Act 1: Scenes 1 – 3: Here’s a nice little Latin term for you: In media res. It means “in the middle of” and that’s exactly how Shakespeare starts this play. He just dumps you right in the middle of the action.
There’s a battle. There’s a king. There’s an enemy. There’s Macbeth and Banquo. The king is Duncan. He’s a good guy, a good king; this is very important in the Elizabethan World View. The King is God’s man and you don’t mess with God’s man. Duncan’s kingdom is being attacked and his noble soldiers are defending it. The Thane of Cawdor hasn’t been much use, however; he’s been a traitor and is 1) about to lose his title and 2) about to lose his life. His title will be given to Macbeth. That’s the background.
Now the foreground: the witches. Here’s the thing about witches: When they’re hanging around a blasted heath, thinking about you, it’s not a good sign. And when they’re thinking of how to get you and you’re too dense to notice, that’s also not a good sign. You know the idea of having a guardian angel? Think the opposite. These are like stalker witches. And the object of their desire is Macbeth.
This is what is amazing about Shakespeare: He is into psychology and psychology hasn’t even been invented. Watch these witches. They are devious. They figure out Macbeth’s weak spots. So far all we know about Macbeth is that he’s a good soldier and he’s got a good buddy, Banquo. The witches know much more. They know that Macbeth has ambition and pride. To you, in the 21st century, those are good things. To an Elizabethan, they are bad things. Think back to the Wheel of Life and everyone having a God ordained position in life. An Elizabethan is slotted into life and it would be wrong to try to go above your station in life; it would be rebelling against the Natural Order of things. At this point, does Macbeth know he has this potential for pride and rebellion? Nope. But the witches do.
The first thing the witches do (after bragging a little about their individual witchiness) is set up a spell. It’s aimed at catching Macbeth. And here he comes. He and Banquo are on their way back from the battle and what do they see but three hairy chinned hags. Macbeth and Banquo don’t even know what they’re looking at. Are these humans? Hallucinations? They stop and ask. Instantly, the witches tell Macbeth he will be Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King.
This is the equivalent of someone coming up to you and saying you’re going to be in the NHL or you just won Roll up the Rim. Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis so that’s no surprise, but how can he be Thane of Cawdor when the Thane of Cawdor is alive and was fighting beside them in the battle? And more importantly, how could Macbeth possibly become King when everyone knows you have to be the son of the King to become King? Last time he looked, he wasn’t King Duncan’s son.
Now this is an odd thing for Banquo to do, particularly when the play isn’t called Banquo. Banquo says to the witch, “Since you’re so good at giving prophecies, how about a prophecy for me, too?” And she complies! Banquo will will be lesser than Macbeth but greater, not as happy as Macbeth but happier, and his sons will be Kings but he won’t. This is even odder than Macbeth’s prophecies. How can his sons be kings and how can he be lesser and greater and not as happy but happier? With one fleeting look at Banquo’s confused face, the witches disappear into thin air. Poof!
Now take a look at the very last scene. Here we have Macbeth thinking his thoughts in a series of asides. This is where Shakespeare gives us the inner working of Macbeth’s mind. Who instantly banks their future on the ravings of three creepy looking strangers? I shall tell you. A guy who has already been thinking those things. A guy who is open to power and ambition. The witches plant the seed but it is planted in already fertile ground. Look at what Macbeth says about Duncan: If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir. What’s wrong with this? Well, it’s a hint. It tells us about Macbeth’s faulty thinking. First of all, he shouldn’t be buying into the idea that fate will overrule God’s system. The Divine Right of Kings is inviolable. Witches on a heath don’t trump it. And it is only logical that if you want to become the new King you first have to get rid of the current King and you also have to get rid of the King’s sons. That involves murder. Killing people in battle is one thing; murdering the King is something completely different. We might not get it but Shakespeare’s audience would immediately understand. Witches: bad. Killing the King: bad. Ambition: bad. Going against the Divine Order: bad.