Category Archives: Macbeth


The hurlyburly’s done, and just as they promised, the Witches are back in 1.3 to wait for Macbeth. The actors can hardly have been off the stage for more than a couple of minutes, but the Witches have been busy. And notice how we’re carried along by the action to feel that they have been wreaking havoc all over the world in just those few minutes. We don’t really know how much dramatic time 1.2 takes, but it is so short that we feel the Witches have been gone only for minutes in dramatic time as well as real time. This is the first example we’ve considered of how Shakespeare plays with time for dramatic effect. We’ll see many more, and more famous examples, as we continue through the plays.

The Second Witch has been “killing swine” (1.3.2), and the First Witch has been rebuffed by a “rump-fed” woman whose chestnuts she coveted (several interpretations of “rump-fed” have been offered; I like “fat-assed” myself), and plans to take revenge on her sea-captain husband: “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail/And like a rat without a tail/I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.7–9). The other Witches offer their help: “I’ll give thee a wind . . .And I another” (10, 13). I can’t help but think this is a fart joke. As they finalize their plans, a drum sounds: “Macbeth doth come” (31), and they recite a little chorus:


The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace!—the charm’s wound up.


I quote this to give you the flavor of the Witches’ language—singsongy, in tetrameter (four beats rather than the pentameter, or five beats, of blank verse) couplets, distinguishing them from any other character. This seems to be one of the reasons some scholars regard much of the Witches’ scenes as spurious—as if Shakespeare would never conceive of varying his language to suit his characters, or perhaps as if he would never write about anything so infra dig as witches. (The influence of the folk and fairy tale traditions on Shakespeare is greater than I see generally recognized; I’ll be pointing it out throughout.)


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The previous scene opened with a bloody man, a soldier literally covered in blood. This scene gets going with the entrance of a man metaphorically covered in blood; a man whose soul is bloody and who soon will have blood on his hands in more ways than one.

Enter Macbeth.

Note well his first line:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Nobody could possibly miss this callback to the Witches’ first appearance, but what does it mean? One scholar’s suggestion that Macbeth refers to the foulness of the weather contrasted with the fairness of his day of victory is surely accurate; it’s certainly what Macbeth must be thinking. But it is too literal to exhaust the meaning.

Shakespeare must have had a reason for making this first line a callback. The most obvious reason is to signal that we are back in the realm of the uncanny, where everything is turned on its head. But why does Macbeth rather than his comrade-in-arms Banquo make this observation? There is plainly some connection between Macbeth and the Witches. But what is its nature? Should we agree with the nineteenth-century critic Edward Dowden, who wrote that “although Macbeth has not yet set eyes upon these hags, the connection is already established between his soul and them. Their spells have already wrought upon his blood”? That would imply that he is already lost. (Those of you who are reading this to write your term papers on whether Macbeth is evil or just weak, take note. But I’m not writing that paper for you.) But that seems to me to go too far.

Think yourselves back, once again, into the world premiere audience. No more than Macbeth do you have any idea what is about to happen, apart from one huge advantage; you know what the Witches said earlier. Macbeth doesn’t. He doesn’t know he is echoing what you heard them say. He does not know they are specifically waiting for him (not Banquo); you do. You, as an attentive listener in the Jacobean audience, can already sense that this is going to end in tears. If Macbeth did, he would run the other way.

Macbeth is shot through with the form of situational irony that perhaps made its first, most memorable appearance in Western literature in Oedipus Tyrannos. Oedipus flees Thebes to thwart the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and ends up unknowingly doing both. Irony flourishes in the gap between the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance. The famous examples in Macbeth, as we’ll see and you probably already know, relate to Macbeth’s trust in the Witches’ prophecies; here we see it at work even before he meets them.

What Is a “Thane”?

One problem with Macbeth is the possibility of getting thrown by vocabulary that would have been familiar to any self-respecting eleventh-century Scot but that we never use. The most conspicuous such word is “Thane.” I’m willing to bet that you will never see this word in any context other than that of Macbeth.

So what is a thane? This is what glossaries are for, but in case your copy of the play doesn’t have one, I’ll beat you to Wikipedia and note that “Thane was the title given to a local royal official in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent to a count, who was at the head of an administrative and socio-economic unit known as a shire or thanage.” See? I’m here to help.

You all know what a “shire” is. You’ve seen those interminable hobbit movies. Just don’t imagine that Macbeth is three feet tall and that his feet are covered with hair. And don’t expect any dragons. There are no dragons in this play.

Yes, I admit it. This post is clickbait. Well, not really, since I haven’t done any serious search engine optimization on it except for the title. It’s more of an experiment to see whether this post, a simple explanation of a term that can be easily found elsewhere, gets appreciably more clicks than others. (I’ve been curious for some time because one of my Romeo and Juliet posts gets substantially more traffic than others, perhaps because it has such an explanation.) If it does, more to follow. I’m trying to learn how to revel in my shamelessness.

