How does Shakespeare introduce the absent Macbeth in Act 1?

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the character Macbeth actually isn't physically introduced until scene 3.  In scene 3, he and Banquo simply walk in on the three witches just as they finish a charm.  Macbeth comments on the weather using the same words spoken by the witches at the close of scene 1 (which of course in some way, depending on one's interpretaion, connects Macbeth to the witches):  "So foul and fair a day I have not seen."  Banquo then notices the witches, and the scene takes its course.

Macbeth's name is mentioned in scene 1, by the witches, when they reveal that the three will meet again when they meet with Macbeth, and again in scene 2 when King Duncan gives Macbeth credit for the military victory over Cawdor.  These mentions of the character prepare the audience for Macbeth's appearance in scene 3. 

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perfectsilence | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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As other posters have said, the audience doesn't actually meet Macbeth until Act I, Scene III.  However, because of the groundwork that Shakespeare lays beforehand, we are given a good indication of Macbeth, his characteristics, and what he is in for well before he appears on stage.

The play opens with a brief scene en media res.  Three witches are just finishing a meeting and discussing when they will meet again.  In beginning the play in this way, Shakespeare establishes an eerie, sinister mood.  When the Weird Sisters they reveal that they next time they will meet will be "[u]pon the heath/ There to meet with Macbeth" they let the audience know that Macbeth will be part of their next sinister gathering (7-8).  At this point the viewer doesn't know if Macbeth is already aligned with the witches or is innocent of any wrongdoing, but given that the play is entitled "The Tragedy of Macbeth," the audience can guess that even if he is innocent, he will not be for much longer.

Shakespeare builds ambiguity through the continuation of the audience's introduction to Macbeth in Act I, Scene II.  In this scene, a wounded captain is returning from the battle to quell both the rebellion and the invasion of Norway.  Upon meeting with King Duncan, the captain further illuminates Macbeth's character:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (16-23)
The audience finds out that in battle, Macbeth is a brave, fierce warrior who fights for the good of Scotland.  Now both "evil" and "good" characters have shown an affinity for the protagonist. This creates tension for the audience, so that when Macbeth finally makes his entrance under stormy skies in the next act, he appears as the very embodiment of the "Fair is foul and foul is fair" motif.

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teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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It is not unusual for Shakespeare to set out the larger theme or themes of his plays before introducing his main character, so that we as an audience enter into a mood and have a context before the principal character appears. In Hamlet we witness the fog, the night, the ghost, and hear of the threatened invasion by Fortinbras, all of which establishes a mood of foreboding before Prince Hamlet himself appears. In Romeo and Juliet, we witness members of the feuding families fighting and learn of the lovesick Romeo, introducing the themes of love and vengeance, before we actually meet impetuous Romeo. In Macbeth, the first two scenes of Act I introduce the theme of "fair is foul and foul is fair" before Macbeth utters his first words. In scene I, the witches appear, establishing the crucial importance of the supernatural to this play. They speak of a meeting on the heath with Macbeth and say in unison "Fair is foul and foul is fair." We don't yet know what this means, but deceptive appearances and utterances will be central to this story.

In scene two, we hear of Macbeth's courage on the battlefield. We learn that Macbeth, "disdaining Fortune," has cut with his sword through the enemy. In this scene, Macbeth looks "fair." However, we will soon enough find out he is "foul," while the very violence of his fighting, such as a description of him slicing an enemy from "the nave to th' chops" and sticking his head on a battlement, foreshadows his propensity for violent extremes. Nevertheless, at the moment, he looks like a hero, and Duncan will treat him as one. We don't yet see his ruthless ambition.

In scene three, we finally meet Macbeth, who reiterates the play's theme in his first words: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen."


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