Threes of Macbeth

By Bill Long 11/27/06

A Perfectly Divine Number–For Perfect Evil

Whether or not the universe is made up of threes, or the human mind is structured to think it triploid patters, I think we are on solid ground when we say that uses of threes in literature indicates that the author is trying to tell us that things are orderly or stable.

Shakespeare used the language and rhythm of "threes" in Macbeth 1.1. to turn the concept of threes on its head. Rather than being a sign that all is right with the world, the "threes" in the conduct and mouth of the Weird Sisters show the moral confusion of the universe. We are prepared by Shakespeare, then, to enter into a world of confusion and pain, of appearance v. reality, where an ordered world becomes a disordered world, though often retaining the patina of order.

Just as there is heaven, earth and hell, ruled over by a just, righteous and good God (according to the three Western monotheistic religions), so a threefold literary pattern means things are "under control." Thus it is striking to me that when Shakespeare opens Macbeth, with its 11-line first scene, he uses repeated patterns of threes.

However, because of the last two lines of the scene ("Fair is foul, and foul is fair./ Hover through the fog and filthy air," 1.1.10-11), we see that the threes will be used to precipitate moral confusion rather than moral clarity.

Apparent Order, But Real Confusion, at the Universe's Center

Let's make a list of the threes (or near threes) in Macbeth 1.1. First, there are the three Weird Sisters. They may have been modeled after the three Fates or Parcae of Greek mythology; in any case they will make a perfect trio of confusion. Then, the first lines of the play give us threes:

"When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"

Lest the reader not understand it, it is "we three." They will meet again, perhaps in "thunder, lightning, or in rain." All three of these meeting times are glum or threatening. It isn't the same as we would say: that something will happen "rain or shine." Here the options are threefold, but they are all bleak threes. As a matter of fact, the three is really one. These three things almost always accompany each other. Thus, the threefold pattern of completeness (morning, noon or night) is, as it were, imitated here but without any real alternatives among the three choices. Instead of our inviting words, "Come morning, noon or night," to suggest that a person has freedom to come at any time, the words "thunder, lightning, or in rain" suggest a constriction or limitation of possibility. Though the expansive form of the three is maintained, in fact no reality of choice exists. We will meet again, they say, when all the signs of foreboding and danger come together.

More Threes In Macbeth 1.1.

Now that the first threes have been introduced, we have other threes in their wake. Two of the three Weird Sisters will speak up, to try to specify when this threefold pattern of "thunder, lightning, rain" will be realized. One says, "When the hurly-burly's done" and "When the battle's lost and won." And the other says, "That will be ere the set of sun." In this next set of triads another interesting point occurs. Whereas before we have the limitation, rather than expansion, of choice through the use of a three, now we have moral indifference, rather than moral clarity, through a three.

How? It is in the words of the 2nd Sister/Witch. We will meet again, she suggest, when the hurly-burly of war is over. But then, she says that it will be "when the battle's lost and won." She doesn't say it will be when one side is victorious, nor does she name who will "win." It doesn't really matter to her or her sisters. All there is is a war, one that they will help to stir up as time goes one. What is the result of war? Winning and losing. As one scholar said to me once in some exasperation, "Bill, history is just people fighting and then having babies." Unlike the Greek deities portrayed in the Iliad, these Witches seem to have no commitment to anything other than stirring up strife. They don't side with anyone. They simply will meet again, after the battle is lost and won.

Ah, but when will that be? And where to meet? Another opportunity for a Shakespearean triad. Each of the three Weird Sisters now chimes in. One says that it will be ere the set of sun. Another, rhymingly, says, that they should meet upon the heath. The third chimes in, also in rhyme, "There to meet with Macbeth." All three have spoken, each in turn, giving three separate answers to the questions posed.

Concluding 1.1.

But then the Weird Sisters must go. The three of them then speak about going. Their familiar spirits call. They must go. Right away. Another three. But, before they leave, they solemnly intone what will be key lines for the play:

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air," 1.1.10-11.

So accustomed to the "threes" have we become that these lines at first take us aback, for the tone of these lines is one of moral confusion. They will meet in foul weather, but foul is fair. But, then again, fair is foul. The things that seem clear will be murky, and murkiness may eventuate in some clarity. Things will not be as they appear to be. When you think you know what you are doing, take care, because really you don't. When you think you have a loyal friend and houseguest, take care, because really you don't. The fairest of relationships, loyalty to one's sovereign, will become a foul relationship.

And this will all be courtesy of the "three-makers," the Weird Sisters. They are committed to the world of threes. They are committed, however, to their own understanding of order, which is disorder. The Scriptures say that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. In the words of Macbeth we would say that Satan, too, can speak in threes. But they are deceptive threes. Instead of upholding the moral order of the universe, they turn it upside down. And by so doing, the Weird Sisters force us to ask the question whether there is, in fact, a moral order to the universe. Maybe we are just so committed to wanting to find an order to the universe, a structure on which we can rely, a God who supposedly controls it all, that we just want to see threes wherever we go. But, in fact, the message of 1.1. in Macbeth may simply be that this quest for order, manifest in our love for threes, is simply playing into the hands of other wicked forces who are far more skillful than we at spinning out threes in speech and action.

The sobering message of 1.1 is that moral confusion, rather than clarity and order, might really be the "bottom line" in the universe. There is no God hovering above. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Those are the things that "hover" in 1.1.11. And, this confusion and "hovering" is brought about by those who know how to speak the language of order. We close the first scene, which normally is "covered" in about as much time as it takes to read it aloud, with a sense of foreboding, not only for Macbeth, but also for ourselves. Perhaps all those clarities that we seek, those unambiguous moral statements which we love, are really nothing but examples of the work of the Weird Sisters in our midst.

Apparent Order, But Real Confusion, at the Universe's Center

Let's make a list of the threes (or near threes) in Macbeth 1.1. First, there are the three Weird Sisters. They may have been modeled after the three Fates or Parcae of Greek mythology; in any case they will make a perfect trio of confusion. Then, the first lines of the play give us threes:

"When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"

Lest the reader not understand it, it is "we three." They will meet again, perhaps in "thunder, lightning, or in rain." All three of these meeting times are glum or threatening. It isn't the same as we would say: that something will happen "rain or shine." Here the options are threefold, but they are all bleak threes. As a matter of fact, the three is really one. These three things almost always accompany each other. Thus, the threefold pattern of completeness (morning, noon or night) is, as it were, imitated here but without any real alternatives among the three choices. Instead of our inviting words, "Come morning, noon or night," to suggest that a person has freedom to come at any time, the words "thunder, lightning, or in rain" suggest a constriction or limitation of possibility. Though the expansive form of the three is maintained, in fact no reality of choice exists. We will meet again, they say, when all the signs of foreboding and danger come together.

Now we are ready for a great play!

Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long

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