It was beginning to grow dark. Thunder rumbled and the heath was covered with mud. Three deformed shapes crept out of the slime.
‘Where hast thou been, sister?’
‘Sister, where thou?’
‘A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched, and munched, and munched:
‘Give me,’ quoth I:
‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger: But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do and I’ll do!’
‘I’ll give thee a wind.’
‘And I another.’
‘I myself have all the other; And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know In the shipman’s card.’
‘I’ll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
Look what I have.’
‘Show me, show me!’
‘Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wracked as homeward he did come.’
A drumbeat, marking the progress of an army on the march, could be heard approaching.
‘A drum! a drum! Macbeth doth come.’
The three joined hands and began moving slowly in a circle.
‘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.’
Macbeth and Banquo walked ahead of their troops.
‘What a day,’ said Macbeth. ‘Victory and filthy weather. I’ve never seen so fair and foul a day.’
‘How far is it to Forres?’ said Banquo. He stopped short as three human shapes rose in front of them. ‘What are these?’ he said. ‘So withered and strangely dressed that they don’t look like anything that lives on the earth.’ He shut his eyes tight then opened them again. ‘But they are definitely on it.’ He took a step towards them. ‘Are you living creatures? Or something that we should fear?’
The three women cackled hysterically then hopped about saying ‘shhh’ and placing their bony fingers on their skinny lips.
‘You seem to be women but your beards cast doubt even on that,’ said Banquo.
‘Speak if you can,’ said Macbeth. ‘What are you?’
‘All hail, Macbeth!’ cawed the first witch. ‘Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!’ Macbeth and Banquo glanced at each other.
‘All hail, Macbeth,’ screamed the second witch. ‘Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!’
Macbeth laughed nervously. Banquo stared at the women.
‘All hail Macbeth!’ cooed the third witch. ‘That shalt be king hereafter!’
‘Good Sir,’ said Banquo as Macbeth recoiled. ‘Why do you start and seem to be afraid of things that sound so favourable?’ He turned back to the three creatures.
‘Are you real or what? Who are you? You greet my partner showing knowledge of who he is and promise him great things, including the hope of royalty – which makes him speechless. You don’t say anything to me. If you can look into the future and tell who will prosper and who won’t, speak to me then.’ They looked up slowly, their eyes boring into him.
‘Hail,’ said the first, somberly.
‘Hail,’ said the second.
‘Hail,’ said the third.
There was a pause. When the first witch spoke again her voice was like iced water.
‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.’
The second witch shook her head slowly. Her voice was low and snake-like.
‘Not so happy, yet much happier.’
The third witch pointed at him. ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none. So, all hail, Macbeth and Banquo.’
‘Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!’ said the first witch. They glided backwards and began merging with the gloom.
‘Stop!’ said Macbeth. ‘Is that all? Tell me more. I know I’m Thane of Glamis as a result of Sinel’s death. But Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor is alive and well. And as for being king! It’s no more believable than being Thane of Cawdor. Tell me where you get this strange information. Or why you stop us on this blasted heath with such a prophetic greeting. Speak up, I command you!’
They had gone.
‘These are bubbles of the earth,’ said Banquo. ‘Where have they gone?’
‘Vanished into the air. And what seemed solid melted like breath in the wind. I wish they had stayed.’
‘Were we seeing things?’ said Banquo. ‘Have we gone mad?’
Macbeth gazed at his friend for a moment then he laughed. ‘Your children will be kings.’ He doubled over and roared. Banquo began laughing too.
‘And you’ll be king,’ he said, slapping Macbeth on the back.
‘That’s not all. Thane of Cawdor too. Isn’t that how the song it went?’
‘That very tune,’ said Banquo. ‘And the words too.’
They heard someone coming and two shapes – men on horseback – emerged from the darkness.
‘Who’s that?’ said Banquo.
The two men dismounted and showed themselves to be Ross and Angus. After warm greetings and hearty handshakes Ross addressed Macbeth.
‘The King is delighted with the news of your success,’ he said. ‘He’s especially impressed with your courageous rampage among the formidable Norwegian ranks. Reports about you came thick as hail and everyone raved about you.’
‘He’s sent us to thank you,’ said Angus. ‘And to escort you to him.’
‘He’s going to reward you,’ said Ross. ‘And for a start he’s told me to address you as Thane of Cawdor. And so – ‘ He bowed. ‘Hail, most worthy Thane, for that’s your title.’
Macbeth drew in his breath.
‘What!’ exclaimed Banquo. ‘Can the Devil speak the truth?’
‘The Thane of Cawdor is alive,’ said Macbeth. ‘Why do you dress me in borrowed clothes?’
‘The man who was the Thane is alive,’ said Angus. ‘But he’s under a heavy death sentence. What he was up to I don’t know exactly but he’s committed capital treasons: that’s been proved and he’s confessed. So that’s the end of him.’
Macbeth reflected on what had happened. Glamis and Cawdor, they had said. Two thirds of the weird women’s words had already proved true! ‘Thanks for your trouble,’ he said. He leant over to Banquo and spoke softly in his ear. ‘Don’t you have hope that your children will be kings?’
‘If you follow that to its logical conclusion it might yet bring you the crown in addition to Thane of Cawdor,’ said Banquo. ‘But this is very strange: sometimes, to bring us to destruction, the forces of darkness tell us truths – convince us with simple facts, to betray us in more serious matters.’
Ross and Angus were talking quietly a few yards away. Banquo looked towards them. ‘Cousins,’ he said. ‘A word.’ He patted Macbeth’s arm then left him.
Macbeth was immersed in confusion. What did it mean? He tried to apply reason to it. The weird women had told him two truths as innocent prologues to the imperial theme. This couldn’t be bad. Nor could it be good. If it was bad why did it promise such success for him, beginning with an indisputable fact? He was Thane of Cawdor after all. But if it was good, why did it make him think about doing something so unnatural that it made his hair stand up on end and his heart pound furiously – knocking against his ribs? His worst moments of fear in battle were nothing to the horrors of his imagination now. The thought that kept coming to him was so outrageous, so unsettling, that he was losing all sense of reality.
Banquo whistled. Macbeth glanced up: they were watching him and laughing.
‘Look at him, said Banquo. ‘Wrapt in thought.’
Macbeth smiled at them. But his mind was still full. If it was his fate to be king then Fate would make him king without his having to lift a finger.
‘He’s having difficulty with his new honours,’ said Banquo. ‘Which are like new clothes that don’t really fit till we’ve worn them for a while.’
Macbeth snapped out of it. Come what may, matters would run their course.
‘Come on, Macbeth,’ said Banquo. ‘We’re waiting for you.
‘Forgive me,’ said Macbeth, hurrying towards them. ‘My exhausted brain was full of battle details. Gentlemen, I won’t forget the trouble you’ve taken.’
A young groom stood waiting with horses, which the two captains now mounted.
‘Let’s go,’ said Macbeth.
Before galloping off Macbeth went up close to Banquo. ‘Think about what’s happened,’ he said, ‘and when we’ve got more time to ourselves, when we’ve weighed it all up, we’ll discuss it again. But let’s drop it now. Come friends.’