1.3.134-137). "Suggestion" means "temptation," so Macbeth is asking himself why he feels himself giving into temptation, especially a temptation that makes his heart race and his hair stand on end.

We should take Macbeth's words seriously. Macbeth is a warrior and has killed men, but he's never murdered anyone. These days, we watch movies in which there's a casual murder every few minutes, but Shakespeare is more realistic than those movies. Macbeth's reaction is the normal one; murder--or even the thought of doing a murder--is likely to get your blood racing.

But even though his body is telling him that he shouldn't be thinking about murdering King Duncan, he can't help himself. This is what he means when he says that his "function / Is smother'd in surmise" (1.3.140-141). "Function" is normal activity; "surmise" is the thought of a future activity. Macbeth is thinking so hard about what he might do that he can't do anything but stand there and think. As Banquo remarks to Ross and Angus, Macbeth is "rapt," that is, in a kind of trance.

Then Macbeth pulls himself together, at least to a certain extent. He remarks to himself that if the witches' prophecies are right, he won't have to do a thing to become king. As he says, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir" (1.3.143-144). Not only that, but "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day" (1.3.146-147), which is a saying like our saying that "nothing lasts forever--thank God!" In other words, the thought of murdering his king has Macbeth all shaken up, but he believes he'll get over it.

At this point Banquo informs Macbeth that they're just waiting until he is ready to go. Macbeth makes the lying excuse that he was thinking about something so unimportant that he has already forgotten what it was. He says, "my dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten" (3.1.149-150). However, those things are far from forgotten. As they all start on their journey to see the King, Macbeth has a last aside to Banquo, in which he says he wants to have an honest discussion of what has happened. Banquo agrees, and they are off.