Act One, Scene One of Macbeth is not one of those “quiet openings.” Nope. “Thunder and Lightning” (I.i.1 opening stage direction). Three witches enter and question each other when they will next meet. And their answer–to quote Benedick–is enigmatical: “When the battle’s lost and won” (I.i.4) later that day. Lost and won. The very short scene (13 lines only) is bookended by sing-songy rhymed non-iambic pentameter, but it does set up one of the main themes of the play: doubles-duality and opposition within a single entity… “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.i.12).
Act One, Scene Two, is a little more straightforward and narratively driven. In the camp of Duncan, King of Scotland, the king, his two sons and some military advisers are receiving reports from the field of battle. The battle had seemed “doubtful” (I.ii.7) with the rebel Macdonwald and his Irish mercenaries (“kerns and galloglasses” [I.ii.13]) leading at first until Macbeth joined the fray. And in an image that is a favorite of mine from all of the Canon, the soldier describes what Macbeth did to Macdonwald: “he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chaps // And fixed his head upon our battlements” (I.ii.22-3).
unseamed him from the nave to the chaps… Macbeth drove his sword into the Madconwald’s stomach (near his navel), and pulled the sword upward until it reached his jaw (“chaps”)…basically cut him in half…going against gravity. In other words, Macbeth is a badass. Oh, and quasi-spoiler alert: rebel heads get chopped off.
The battle wasn’t over, though. At that point, “the Norwegian lord, surveying advantage, // With furbished arms and new supplies of men, // Began a fresh assault” (I.ii.31-3). Undaunted, Macbeth and his partner Banquo, “doubly redoubled [their] strokes upon the foe” (I.ii.38). Doubles again! When the soldier is unable to continue his report due to his war wounds, another noble, Ross, enters with news of their victory over Norway and a traitor-noble, the Thane of Cawdor. Pleased by this news of victory and the tales of Macbeth’s valor, Duncan names Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor.
Question: do you really want a traitor’s former title? Just asking.
Act One, Scene Three brings the return of our three witches, who have been spending the interim “killing swine” (I.iii.2). And I don’t think they mean pigs, as the next two dozen or so lines describe the tortures they are going to visit upon a sailor, whose wife had insulted one of the witches. Into this moment of ritual and cauldron-mixing, come Macbeth and Banquo, returning from the battle. Macbeth’s first words mirror those of the witches in the play’s first scene: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I.iii.38).
When Banquo and Macbeth notice these bearded women, and ask them who (or in Macbeth’s case, what) they are, they greet Macbeth:
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!
Macbeth says nothing, but he is affected by this as Banquo notices that he “start[s] and seem[s] to fear // Things that sound so fair” (I.iii.51-2). When asked, they have prophecies for Banquo as well: he will be “lesser than Macbeth, and greater…Not so happy, yet much happier…[and he] shalt get kings, though [he] be none” (I.iii.65-7).
Time for a little historical tangent. There was a historical Macbeth. He did kill Duncan to become King of Scotland (whoops, spoiler alert). And there was a Banquo, who according to legend was an ancestor of King James I of England (remember he was James VI of Scotland first). This is not a coincidence, especially as witches were an enthusiasm of King James as well. But we’ll get more into all that later in the month.
Macbeth finally speaks, throwing cold water on these predictions, as he says, “The Thane of Cawdor lives…and to be king // Stands not within the prospect of belief” (I.iii.72, 73-4). Obviously, he hasn’t heard the latest news on Cawdor. But before he can get any answers out of the witches they vanish, and after some back-and-forth between Macbeth and Banquo about the prophesies (that could most be definitely be played as jokes and sarcasm), Ross and Angus enter, to call Macbeth and Banquo before the king and to name Macbeth Thane of Cawdor.
[cue Dun-dun-duhhhhhn music]
Neither Macbeth nor Banquo share any of the witches’ statements to Ross and Angus, but Macbeth is more than willing to share his thoughts with us in a length aside:
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
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? 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 smothered in surmise and nothing is
But what is not.
We see immediately that Macbeth is dabbling in more of the double-speak (“Cannot be ill, cannot be good”). He’s also unsettled by this to say the least: He’s already thinking of murder.
Act One, Scene Four takes us back to Duncan’s camp where the king learns of the former Thane of Cawdor’s execution. As Duncan reflects that Cawdor “was a man on whom [he had] built // An absolute trust” (I.iv.13-4), the new Cawdor arrives with Banquo. Duncan thanks both soldiers for their valor on the battlefield, saying that “more is [Macbeth’s] due than more than all can pay” (I.iv.21) that the kings shall “make [Macbeth] full of growing” (I.iv.29).
Duncan then turns his mind toward succession. If the two previous statements had been hopeful for Macbeth in terms of advancement, then Duncan’s naming of his own son Malcolm as his successor must come as a disappointment for Macbeth–or if not a disappointment at least “a step // On which [Macbeth] must fall down or else o’erleap” (I.iv.48-9). Macbeth excuses himself to head home to let his wife know that the King will be visiting soon.
The fifth scene of the first act takes us to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness, where we find Lady Macbeth reading a letter from her husband, outlining the the weird sisters and their prophecy, and then his new title as Thane of Cawdor:
Meet the Macbeths, Scotland’s power couple.
We know that Macbeth’s thoughts have flirted with murder and succession, but Lady Macbeth gives them a lap-dance. However, she fears her husband’s “nature…too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (I.v.15-6) to act on it. She calls for him to come to her so that she “may pour [her] spirits in [his] ear // And chastise with the valor of [her] tongue // All that impedes [him] from the golden round” (I.v.25-7). When she receives word that both Duncan and Macbeth are coming to Inverness, she does more than call for her husband to come home: now she calls upon “spirits // That tend on mortal thoughts” (I.v.39-40) to “unsex” (I.v.40) her. Remove her femininity she requests, fill her with cruelty and substitute gall for her breasts’ milk, and all the while calling for night to come so that heaven cannot see what her “keen knife” (I.v.51) can do. When Macbeth does arrive, she hints about her plan to kill the king, and when he says that they will talk about it later, she says, “Leave all the rest to me” (I.v.72).
In Act One, Scene Six, Duncan, his sons, and Banquo arrive at Inverness, and are greeted by Lady Macbeth, who tells Duncan that their “service // In every point twice done, and then done double” (I.vi.15-6). Doubles yet again…
In the seventh and final scene of Act One, we find Macbeth soliloquizing over his dilemma. Sounding a whole lot like Brutus in Act Two, Scene One of Julius Caesar, he sees the need for the killing to be done “quickly” (I.vii.2), only instead of the general good, Macbeth’s reason to do it is “only // Vaulting ambition” (I.vii.26-7). Double bonus points for realizing that Duncan is “here in double trust: // First, as I am his kinsman and his subject…then, as his host, // Who should against his murderer shut the door, // Not bear the knife” (I.vii.12-13, 14-16).
When Lady Macbeth enters, he tells her that they will not go forward with the plan. She wonders of his courage, insinuates his “coward[ice]” (I.vii.43), and finally questions his “man[hood]” (I.vii.49 and 51). She even provides her own perversely womanly show of manliness:
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Wow. This raises any number of questions (which we’ll discuss later in our two months together), but regardless, she comes off as pretty damned ferocious. And this seems to change her husband’s mind. He agrees and says that if they ever have children, they will be “men-children only // For [her] undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (I.vii.73-74).
And thus, with newly renewed conviction (see what I doubly did there?), our Scottish power couple exit Act One with minds on manly violence, and manly violence on their minds.