What is the “horrid image” referred to in Act I Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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Macbeth recognizes that to become the king of Scotland, as the three witches have prophesied that he will, the reigning king, Duncan, must die. The "horrid image" that enters his mind is the vision of becoming the king's murderer. Macbeth has just been lauded and promoted by Duncan, and aside from a minority of rebels working against him, Duncan is a popular, respected, and well-liked ruler. In this scene, Macbeth is struggling with his burgeoning ambition. He is quick to buy in to what the witches seem to be telling him because he is Thane of Glamis and the newly named Thane of Cawdor, which gives credence to their unfulfilled final prophecy. Despite having killed before, Macbeth quails at the thought of killing the king.

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This quote occurs right after Macbeth learns he is to be named thane of Cawdor as part of the witches’ prophesy. He is considering whether this is a good or bad thing that the witches were right about this, because it means they could also be right about his becoming king of Scotland.

He suggests that if it this is good, he would not “yield to that suggestion” that “doth unfix [his] hair” and makes his “seated heart knock at [his] ribs” (1.3.137–39).

The suggestion he mentions is the “horrid image.” The image, then, is Macbeth’s sudden desire to get rid of King Duncan, a man whom he respects. Despite just having helped secure Duncan’s victory in battle, Macbeth feels like it could be necessary to eliminate the king in order to make way for himself on the Scottish throne. Macbeth is disturbed because this thought goes against his moral code, and yet he cannot help himself from thinking it. This foreshadows that Lady Macbeth will easily persuade her husband to kill Duncan, since he has already thought about it before.

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In this aside, Macbeth is pondering the implications of the witches' prophecy that he and Banquo have just heard. These "two truths," i.e. that he will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, are obviously good for him, but Macbeth seems unwilling to shake the idea that they will have evil consequences as well. The "horrid image" seems to be his recognition of what will in all probability be required to fulfill the prophecy. Macbeth resolves this conflict in a sense with his statement in another aside that "if chance will have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir." Of course, Lady Macbeth, and ultimately her husband, are unwilling to wait for "chance," but rather choose to take fate into their own hands with the murder of Duncan.

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