An Analysis of the Opening Scene in Macbeth

The first scene of Macbeth strikes the keynote of the play. The desert place, the wild storm, the appearance of the witches, "the wayward rhythm" of their songs - all help to prepare us for a drama in which a human soul succumbs to the supernatural suggestions of evil and ranges itself along with the witches on the devil's side.

Macbeth begins in "an open place" — a place without any landmarks or buildings — with the appearance of the three "weird sisters," as they later call themselves. The Old English word "wyrd," or "weird" means "Fate," and the witches bear a striking and obviously intentional resemblance to the Fates, female characters in both Norse and Greek mythology who weave the fabric of human lives and then cut the threads to end them. The bleakness of the scene is a dramatic representation both of the wild Scottish landscape in which the play is set and the more universal wilderness of man's existence.

The mood of the play is set here, although the action doesn’t start until the next scene. The presence of supernatural forces in the opening of ‘Macbeth’ provides for much of the play’s dramatic tension and the mounting suspense. ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or rain?’ This is the opening line. It immediately draws the audience and captures their imagination. The use of the paranormal occurs at the beginning, with three witches explaining that they will meet Macbeth. ‘When the battle’s lost and won.’ We have come in at the end of the witches meeting, just as they are arranging their next appointment before their familiar spirits call them into the fog and filthy air.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the opening, is when the witches overturn the values in which we believe: ‘ Fair is foul, and foul is fair’, this basically seems like a warning that things are not what they appear to be, as if they are referring to people, explaining that not everybody should be trusted. This adds to our fear about what will happen to Macbeth.

In Macbeth the witch’s lines are extremely short and cryptic; this adds and indicates tension and excitement. The whole section is written in rhyme, with short seven or eight syllable lines, which imitates the casting of a spell.  It is obvious to the audience that the witches are chanting a magical spell throughout their brief encounter. This creates a bleak and mystical atmosphere, together with suspicion as to why they are using their magical powers.

The women's language is also full of the imagery of witchcraft and of chaotic weather: thunder, lightning, rain, fog, and "filthy air." The lines "When the battle's lost and won" and "Fair is foul and foul is fair" are the most significant in the scene. On the one hand, these contradictory statements are the kind of riddles we would expect from witches; on the other, the lines suggest a paradox that runs throughout the play: Life frequently presents a confused picture of events in which discerning truth from falsehood is difficult.

The language reflects on the fact that Macbeth is a dark play about evil, death, murder and ambition. The witch’s language manages to reveal their personalities as sinister, mysterious and untrustworthy.  Although the first scene is exceptionally short, it manages to tell the audience that the witches will meet again, ‘When the hurlyburly’s done’, after the battle, on a heath, and there they will confront Macbeth.  The opening scene of Macbeth is especially attractive because the scene is very unusual and mysterious.

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 8:29 AM