The Witches' Prophecy

Act 1 Scene 3 – Key Scene

In this scene, we meet Macbeth for the first time. The witches gather on the moor and cast a spell as Macbeth and Banquo arrive. The witches hail Macbeth first by his title Thane of Glamis, then as Thane of Cawdor and finally as king. They then prophesy that Banquo’s children will become kings. Macbeth demands to know more but the witches vanish. Ross and Angus arrive to tell Macbeth that he has been given the title Thane of Cawdor by Duncan.

You can take a look at the scene here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    Enter MACBETH and BANQUO, drenched in blood with torches.
    So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
    How far is’t called to Forres?

    Forres is a place near to King Duncan’s camp.

    The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
    Posters of the sea and land,
    Thus do go, about, about,
    Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
    And thrice again, to make up nine.
    Peace, the charm's wound up.
    What are these
    That look not like the inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
    And yet are on’t?
    – Live you, or are you aught
    That man may question?

    Banquo is not sure whether the witches are human because of how they look. What do you imagine they look like?

    Speak, if you can: what are you?
    First Witch
    All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis.
    Second Witch
    All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Cawdor.
    Third Witch
    All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter.

    Why do you think Macbeth doesn’t respond immediately to the witches’ prophecies?

    Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear
    Things that do sound so fair?
    – I’th’ name of truth,
    Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
    Which outwardly ye show? My noble partner
    You greet with present grace, and great prediction
    Of noble having, and of royal hope,
    That he seems rapt withal;
    to me you speak not.
    If you can look into the seeds of time,
    And say which grain will grow, and which will not,

    Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
    Your favours, nor your hate.

    Why are you scared by words that promise an amazing future?

    You have given my friend such great news about what his future holds that he is completely spellbound.

    If you can foretell what will happen in the future and say what will happen and what won't.

    First Witch
    Second Witch
    Third Witch
    First Witch
    Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
    Second Witch
    Not so happy, yet much happier.
    Third Witch
    Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
    So all hail Macbeth, and Banquo.

    Your children and descendants will be kings.

    First Witch
    Banquo, and Macbeth, all hail.
    The WITCHES turn to leave.
    Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
    I know I am Thane of Glamis,
    But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
    A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
    Stands not within the prospect of belief,

    No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
    You owe this strange intelligence
    , or why
    Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
    With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.

    The idea of being king is completely unbelievable.

    How many questions do Macbeth and Banquo ask of the witches and why do you think the witches don’t answer?

    WITCHES vanish.
    (Text edited for rehearsals by Polly Findlay and Zoe Svendsen)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out? Who asks more questions and who seems to be in control?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Macbeth at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this supernatural scene feel right to you?