Most of the major events of the play are foreshadowed before they take place, although the hints can be incomplete or misleading. For example, when the witches first meet Macbeth, they reveal that he will someday be king, but they do not specify that he will obtain that position by murdering Duncan. The frequent use of foreshadowing also raises questions of agency and moral responsibility; to what extent is Macbeth responsible for his choices and actions, and to what extent is he simply fated to carry out these particular actions?
The rebellion of the first Thane of Cawdor
The play opens with the Thane of Cawdor, a Scottish nobleman, attempting to raise a rebellion against Duncan and gain the throne for himself. The rebellion is defeated, but these events hint that the political state of the kingdom is unstable and foreshadow Macbeth’s own plot to seize power. The foreshadowing becomes even more explicit when Macbeth is awarded the title of the disgraced nobleman, becoming the Thane of Cawdor himself. The audience suspects that Macbeth is going to follow in the traitorous footsteps of the man who previously held the title.
The witches’ prophecies to Banquo and Macbeth
When they first encounter Banquo and Macbeth, the witches predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, and that Banquo will become the ancestor to a line of kings without actually ruling himself. These prophecies foreshadow events that will happen later in the play, such as the murder of Duncan and the escape of Fleance. Macbeth does not simply wait to see if the predicted events will come to pass, but shapes his actions toward either encouraging them to happen or trying to prevent them (for example, he plans to kill Banquo and Fleance to make sure the prophecy does not come true).
Macbeth hearing a voice cry “Sleep no more!”
When Macbeth tells his wife about his experience murdering Duncan, he says that he thought he heard a voice cry out “Sleep no more!” This statement implies Macbeth will never again be at peace or have a clean conscience, and will never be able to rest easy. The statement foreshadows the guilt and paranoia that will torment both Macbeth and his wife for the rest of the play. It also more literally foreshadows Macbeth’s insomnia and Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking as symptoms of their guilty consciences.
Macbeth’s bloody hands
When Macbeth first meets his wife after murdering Duncan, his hands are covered in blood. This image foreshadows the fact that Macbeth is going to commit more violent acts. It also foreshadows how Lady Macbeth’s guilt will eventually drive her mad. Later in the play, she will hallucinate that she is perpetually washing her hands, unable to clean them, which symbolizes her inability to find peace after her involvement in the murder. When Lady Macbeth states, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (5.1.39), she demonstrates that she is suffering the torment foreshadowed on the night of the murder.
Predictions about threats to Macbeth
In Act 4, Scene 1, the witches make a number of predictions that Macbeth interprets as being in his favor. For example, they predict that no one borne of a woman will harm him. These predictions serve as ironic foreshadowing because they hint at events to come later, including Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff, and show how Macbeth misinterprets prophecies based on his own arrogance. Because he wants to believe that he will be able to maintain power, he makes assumptions about what the prophecies are predicting and then uses these assumptions to justify continuing to commit crimes. Foreshadowing does not simply hint at what events will come, but shapes the events of the plot based on how characters respond to what they believe is being predicted.