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Literature Study GuidesMacbethAct 1 Scene 1 Summary

Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 1

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth.

Macbeth | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



Three witches gather in an outdoor location while a storm brews. They agree to meet again after a battle, also brewing, takes place. Following this battle, they will greet Macbeth. Once this meeting is arranged, they disappear from the scene, called away by Graymalkin and Paddock—their familiars, or spirits that assist them in doing evil.


Although the witches appear in only four scenes, they are catalysts for the action in the play, and they set up the dark mood that hangs over events that follow. While their motivations for choosing Macbeth as the focus of their activities and their instrument in destabilizing the ruling order is never made clear, they seem to relish the prospect of the upcoming battle and chaos, calling it "hurly-burly." This old-fashioned British term might bring to mind any sort of chaotic scuffle, so in this context it covers all of the duplicitous activities unfolding, as well as the actual warfare at hand. The witches summon thunderstorms with their meeting, which also reflects their ominous intentions and the play's mood. The mood of malevolence that hangs about the witches is enhanced when two of them reference their familiars by their pet names. Graymalkin is a cat—likely a gray one—and Paddock is a toad. Here, Shakespeare alludes to the common belief that witches use animals as familiars, or messengers between themselves and the devil. Their last chant—"fair is foul, and foul is fair"—reflects a disregard for fairness or goodness and a preference for that which is foul or evil.

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