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Act One Notes Pt. One

Act One


Scene One

  • The scene is set amid a storm, 'thunder and lightning' creates a sense of chaos, of nature being turned on its head - this is a good example of pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is where weather reflects mood, actions or human emotions. It is so called because it is related to 'pathos' (pity), and is the fallacy (mistake) of seeing that nature pities humans, and so mirrors human emotions in its own presentation.  Here, this suggests discord both in the natural and in the human world, reflecting the battle which is offstage.

  • Three witches appear who often speak in triplets. Three is a number through human history which symbolises things of religious importance - the Trinity, for example. We may consider witches as an unholy trinity.  There may be three of them as Hecate (the pagan goddess of witchcraft) was known as threefold goddess. Sometimes directors stage them as maiden, mother and crone, representing the three aspects of Hecate.  They may also represent the three Fates from Greek mythology who control the fates of mankind.  These witches do, after all, both predict and prompt Macbeth's fate and actions.

  • The witches are talking of a future meeting with Macbeth, seemingly foretelling where and when Macbeth is going to be. They suggest their intentions for Macbeth are already malevolent. Yet we never really find out why they want to harm Macbeth, beyond the fact that the witches seem to enjoy evil. 

  • Witches are talking to devils, showing their alignment with evil - 'I come Graymalkin/Paddock calls!'

  • 'Fair is foul and foul is fair' lines immediately shows us the witches' use of inversion to show us that good and evil will be switched around (perhaps even our understanding of good and evil will be confused), used equivocally in order to confuse the audience about what is happening. 'Fog' symbolises the lack of clearness in the witches' speech as well in terms of unclear morality for characters in the play.  The witches seem to exist partially to turn the natural order of things on its head. 

  • Witches' use of rhyme introduces them as chanters and spellcasters - Shakespeare often uses rhyme to denote the supernatural.


Scene Two

  • A 'bloody man' image will recur throughout the play as a symbol of violence, and of how violence will give birth to further violence. Duncan tells the audience that a 'revolt' is taking place, and will soon introduce the main characters in his struggle: Norway vs Scotland. The Thane of Cawdor has betrayed Duncan to support Norway against the Scottish state.  This introduces the major theme of betrayal. It also introduces the theme of names and costumes - Macbeth takes up the name of Cawdor and so also becomes a betrayer, and also introduces the idea of getting into someone else's costume in order to take over their role.  Throughout the play, Macbeth is represented as having stepped into robes which do not fit him when he becomes King. 

  • 'Swarm' language of the witches who often talk of insects, perhaps showing their existence in an unstoppable group and their relationship with the 'foul' parts of nature.

  • Fortune is seen/personified as a woman, and an unfaithful woman. This links into the theme of women as generally untrustworthy and fickle in Macbeth. A reader should think about the Wheel of Fortune - the idea that fortune is unstable and random, generally protagonist starts at the top of the wheel and by the end is unfortunate. (perepeteia).  It is ironic that Macbeth starts out by 'disdaining fortune' - towards the end of the play he won't be able to escape it

  • Macbeth is introduced as violent and ruthless already - although this is currently seen as bravery. Macbeth's bravery goes on a downward spiral throughout the play. Head being chopped off is foreshadowing for Macbeth's own death.  The man coming apart/being torn apart is symbolic for Macbeth himself falling apart as a consequence of his own actions.

  • A couplet (two rhyming lines) announcing old Cawdor's death immediately meets with the rhyme of Macbeth's new fortune, showing how Macbeth's new fortunes are implicitly linked to death. Rhyme works as prophecy for other characters as well as for the witches. 'What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won' links to 'when the battle's lost and won', immediately showing that the witches have infected speech of all the characters.


Scene Three

  • Second witch has been 'killing swine', perhaps metaphorically talking about fat men.  Pigs are generally related in the Bible to unclealiness and sorcery - in one passage in the Gospels, a whole herd of pigs is used to remove a group of demons called 'Legion' who are possessing a man!

  • First witch has been stealing apples from a wife/woman, and when the woman refuses to give her any, the witch threatens to hurt her husband.

  • 'I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do' - this word 'do' or 'deed's are often used to describe euphemistically deeds which are so bad they cannot be described.  It might be useful to note that it is not only the witches who talk of 'a deed without a name'.  Increasingly, Macbeth refers to 'deeds' which he can't quite accept that he is going to perform, and so won't name them. 

  • Other witches agree to help harm this man.

  • Witches say they will take control of the winds, showing they are in control of nature. Perhaps they represent a dark side to the natural world, not just the supernatural. The witches, it seems, often shipwreck men, preventing them from coming home. Language of the sea is often used by Macbeth to describe his problems. Witches will symbolically shipwreck Macbeth as well.

  • 'Peace! the charm's wound up', suggests they've just made a spell to curse Macbeth.

  • Immediately after the spell, Macbeth comes in using the language of the witches, suggesting that the charm has somehow infected him as well.  'So foul and fair a day I have not seen'.

  • Banquo notices the witches, saying that they are 'wild in their attire', 'look not like inhabitants o' the earth', and that they 'should be women/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so.' This relates to the theme of things not appearing as they actually are, and also of women as corrupted in the play. Throughout the play there is a fear of corrupted gender - Lady Macbeth, witches, emasculation of Macbeth. Banquo asks them if they can be questioned, and shows his wisdom in seeing that they may not give reliable answers.

  • Macbeth, in contrast, immediately tells the witches to speak, yet they respond to him by telling him his future. The witches, by not answering his question, instead tell him what he is instead of what they are.

  • 'Thou' was the intimate form of 'you', the fact that the witches use it for Macbeth shows that they already have a close relationship with him.

  • Banquo asks Macbeth why he seems to fear things that sound good - showing his understanding that appearances can be deceiving. Macbeth is 'rapt' or already obsessed with what the witches are promised. Banquo contrasts himself to Macbeth in terms of his attitude to the witches - unlike Macbeth he won't beg for and won't fear what they tell him.

  • Witches use equivocal language to tell Banquo his fate.

  • As the Witches leave, Macbeth tells them to stay, clearly confused about how they know these things. Shows he is doubtful, sceptical but also intrigued about what they're telling him.

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