From Macbeth, explain the meaning of Macbeth's aside that begins, "This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill;cannot be good." In what ways does Macbeth see the prophecies as having both 'fair' and 'foul' potential?
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The particular part to which you are referring is in Act I, Scene iii just after Macbeth's "supernatural meeting with the witches. At this point, Macbeth is trying to understand what the prophecies mean for him. He doesn't know if the intentions of the witches are to produce evil or if they are predictions of good things to come for Macbeth. He then tries to use reasoning to decide. He says the witches' prophecy that he will become Thane of Cawdor is true. That much has already happened. Macbeth feels if the witches were truthful about that one thing, then it would follow that they would be right about the rest. On the other hand, however, these prophecies have caused Macbeth to have such terrible thoughts that they make his hair stand on end. The seed of ambition and power has been implanted in Macbeth's mind, and it scares him to think what this means.
In Macbeth, Macbeth is clearly a decorated soldier, admired and trusted by his fellow soldiers and his king, Duncan. His initial comments about the day being both "foul and fair," (I.iii.38) are mainly in reference to the poor weather conditions - the storm - and the success in battle he has just enjoyed. However, the presence of the witches confirms the contradiction.
Macbeth is astute and recognizes the potentially spurious (not being what it seems) intentions of the witches. His first reaction, one of shock, noticed by Banquo who wonders why Macbeth fears, as he says, "things that do sound so fair," (52), is soon replaced by an impatient need to know more. Things become more sinister when, subsequently, Macbeth receives the official news that he is to be Thane of Cawdor and, in disbelief at the powerful truth of the witches' words, he wonders whether Banquo, whose sons will also be kings, according to the witches, has any thoughts on the matter. Banquo's own prophetic words about the potential for the witches to "betray us- in deepest consequence," (125) foreshadow the betrayal later when Macbeth will have his own friend killed, supposedly to protect his own future.
Macbeth is conflicted by his emotions. His ability to recognize his own, what he calls, "earnest of success," (132) reveals his self-awareness. He knows that the witches' "supernatural soliciting," (130) or their unnatural petitioning of him, is not normal and he wonders why, if the news of his promotion to Thane of Cawdor is good, he is troubled by the implications of what else may follow. Macbeth reflects on his own terrible thoughts and the "horrid image" that will change everything ("unfix my hair," (135)). He can only think of the worst possible or "horrible imaginings" (137) when he considers what may be necessary to ensure that he does become king. Even murder is in his thoughts, he admits, although it is "fantastical" (138), meaning that he knows it is so extreme that he can hardly believe it of himself. Macbeth admits that the only things he can be sure of, when "nothing is but what is not," (141), are those things he does not know. In other words, all those things that he thought he knew about himself, he now questions. This foreshadows his transformation from gallant and loyal hero to corrupt and dishonorable murderer.
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