As King Duncan was conferring accolades upon him in his absence, Macbeth was travelling with Banquo from Fife to Forres. The country was rough, and the weather wild. Thunder rumbled impatiently in a dark sky. The soldiers sighed at the journey ahead of them. Again the thunder drummed on the clouds, almost like a fanfare, for then the three witches who had promised to meet before the setting of the sun were gathering like dark crows.
“Where have you been, Sister?” the first witch asked as the second as she appeared.
“Killing swine,” the second answered.
“Where have you been, Sister?” the third inquired of the first.
“Busy! Listen,” the first witch said, her face radiant with mischief. “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap. She munched away greedily. Give me one, I said. Go away, witch, the overfed hag cried. Now,” the witch chuckled, “her husband’s gone to Aleppo, master of the sailing ship the Tiger. But in a sieve I’ll follow and like a rat without a tail, I’ll do I’ll do, I’ll do him in.”
“I’ll give you a stormy sea,” said the second witch.
“A storm from me, too,” the third said.
With the promises of foul weather from her sisters the witch began her spell:
“I myself have all the other winds,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters of the map they know
In the shipman’s map.
I will drain him dry as hay,
Sleep shall be neither night nor day
Hang upon his eyelid
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary nights, nine weeks times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his ship cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.
Look what I have!”
“Show me! Show me!” the second witch said excited by the curse.
“Here I have a harbour master’s thumb,” the first witch said, her voice oozing satisfaction, “wrecked, as homeward he did come.”
Suddenly, as though a signal from their accomplices in hell, a drum began to beat.
“A drum, a drum,” the third witch said, “Macbeth does come.”
Instantly the witches began to chant:
“The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about,
Three to you, three to me,
And three again, to make up nine.
Stop! The charm’s complete.”
The witches stood still and silent, waiting eagerly for the moment they would meet Macbeth. They heard the hooves of the horses coming closer and the voices of Macbeth and Banquo becoming louder.
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” said Macbeth, his voice betraying tiredness.
“How far can we be from Forres?” Banquo asked.
Before Macbeth could answer the mist seemed to lift, as if on cue. Banquo’s voice became excited and troubled: “What are these withered and wildly attired creatures? They don’t look like inhabitants of the earth yet here they are before us!”
Macbeth and Banquo instinctively placed their hands on their swords. Battling so long and so hard, they were more inquisitive then fearful.
“Are you living?” Banquo asked. “Is it possible to speak to you?”
The witches put their fingers to their lips.
“Ah, you can at least understand me. I can infer that from those twig-like fingers alighting on your lips.”
Banquo peered at them: “You resemble women but those beards tell a different story.”
Then Macbeth addressed them impatiently: “Speak if you can- what are you?”
Like soldiers summoned by their master, the witches’ attention was immediate.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to you, Thane of Glamis!” the first witch said.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to you, Thane of Cawdor!” the second said.
“All hail, Macbeth, the soon-to-be-king!” the third said.
Instantly Macbeth became uneasy at the witches’ prophecies.
“Why do you start so, good sir?” Banquo asked Macbeth. “Why do you fear things which sound so fair?”
Macbeth was pale.
Banquo turned to the witches and quizzed them: “Speak in the name of truth. Are you fantastical or as human as your appearance indicates? You greet my noble partner with present grace and prediction of greater nobility, even royalty. Look, he’s lost in thought. To me you speak not. If you can, look into the seeds of time and tell me which grain of mine will grow and which will not. I neither beg your favours nor fear your hate.”
“Hail!” each witch said in turn.
Banquo’s face was now full of curiosity as he awaited the predictions of the witches.
“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” said the first witch.
“Not so happy, yet much happier,” the second said.
“You shall be the father of kings,” the third said, “but you won’t be a king. All hail Macbeth and Banquo!”
The witches turned to go but Macbeth called them back.
“Stay! Your story’s imperfect. Tell me more. My father, Sinel, is dead, so I have inherited his title, Thane of Glamis. But how Thane of Cawdor? Cawdor lives, a prosperous gentleman. And to be king is a prospect I believe even less than Thane of Cawdor. From whom did you get this strange story? And why stop us on this moor with your prophetic greeting? Explain yourselves?”
As soon as Macbeth finished speaking the witches vanished.
“Just like water that sinks into the earth!” Banquo said, amazed by the way the witches vanished before his eyes.
“Yes,” Macbeth said. “Into the air! Like breathing into a wind! If only they had stayed.”
Macbeth’s voice betrayed a yearning for more information, conclusive evidence of the witches’ predictions.
