The play Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, is a story about how a man, Macbeth, and his wife tried to meddle with order and fate, and how this backfired tragically. The tale uses nature as a reflection of the emotional inner events of the characters and uses it to illustrate Shakespeare’s meaning that draws on the Elizabethan worldview in which all things have their proper place and order, and character and fate is quite predetermined. It reads like a horror story with supernatural elements in which the order of nature is overturned when the rightful king is murdered, and the confusion of order, both personal and nature-wise, persists until the end of the play when a rightful king returns and takes up his crown.
The play has two beginnings, though one is more like the prologue, and each of them mirrors the earth/air, natural/supernatural divide. In the first opening, with the witches, we learn that there is a battle that will be “lost and won” and that they will meet Macbeth, the protagonist of the play, on a heath. They leave with the words, “fair is foul, foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air, ” and in the second opening, on the heath after the battle has been won, Macbeth echoes their words with his opening lines, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.”
From the very beginning of the play the witches are associated with the air and with the supernatural elements; in fact their very first line reflects this: “when shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?” while Banquo and the King, as well as many other minor players, including the King’s son, Malcolm, are associated with earth and the natural order; Macbeth and his wife’s place is uncertain, but aligned more with air and the supernatural than with the ground.
When the witches disappear, Banquo asks, “the earth hath bubbles, as the water has, and these are of them. Wither are they vanished?”
“Into the air, ” Macbeth answers, “and what seemed corporal melted as breath into the wind.”
From that same beginning, Banquo is associated with the earth. When asking the witches of his future, he asks if they can “look into the seeds of time and see which grains will grow and which will not”; when they meet up with the king, he and Duncan have an exchange in which Duncan uses plant metaphors. Banquo and the king represent the natural order, whereas the Macbeths’ ambition and the lengths they will go to realize it overturn that order, and create anarchy, chaos, and entropy.
The witches also represent chaos; inasmuch as they represent earth they are the wild, untamed wildernesses, while the State, under the rule of the king and of subjects each in proper places works like a farm, a place of growing and plenty, but more importantly, of order. The witches are described as “wither’d and wild”; they meet Macbeth first on a heath—where they appear to him without his leave and vanish over his protestations—and again in a cave, where Macbeth seeks them out and has to be invited within; “open, locks, whoever knocks”, and where, consequently, they show him apparitions and concede to his demands, showing the double truth that he is closer to them than before but that that closeness, though it feels like power over them, means only he is being controlled by them (if he had been able to see their vengeful intentions, he would have known he could never win against Fortune/Fate, though he had seemed to successfully disdain Fortune in the beginning after it smiled on Macdonwald, whom he killed: “For brave Macbeth…disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution…carved out his passage…”). Now, by aligning himself with the supernatural he has become vulnerable to it and is set up to receive the payback of Fate (generally pictured as three “sisters” in classical mythology), which does not take kindly to being disdained.
The land, of course, draws on the king, its health depending on his health and drawing prosperity from him; therefore, it is no surprise that when he was murdered, the land would react in many disastrous ways that parallel the murder that had occurred: the mousing owl (Macbeth) killed the hawk (Duncan); the king’s horses went wild and ate each other; when Macbeth creeps to Duncan’s bedchamber to murder him, he asks “Thou sure and firm-set earth, hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear thy very stones prate of my whereabout.”
As the air and the wilderness is associated with the supernatural, so is darkness, and it is darkness that Macbeth and the Lady call on to help them in their crimes. When Duncan names his son as his heir, Macbeth prays, “stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires” and when the Lady reads Macbeth’s letter and decides to kill king Duncan, she asks, “come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor heaven peek through the blanket of the dark, to cry ‘Hold, Hold!’” When Macbeth arranges to kill Banquo, he says, “come, seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day; and with thy bloody and invisible hand cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale! Light thickens; and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood: good things of day begin to droop and drowse; while night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.” Duncan is of the day, of order; when he dies, the sun doesn’t come up. Later on, the Lady Macbeth will require a candle by her bed at all times, even taking it with her as she sleepwalks; but though “her eyes are open… their sense is shut”; and she walks in darkness even with a light.
