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The mystery of Macbeth's macabre opening scene

20 November 2015

Dr Huw Griffiths from the Department of English offers insight into the witchcraft and superstitions of Shakespeare's times.

An illustration of Macbeth and the Witches. Image: Thomas Barker/Wikimedia Commons

An illustration portraying Macbeth and the three witches. Image: Thomas Barker/Wikimedia Commons

Frightening figures or comic relief? In the latest installment of 702 ABC Sydney Drive's Self-Improvement Wednesday program Dr Huw Griffiths, from the University of Sydney's Department of English, explains the role of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth and how 17th century beliefs about witchcraft and the occult play out in the Bard's famous tragedy.
As Dr Griffiths explains, the first scene of the play sets up an air of mystery — with a crash of thunder and lightning, and three unexplained figures. The figures do not introduce themselves but, rather, have a nearly inexplicable conversation: "When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?". The short scene ends with the famous words, "Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air."
"We're none the wiser at the end of this scene who these people are, what they are about, or even if they are really people," Dr Griffith says.
"When other characters Banquo and Macbeth meet them a few scenes later, they too are completely puzzled by these characters, who just seem to be there to manufacture doubt and confusion right from the start."
Listen to Dr Griffith’s full lesson.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)