what does the quote "present fears are worse than horrible imaginings" mean?

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

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Let us put these lines into perspective of who, when, and why these lines are spoken. The speaker of these lines is Macbeth, and he states these lines in Act I, scene iii, lines 139-140, after he has imagined killing King Duncan. The prophetic seeds the witches have planted in his mind have germinated, but he has yet to act upon them. The actual lines are stated this way: "Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings."  Paraphrased, the lines say this: The dangers that actually threaten me here and now frighten me less than the horrible things I'm imagining.

We have looked at who states these lines and when. Now let's address why Macbeth states them and what they mean. Macbeth has just imagined murdering Duncan, and the image of that has frightened him more than anything that he has previously encountered. The reason this thought has frightened Macbeth is because he knows that it is treason and highly immoral to murder the king. This reveals the internal struggle of good and evil within Macbeth; the evil is revealed by the fact that his first instinct is to murder Duncan to become king, while his tenuous hold on good is revealed by the fact that he is frightened by the thought.


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