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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 3, Scene 5

Enter the three Witches, meeting Hecate:
Most editors say that this scene is "spurious," that is, written by someone else and inserted into the play when Shakespeare wasn't looking. Maybe. But the scene certainly fits in with the thought and action of the rest of the play. In the scene before, Macbeth said that he was going to see the witches in the morning, and in this scene Hecate says that Macbeth is coming in the morning. Also, Hecate says that she will prepare magical illusions that will give Macbeth a false sense of security and so lure him to his destruction, and that is exactly what happens.

As a reminder that Hecate comes from the underworld, the scene opens with "Thunder (3.5.1, s.d.)," and probably not just distant rumblings, either. Shakespeare's theater company put a lot of effort in to their stage effects, so we should think of this thunder as the crackling, ripping kind that gives us a jolt and reminds us that hell is just next door.

Hecate is angry with the three Witches because of their "trade and traffic with Macbeth / In riddles and affairs of death" (3.5.4-5). They should have let her take the lead, because without her, they are nothing. She is "mistress of your charms, / The close [secret] contriver of all harms" (3.5.6-7).

In addition, Macbeth is "Spiteful and wrathful," and "Loves for his own ends, not for you"(3.5.12-13). In other words, Macbeth doesn't love the witches, only himself. This may seem like a strange thing for Hecate to say -- after all, who would love witches? -- but it's a good commentary on Macbeth's character. Earlier in the play, in a soliloquy on Banquo, Macbeth complained about the unfairness of the witches' prophecy. In Macbeth's view, he will have done all the work, and Banquo's descendants will get all the rewards, because they will be the future kings. Macbeth will have given his eternal soul to Satan for Banquo's children and grandchildren, "mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man, / To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!" (3.1.67-69). Thus Macbeth expresses both spite and wrath. And thus we see that Hecate's description of Macbeth is accurate.

After this, Hecate says that the three Witches can make amends by meeting her in hell, where Macbeth will come to learn his fate. She commands them to prepare themselves, saying "Your vessels and your spells provide, / Your charms and every thing beside" (3.5.19). "Vessels" are pots, "spells" are magical words, and "charms" are magical objects. In an upcoming scene the witches will do as they're told, bringing a cauldron and throwing charms into it while saying spells.

While the witches are getting ready for their evil work, Hecate also will prepare herself. She's going to catch a drop from the corner of the moon, distill it, and from it create illusions that will make Macbeth "spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear" (3.5.30-31).

Having said this, Hecate is called away. From backstage ("within") we hear "Come away, come away" being sung. Hecate says, "Hark! I am call'd; my little spirit, see, / Sits in a foggy cloud, and stays [waits] for me" (3.5.34-35). The "little spirit" is apparently Hecate's familiar. This last touch of witchery may be a somewhat corny, but it's meant to emphasize the closeness of ultimate evil. Thunder announced Hecate's arrival from the underworld; now a spirit in a cloud calls her back.