What does "Nothing is but what is not" mean in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth?

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amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This line is uttered as an aside after the witches have given the prophecy that Macbeth will be Thane of two lands and also King...and then Ross and Angus arrive with the news of the title of Thane of Cawdor.  Macbeth is two-thirds of the way to the entire prophecy coming true.

I translate his line, "My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man that function Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is But what is not" to mean that he is confused and uncertain of what to do.  Nothing is real to him except his imaginings which seem wild and out of place.  Witches are appearing out of nowhere, he is being awarded titles he didn't expect, and the crown is within his grasp.  It's all moving so fast and is so exciting, but has deadly and wicked potential.

At this point, we get a glimpse at the wickedness within him.  The "horrid image" before him and the "horrible imaginings" that are real to him allow us to see what he is capable of in a very vivid foreshadowing.

Then he pops back with, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir."  Which allows us all to breathe a sigh of relief.  He is good after all...if only temporarily.

nicebird | Student

thax 4 the answers :)

tifeg | Student

I'm new to this, nothing, discussion and, doubtless, many others may have said something along the same lines as I'm about to. If so, please forgive.

We know that Mr Shakespeare was quite a witty chap and so might it not be that, in exercising his mind, he may have been wont to indulge in a little public philosophising, for his own gratification?

The concept of "nothing" surely occurs to us all as being ultimately absurd, when we think about it. Perhaps he was pointing out that; if we accept that "nothing" exists, even though, by definition, it can't. Indeed, it absolutely must not exist. If so, what exactly is that thing that we mean when we say "nothing"?

Or rather, what is it not?

A wee jape, possibly a mere musing, just to see if we are paying attention to, receptive to, the otherside of existence.

Could this be so?

mquertermous | Student

This single line is the one that gives my students the most trouble.  Just before this line, Macbeth utters to himself that his "present fears"(reality) are less than his "horrible imaginings" (not reality). He then describes the powerful impact that this fantasy has on his mental and physical state.  If mere fantasy can impact him so, what will the actual murder do to him? According to many credible sources, Macbeth is trying to convince himself that reality and fantasy are equal.  If this is the case, then he can convince himself that murder isn't really that bad.  This interpretation makes sense, given the context of the entire speech, and helps to foreshadow his future actions.