Summary

The witches meet Macbeth and Banquo on the heath. They speak prophetic words to the two men, indicating that Macbeth will become thane of Cawdor, and go on to be king, while Banquo will someday be the father of a line of kings. The witches vanish, and Ross and Angus arrive, to let Macbeth know how happy Duncan is with the reports of Macbeth’s bravery in battle, and announce the reward — Macbeth is now thane of Cawdor, just as the witches predicted. Banquo expresses misgivings, not sure if he should trust the witches, while Macbeth is not sure if he should just wait and let things happen, or perhaps help things along. He appears to be leaning toward doing whatever it takes to gain the throne.

heath

Desolate plain in Scotland.

Forres

A castle.

Enter

To come on stage.

Killing swine.

Witches were, at times, thought to be the source of otherwise inexplicable illness and death, among humans and livestock both. This was not an unreasonable belief, centuries before germ theory was developed.

“Give me,” quoth I:

“Give me some,” I said.

“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed ronyon cries.

Aroint thee — get away

rump-fed — having a heavy rump

ronyon — a mangy or scabby creature. Pronounced RUN-yun.

Aleppo

A city in Syria.

master o’ the Tiger:

Tiger — The name of the ship of which the woman’s husband is master.

in a sieve I’ll thither sail

Only a magical being, such as a witch, could sail in a sieve.

thither — there.

I’ll give thee a wind.

I’ll supply wind to help propel your ship.

Thou’rt kind.

You’re kind (sight rhyme with wind).

all the other

All the other winds. Each wind (North, South, East, West) was thought of as a separate thing; any or all could be invoked at the whim of supernatural creatures, such as witches.

quarters

Directions.

shipman’s card

Ship’s compass (whose card, placed under the needle, was divided into quarters), used for navigation.

Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his pent-house lid

Sleep, and the lack thereof, is one of the recurring themes of the play. Here, the witch is planning to torment Macbeth so that he will not be able to sleep, day or night. His eyelids (pent-house lids) will not close; he will be unable to rest, physically or mentally.

He shall live a man forbid

Macbeth will not be allowed to sleep. He will be forced to go without rest; his sense of guilt will prevent it.

Weary se’nnights nine times nine

Macbeth will remain weary and unable to rest for nine times nine weeks (se’nnights is seven nights, a week) — a long time.

dwindle, peak and pine

His lack of sleep will eat away at him, making him more and more unstable.

Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tost.

Macbeth’s life is compared to a ship (bark), which will not be sunk (lost), unless he is to sink it himself — not because of anything the witches do. They cannot sink it (ruin Macbeth) themselves. Macbeth, however, can and does. The witches only foresee, they do not bring about Macbeth’s downfall. But he will suffer: tempest-tost — tossed around as in a fierce storm.

pilot’s thumb

pilot — the master of a ship

Body parts of people who had died violently were thought to be especially magical.

Drum within.

Drumbeats are heard, from offstage.

weird sisters

weird — related to Fate; strange, unfamiliar, supernatural

sisters — the witches

Originally, the “weyward sisters.” But “weyward” is ancestor to our “weird”; both have always had more to do with Fate than with things that are simply unusual.

posters

Riders, messengers.

Thus do go about, about: / Thrice to thine and thrice to mine / And thrice again, to make up nine.

Three has long been a magic number in many cultures; three times three would be even more powerful as magic.

The witches are singing and dancing. A full production of the play would include music at this point.

Scholars generally believe that the witches’ songs and dances may not be by Shakespeare at all; they may have been inserted later by Thomas Middleton.

Peace! the charm’s wound up.

Peace! Quiet! Shhh!

the charm’s wound up — the spell is complete.

So foul and fair a day

Macbeth does not realize that he’s speaking prophetically. The day is fair (good) because of the military victory, for which he’s largely responsible; it’s also foul (bad, evil), but only because of the weather. Or so Macbeth thinks, at this point. He is unaware of just how fair the day really is (he has yet to hear of his new title) — or how foul it will turn out to be (the witches are about to greet him and set in motion the events that will eventually lead to the ruin of the country and his own death).

How far is’t call’d to Forres?

