Act 1, Scene 1: the witches


The opening scene hints that chaos is lurking

The very first scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth may seem like a scene where nothing really happens. We meet three witches accompanied by their magical animals. We learn that they plan to meet with someone called Macbeth once a battle is over. This scene is short and brisk - just like the play as a whole.

However, the idea of the opening scene is to indicate that this is a world that will soon collapse into chaos. The Elizabethans believed that everything in the universe was ordered into a strict hierarchy called the Chain of Being. Upsetting this natural hierarchy would lead to the unnatural state of chaos. In Scene 1, there are indications that order has already been disturbed. This is shown through three elements.

First, the stage directions tell us that there is thunder and lightning. The fact that the setting is marked by violent weather is a sign that the world is heading for a state of chaos. The witches refer to the weather directly, for instance when they “hover through the fog and filthy air”. (1.1.13).

Second, the witches themselves are a sign of chaos. The fact that they are here - walking the earth in Scotland - signals danger, since supernatural creatures do not belong in the normal world. The Elizabethans believed in witches and thought that they were the devil’s servants. Their magical animals w...

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