Act 1, Scenes 1–3 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Act 1, Scene 1

Three witches enter, amid thunder and lightning. They say that they will meet again upon the heath (a patch of land) after the battle has concluded. There, they will find Macbeth. Almost immediately, they depart again, saying together:

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Fair is foul, and foul is fair:

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Act 1, Scene 2

At a camp near Forres, Duncan, the king of Scotland, surveys the devastation of a recent battle. The battle was between rebel forces, commanded by his enemy Macdonwald, and his own troops, commanded by his cousin, Macbeth. Duncan’s son, Malcolm, sees a dying man whom he recognizes, a loyal captain who protected him during the battle. He asks the captain for an account of what happened. The captain replies that Macdonwald presented a formidable threat but had no chance of standing up to Macbeth, who carved his way through the troops until he was face-to-face with the rebel commander. Macbeth ripped Macdonwald’s stomach open with his sword, beheaded him, and placed his severed head upon the king’s battlements to serve as a grim warning against rebellion.

Almost as soon as Macbeth killed traitorous Macdonwald, however, the king of Norway launched his own assault on Scotland. Duncan asks anxiously if this troubled Macbeth and Banquo, his other general, but the captain replies that their courage was equal to anything; they “redoubled strokes upon the foe.” As he relates this, the captain grows weak and is carried off the field. Meanwhile, the thane of Ross has arrived with more news for Duncan: the king of Norway has been joined by one of Duncan’s own lords, the thane of Cawdor. After a fierce battle against Norway, the Scottish army proves victorious. Duncan sentences the thane of Cawdor to death for his treachery and confers his lands and titles upon Macbeth, as a reward for his bravery in battle. He tells Ross to inform Macbeth of this new honor.

Act 1, Scene 3

The three witches from scene 1 reappear on a heath near Forres. They talk amongst themselves of various wicked things they have done and will do. One of them describes her intention to torture the husband of a local woman who refused to share her chestnuts with the witch. The others will assist. Their conversation is cut short, however, when they hear a drum heralding the approach of Macbeth.

Macbeth and Banquo enter. Banquo notices the witches first and is puzzled and repelled by them. He asks them what they are and whether they are alive, a question echoed by Macbeth. The witches greet Macbeth with obsequious formality: the first calls him “thane of Glamis,” the second, “thane of Cawdor,” the third says he will “be king hereafter.” Macbeth makes no response, but Banquo asks him why he looks fearful at such a fine prospect for his future. Banquo then asks the witches what will happen to him. The witches reply that Banquo will be the father of kings, though never king himself.

Macbeth asks the witches to tell him more. He is already the thane of Glamis but—unaware of what has just transpired with the thane of Cawdor—is confused by the other titles. How could he possibly ever become the thane of Cawdor or the king? The witches give no reply as they disappear. As Macbeth and Banquo discuss what they have just witnessed, they are joined by the thanes of Ross and Angus. They give Macbeth the news that King Duncan has named him thane of Cawdor, since the former thane has been stripped of his title and sentenced to death.

Macbeth is surprised and somewhat perturbed by this confirmation of what the witches told him; Banquo, meanwhile, remains skeptical of the witches’ motives. Thinking to himself, Macbeth wonders why news of this honor and reward makes him fearful. His companions notice his distracted state, and Macbeth discretely asks Banquo to speak to him later about what they have seen and heard. All four men then go to the palace to meet the king.

Analysis

Thomas Middleton, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare’s, collaborated with him and made some amendments to Macbeth. It is often thought that the sections of the play involving the witches were written or revised by Middleton, and certainly the doggerel verse of act 1, scene 1 stands in sharp contrast against the magnificent imagery of the captain’s speeches in the following scene. The first scene is so brief that audiences might wonder why it is there at all; its primary purpose is to establish Macbeth as the focus of supernatural attention, a man of destiny. The second scene then makes him the focus of royal attention, as the captain depicts him as a soldier of almost superhuman abilities. Although Macbeth is a general, he is represented as a fighter rather than a strategist, hacking a bloody path through an army of men to rip open the stomach of the rebellious Macdonwald. The wounded captain paints a vivid picture of the battle and at the same time creates a legend of courage and invincibility around Macbeth, who is now firmly established as the focus of everyone’s attention and admiration.

When Macbeth finally comes onstage in act 1, scene 3, he does not do or say much. Banquo is far more loquacious and active in dealing with the three witches, treating them with the contempt of a military man and an aristocrat faced with those who are, by all appearances, his inferiors. The dynamic of Macbeth and Banquo’s relationship is subtle. They are close friends and approximate equals, but Macbeth is always given pride of place when they are mentioned. Banquo is both prouder and more modest: he makes it quite clear even when questioning the witches that he does not much care what they say, and he doesn’t grant as much weight to their prophecies as Macbeth does. In contrast to Macbeth, who is immediately absorbed by the prediction that he will one day be king, Banquo seems to be without ambition or vanity, accepting the fact that Macbeth has been richly rewarded for his part in the battle with the lands and title of thane of Cawdor, while he himself has received nothing.

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Act 1, Scenes 4–7 Summary and Analysis