How far is it from here to the castle at Forres?

call’d — estimated to be

What are these / So wither’d and so wild in their attire, / That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, / And yet are on’t?

What are these creatures we’re looking at, who are so wrinkled (withered) and unkempt (wild) in their appearance that they don’t look like any kind of creature known, but are here on Earth nevertheless?

Live you? or are you aught / That man may question?

Are you normal, living creatures? Or are you something, anything, the kind of thing that man may not question? (If the witches are truly supernatural powers, then men have no business questioning them.)

You seem to understand me, / By each at once her chappy finger laying / Upon her skinny lips

The witches have reacted to Banquo’s speech, each quickly laying a withered (chappy) finger on her lips (as if to say “Shhhh!”).

you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.

You look like women in general, but also not like women. Your facial hair tells me that you’re not normal women, at least.

Speak, if you can: what are you?

Elizabethans commonly believed that some ghosts and apparitions could speak, while others could not. Macbeth is specifically asking the witches to speak, because in Shakespeare’s day, people believed that apparitions such as ghosts could not speak unless first spoken to. He is asking them to identify themselves — “What are you?” — “What kind of creature are you?”

thane of Glamis

Macbeth’s current title of nobility — he is the Thane of Glamis (pronounced glahmz).

thane of Cawdor

As far as Macbeth knows, the Thane of Cawdor is alive and well, and remains a loyal Scottish nobleman. This is not true, but Macbeth doesn’t know this yet.

that shalt be king hereafter!

The witches are prophesying that Macbeth will become king soon.

why do you start

Why are you startled?

and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?

Why are you afraid when you hear things that sound wonderful?

By “things,” Banquo is referring to the things said by the witches, not the witches themselves. Neither man is afraid of the witches.

I’ the name of truth, / Are ye fantastical, or that indeed / Which outwardly ye show?

Tell us truthfully, are you creatures of fantasy and wild imagining (fantastical), or are you in fact what you appear to be?

My noble partner . . . Of noble having and of royal hope

The witches greet Macbeth with present grace (using his correct title, Thane of Glamis) and with great prediction (they predicted that he would obtain the lands and titles of the Thane of Cawdor, and go on to become king). Thus, noble having (present tense — Macbeth is currently a nobleman) and royal hope (he can reasonably hope to become king someday — succession to the throne was not automatically hereditary).

rapt withal

Entranced with your predictions.

If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow and which will not

If you can look at all the possibilities for the future, and if you can tell which possibility will actually come true . . .

who neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate.

Banquo is not concerned about being on the witches’ “good side” (beg…your favours), nor does he fear their hatred.

Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.

Banquo is not as great as Macbeth, in one way; he is greater in another. Macbeth currently enjoys more fame and is about to enjoy more fortune and power than Banquo will ever have. But Banquo never loses his status as a moral person, as Macbeth does.

Not so happy, yet much happier.

Banquo is not as fortunate as Macbeth, in one way; he is more fortunate than Macbeth in another. Banquo is less fortunate than Macbeth at present, who is gaining new titles and estates, and will go on to be king; but he, Banquo, will be much happier (or better off) in the end, because he will not fall into corruption. True, Banquo is murdered not long from now (and this is an unhappy ending for him), but he remains morally upright, unlike Macbeth.

Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none

get — beget, father. Banquo will be the father of a line of kings, but he himself will not be king.

Shakespeare probably included this to flatter King James, who believed himself a descendant of Banquo.

Stay, you imperfect speakers

Stay — wait.

Macbeth does not understand the predictions, so he believes the witches have spoken only incompletely (imperfectly).

charge

command

By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis

Sinel was Macbeth’s father, the previous Thane of Glamis. When he died, his title and estates passed to Macbeth.

Pronounced SINN-ell.

But how of Cawdor?

How can I be Thane of Cawdor?

Macbeth has already been given this title by King Duncan, but he doesn’t know it yet.

and to be king / Stands not within the prospect of belief, / No more than to be Cawdor.

The idea of me becoming king is not really believable, any more than the idea of me becoming Thane of Cawdor.

Say from whence / You owe this strange intelligence?

How did you obtain this knowledge of the future?

why / Upon this blasted heath you stop our way / With such prophetic greeting?

