With a clap of thunder, the Witches reappear. Having demonstrated their power by casting a terrible curse upon a sailor whose wife offended one of them, they encounter Macbeth and Banquo as the two soldiers ride from the battlefield. The sisters make three prophecies, the first two regarding Macbeth and the last regarding Banquo. Macbeth shall be named as Thane of Cawdor and then king; Banquo, although he shall not himself rule in Scotland, will be father to future generations of kings. Immediately, the Witches vanish into thin air, leaving the two captains in amazement. Ross and Angus arrive on the scene to confirm what we already know, that Macbeth is to be invested with the thaneship of Cawdor. The Witches' first prophecy has come true.
The opening of Scene 3 does more than to simply recall us to the world of the supernatural of Act I, Scene 1: The Witches' curse of the sailor foreshadows what Fate has in store for Macbeth. The sailor is the captain of a ship, in the same way that Macbeth is to become "captain" of his land; like the sailor, Macbeth will be blown by the tempests of ill Fortune. Sleep will be denied to both. Famously, Macbeth later believes that, in murdering Duncan, he "has murder'd sleep," and both he and Lady Macbeth are denied "Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care." Finally, the metaphor of a storm at sea is traditionally used to refer to confusion and the unpredictability of events.
Macbeth's first words ("So foul and fair a day I have not seen") ironically recall the Witches' "foul is fair" in Scene 1, but Banquo is the first to spot the weird sisters, remarking on the Witches' ambiguous and confused appearance: They "look not like the inhabitants of the earth, / And yet are on it"; they seem to understand him, and yet he cannot be sure; they "should be women," and yet they are bearded. Later in the scene, Macbeth remarks that the Witches "seem'd corporal [physical]" and yet they vanish like bubbles "into the air."
No such ambiguity occurs in the response of the Witches to Macbeth: He is Thane of Glamis, he is Thane of Cawdor, and he shall be King. This contrast between what is uncertain and what is certain, or between what is confused and what is ordered or ordained by Fate, is one of the crucial structural components in the writing of this play, and it is clear that Shakespeare wants us to see it.
Banquo's reaction to this peculiar prophecy is understandable rather than an example of professional rivalry. He has been linked in name with Macbeth and, so far, enjoys equal merit with his friend. Why should he not also have his future predicted? But the Witches' answer to him is more riddling: "lesser . . . and greater," "not so happy . . . much happier," "get kings . . . be none" all suggest a more unpredictable future.
Noteworthy in this scene is the way in which Shakespeare registers the psychological response of both Macbeth and Banquo. The questions "Whither . . . ?", "Were . . . ?", "Have we . . . ?" and so on paint a picture of shared incomprehension. Shakespeare cleverly combines Macbeth's and Banquo's confusion at the Witches' vanishing with their disbelief at what has been spoken. The reference to "the insane root that takes the reason prisoner" suggests the working of a powerful drug, and the clear impression is that they feel they have been dreaming.
Ross arrives and announces that Macbeth is to be the new Thane of Cawdor, thus confirming the first prophecy of the Witches. Banquo and Macbeth are struck dumb for the second time, but now Shakespeare contrasts their responses. Banquo is aware of the possibility that the prophecies may have been the work of supernatural dark forces, as exemplified in his lines "What? Can the Devil speak true?" (108) and "oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of Darkness tell us truths . . . — (only) to betray us" (123-125). Macbeth is more ambiguous. His speech is full of what will now become his trademark — questioning, doubting, weighing up, and seeking to justify: "This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good" (130-131).
Nevertheless, however much he reasons, Macbeth cannot reconcile the fact of the truth of the first prophecy with his intense and unnatural fear, or what he calls his "horrible imaginings." He admits to being so shaken by the news that he feels that his reason has been taken over by his imagination. The line "Nothing is, but what is not" is ambiguous. The expression could indicate confusion between the world we think of as real and the world of dreams, a neat summary of a confused mind. But how confused is Macbeth at this point? If he is capable of arguing that the prophecies are neither evil nor good, he is capable of accepting that nothing that exists has any existence or meaning. This interpretation could open Macbeth to dangerous and unjustifiable deeds. If he can make himself believe that "Nothing is, but what is not," then Macbeth's respect for order, for hierarchy, for the King, is also nullified. He can, literally, get away with murder.
mounch'd (4) munched
aroynt! (6) begone!
runyon (6) hag
card (16) a sea-chart
penthouse lid (20) eyelid.
bark (24) boat
Sinel (71) Macbeth's father.
corporal (81) bodily, physical
line the rebel . . . vantage (112) secretly give aid to the rebels.
trifles (125) trivial gifts
swelling act . . . theme (128) the developing royal drama
cleave (146) fit
pains (151) service to me
interim (155) meanwhile