Macbeth Scene-by-Scene Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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Act 1 Commentaries

Scene 1 Commentary

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 emphasizes 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 2 Commentary

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 offense 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 3 Commentary

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...

(The entire section is 9,562 words.)