Act I Commentary
Scene i: In what is perhaps the most attention-grabbing opening scene of all of Shakespeare's plays, we are introduced to the Weird Sisters. The witches (as they are known) would have been considered by the Elizabethans to be human representatives of supernatural or dark forces. The thunder and lightening used to mark their entrance emphasises their "other worldliness." Graymalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad, are mentioned as their special accomplices, as would be dogs, rats, and spiders. This association of animals and insects with horror and evil is still evident in our Halloween decorations and scary movies.
The stage direction gives no indication of where the scene takes place, and the first word, "When," indicates that time rather than place will be a major motif of the play. Although the events in Shakespeare's original source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, cover a ten year period, the play compresses the action so that events quickly follow each other.
The sing-song meter of the lines adds to the witches' mystery and underlines the effect that this opening "spell" will cast over the play. With all this "hurly burly," it is easy to miss a crucial piece of information: the witches will meet Macbeth on the heath at sunset. Why? What do they want with him?
Prophecies are used in Shakespeare's plays for two reasons: (1) to alert the audience to what will definitely happen, and (2) to alert the audience to what may or may not happen. Either way, this playwriting technique sets up the debate of whether characters are fated to meet to their ends or whether they have free choice. Here, however, the audience is only aware that the witches will meet Macbeth. The atmosphere of thunder, lightening, "fog and filthy air" imply that it will not be a good meeting.
As if all this were not enough, this opening scene has thirteen lines!
Scene ii: As predicted by the witches, a battle opens this scene. The king, Duncan, and his son, Malcolm, receive a report on the battle with the rebel, Macdonald, from the Captain. The King's language, however, is deceptively simple. He judges from the blood on the Captain that the man "can report/…of the revolt/ the newest state" (1.2.1-3). Duncan is thus established as a man who draws his conclusions from appearances. Malcolm, on the other hand, seems to put his trust in loyalty and tradition: "This is the sergeant/who like a good and hardy soldier fought/'Gainst my captivity" (1.2.3-5). When the bleeding Captain is questioned by Duncan about Macbeth and Banquo, two of his thanes (lords), he says that the two men "doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe" (1.2.38).
The Thane of Ross (known simply as Ross) and his companion, Angus, enter the scene to confirm the report of the Captain, adding that the Thane of Cawdor (another rebel) is defeated. Since a thane received his lands from the king and owed his loyalty directly to the king, the actions of the Thane of Cawdor is a serious offence punishable by death. Duncan not only orders this punishment immediately, but also awards the title, Thane of Cawdor, to Macbeth for his services to the crown.
Thus, the witches' vague prediction, "when the battle's lost and won", is enacted before the audience who now knows about Macbeth's promotion before he does. This knowledge will be especially important for the scene that follows. Here and now, however, it seems a very normal thing for a king to reward "noble" (1.2.66) Macbeth's military service with a promotion. Yet, nagging in the back of the mind is the fact that the meeting of the witches with Macbeth is close at hand. What do they want with him? What will happen next?.
Scene iii: Like scene 1, this scene opens with a peal of thunder and the appearance of the Three Witches. Here the audience receives an explanation of what the 'unnatural hags' have been up to since last saw them. The Second Witch has been 'killing swine' (1.3.2), while the First Witch is plotting revenge against a sailor's wife who had refused to share her chestnuts. While the three give many details about just what it is they plan to do to the sailor, Shakespeare is cleverly hinting at the limits of their power. The witches plan to torment the man with buffeting winds, sleeplessness, starvation, and a faulty compass. All these misfortunes are natural events and do not directly cause death. The limit to the witches' power is stated clearly: 'his bark cannot be lost' (1.3.24). Although the witches can inflict malice, it is the sailor's choices in dealing with them that will determine whether his ship sinks.
Immediately following is Macbeth's and Banquo's entrance. We only know the meeting is on the heath in the fog from Act One, scene one. The placement of the entrance here emphasises the limits of the witches' power over Macbeth and Banquo. The veracity f the prophecies that follow depend on two factors: (1) Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis and does not know that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor; (2) Macbeth alone can choose the means to make the leap from 'Thane of Cawdor' to 'King hereafter' (1.3.48, 49).
Banquo reinforces this free will to choose in his lines 'If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not' (1.3.58-59). The prophecy for Banquo, 'Lesser than Macbeth, and greater./ Not so happy, yet much happier./ Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none' (1.3.6567) does not mention titles for Banquo, but rather intangible aspirations such as greatness and happiness which can be achieved by any man. The audience, however, knows that Macbeth's prophecy will soon be confirmed.
The witches disappear without further explanation, but they have made a deep impression on Macbeth, one that shows his initial belief in the prophecies: 'Would they had stayed' (1.3.82), followed by his realisation that Banquo's children will be kings. We will learn later that while Macbeth is childless, Banquo does have a son, so that while Macbeth will be king, he will not be able to pass on his regency.
Ross and Angus enter at this point to confirm that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. At first he does not believe the two messengers, but once the events, 'treasons capital, confessed and...
(The entire section is 2556 words.)