Has anyone ever noticed the difference between the First, Second, and Third Witches in the content delivered in Macbeth?
The First Witch tell Macbeth of the past, what has already happened, what he already knows:
- “Thane of Glamis!” (I.iii.48)
Macbeth has been Thane of Glamis since his father’s death; he is aware of it.
- Her Apparition comes in the form head helmeted for battle, and tells Macbeth to “beware Macduff” (IV.i.93)…but he already knew that.
The Second Witch tells Macbeth of the present (or what has happened but of which Macbeth is still unaware):
- “Thane of Cawdor” (I.iii.49)
We know from Act One, Scene Two that the traitorous Thane of Cawdor has been stripped of that title, which is now going to Macbeth; as far as Macbeth knows in this scene, “The Thane of Cawdor lives, // A prosperous gentleman” (I.iii.72-73).
- Her Apparition comes in the form of a bloody baby, and tells Macbeth that “none of woman born // Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.102-103).
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Remember back when I was discussing the plot for this act, I noted that there was a difference in the visual information and the aural information. Aurally, it could be interpreted that since everyone had a mother (“of woman born”), Macbeth is safe. Of course, we know that a vaginal birth is not the only way of delivery. But Macbeth doesn’t think about this, he thinks only of a newborn baby (is personal experience clouding his thoughts here? see given suck…). He pays no attention to the visual aspect, the bloody baby. In Shakespeare’s day, without modern surgical expertise, vaginal births were less bloody than Caesarian births. There’s also the ironic mention of the “pow’r of man” (IV.i.102); the power of man (or at least Macbeth) is fairly well controlled by the power of women in this play. Regardless, this is information about something that has already happened (Macduff had been born by C-Section), but Macbeth doesn’t know that. Yet.
The Third Witch tells Macbeth of a future that will come to pass:
- “shalt be king hereafter” (I.iii.50)
He’s not king now at this point in the play, but he does become king (or we probably wouldn’t have the play in the first place)
- Her Apparition comes in the form of a crowned child, who holds a tree in his hand, and tells Macbeth that he “shall never vanquished by until // Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill // Shall come against him” (IV.i.114-16).
Aurally, Macbeth hears that the woods have to move themselves (impossible); visually, however, it’s a crowned child holding a tree. It will be Malcolm the prince who will tell his soldiers to take up a branch from Birnam Wood and carry it before him to mask the size of their army. This will all happen in the future, and seemingly both this and the earlier prophecy “stands not within the prospect of belief” (I.iii.74).
Those last two are tricky. Lies wrapped in seeming truths (safety in Macbeth’s life is a lie; “impossibility” is Macbeth’s aural truth). Now that doesn’t sound equivocal at all, right?
Regardless, First, Second, and Third Witches: Mistresses of the Past, Present, and Future…