Summary and Analysis of Act 1 Scene 3
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...