Bad Luck Happens in Threes: An Analysis of the use of Threes in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
Since the Mesopotamian era of 3000 B.C. numbers have been an essential part of life and are easily found throughout society, imbedded in religion, intertwined in mythology and commonly related with superstitions. Even in the twenty-first century people still believe in ancient numerical superstitions, such as the lucky number seven, or the unlucky number thirteen. During the seventeenth century William Shakespeare uses societal superstitions in his famous tragedy, “Macbeth”, by writing in a threefold literary pattern. Shakespeare reinvents the number three by relating in to evil and darkness throughout the play, providing it with a new superstitious meaning. “Macbeth” follows the transformation of the title character from thane to king, sane to evil. After putting down two rebellions against the King of Scotland, Macbeth is awarded title and favor with the gracious King Duncan. When greeted by three mysterious witches, they prophesy that Macbeth will be made Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. They also prophesize that Banquo will beget a long line of Scottish kings but will never be king himself. Macbeth and Banquo treat their prophecies sceptically until some of King Duncan’s men come to thank the two generals for their victories in battle and to tell Macbeth that he has indeed been named thane of Cawdor. In attempt to aid the prophecy, Macbeth murders the good Duncan and is crowned King of Scotland, but once his great goal to be king is achieved he begins to fear the prophecy brought forth to Banquo. In fear of being overthrown from the throne Macbeth goes on a psychotic rampage attempting to protect his future while ruining his sanity and brings upon himself his own demise. While entangling the threefold literary pattern into a tragic plot, William Shakespeare presents the appearance of three apparitions, the three murders, and the character choice of three witches to precipitate evil at the presence of the number three. Shakespeare turns the conventional and traditional meaning of three’s upside down in act one, scene one when he begins to relate the number to evil. Threes are commonly related to stability and completeness; in religion there is God omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, in time there are three divisions, past, present and future, and three grammatical persons- me, myself and I. In a dark and ominous meeting, Shakespeare introduces his audience to three women who will continue to haunt Macbeth throughout the play: the three weird sisters. As the first characters the audience has the pleasure of meeting, the witches set the mood for the entire play with a sense supernatural as “instruments of darkness” (I.iii.136). In the opening scene of the play each witch speaks three times within the first eleven lines, the first two being “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” coupling three undesirable and threatening circumstances, suggesting constrictions and limitations as these three things generally happen at the same time. The triplet pattern begins with this, giving a false sense of stability until to the audience until the witches state that what is “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.i.12). This suggests that the stability of threes is actually a farce and will bring instability and chaos.
Before their meeting with Macbeth, the fist witch informs her sisters that she has planned revenge against a sailor whose wife refused to share her chestnuts. Through her description of her plan, Shakespeare reveals to his audience that they posses great power but with limits unlike an instrument of fate would have. She plans to transport through a “sieve” (I.iii.9) to curse him but she is not powerful enough to have him shipwrecked, only to have his ship “tempest-tossed” (I.iii.26), showing their limits. As the first witch explains her plan she speaks in triplets, “I’ll...
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