How do Macbeth and Banquo differ in their reactions to the witches' news?
The three witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor, and they tell him he shall be king hereafter. Macbeth is dumbfounded because he has been secretly thinking about becoming king by murdering Duncan and has been discussing this with his wife.
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Sinel's death I know I am Thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be King
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. (Act 1, Scene 3)
As yet he does not know that he has already become Thane of Cawdor because Duncan has ordered the present traitorous Cawdor executed and his title and property transferred to Macbeth.
No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive
Our bosom interest. Go pronounce his present death,
And with his former title greet Macbeth. (Act 1, Scene 2)
When Macbeth is informed of this honor by messengers, it whets his appetite to become king, since he is convinced that these witches really can foretell the future. As he says to his wife in a letter:
“They met me in the day of success, and I have
learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them
than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire to question
them further, they made themselves air, into which
they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came
missives from the King, who all-hailed me ‘Thane of
Cawdor’; by which title, before, these weird sisters saluted
me, and referred me to the coming on of time with ‘Hail,
King that shalt be!’ This have I thought good to deliver thee,
my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose
the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is
promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.” (Act 1, Scene 5)
He burns "in desire to know more" and is "rapt in the wonder of it." The three witches spoil Macbeth's secret elation by telling Banquo that he will never be king but that he will be the sire to a whole line of kings. Banquo is skeptical. He does not burn with desire or feel secret elation or "rejoicing." He tells Macbeth:
But ’tis strange;
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— (Act 1, Scene 3)
Banquo may find the witches' predictions interesting, but he is not harboring any thoughts of treason. Besides that, he realizes that he would have to be dead before the predictions could come true. Furthermore, if they can really foretell the future accurately, it would mean that Macbeth would first have to become Thane of Cawdor, then become king of Scotland, then die childless before Banquo's part of the prophecies could begin to come true. He is consistently skeptical, rational, loyal to Duncan, and patient. He is a different kind of man than the emotional, impetuous, superstitious Macbeth. Banquo tells the witches:
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate. (Act 1, Scene 3)
Shortly after their encounter with the three witches, both Macbeth and Banquo meet the messengers who tell Macbeth he is now the Thane of Cawdor. This news makes a strong impression on both of them. Macbeth feels he can become king almost immediately. Banquo feels more persuaded that his descendants may become kings, but he is content to wait and see how things develop. Later in the play Macbeth will compare himself and Banquo to Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar. Antony was intuitive, spontaneous, impetuous, rash, and emotional, like Macbeth; Octavius was thoughtful, patient, sober, taciturn, and cool, like Banquo. Just as Octavius finally triumphed completely over Antony, so Banquo, albeit posthumously as a ghost, enjoys a complete victory over Macbeth.
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