The proper order of all things includes sleep, and as the order is unbalanced with the killing of Duncan, sleep is also murdered. Macbeth hears a voice say, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep… Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.” He and his Lady retire to their chambers so that they will be thought to have been sleeping so as not to raise suspicion, but it is a feigned sleep, a lie to hide the evidence of their crimes—at the time of Banquo’s murder, Macbeth refers to “these terrible dreams that shake us nightly”, showing the fact that the voice had been right, sleep had been denied them ever since the murder, ever since they allied themselves with disorder. This lack of sleep is foreshadowed and connected with the Witches; earlier in the play, when talking of the captain of a ship who angered them, the witches’ punishment includes depriving him of sleep: “sleep shall neither night nor day hang upon his pent-house lid; he shall live a man forbid: weary se’nnights nine times nine shall he dwindle, peak and pine”.
The supernatural element itself embodies the unnatural, from the appearance of the witches who “should be woman” and yet aren’t, to the mysterious apparitions created by the witches and those that form before Macbeth: the bloody dagger that heralds the murder of the king, and the ghost of Banquo that appears once Macbeth has learned of his death, sitting on Macbeth’s own seat. Macbeth says, of the ghost of Banquo, “Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ the olden time, ere human statute purged the gentle weal; ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d too terrible for the ear: the times have been, that, when the brains were out, the man would die, and there an end; but now they rise again, with twenty mortal murders on their crowns, And push us from our stools: this is more strange than such a murder is.” Just as nature is attacking itself after the murder of the king, Macbeth’s secret knowledge is attacking him in the form of apparitions; and the Lady Macbeth will be tormented by reliving the consequences of the murder even in her dreams.
The ultimate and last twisting of nature is both the culmination and the ending of it all, bringing the power back into reality and normality: when the prophecies (that Macbeth could not be killed by one of women born), and that “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him” are fulfilled. Their letter seems to herald the impossible, if not the supernatural; “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root?” Macbeth asks, thinking he is safe; but in fact the culmination involves nothing supernatural at all; the wood coming to Dunsinane was a tactic the soldiers used to hide their numbers by holding branches over them and nothing more; it is the natural which has defeated Macbeth, for all his faith in supernatural aid. With the return of the king’s named heir Malcolm from exile and the restoring of order, the turbulent rule of the Macbeths is over. Daylight presides.
Photo by PS Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.
See Lord of the Flies (Also a Text of Order & Disorder)
See Was Hamlet Sane or Insane?
Browse more Shakespeare
How to Read a Poemoffers delightful advice on how to explore poetry for enjoyment and meaning. Uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology included.
Buy How to Read a Poem Now!
Filed Under: Blog, Literary Analysis, Macbeth, Shakespeare, Student Writing
Act 1, Scene 1
On a heath in Scotland, three witches, the Weird Sisters, wait to meet Macbeth amidst thunder and lightning. Their conversation is filled with paradox and equivocation: they say that they will meet Macbeth "when the battle's lost and won" and when "fair is foul and foul is fair" (10).
Act 1, Scene 2
The Scottish army is at war with the Norwegian army. Duncan, king of Scotland, meets a captain returning from battle. The captain informs them of Macbeth and Banquo's bravery in battle. He also describes Macbeth's attack on the castle of the treacherous Macdonald, in which Macbeth triumphed and planted Macdonald’s head on the battlements of the castle. The Thanes of Ross and Angus enter with the news that the Thane of Cawdor has sided with Norway. Duncan decides to execute the disloyal thane and give the title of Cawdor to Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 3
The Weird Sisters meet on the heath and wait for Macbeth. He arrives with Banquo, repeating the witches' paradoxical phrase by stating "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (36). The witches hail him as "Thane of Glamis" (his present title), "Thane of Cawdor" (the title he will soon receive officially), and "king hereafter" (46-48). Their greeting startles and seems to frighten Macbeth. When Banquo questions the witches as to who they are, they greet him with the phrases "Lesser than Macbeth and greater," "Not so happy, yet much happier," and a man who "shall get kings, though [he] be none" (63-65).
When Macbeth questions them further, the witches vanish into thin air. Almost as soon as they disappear, Ross and Angus appear with the news that the king has granted Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo step aside to discuss this news; Banquo is of the opinion that the title of Thane of Cawdor might "enkindle" Macbeth to seek the crown as well (119). Macbeth questions why such happy news causes his "seated heart [to] knock at [his] ribs / Against the use of nature," and his thoughts turn immediately and with terror to murdering the king in order to fulfill the witches' second prophesy (135-36). When Ross and Angus notice Macbeth's distraught state, Banquo dismisses it as Macbeth's unfamiliarity with his new title.
Act 1, Scene 4
Duncan demands to know whether the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed. His son Malcolm assures him that he has witnessed the former Thane’s becoming death. While Duncan muses about the fact that he placed "absolute trust" in the treacherous Thane, Macbeth enters. Duncan thanks Macbeth and Banquo for their loyalty and bravery. He consequently announces his decision to make his son Malcolm the heir to the throne of Scotland (something that would not have happened automatically, since his position was elected and not inherited). Duncan then states that he plans to visit Macbeth at his home in Inverness. Macbeth leaves to prepare his home for the royal visit, pondering the stumbling block of Malcolm that now hinders his ascension to the throne. The king follows with Banquo.
Act 1, Scene 5
At Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth that describes his meeting with the witches. She fears that his nature is not ruthless enough-- he's "too full o' th' milk of human kindness” (15)—to murder Duncan and assure the completion of the witches' prophesy. He has ambition enough, she claims, but lacks the gumption to act on it. She then implores him to hurry home so that she can "pour [her] spirits in [his] ear" (24)—in other words, goad him on to the murder he must commit. When a messenger arrives with the news that Duncan is coming, Lady Macbeth calls on the heavenly powers to "unsex me here" and fill her with cruelty, taking from her all natural womanly compassion (39). When Macbeth arrives, she greets him as Glamis and Cawdor and urges him to "look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t" (63-64). She then says that she will make all the preparations for the king's visit and subsequent murder.
Act 1, Scene 6
Duncan arrives at Inverness with Banquo and exchanges pleasantries with Lady Macbeth. The king inquires after Macbeth's whereabouts and she offers to bring him to where Macbeth awaits.
Act 1, Scene 7
Alone on stage, Macbeth agonizes over whether to kill Duncan, recognizing the act of murdering the king as a terrible sin. He struggles in particular with the idea of murdering a man—a relative, no less—who trusts and loves him. He would like the king's murder to be over and regrets the fact that he possesses “vaulting ambition" without the ruthlessness to ensure the attainment of his goals (27).
As Lady Macbeth enters, Macbeth tells her that he "will proceed no further in this business" (31). But Lady Macbeth taunts him for his fears and ambivalence, telling him he will only be a man when he carries out the murder. She states that she herself would go so far as to take her own nursing baby and dash its brains if necessary. She counsels him to "screw [his] courage to the sticking place" and details the way they will murder the king (60). They will wait until he falls asleep, she says, and thereafter intoxicate his bodyguards with drink. This will allow them to murder Duncan and lay the blame on the two drunken bodyguards. Macbeth is astonished by her cruelty but resigns to follow through with her plans.
Fate, Prophecy, and Equivocation
Just as the Porter in Act 2 extemporizes about the sin of equivocation, the play figures equivocation as one of its most important themes. Starting from the Weird Sisters' first words that open the play, audiences quickly ascertain that things are not what they seem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "equivocation" has two different meanings—both of which are applicable to this play. The first is:
“The using (a word) in more than one sense; ambiguity or uncertainty of meaning in words; also . . . misapprehension arising from the ambiguity of terms.”