Why did you block our path (or interrupt our journey) with these predictions?

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them. Whither are they vanish’d?

Banquo offers the only explanation he can: that the witches are like bubbles, but bubbles of the earth, rather than the water. He wonders where (whither) they’ve gone.

corporal

Physical, real, solid.

As breath into the wind.

Melted away as completely and easily as breath disappears into the air (wind).

Would they had stay’d!

I wish they had not gone!

Were such things here as we do speak about?

Can we truly believe that what we saw was real?

Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?

Certain herbs and roots were thought to cause delusions and madness, making people who ate them insane (taking away their powers of reason).

went it not so?

Isn’t that what they said?

To the selfsame tune and words.

Exactly.

The king hath happily received, Macbeth, / The news of thy success

King Duncan was very happy to learn of your success — the success in battle of the forces under your command.

and when he reads / Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight

And when he considers your personal contribution to the fight against the rebels and invaders . . .

His wonders and his praises do contend / Which should be thine or his

He alternates between wonder at your accomplishment and the desire to praise you. He is both amazed and eager to praise your deeds.

silenced with that,
In viewing o’er the rest o’ the selfsame day, / He finds thee in the stout Norweyan ranks, / Nothing afeard of what thyself didst make, / Strange images of death.

. . . so much so that he is therefore silent, but when he reviews all the other events of the day, he also hears that you were fighting among the strong Norwegians, unafraid of the horrifying images your combat produced in the minds of those who witnessed it.

Came post with post; and every one did bear / Thy praises in his kingdom’s great defence, / And pour’d them down before him.

Message after message arrived, all confirming your achievements in the battle in defense of Duncan and the kingdom.

We are sent / To give thee from our royal master thanks

King Duncan sent us to express his gratitude to you.

Only to herald thee into his sight, / Not pay thee.

To escort you to him in honor, not to give you material rewards. (King Duncan will do that himself.)

for an earnest of a greater honour

As token payment (down payment, initial payment) on even greater things to come.

He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor

King Duncan commanded me to address you as Thane of Cawdor, until he can do it in person, confirming the title.

In which addition

Because of your new (additional) title of nobility.

For it is thine.

The honor, the title, the rank, the lands, the wealth, etc., that properly belong to the Thane of Cawdor, are now yours.

What, can the devil speak true?

Banquo sees that the witches have spoken at least some truth — they knew Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, and rightly predicted that he would become Thane of Cawdor. Banquo therefore doubts his initial, mistrustful feelings about the interview with the witches, since evil creatures would not speak the truth.

The thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me / In borrow’d robes?

Macbeth believes the current Thane of Cawdor to be still alive and still honorable, and asks Ross and Angus why they are addressing him by a title that belongs to someone else.

Borrow’d robes — figuratively, clothing (the title of Thane of Cawdor) that does not belong to Macbeth.

Who was the thane lives yet

The man who had held the title and lands of the Thane of Cawdor is, technically, still alive.

But under heavy judgment bears that life / Which he deserves to lose.

But he has been sentenced to death; he deserves to die.

Whether he was combined / With those of Norway

Whether he allied himself with the invading Norwegians.

or did line the rebel / With hidden help and vantage

Or whether he secretly supplied and reinforced the rebels with help and vantage (advantage, possibly intelligence gained through espionage or treason).

or that with both / He labour’d in his country’s wreck, I know not

Or maybe he did both, in trying to bring about the ruin of Scotland — I don’t know which.

But treasons capital, confess’d and proved, / Have overthrown him.

But he has confessed to traitorous acts, which carry the death sentence. His confessions have been verified, and this has brought about his ruin.

Aside

In an aside, the character speaks privately to himself for a moment, or directly to the audience, or privately to some (but not all) of the other characters present.

As a matter of convention, an aside is always a true statement of what the character thinks. A character speaking in an aside may be mistaken, but may not be dishonest.

An aside (again as a matter of convention) cannot be heard by those not spoken to.

Glamis, and thane of Cawdor! / The greatest is behind.

Macbeth realizes that he is now the Thane of both Glamis and Cawdor, which verifies the first part of the witches’ speech. Two of the three things they told him are true; so the greatest part (the first two out of three items) is already accomplished. There is only one more prophecy to go — that of Macbeth becoming king.

pains

Efforts.

