What is the purpose for act 1, scene 1 in Macbeth? Is it to establish the mood of the play, or is it to describe the setting?

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The first scene of Macbeth is very short and is not one of the more poetically distinguished sections of the play, certainly by comparison with the brilliant imagery of the second scene. It was probably not written by Shakespeare but by Thomas Middleton, his collaborator. Gary Taylor, in the 2007...

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The first scene of Macbeth is very short and is not one of the more poetically distinguished sections of the play, certainly by comparison with the brilliant imagery of the second scene. It was probably not written by Shakespeare but by Thomas Middleton, his collaborator. Gary Taylor, in the 2007 Oxford edition of Middleton's Collected Works, has argued that Middleton was responsible for about eleven percent of the text of Macbeth as it appears in the First Folio.

The main purpose of this scene is to emphasize the importance of supernatural intervention in the plot. A large part of the witches' power derives from their prescience. If they appeared to Macbeth and Banquo without the audience seeing them first, and understanding that they planned this meeting, their control of events would not appear so impressive. As it is, they immediately predict that the battle will be over before sunset and that they will meet with Macbeth upon the heath, demonstrating their predictive power by the time they actually do meet him.

Aside from this purpose, the scene establishes the somber mood of the play, full of black magic and evil. It also goes some way to accomplishing an aim more fully realized in scene 2, to establish Macbeth as the center of interest before the audience sees him. In scene 2, he is described principally as an outstanding warrior, but even before this, in scene 1, he appears to be a man of destiny, the focus of supernatural attention.

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Act I scene i of Macbeth establishes the mood, imagery, and themes of the play.  Here are some examples:

The Supernatural: the supernatural witches will juxtapose the natural (loyalty) and unnatural (murder) later in the play.

Imagery: connected to weather, women (gender), war (blood), and the number 3 (witches, "thunder, lightning, and rain")

Time (past v. present v. future): the play begins with a question: "When shall we three meet again?"  Do the witches foretell the future or do they simply comment what will inevitably happen?

Equivocations: the witches reveal the language of confusion; ambiguity; double meanings; half-truths; paradoxes; riddles

“Foul is fair and fair is foul”

Equivocal Morality: Are the witches good, neutral, or evil?  What's the difference?  How do we know what’s good, or who’s good, if there’s overlap between good and evil?

Pathetic Fallacy: the outside weather (storm) reveals and foreshadows the interior weather (mood) of the play and the Macbeths.  They are storming with ambition and cruelty.

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The purpose is to set a dark and dramatic mood to the play.  This was especially important in Shakespeare's day because there obviously were no television trailers to tell the audience what to expect before going to the play.  Shakespeare wrote both comedy and tragedy so it was important to establish which one the audience was watching very quickly.

The witches also act to awaken Macbeth's ambitions.  In Macbeth the first scene is also indicative of the violent weather that always accompanies terrible acts in the play.  When the natural realm is disturbed, you know that the characters in the play are about to be disturbed too.

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