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Foreshadowing in Macbeth

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Instructor: Sarah Bostock
Shakespeare uses foreshadowing in Macbeth to create suspense throughout the play. Learn about the foreshadowing Shakespeare used, from the prophecies of the witches and Hecate and the apparitions prophecy to the Death of King Duncan and the fatal results of Macbeth's delayed understanding. Updated: 12/21/2021

What Is Foreshadowing?

When you read a book or watch a movie, do you like getting hints about what is to come? If so, you enjoy a literary technique known as foreshadowing. William Shakespeare's use of foreshadowing in Macbeth is what makes the play so suspenseful for his audience to watch.

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  • 0:00 What Is Foreshadowing?
  • 0:20 The Witches and Their…
  • 1:18 Hecate and the…
  • 2:33 Death of Duncan, King…
  • 3:59 Macbeth Understands…
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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The Witches and Their Prophecies

William Shakespeare included supernatural elements in many of his tragedies, but Macbeth stands out among the others for its dark tone. In the very first scene of Act I, Shakespeare introduces his audience to the Weird Sisters. The Weird Sisters are three witches who tell prophecies, or make predictions about things to come. They inform the audience from the very beginning that, 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair,' meaning that appearances aren't always what they seem.

In Act 1, Scene 3, the witches tell Macbeth that he will be made Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. Shakespeare uses this scene to tell the audience and Macbeth of things to come, but he also uses it as motivation for his character Macbeth. After hearing the predictions, Macbeth and later his wife, grow very ambitious to rise to power and kill King Duncan.

Hecate and the Apparitions Prophecy

In Act 3, Scene 5, the Weird Sisters are scolded by Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft for making prophecies without her permission. Hecate tells the witches and the audience, 'This night I'll spend/Unto a dismal and a fatal end.' Hecate's words reveal that she will change the course of future events with her magic. She also instructs the witches to meet her the next morning.

In Act 4, Scene 1, the witches meet with Macbeth once again, and they chant Shakespeare's well-known line, 'Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.' Here the witches conjure up three apparitions or ghosts that give messages to Macbeth. The first apparition tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff. The second apparition tells Macbeth that no one who was born from a woman can cause him harm. Finally, the last apparition informs Macbeth that he won't be destroyed until, 'Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him.' Obviously, these things don't seem possible, so Macbeth feels invincible. The witches' final predictions of this scene do come true at the end of the play.

Death of Duncan, King of Scotland

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth kills Duncan, the King of Scotland. In the following scene, Macbeth tells his wife that he heard a voice that said, 'Sleep no more!' Macbeth realizes that he is no longer innocent and states that 'Macbeth shall sleep no more!' This foreshadows both Macbeth's insomnia and his wife's eventual slip into insanity. Later, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks through the castle repeating the infamous phrase, 'Out, damned spot! Out, I say!'

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