Do you not hope your children shall be kings

Don’t you agree that we can trust these witches, and that therefore your descendants will sit on the throne?

When those that gave the thane of Cawdor to me

Since the witches gave me everything that belonged to the Thane of Cawdor, this is proof that they spoke the truth.

Macbeth is mistaken about what the witches have done. They do not “give” him anything — they only foresee and foretell. They will not cause the evil things that Macbeth will see and do, but already Macbeth believes the witches were somehow responsible for his new title, rather than merely predicting the event.

Promised no less to them?

The witches effectively promised that your descendants will be kings.

That trusted home / Might yet enkindle you unto the crown, / Besides the thane of Cawdor.

If you follow that path to its logical conclusion, it could inflame your desire to become king, in addition to being Thane of Cawdor.

But ’tis strange: / And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence.

Often, the servants of evil (demons, devils, witches, etc., the instruments of darkness) try to win us to our harm — persuade us to participate in evil. They win our trust by being honest in small things, only to betray us in the end, when it really matters.

Cousins, a word, I pray you.

Cousins — used informally

I ask a moment of your time to talk.

Banquo sees that Macbeth wants time to think, and asks Ross and Angus to step away for a moment.

Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme.

The witches have addressed Macbeth with two titles of nobility, both correct. He now assumes that these truths are in fact forerunners (prologues) to the swelling act — the progress of events — that will culminate in his being crowned king (the imperial theme).

I thank you, gentlemen.

Macbeth is stalling. He wants time to think.

This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good

This supernatural soliciting — conversation and doing business with spirits of the other world — cannot be evil, and also cannot be good.

if ill, / Why hath it given me earnest of success, / Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor

If it is evil, how can it have begun with a token of good things to come, how can it have started out by telling me a truth? I am the Thane of Cawdor, after all — they did speak the truth.

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature?

On the other hand, how can it be good? If it’s good, why do I begin to feel the suggestion — temptation — that’s so horrifying that my hair stands up and my heart pounds in my chest in an unnatural way?

Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings: / My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not.

The things I fear now are not as bad as things I can imagine, but even the thought of murder (assassinating Duncan) — so far only a thought — still affects me so powerfully that my strengths, my abilities are made powerless by what my imagination is doing, and the only things I can perceive are things that are not real.

Look, how our partner’s rapt.

See how entranced Macbeth is with his thoughts.

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir.

If I’m destined (by Fate, or chance) to become king anyway, then perhaps luck will make me king even if I do nothing, even if I don’t work toward that goal or try to hasten it by killing those who stand in the way.

It’s important to note that Macbeth, in the beginning, does not want to kill Duncan, or anyone.

stir — activity, effort

New honors come upon him

Macbeth is “trying on” his new honors, as we would try on new clothes.

Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould / But with the aid of use.

New clothes fit better when they’ve been worn for a while, after they get “broken in.” Banquo is saying that Macbeth may find the latest news strange, but he’ll get used to it eventually.

Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

No matter what else may occur, even if we try to prevent it, what is fated to happen will happen. We cannot escape Fate.

we stay upon your leisure

We’re waiting for you, we can go whenever you’re ready.

Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.

Please excuse me.

dull — foggy, slow

wrought — involved, occupied

forgotten — Macbeth is not being completely honest here. He hasn’t forgotten what he was thinking about, he just doesn’t want to reveal it to his companions.

your pains / Are register’d where every day I turn / The leaf to read them. Let us toward the king.

“I’m aware of the efforts you’ve made for me, everywhere I look.” Macbeth is being gracious, to distract their attention from his unusual state a moment ago.

Let us toward the king. — Let’s go to the king.

Think upon what hath chanced, and, at more time, / The interim having weigh’d it, let us speak / Our free hearts each to other.

chanced — happened

at more time — when we have more time

The interim having weigh’d it — when we’ve had a chance to think it over, let’s speak openly to each other about this.

Very gladly.

Banquo too would like to discuss this further, but agrees that now may not be the best time.

Till then, enough.

Until we find some private time, we’ll say no more about this.

Exeunt

Latin, literally “they leave.” Everyone leaves the stage.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.