Macbeth, Act 1


The first act consists of seven relatively short scenes — unusual for a Shakespeare play. Unusual too in how far we get into the plot in the course of the first act. And daring in that it deals with the deliberate killing of a king. Yes, it was in another country, but James I comes from Scotland.

And what a strange beginning to a Shakespeare play! Instead of having a couple of minor characters talk about the principal figure and the problematic situation he’s in, as in Lear, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra, we get three witches — are they just old crones or are they supernatural creatures? — who speak gnomically about their “next” meeting. They have apparently already worked out  — or foreseen — what’s going to happen, some kind of battle which will be both “lost” and “won,” and they plan to meet Macbeth, though for what purpose we aren’t told. I see from the notes in my Arden edition that some critics thought the scene “pointless” and others that it contains the key to the entire play. I agree that especially the last couplet sets the stage. This is a play in which nothing is what it seems: fair is foul, and foul is fair. The atmosphere in the play — its “air” — is indeed “filthy.”

Yes, as scholars say, the witches may be included because James I was interested in witches. But do they serve a dramatist to body forth Macbeth’s as-yet-unexpressed desire and ambition, and serve as an economical way of presenting the evil thoughts in his mind, thoughts he has apparently already expressed to Lady Macbeth? Maybe they are a simple answer to the question, “Where does evil come from?” What would it be like to put on a production of the play without the witches?

In 1.2 we may get a quick example of something that appears “foul” but is in fact “fair”: a “bloody man” — not the only one we will see in this play — suddenly comes in. Maybe there should be a dramatic pause after Duncan’s first words, “What bloody man is that?”, so that the audience can register the scene of horror. But he turns out to bear good news. And he delivers a bombastic speech about “brave Macbeth,” who turns out to be the prime example of “fair” that is in fact “foul.” I’m not quite sure what to make of the Captain’s old-fashioned rhetoric. Presumably it has to do with marking difference — between what Macbeth appears to be and what he is, between an old-style account full of high phrase and title (Bellona’s bridegroom) and an ugly and cold reality where people speak plainly of “murder” and where Macbeth is the bridegroom of a different kind of Bellona. The scene ends with Macbeth promoted to Thane of Cawdor, though he doesn’t know it yet. This sets up the following scene in which he hears it first from the witches and then from Rosse. The final words in the scene — “What he hath lost, noble Macbeth has won” — echo the “lost/won” uttered by the witches.

In 1.3 the witches, as they promised, gather to “meet Macbeth.” Where did Shakespeare get their language, rhymed couplets and short lines? As Macbeth enters with “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” he echoes the witches. Has he already been somehow tainted by them? Has he already harbored unutterable thoughts and “horrible imaginings”? Apparently so, because he “starts” when he is addressed as Thane of Cawdor and “King hereafter.” This is what he has already been imagining. They are things that “sound . . . fair,” but in fact are “foul.”

When the witches “vanish,” I guess we assume them to be not natural but supernatural, as Macbeth does (“this supernatural soliciting”). With the long aside, we are privy to his mind. Again he seems to have internalized the witches’ way of seeing and speaking: “nothing is but what is not” — another short line. But at this point Macbeth is not ready to commit himself to evil. He wants the crown, but is ready and willing to wait for it.

1.4, another brief scene, only 58 lines, is set at Duncan’s court. We hear of the exemplary death of the Thane of Cawdor, declared an evil traitor, but who has a good end, confessing and asking pardon: “Nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it” — a beautiful line. Maybe we will remember this death when Macbeth thinks about dying and about the “careless trifle” of his own life. I was puzzled why Duncan in this scene names Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and thus his successor — where’s the news when a king names his eldest son as his successor? — but a footnote tells me that this is in fact news, because the  crown was not hereditary. The announcement is dramatically useful, complicating things for Macbeth, who acknowledges even more openly — to himself — his “black and deep desires.” Does he now have to get rid of both Duncan and Malcolm? Duncan turns out to be a self-conscious wit, when he punningly tells “worthy Banquo” that the valiant Macbeth is a “banquet.” We’ll see more banquets before we’re done.