This definition as simple verbal ambiguity is the one that audiences are most familiar with—and one that plays an important role in the play. The Porter’s speech on equivocation in Act 2, however, refers to a more active type of equivocation. The second definition in the OED: reads:
The use of words or expressions that are susceptible of a double signification, with a view to mislead; esp. the expression of a virtual falsehood in the form of a proposition which (in order to satisfy the speaker's conscience) is verbally true.
This kind of equivocation is similar to lying; it is intentionally designed to mislead and confuse.
The intentional ambiguity of terms is what we see in the prophesies of the Weird Sisters. Their speech is full of paradox and confusion, starting with their first assertion that "fair is foul and foul is fair" (I i 10). The witches' prophesies are intentionally ambiguous. The alliteration and rhymed couplets in which they speak also contributes to the effect of instability and confusion in their words. For many readers, more than one reading is required to grasp a sense of what the witches mean. It is not surprising, therefore, that these "imperfect speakers" can easily bedazzle and confuse Macbeth throughout the course of the play (I iii 68).
Just as their words are confusing, it is unclear as to whether the witches merely predict or actually effect the future. Banquo fears, for example, that the witches' words will "enkindle [Macbeth] unto the crown"—in other words, that they will awaken in Macbeth an ambition that is already latent in him (I iii 119). His fears seem well-founded: as soon as the witches mention the crown, Macbeth's thoughts turn to murder. The witches’ power is thus one of prophecy, but prophecy through suggestion. For Macbeth, the witches can be understood as representing the final impetus that drive him to his pre-determined end. The prophecy is in this sense self-fulfilling.
The oracular sisters are in fact connected etymologically to the Fates of Greek mythology. The word "weird" derives from the Old English word "wyrd," meaning "fate." And not all fate is self-fulfilling. In Banquo's case, in contrast to Macbeth’s, the witches seem only to predict the future. For unlike Macbeth, Banquo does not act on the witches' prediction that he will father kings—and yet the witches' prophesy still comes true. The role of the weird sisters in the story, therefore, is difficult to define or determine. Are they agents of fate or a motivating force? And why do they suddenly disappear from the play in the third act?
The ambiguity of the Weird Sisters reflects a greater theme of doubling, mirrors, and schism between inner and outer worlds that permeates the work as a whole. Throughout the play, characters, scenes, and ideas are doubled. As Duncan muses about the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor at the beginning of the play, for example, Macbeth enters the scene:
KING DUNCAN: There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
Enter MACBETH, BANQUP, ROSS, and ANGUS.
To MACBETH: O worthiest cousin,
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me! (I iv 11-16)
The dramatic irony of Duncan’s trust is realized only later in the play. Similarly, the captain in Scene 2 makes a battle report that becomes in effect a prophecy:
For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name!—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion
Carved out his passage till he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (I i16-23)
The passage can be interpreted as follows: Macbeth “disdains fortune” by disregarding the natural course of action and becomes king through a “bloody execution” of Duncan; Macduff, who was born from a Caesarian section (his mother being “unseamed. . . from the nave to th’chops”) and who “ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell” decapitates Macbeth and hangs his head up in public.
As in all Shakespearean plays, mirroring among characters serves to heighten their differences. Thus Macbeth, the young, valiant, cruel traitor/king has a foil in Duncan, the old, venerable, peaceable, and trusting king. Lady Macbeth, who casts off her femininity and claims to feel no qualms about killing her own children, is doubled in Lady Macduff, who is a model of a good mother and wife. Banquo's failure to act on the witches' prophesy is mirrored in Macbeth's drive to realize all that the witches foresee.
Similarly, much of the play is also concerned with the relation between contrasting inner and outer worlds. Beginning with the equivocal prophecies of the Weird Sisters, appearances seldom align with reality. Lady Macbeth, for example, tells her husband to "look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t" (63-64). Macbeth appears to be a loyal Thane, but secretly plans revenge. Lady Macbeth appears to be a gentle woman but vows to be "unsexed" and swears on committing bloody deeds. Macbeth is also a play about the inner world of human psychology, as will be illustrated in later acts through nightmares and guilt-ridden hallucinations. Such contrast between "being" and "seeming" serves as another illustration of equivocation.
