What is the meaning of the following quote from William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and why is it significant?: "They hailed him father to a line of kings. Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown...

What is the meaning of the following quote from William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and why is it significant?:

"They hailed him father to a line of kings. Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown And put a barren scepter in my grip."

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth's ascendency to the throne is foretold in the opening passages of William Shakespeare's play by the three witches, who prophesy major transitions in the Scottish hierarchy. This seemingly chance encounter in the heath, or unruly grasslands, between the witches and the two Scottish generals Macbeth and Banquo portends a series of tragic events in Shakespeare's play. Macbeth, it will be revealed, succumbs to the thirst for power that his once-trusted friend and colleague Banquo resists and, before it is over, all the key players, including Macbeth's conspiratorial and power-hungry wife, Lady Macbeth, will all be dead.

Macbeth is all too aware that the witches' prophesy suggests a conflict over power involving Banquo's heirs. The witches have predicted that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and, after that, king of Scotland. They also predict, however, that Banquo's heirs will ascend to the throne, thereby planting in Macbeth's mind the notion of a threat to his rule well before that rule has materialized. Note, in the following exchange between Macbeth and Banquo, the former's comment and the latter's response:

MACBETH

Your children shall be kings.

BANQUO

You shall be king.

Macbeth has seemingly concluded that his tenure as monarch, and that of any prospective heir he and Lady Macbeth may yet produce, will be cut short by the ascendency to the throne of Banquo's son. It is with this caveat in mind that Macbeth, in his lamentations in Act III, Scene I, declares that his reign will be empty:

To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus.—Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd: 'tis much he dares;
And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear: and, under him,
My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,
Mark Antony's was by Caesar. He chid the sisters
When first they put the name of king upon me,
And bade them speak to him: then prophet-like
They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth is lamenting that the future belongs to Banquo and his family. While he, Macbeth, will be king, his legacy will be marred by the rise of Banquo's son(s) to the throne. Macbeth views the witches' prophesy as suggesting that his reign will amount to little more than a transitional rule—a superficial era to be replaced by the heirs of his once-trusted colleague. His description of his reign as involving "a fruitless crown" and "a barren scepter" is evidence of his insecurity regarding his rule and his legacy. Banquo's demise will be one of the tragic consequences of Macbeth's hunger for power, insecurity regarding his own lack of an heir, and fear of the prophesy that favors the heirs of Banquo.

pmiranda2857 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quote from Macbeth has to do with his comments on the prophecy that he and Banquo have received form the witches.

Macbeth: They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,... (III.i)

Although they have predicted that Macbeth will be king.  Banquo, the witches say, will never be king, but his children will sit upon the throne. The witches say that Banquo is "lesser than Macbeth, and greater" and "not so happy, yet much happier" (I.iii.63-65).

First Witch: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Second Witch: Not so happy, yet much happier.
Third Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! (I.iii)

In other words, Macbeth may become king, but Banquo's descendants will dominate the throne.  Therefore, Macbeth sees himself as barren, or without heirs, and that his crown has no meaning.  Banquo will be "father to a line of kings." His destiny is proclaimed greater than Macbeth's short-term wearing of the crown.  He feels insulted and betrayed by the prophecy of the witches.

Macbeth: ...prophet-like
They hail'd him father to a line of kings:... (III.i)