1.5 dramatically presents Lady Macbeth, already revealed to us as ruthless and fully conscious of the evil she proposes. We get no explanation of what has corrupted her, but she has already resolved on murdering the king, violating the “natural” order in every way, including her own nature: “Unsex me here.” [My grandson had to memorize and recite that speech when his seventh grade class read a somewhat simplified version of the play. I am surprised that this speech was retained. I coached him, and he was apparently a great success.] When she addresses “you Spirits,” do we think she is trying to contact Macbeth’s witches? Interesting that Shakespeare imagines her as a mother who has nursed children, but never tells us about any children. Macbeth has too much “milk” [of “human kindness”] and she wants to turn her own to “gall.” We don’t really care how many children she had, but it is significant and more chilling that when she speaks of unmilking herself, she personally knows whereof she speaks. She clearly takes over the scene, just as she has presumably taken over the marriage, directing Macbeth.

1.6 begins with Duncan, who seems to misread everything, commenting on the sweet “air” at the castle. (Even Banquo thinks the “air is delicate.”) We know the air is already poisonous, and “filthy.” It’s significant that it is Lady Macbeth who greets the king upon his arrival, and not Macbeth, who has arrived at the castle before the king. Is it odd that Duncan doesn’t seem to notice that he was not greeted by the host?

1.7 begins with another great speech. [It’s one I chose to memorize in preparation for my week-long written exams at Oxford, when, so I was told, I was expected to be able to quote from a play if I discussed it. I can still produce most of it.] Macbeth’s soliloquy seems to invite comparisons with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” They are both speeches that ask “should I do it?” and then worry about the consequences. By the end of the speech Macbeth has resolved not to “proceed” with what he euphemistically calls “this business.” Lady Macbeth hasn’t heard the soliloquy, but she might as well have. She provides the “spur” to prick Macbeth’s sides. He is quickly on board, even envisaging the bloody event, though the scene and act ends with Macbeth acknowledging his “false heart.”


Yes, this is certainly a strange way to begin a play, but dramatically effective, and their parting words — “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” – are an apt epigraph for the play and a good description of what we learn about the battle, and Macbeth and Cawdor, in the ensuing scene. My argument (in a piece I did not too long ago) about the influence of the mystery plays on Sh. made me interested in the sheer amount of blood we see and hear about in the play. The Captain’s report that Macbeth and Banquo were so bloody that they seemed to bathe “in reeking wounds,/ Or memorize another Golgotha” seems to refer to the portrayal of the passion in the mystery plays, which did involve a lot of stage blood. This after the “bloody man” who begins the scene. And then we get the witches again. The first one will curse the seaman who will be denied sleep and become “a man forbid.” And they seem to be waiting for Macbeth. As you point out, Macbeth echoes them in his first line. Banquo notes Macbeth’s physical reaction to the witches’ prophecy of his imminent and future titles. His reaction to the news about Macbeth’s becoming Thane of Cawdor — “can the devil speak true?” – and his comment about instruments of darkness “speaking true” both forecast what’s coming.  And the projected, but still imaginary, murder is comes out in M’s aside.

How did the witches “vanish”? Through that trap door in the center of the stage, or with enveloping smoke — maybe a bit harder to manage.

I too hadn’t thought much about the Scottish succession, but the naming of Malcolm and Macbeth’s later assumption of the kingship seem to suggest something different from primogeniture. Malcolm’s words about Cawdor’s death project a traitor’s “good death,” but what will this mean?  Duncan’s words about the difficulty of knowing a traitor by his face of course becomes prophetic.

Yes, those are some heavy lines for a seventh-grade class, though better maybe than Lady M’s revelation that she has given suck and yet would have dashed her baby’s brains out if she had sworn to do so.

I’m not sure Duncan misreads the delicate air of Macbeth’s castle. Could be that it genuinely did have this delicate and blest air, which is turned hellish by what M and Lady M do? Banquo also celebrates the “bed and procreant cradle” of the “temple haunting martlet,” which will become a version of hell. There is a fascination in the play with nature’s seeming response to human action. The king says he will “plant” Macbeth and make him “full of growing.” Lady M. says the raven is hoarse that croaks Duncan’s entrance under her battlements. And of course later we hear of a destructive storm the night of the assassination.

Macbeth seems full of ambivalence about the murder of Duncan, maybe especially in your Oxford-memorized speech, in which he seems to talk himself out of the assassination. I love the entrance of Lady M, just as he says he has no spur to his intent but only ambition, “which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on the other”: enter Lady M! Her insistence about killing “the babe that milks me” is another of those horrid lines of Sh that makes one wonder at the occasional darkness of his imagination.  In any case she seems to entirely win Macbeth over; you’d think he’d be horrified at her baby-killing lines, but he’s just impressed by her non-feminine nature.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell