Literature

A Short Analysis of ‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ from Macbeth

‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ is the opening line of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth. Spoken by the First Witch, the line immediately ushers us into a world of witches, prophecy, and black magic, elements which Shakespeare probably chose to include because the new King of England, James I, had written censoriously about witchcraft in his book Demonologie.

The best way to analyse the meaning of the opening ‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ scene is to summarise it, stage by stage. But first, here’s the scene:

Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES

FIRST WITCH

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

SECOND WITCH

When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

THIRD WITCH

That will be ere the set of sun.

FIRST WITCH

Where the place?

SECOND WITCH

Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH

There to meet with Macbeth.

FIRST WITCH

I come, Graymalkin!

SECOND WITCH

Paddock calls.

THIRD WITCH

Anon.

ALL

Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Exeunt

Now, let’s go through the scene, bit by bit, and summarise what’s going on, offering some words of analysis as we go.

Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES

This scene, according to the stage directions, takes place in ‘an open place’. Immediately, Shakespeare establishes an atmosphere of foreboding: the storm which begins Macbeth heralds the turbulent events which are going to follow, all of which the Witches have prophesied. From the outset, things are strange, out-of-kilter: fair is foul, and foul is fair, as the Witches will later (collectively) say.

FIRST WITCH

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

The First Witch asks her two fellow Witches when they will next get together. Not how the second line, ‘In thunder, lightning, or in rain’ is – as Frank Kermode noted in his brilliant Shakespeare’s Language – not really a choice, since thunder usually accompanies lightning and vice versa, and rain tends to accompany both.

As Kermode goes on to observe, such a deceptive and subtle line, which seems to offer choice that is in fact no choice, nicely introduces one of the recurrent themes of Macbeth, which is the extent to which the characters – and most of all, the title character himself – are in control of their own actions.

SECOND WITCH

When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

As Kermode also notes, battles which are lost by one side are also won by another: every battle is both lost and won. More choices which turn out not to be choices, or mutually exclusive outcomes. Of course, the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff, which will see Macbeth defeated, will be both lost by Macbeth and won by Macduff, so this line is another which prefigures the play to come. But the ‘battle’ more directly referred to here is the one which Duncan and Macbeth discuss shortly after this scene – the battle at which the traitorous rebel, the Thane of Cawdor, is defeated and Macbeth wins the praise of the King, Duncan.

‘Hurly-burly’ means tumult or uproar: the word may imply here the tumult of insurrection or revolt (the Thane of Cawdor who is executed for his treason against the King), but also suggestions that change is in the air and the kingdom is about to be plunged into violent chaos.

The word ‘done’ (‘When the hurly-burly’s done’) will resonate throughout Macbeth: it will recur in Macbeth’s own speeches (‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly’) and it is there as a homophonic presence in both Duncan and Dunsinane. Here we have the word’s first appearance, but it will return again and again throughout this short play.

THIRD WITCH

That will be ere the set of sun.

Things are moving swiftly: the Third Witch believes that the battle will be over before sunset.

FIRST WITCH

Where the place?

SECOND WITCH

Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH

There to meet with Macbeth.

The Witches have already decided to approach Macbeth after the battle, so they can tell him about the prophecy which foretells that he will be King of Scotland after Duncan.

FIRST WITCH

I come, Graymalkin!

Graymalkin or ‘Grimalkin’ in some versions literally means ‘grey Mary’, and is the name of the First Witch’s cat. Witches’ familiars are often cats in accounts of witchcraft, although ‘gray’ suggests something slightly different from the usual clichéd black cat. This is one of the earliest uses of Graymalkin/Grimalkin in literature, although not quite the first: we can find a Grimalkin in the remarkable 1550s work Beware the Cat, a London-set narrative which might be described as the first English novel. (See my AMAZON for more on this fascinating proto-Gothic text.)

SECOND WITCH

Paddock calls.

Paddock is another witches’ familiar – in this case, a toad. The word ‘paddock’ is an old English dialect term for the toad.

THIRD WITCH

Anon.

ALL

Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Exeunt

The line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is almost proverbial, and was already so when Shakespeare wrote this line. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene from the 1590s, for instance, we find the line, ‘Then faire grew foule, and foule grew faire in sight’.

Once again, here, we have the natural order being overturned and inverted, with the pair of opposites dissolving into one: fair has been rendered foul, and foul has become fair. Good and evil appear to have swapped places. Just as that battle is both lost and won, so fair and foul are indistinguishable.

‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ is among Shakespeare’s more famous opening lines, and for many it immediately conjures the world of witchcraft and prophecy in which the events of Macbeth take place. But, perhaps surprisingly, the scene has not proved universally popular with critics. The actor Harley Granville-Barker, an influential critic of Shakespeare’s plays, went so far as to describe it as a ‘pointless scene’.

Yet others have seen how the Witches’ opening exchange sets the tone and mood for the play itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge pointed out that this opening scene establishes an ‘invocation’ which is ‘made at once to the imagination’. So it is a powerful opening scene, even though it works quite differently from many other opening scenes we find in Shakespeare.

2 Comments

  1. isabellacatolica

    “It works quite differently from many other opening scenes we find in Shakespeare.”
    No doubt. Here is my guess at a possible explanation:
    The risk of opening with an extensive witch scene (even allowing for greater familiarity with the notion of witches at the time) might be that people in the audience would start to have a natter: “Have you seen a witch?” “What have witches got to do with kings and war?” “Did I ever tell you, my grandmother saw a witch once” etc, etc. “Not good”, thinks WS, “Keep it short and move on”. And so he does. When the witches figure again, in Scene 3, two important characters are now listening to them, taking them seriously, and moving the action forwards. Now the audience will pay attention; this is no time for banter. And they will have accepted, unconsciously, the witches as playing an important part in the story.
    Maybe.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Loved the analysis.

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