The last time I read Macbeth was in college, so I was long overdue to read it again. It is the perfect Shakespeare play to read during the month when the veil between worlds is thinnest. I was barely into the play when I decided what I would be writing about: the symbolism of the number three in the play.
Before looking at the text, I want to provide a little bit of historical information which I think is important to understanding the meaning of the number three in Macbeth, which I refer to as the unholy trinity. During the time when Shakespeare was writing, England was experiencing profound social upheaval, which was the cause for much concern. The primary cause for this concern was the Elizabethan belief that what happens on earth is a reflection of what is happening in Heaven, or, “on earth as it is in heaven.” So the displacement of the nobility by the merchant class, and the fact that the traditional patriarchal rule of England was now controlled by an unwed woman, led many to speculate that the realm of the divine was also being turned upside down and that unholy beings were possibly assaulting the divine throne of God. This idea is key in the play and is expressed in the very first act when the three witches say in unison: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” If you want to find out more about this, I highly recommend The Elizabethan World Picture by E. M. W. Tillyard. (Click here to view the book on Amazon).
OK, now on to the number three. First, it is a fairly common belief that bad luck comes in threes. I have personally noted that when someone I know dies, the death is usually followed by two more deaths of people to whom I am acquainted. This idea, accompanied by the possibility that the Holy Trinity in Heaven may be usurped or turned topsy-turvy by an unholy trinity, sets the stage for Macbeth.
The first use of the number three relates to the number of witches. The three witches appear together throughout the play and generally portend dire events. In fact, much of their predictions and conjuring has to do with three. When the witches first meet Macbeth, they address him by three titles: Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and finally, King. Then, there is the classic cauldron scene, which opens with the following lines:
1. Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.
2. Witch: Thrice and once the hedgepig whined.
3. Witch: Harpier cries “’Tis time, ‘tis time.”
Finally, as Macbeth joins the scene, the witches conjure three apparitions, and each of the apparitions shouts Macbeth’s name three times: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!”
I mentioned earlier the idea that deaths come in threes. It is worth noting that there are three murderers who are employed by Macbeth to carry out the foul deeds. There are also three murders that are actually performed on stage, those of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s son. Even though there are other murders (such as that of Lady Macduff and the rest of her children), there are only three that are actually acted out as part of the play.
In addition to the ones I mentioned, there are many more instances of three throughout the play, mainly the repetition of words three times. There is also a great discussion between the Porter and Macbeth regarding the three things that drinking alcohol provokes in a person. I encourage you to dust of your copy off the cursed play and read it during this dark season, and when you do, take notice of how often the number three appears, directly and indirectly.