There Will Be Blood

The witches depart—and what is the first thing we see? A “bleeding Captain.” A man covered in blood—another apparition. Although, as this post indicates, we don’t know how much was used for any particular play, real blood (animal and perhaps even human) probably was used on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage; after all, it “could not have been very hard to obtain!” It stands to reason that blood would have been splashed liberally at least on the Captain’s face and hands, emphasizing that we are still in the realm of the uncanny.

What are the first words we hear? “What bloody man is that?” They are spoken by Duncan, the king of Scotland, who little reckons that the central action of the play will be to make him a “bloody man” (“his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood,” as Macbeth thrillingly says at 2.3.110; I don’t usually like to do the term-paper motif-tracing thing, but it’s hard to ignore all the references to blood in this play. Scholars have counted over 100.).

The bloody Captain relates the outcome of the triple battle in which Duncan’s forces have been engaged. In one phase, the rebellious Macdonwald (“Macdonald”) is about to prevail when “brave Macbeth . . . unseam’d him from the nave to the chops/And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.16, 22–23). But there is little time to celebrate, as the “Norweyan [Norwegian] Lord” takes the opportunity to attack. The exhausted Captain gives way to one Rosse, who recounts the third phase of the battle; the king of Norway himself, aided by the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, “began a dismal conflict” but—again!—was defeated by Macbeth just in time. Duncan is not amused by the Thane’s behavior: “Go pronounce his present death/And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66–67).

It all seems straightforward enough: Macbeth has fought with uncommon valor for his king, and is to be rewarded with the title of Thane of Cawdor. But what was that I said about everything in this play going topsy-turvy without warning?

Fair Is Foul

The opening scene of Macbeth introduces the iconic Three Witches (called “witches” only in the stage directions and dialogue tags—in the play itself they are the “Weird Sisters”), so familiar they are a cliché—especially these very first lines of the play. In this post I’ll ask you to get beyond that familiarity, to try to imagine yourself back to the Jacobean premiere to feel how their very unfamiliarity sets the tone for the whole play.

I find it bizarre that some scholars think Shakespeare didn’t write this scene. I believe they are influenced by the presence of Act 3, scene 5, in which the goddess Hecate appears to lead the witches, and there’s a song from Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch. (Hecate also appears very briefly in Act 4, scene 1 (the “Double, double toil and trouble” scene), and there’s another song from Middleton, but most don’t reject the whole scene). Most scholars conclude that Shakespeare didn’t write 3.5. But that doesn’t show that 1.1 is “un-Shakespearean” or “a poor scene and a pointless scene,” as the once-famous critic Harley Granville-Barker put it. (Granville-Barker was a late-nineteenth- early-twentieth-century actor, director, playwright, and critic; to be fair to him, his stagings were influential and his plays are still occasionally performed. But his criticism, still popular in my student days, was the sort of soporific that made me loathe Three-Last-Names’s class—as you can tell from the diction of that seven-word quote above.)

The witch scenes are the counterpart in Macbeth to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet; elements so encrusted by subsequent associations that we have to make a heroic effort to see their significance in Shakespeare’s actual play. Consider what you think of first when you hear the word “witch”: perhaps women persecuted and executed in the middle ages and at Salem, perhaps today’s benign Wiccans, but more likely Broom Hilda, the Wicked Witch of the West (or of Wicked), Samantha from Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, the girls of Charmed, Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—mostly defanged, unthreatening figures, feminine in the worst sexist sense. (And yes, I suffered through season six of Buffy; did you really believe Willow as Big Bad? I didn’t think so.) Figures of fun. In Shakespeare’s time, “witch” would have had very different associations. The word would have referred to a malevolent being who wrought evil through the use of magic. All the more so for Macbeth, a play written with the recently crowned King James I, the author of a treatise on witchcraft, in mind. Put Elizabeth Montgomery aside. These witches are forces of evil; not human, maybe not even gendered (or multiply gendered; they appear female, but have beards). Bear that in mind when Lady Macbeth exclaims “Unsex me here.”

By the way, we’ll see the same problem sharply in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Today our concept of “fairy” is so strongly molded by Disney that we must make a conscious effort to recover the sense of spirits who meant humans no good, the sense that prevailed in Shakespeare’s time. Oberon and Puck are no Tinkerbells!

So once again, think yourself back to the Globe. You are attending the world premiere of Macbeth. You probably don’t know much about this quasi-legendary Scottish king unless you’ve read Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Shakespeare’s main source. Even if you have read your Holinshed, you have no idea what to expect when three figures come on stage to initiate the action:

Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES.
First Witch: When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch: When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch: Where the place?
Second Witch:
Upon the heath.
Third Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch: I come, Graymalkin!
Second Witch: Paddock calls.
Third Witch: Anon!
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

And then we move into the main action, right at the end of the “hurlyburly”—there really was a battle going on. Thus, even though it isn’t designated as such, this little scene is a prologue (at twelve lines, it’s shorter than the prologue to Romeo and Juliet). As such, it’s Shakespeare’s signal to us about what we should be watching for in the play to come. What have we gleaned from it, careful Jacobean listeners that we are?