“Did what we speak of actually happen? Or maybe we are chewing on the insane herbs which take reason as a prisoner?” Banquo said, his voice echoing the weariness of battle.
“Your children shall be kings!” Macbeth said.
“You shall be king!”
“And Thane of Cawdor, too! Is that what they told me?”
“The self-same tune and words.”
Banquo paused, he was slipping into a contemplative state when the sound of approaching horses abruptly sobered him: “Who’s here?”
As the noise got closer they could make out the figures of two men on horseback. It was the Lords Ross and Angus on King Duncan’s errand. They greeted each other warmly then Lord Ross delivered King Duncan’s thanks to Macbeth.
“The King was delighted when he heard news of your success in battle, Macbeth. When he was told of your bravery in the fight against the rebel Macdonwald he was left speechless. Later he also heard about your battle against the Norwegians. Death never made you shudder even when you dispensed it so bravely. As thick as hail the messengers arrived with ever greater praise of your defence of Duncan’s kingdom.”
“The King,” Angus said, “has sent us with his thanks, not payments.”
“But as a taster of the glories that await you,” added Ross, “he has instructed us to confer upon you the title Thane of Cawdor. So in that title, hail, Macbeth! It is yours.”
Banquo swallowed hard. Macbeth could no longer distinguish the voices of the witches from the voices of the nobles who had just addressed him. A tremor of fear shook Banquo. The devil, he asked himself, can he speak truths?
“The Thane of Cawdor lives,” said Macbeth, his heart throbbing at the prospect of the fulfilment of the witches’ prophecy, “why do you address me with borrowed titles?”
“He who was Thane lives, it is true,” Lord Angus said, “but under judgement of his life, which is his reward. Whether he allied himself with the Norwegians or mercenarily aided, or both, I don’t know. He worked for his country’s ruin. High treason, proved and admitted, has undone him.”
Thane of Glamis and now Cawdor, too, Macbeth said to himself, the greatest honour still awaits me.
“Thank you for your pains,” Macbeth said to Ross and Angus, acknowledging their effort to locate him and convey the King’s accolade. The lords tied up their horses and took a brief rest.
Macbeth turned to Banquo and whispered to ensure the visitors wouldn’t overhear. “Do you not hope your children shall be kings? Those who promised me Cawdor promised you no less.”
Banquo was sobered by the notion that a piece of witchcraft was going to govern their lives and warned Macbeth of the consequences of prophecies.
“Think it through: you may be king as well as the Thane of Cawdor. It is strange. But sometimes to tempt us into harm the instruments of darkness tell us minor truths to betray us on those things which will have a million repercussions.”
Banquo was disheartened then disturbed by the logic that was seeping into Macbeth’s mind. He shivered and moved towards Ross and Angus, a few steps from Macbeth was needed. Macbeth was oblivious to Banquo’s discomfort.
Macbeth stood in the darkness, his breath forming in the chill. Two truths have been told, he thought. Happy indications of my imperial destiny, he said to himself, almost aloud, as though such prospects called for a celebration. He began to pace around, with every step his mind pondered the motives of the weird sisters. His mind was now having a dialogue with itself. “This interference from the supernatural can be either good or ill. If it’s ill why tell me what’s good and true. I am Thane of Cawdor. But if it is good why does my mind yield to suggestions which make my hair stand on end, my heart knocks at my ribs so fast does it beat? The battlefield enemy armed with his sword is less fearsome than this imagined foe. This…mur…murder is only imaginary but it shakes me so much that I can’t function like a man. These unreal things in real moments seem only too real.”
Banquo watched Macbeth pace and with every step he knew a plan was being hatched.
“Look,” he said to Ross and Angus, “our partner is lost in thought.”
“If fate,” Macbeth told himself, “wants me to be King, then fate must crown me of its own accord.”
“New honours are like new clothes- ill fitting.” Banquo said as they gazed at Macbeth. They laughed as they watched Macbeth wrestle with his preoccupations. Ross and Angus were unaware of the deadliness of his thinking.
“Worthy Macbeth, we’re ready to leave,” Banquo called.
“Pardon me, gentlemen. My thoughts were taken with things already half forgotten! And let me thank you again for coming here with the good news, a gesture I will never forget. Let us go to meet the King.”
Macbeth turned to Banquo and said softly, almost meekly, “Think about what we chanced upon today, and in the interval consider it fully and let us speak about it freely at a later date.”
“Gladly,” said Banquo.
“Well, friends, to the King!”