William Shakespeare
Contributed by Sharon Fleming
Act 1 Scene 3

The three witches appear amid a clap of thunder. They have just cursed a woman whose sailor husband offended them. As Macbeth and Banquo exit the battlefield, they encounter the witches, who present them with two prophecies. In their first prophecy, they inform Macbeth he will become Thane of Cawdor and then king of Scotland. In their second prophecy, they tell Banquo that although he will not lead Scotland, his lineage will produce future rulers. After delivering their prophecies, the witches vanish, leaving Macbeth and Banquo amazed and bewildered. Not long thereafter, the first part of the first prophecy comes to pass with the arrival of Ross and Angus, who confirm Macbeth’s new title as Thane of Cawdor.


Whereas Scene I introduces the play’s supernatural elements, Scene III dives deeper into them via the witches’ curse of the sailor and predictions about Macbeth and Banquo. Like the sailor who captains his boat, Macbeth is poised to become an ill-fated “captain” of Scotland. Yet, both the sailor and Macbeth are blown asunder by a tempest of passion that damages their respective abilities to achieve lasting success. The scene’s weather reinforces its tumult and unpredictability. The storm wreaks havoc upon the sea, just as the witches’ prophecies uproot the men’s lives.

When they first appear in Scene I, the witches introduce an idea that permeates the play: “Foul is fair and fair is foul.” Later, Macbeth goes on to say, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” in response to his change of fate. The mood of confusion these statements create intensifies with the witches’ appearance. Although they look like women, they are not female. This throws Banquo and Macbeth into confusion.

Despite Macbeth’s general disorientation, the one clear truth in his mind is the prospect of becoming king. Although he does not comprehend the witches’ nature and personalities, he remains certain that their prophecies will come to pass. Though Macbeth’s early experiences, Shakespeare indicates that fate defines reality from falsehoods and certainty from uncertainty.

As soon as the witches make their predictions, both Macbeth and Banquo respond with excitement and confusion. They are perplexed by the nature of the outcomes the witches prophesy. Moreover, Shakespeare shrewdly consolidates Macbeth's and Banquo's perplexity at the witches' vanishing with incredulity of their predictions. As “the insane root… takes the reason prisoner,” Shakespeare’s impression is that Banquo and Macbeth see products of their imagination instead of reality.

Macbeth struggles to connect the first prophecy with his current feelings. He cannot believe how his current situation will make the prophecy come true. First, he feels scared of the possible destruction the prophecy could create. By his own admission, Macbeth states his imagination might overthrow reason. He describes his confusion by saying, “Nothing is, but what is not.” It appears that Macbeth does not understand the circumstances he faces. Moreover, his statements suggest he might engage in unjustifiable deeds soon. Macbeth prepares to invalidate the values that he has held for a long time, including respect for authority, discipline, and responsibility. For all practical purposes, Macbeth’s statement that “nothing is, but what is not” means he is willing to commit murder and attempt to escape from its consequences.

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