The Macbeths and The Corruption of Nature
One of the most ambiguous aspects of the play is the character of Macbeth himself. Unlike other Shakespearean villains like Iago or Richard III, Macbeth is not entirely committed to his evil actions. When he swears to commit suicide, he must overcome an enormous resistance from his conscience. At the same time, he sees as his own biggest flaw not a lack of moral values but rather a lack of motivation to carry out his diabolical schemes. In this he resembles Hamlet, who soliloquizes numerous times about his inaction. But unlike Hamlet, Macbeth does not have a good reason to kill, nor is the man he kills evil—far from it. And finally, while Macbeth becomes increasingly devoted to murderous actions, his soliloquies are so full of eloquent speech and pathos that it is not difficult to sympathize with him. Thus at the heart of the play lies a tangle of uncertainty.
If Macbeth is indecisive, Lady Macbeth is just the opposite—a character with such a single vision and drive for advancement that she brings about her own demise. And yet her very ruthlessness brings about another form of ambiguity, for in swearing to help Macbeth realize the Weird Sisters' prophecy, she must cast off her femininity. In a speech at the beginning of Scene 5, she calls on the spirits of the air to take away her womanhood:
Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th'effect and it. (I v 38-45)
Lady Macbeth sees "remorse" as one of the names for feminine compassion—of which she must rid herself. Thus she must be "unsexed." This does not mean, however, that in rejecting her femininity she becomes manly. Instead, she becomes a woman devoid of the sexual characteristics and sentimentality that make her a woman. She becomes entirely unnatural and inhuman. Like the supernatural Weird Sisters with their beards, Lady Macbeth becomes something that does not fit into the natural world.
The corruption of nature is a theme that surfaces and resurfaces in the same act. When Duncan greets Macbeth, for example, he states that he has “begun to plant thee and will labor / to make thee full of growing" (I iv 28-29). Following the metaphor of the future as lying in the “seeds of time,” Macbeth is compared to a plant that Duncan will look after (I iii 56). By murdering Duncan, then, Macbeth perverts nature by severing himself effectively from the very "root" that feeds him. For this reason, perhaps, the thought of murdering Duncan causes Macbeth's heart to "knock at [his] ribs / Against the use of nature" (I iii 135-36). Just as the Weird Sisters pervert the normal course of nature by telling their prophecy, Macbeth upsets the course of nature by his regicide.
Reflecting the disruption of nature, the dialogue between Macbeth and Lady in the scene following the murder becomes heavy, graceless, and almost syncopated. Lady Macbeth, for example, says:
What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'd'st have, great Glamis,
That which cries "Thus thou must do," if thou have it,
And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
Than wishest should be undone. (I v 28-23).
The repetition of the phrase "thou wouldst," in all its permutations, confounds the flow of speech. The speech is clotted with accents, tangling meter and scansion, and the alliteration is almost tongue-twisting, slowing the rhythm of the words. Just as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have corrupted nature, the language Shakespeare uses in these scenes disrupts the flow of his usually smoothly iambic meter.
Yet another part of the theme of corruption of nature lies in the compression of time that occurs throughout the act. When Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter, she states: Th[ese] letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant" (I v 54-56). By telling the future to Macbeth and Banquo, the Weird Sisters upset the natural course of time and bring the future to the present. Thus when Macbeth vacillates over whether or not to kill Duncan, he wants to leap into the future: "If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly" (I vii 1-2). He wants the murder to be over quickly—indeed so quickly that it is over before the audience even registers it. Just as equivocation twists the meaning of words, Macbeth's murderous desires twist the meaning of time.
Thus beginning with the Weird Sisters, equivocation in all its permutations is threaded throughout the fabric of the first act. Over the course of the play, the breach between the worlds of reality and illusion that is the core of equivocation grows ever wider.