In Macbeth, how do the prophecies of the witches affect each character and how does each interpret the individual prophecy?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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After the battle in which Macbeth defeats the traitorous Macdonwald, he and Banquo happen upon the three "weird [meaning "Destiny-serving"] sisters who make the predictions that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and "King thereafter!" and Banquo, who will not be king himself, will beget sons who will themselves be kings--"Lesser than Macbeth, and greater"(1.3.65). After hearing these predictions, Macbeth demands,

Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting. Speak, I charge you. (1.76-79)
Then, when Angus and Ross arrive, Banquo and Macbeth are rather shaken that the prophesy of Macbeth's being named Thane of Cawdor has, indeed, come true.
Banquo. [Aside] What, can the devil speak true?...(1.3.108)
Macbeth. [Aside to Banquo] Do you not hope your children
                shall be kings,
                When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me
                Promised no less to them? (1.3. 122-124)
Here, Banquo becomes concerned that Macbeth has fallen under the spell of witchcraft, which often misleads people. He worries,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths.
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's 
In deepest consequence (1.3.132-135)
 
Macbeth, too, deliberates with a sense of foreboding in an aside,
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth?
                        ...Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings
                        ...and nothing is
But what is not.                         (1.3.138-145)
 
While Macbeth senses a blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, he is also disturbed that he finds himself contemplating killing King Duncan, a thought so horrid that it "unfixes" his hair and makes his heart palpitate. In fact, the dangers that threaten him unnerve him less than his own imaginings. This is the beginning of Macbeth's entry into the phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft and spirits as "Nothing is what is not"and he is seduced and frightened both by the prophesies of the witches. On the other hand, the new honors to his family of which the "sisters" speak sit ill with him, and he is uneasy.
 
After this experience, Macbeth writes to his wife at Inverness castle, and she is deeply moved and energized when she learns of the witches prophesy that Macbeth will become king. Worried that her husband will not be cruel enough to kill Duncan, she calls upon the spirits to unsex her and fill her
                                 ...top-fill
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visiting of nature
Shake my fell purpose....(1.5.33-37)
 
Clearly, Lady Macbeth intends more than her husband to make certain that the prophesy about his becoming king comes true. It is she, then, who encourages her husband to slay his cousin Duncan although Macbeth does admit to himself his "[V]aulting ambition which o'erleaps itself" (1.7.27).
 
To summarize, having learned of the predictions that Macbeth will become king and Banquo's sons will later become kings, Macbeth is moved into the realm of a complex succession of things seen or imagined--"nothing is what is not" and his ambition vaults him onto a path of murder, ghosts, and madness. Banquo worries immediately when he hears the predictions of the witches and tries to advise Macbeth against giving their words too much credibility. In contrast, Lady Macbeth embraces the predictions with such enthusiasm and cupidity that she desires that the spirits "unsex" her so that she will embrace violence more like a man than a woman. She, then, encourages Macbeth to kill Duncan while he stays at Inverness. Ironically, however, Lady Macbeth develops a conscience and loses her mind from guilt and commits suicide, while Macbeth becomes crueler and more murderous, having Banquo killed as well as his son Fleance, his fears lessening and becoming merely prudential. But, his murderous path leads to his undoing as the witches' prediction that Birnam Wood would move and a man not born of woman defeats him.  
 

                        
                                       
 
 
 
Sources:
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padrepio | (Level 1) eNoter

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The role of the three witches is to generate imagery, mood and atmosphere.  One has to remember that in Shakespeare's days, the existence and power of twitches was widely believed.  Therefore, they are the first major influence on macbeth's action.

The opening scene of the play closes with the rhyming couplet "Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hoev through the fog and filthy air."  Through this contradiction in terms the witches reveal that they are about to invert the values as we know them.  This is so because they say that what is good is bad and what is bad is now good.

 Before meeting them macbeth was content at Thane of Glamis until they hail him also as "Thane of Cawdor and....king hereafter."I.3.48,49)  Macbeth is stunned by these prophecies.  That information does tempt macbeth.  He orders them to "stay you imperfect speakers.  Tell me more..."  He is keen to hear more of this "strange intelligence... speak I charge you."  (I.3.68-76).  However for fairness sake, it must be said that the witches never invited Macbeth to murder Duncan or even suggested such a thing.  The weird sisters were just there to symbolise evil, but man is free to resist them.  macbeth is tragic because he comes to depend upon their information.  "....would they have stayed" (I.3.80)

The witches also speak the strange prophecies to Banquo.  He describes the physical appearece of the witches.  He comments on their clothing and says that they cannot possibly be human beings.  "So wither'd and so wild in their attire, That look inot like the inhabitants o'th'earth".  This shows that Banquo questions what he sees and that he likes to analyse what goes on around him.

When Lady macbeth reads the letter that Macbeth sent her, in which he informed her about the three prophecies and his new title of Thane of Cawdor, she instantly starts thinking about what can be done in order for her husbance to attain what he hwas promised - Kingship.  in this very important soliloquy, she expresses her fear that Macbeth is too good natured and kind hearted to be able to do what it takes to attain the crown, this is kill Duncan.  She therefore callss upon the evil spirits "....Come you spiritis that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.  And fill me from the crown to toe topfull of direst cruelty".    She is literally calling on demonic spirits to possess her mind and soul so as to get rid of all human pity.  After the murder is committed Lady Macbeth's evil character disintegrates into insanity

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