What is the difference in meaning between the words "prophecy" and "prophesy"? What's an example using the witches in Macbeth?

Expert Answers
misstemple1261 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Prophesy” is a verb that means “to say what will happen in the future.” The sentence, “The witches prophesied that Banquo’s children would become kings,” demonstrates the correct use of this verb. Another example would be, "After the witches prophesied, Macbeth felt elated but soon became dejected and despondent."

A “prophecy” is a noun that means a “prediction” or a “foretelling.” It can also have the meaning “the faculty, function, or practice of prophesying.” Therefore, both the sentences “The witches made a prophecy about Macbeth’s kingship,” and “The witches had the gift of prophecy” correctly use this word.

Quite interestingly, the word “prophecy” is only used once in Macbeth. Malcolm says that King Edward, his host in England,  “hath a heavenly gift of prophecy” (4.3. 159)  He says this after describing how King Edward, a man blessed by heaven, can miraculously heal his subjects. The gift of prophecy appears to be one of his many supernatural abilities. “Prophesy”  is not used at all. There’s a great reason for this omission; before circa 1700, the differentiation between “prophecy” and “prophesy” did not exist. Both words were used interchangeably to refer to both the noun and verb forms. It’s important to remember that spelling was less codified in Shakespeare’s time.