How do you interpret Macbeth's reaction to the witches' proclamation in Macbeth?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 Macbeth is both intrigued and disturbed by the statement of the witches.

Macbeth is intrigued that the witches tell him that he will be king, but he is also disturbed and frightened since he knows that Duncan is the king and he has heirs. He also knows that the Thane of Cawdor lives and wonders how he can have this title, as well.

Shortly after having spoken to the witches, Ross and Angus, noblemen of Scotland, enter and inform Macbeth that the news of his bravery and success in battle has reached the king. Ross then informs Macbeth that as a pledge of a greater honor, the king has bidden him to thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy Thane!
For it is thine. (1.3.106-108)

Macbeth asks how this can be because the Thane of Cawdor lives. Angus explains that the current Thane has been convicted of treason and his title has been taken from him and now given to Macbeth.

Because Macbeth has this explanation given him for the one prediction, he wonders now even more how it is possible that he should be king. It certainly seems that he reacts in a manner that is in line with the warning of Banquo:

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. (1.3.125-128)

In other words, the witches tell men small truths in order to lead them to believe their predictions, then they betray them when it will damage them the most. This seems to be the case with Macbeth who, in an aside, ponders what has been told to him. Since the witches' prediction that he will be Thane of Cawdor has proven true, Macbeth feels it has given him "earnest of success." But, he is disturbed by his thoughts of murdering Duncan so he can be king. Perhaps, Macbeth then considers, fate may intervene and he will not have to do anything:

If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me,
Without my stir. (1.3.147-148)

Clearly, the witches have had an effect upon Macbeth as reality and fantasy begin to merge for Macbeth.


litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The witches tell Macbeth that he is going to be promoted to Thane of Cawdor, and king.  Banquo is surprised that Macbeth does not seem to welcome this news.

The three Weird Sisters make a prophecy that Macbeth, now Thane of Glamis, will become Thane of Cawdor and then king.  His friend and fellow soldier Banquo witnesses this prophecy.

Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear

Things that do sound so fair? (Act 1, Scene 3, enotes extext pdf. p. 18).

It does not seem as if Macbeth is startled by the witches.  Banquo is troubled by them too, since they look like women but they have beards so they’re not very attractive.  Macbeth has stated that the day is “foul and fair,” a repetition of the witches’ initial statement in scene 1 that “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (p. 8).  Macbeth seems to foresee the bounty and destruction that will befall him throughout the play. 

Macbeth’s reaction to the witches demonstrates that he is skeptical of them, and fears them, but does not necessarily disbelieve them.  Banquo, on the other hand, wonders if the witches are real or if they are “eaten on the insane root/ That takes the reason prisoner” (p. 14).  This foreshadows the trouble that these prophecies will cause for Macbeth.  They are not really good things, and in the end he loses everything.