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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.

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The Harvard Classics.  1909-14.

[A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron]
Thunder. Enter the three Witches

  1. Witch.  Thrice the brinded 1 cat hath mew’d.

  2. Witch.  Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin’d.
  3. Witch.  Harpier cries; ’tis time, ’tis time.
  1. Witch.  Round about the cauldron go;         4

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