Present Fears Are Less Than Horrible Imaginings

What does the quote, "Present fears are worse than horrible imaginings" in the play Macbeth mean?

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This quote is taken from Act 1, Scene 3. As the witches prophesied, Macbeth has just been named the Thane of Cawdor, and he is now pondering their other prediction—that he will become the king.

The problem with this prediction, however, is that Macbeth's mind immediately begins to think about murdering Duncan. These thoughts terrify Macbeth ("doth unfix my hair"), and he knows deep down that they are wrong because they go against "nature."

These murderous thoughts are the "horrible imaginings" that Macbeth describes. They frighten Macbeth far more than any real danger because they show just how far he is prepared to go to achieve his ambition. Macbeth is, therefore, wrestling with his own conscience: he wants the crown, but he is afraid that this involves committing a heinous and very violent crime.

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This line is in Act 1, scene 3. The scene opens with the witches telling Macbeth that he will be Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and eventually king of Scotland. They also tell Banquo that he will be the father of kings but that he will not be king himself.

Macbeth is Thane of Glamis by inheritance, but he can't understand how could ever be Thane of Cawdor because there is already a person with that title. Nor is it likely, he thinks, that he could ever be king.

Angus and Ross enter the scene and praise Macbeth for his heroism in the battle. They tell him the king wants to see him right away and that he will be named Thane of Cawdor because the present thane is a traitor.

That starts Macbeth to wondering if the witches had told him the truth. If they did, however, that means the king is going to have to die in order for Macbeth to become king. Horrible images of what must happen come into his mind, and that's when he tells himself, "Present fears/ Are less than horrible imaginings." In other words, he's letting his imagination get the better of him.

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Macbeth expresses this sentiment in an aside in Act l, scene lll, shortly after the witches' prediction that he would become thane of Cawdor has been confirmed by Ross who has told him that Duncan awarded him (Macbeth) the title after the traitorous Cawdor's arrest and incarceration.

Macbeth is overwhelmed by the accuracy of the witches' prophecy and believes that if this part of the prophecy has come true, it would logically follow that the others would as well. The witches had promised that he would be crowned 'king hereafter.' The idea of becoming king is enormous and Macbeth starts imagining how he would ascend to the throne. He obviously cannot obtain the throne whilst Duncan is still alive. he will, therefore, have to usurp the throne. The only way to do this would be to assassinate Duncan and his sons, Malcolm and Donalbain.

The idea of committing such a horrible deed is too terrible to contemplate and it is for this reason that Macbeth states:

Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:

He means that his current apprehension about the witches and their malevolence does not come close to the dreadful thoughts running through his mind. He is horrified by the idea of even thinking about committing such a monstrous deed. He furthermore states that he is shaken by the idea of considering an act of such heinous barbarity. These thoughts are so powerful that he feels utterly overcome and that his actions are controlled by the idea of doing that which he is too afraid to consider. His frame of mind is such that that which he imagines seems more real than reality itself.

Macbeth is so overcome by his conception that Banquo notices and comments on his enraptured state:

Look, how our partner's rapt.

Macbeth is caught in a reverie and takes some time to regain his senses. This scene depicts a dramatic turning point in Macbeth's thinking and will influence his actions later - actions which will lead him and others to their doom and almost utterly destroys Scotland.  

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Let us put these lines into perspective of who, when, and why these lines are spoken. The speaker of these lines is Macbeth, and he states these lines in Act I, scene iii, lines 139-140, after he has imagined killing King Duncan. The prophetic seeds the witches have planted in his mind have germinated, but he has yet to act upon them. The actual lines are stated this way: "Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings."  Paraphrased, the lines say this: The dangers that actually threaten me here and now frighten me less than the horrible things I'm imagining.

We have looked at who states these lines and when. Now let's address why Macbeth states them and what they mean. Macbeth has just imagined murdering Duncan, and the image of that has frightened him more than anything that he has previously encountered. The reason this thought has frightened Macbeth is because he knows that it is treason and highly immoral to murder the king. This reveals the internal struggle of good and evil within Macbeth; the evil is revealed by the fact that his first instinct is to murder Duncan to become king, while his tenuous hold on good is revealed by the fact that he is frightened by the thought.

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