  • This is a play in which weird, unnatural things are to be expected.
  • Those things are sure to be evil; it’s general knowledge at this time that “Graymalkin” and “Paddock” are the names of witches’ familiars, so these three are certainly witches. They are, at the very least, not to be trusted.
  • On that note, consider the most important line in the scene: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This clearly signals that we are in a world turned upside down, where nothing is certain, where one thing can turn into another, where every utterance—especially from this trio—has two meanings. A world, in short—to use a word so important to the play I’m going to have to give you a fairly high-level Lit-Crit post on it somewhere down the line—of equivocation.
  • A world in which everything “hovers in the fog and filthy air.” Not only can we not see our way to the true and the good, we are shrouded in a miasma of evil.

That Scotland is of course beset by fog just underscores how beautiful this line is. It works naturalistically and on two metaphorical levels.

And speaking of metaphor, we’re clearly justified in taking the witches not solely as malevolent external entities, but as metaphorical projections of states of mind. We don’t need to go all Freudian to see this (and given Freud’s terrible essay on Lady Macbeth, we would be ill advised to do so). We just need to keep in mind that, equivocators that they are, these Weird Sisters have multiple dimensions.

Put all this together and what do you get? Something familiar to us in 2014 to the point of cliché, but totally novel to the world premiere audience: Macbeth may well be the first true horror story. (Folk tales of witches, vampires, and so on certainly have horrific elements; I can see an argument that Beowulf is a horror story; but horror fiction as we know it did not get started until the Gothic era. Look at it as a horror story and Macbeth doesn’t really have any precursors. Thus, it looks like Shakespeare has founded yet another genre. And since this is a parenthesis, I’ll note that this could allow us to see Roman Polanski’s bloody 1971 adaptation in a new light.)

Consider yourselves warned.

Is This a Thane I See before Me?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s least humorous plays. It’s rich in irony, but not in laughs except for the audacious scene of the Porter, which we’ll deal with in detail presently. So let’s ease into it with some comedy and a bit of autobiography. (This is my journey, after all.)

If you know anything about Macbeth other than snatches of some of its famous lines out of context (“Double, double” and all that), you know that actors really do have a superstition that it is bad luck to mention the name of the play or its main characters in a theater. A theatrical tradition of disasters caused by violating this rule goes way back. Hence the phrase “the Scottish Play” to refer to the play, “the Thane” or “the Scottish King” or my favorite, “Mackers,” for Macbeth, and “the Queen” for Lady Macbeth.

Here is a clip about the curse. It’s from the second season of the brilliant—I say again, brilliant—Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The three seasons of Slings and Arrows deal with a theatrical company rather like the famous one in Stratford, Ontario, and their efforts to produce Hamlet (season one), Macbeth (season two), and King Lear (season three). If you’ve never seen it, run out and rent the DVDs the minute you finish reading this post. Seriously. You can thank me later. Anyway, the clip begins with a scene that shows off the curse’s terrible effect; it’s followed by the second season theme. The singer is Michael Polley, father of the divine Sarah Polley:

See? “I won’t play Mackers.” And as if that didn’t clinch the point, this classic episode of Blackadder (which I somehow managed to find in its entirety) shows the lengths actors go to in order to exorcise any mention of the Scottish Play:

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 But enough of this airy persiflage. When we get to The Merchant of Venice (which we may, or may not, do soon after we’ve finished with the Big Four—Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear), I’ll tell, or retell, the story of Mr. Doyle, the phys ed instructor who pinch hit as our English teacher my sophomore year in the Jesuit high school. However, that was not my first go-round with Shakespeare. The earliest exposure I can remember was to Macbeth—not the play itself, but the Classics Illustrated comics version. (Don’t knock Classics Illustrated. I can’t be the only child for whom it was a gateway drug.) I still remember images from this version, especially the scene with Banquo’s ghost and the vision of the kings. I think the illustrator went all out on that one. And who could forget the cover?

Classics Illustrated--Macbeth Cover


I certainly didn’t, though I must have repressed that winged helmet. But since I was reading Classics Illustrated before I started school, and this issue dates from 1955, it’s reasonable to think I knew about Macbeth, and Shakespeare, when I was very young. Searching my memory now, I am not sure how old I was when I read the actual play. Fragments have stuck with me for a long time (such as 2.1.50–51, “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky/And fan our people cold”), but I might only have read it in college.

In any case, when I was little I had the interest. What a pity that it was crushed out of me! This traversal of Macbeth is therefore a memorial to my long-departed younger self, and is offered in the hope that it can prevent even one person in that self’s position from being turned off to Shakespeare.