The Pattern of Three in Macbeth

Categories: Macbeth

The use of repetition by authors helps them to create patterns that their audience can easily relate to for particular contexts. The rhythm that is created through repetition brings the attention of the audience to a specific idea, which enables them to grasp the message being passed across by the author. In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the writer extensively uses repetition of words, images, and occurrences to develop pattern and themes in the play.

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Examples of repetitions in the text include manliness, recurrence of three, milk, madness, light and dark, birds, signs, and many others.

The most notable form of repetition is the recurrence of three that is used mainly across the play to develop the tragic characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.

The recurrence of three is displayed in the play through having three witches, three prophecies, three meetings of the witches, reference to three times by the witches, and the repetition of the certain phrases thrice. The three witches give three predictions that come to pass in the play. The first prophecy is that ‘Macbeth will become the ‘Thane of Cawdor,’ the second is that Macbeth will become a king, and the third is that Banquo’s sons and his lineage will be kings. The three prophecies are fulfilled in the play one after the other. The fulfillment of the first prophecy immediately occured when the Thane of Cawdor was arrested of treason and the second prophecy turns Macbeth into an ambitious man with wicked schemes, which causes him to kill the king and ascend to the throne to fulfill the prophecy.

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The witches call Macbeth three different names that are ‘Thane of Glamis,’ ‘Thane of Cawdor,’ and future king of Scotland. The second title of the ‘Thane of Cawdor’ is given to Macbeth by King Duncan as a reward for defeating the Norwegian forces shortly after receiving the prophecies. There is a repetition of the phrase ‘thrice to thine’ by the witches, which they used to chant spells and raise charms to perform certain magic and rituals. The witches also use the phrase ‘hail’ three times before explaining the third prophecy to Banquo. The repetition of certain words three times also occurs in Act 4, Scene 1, when Macbeth meets the witches for the second time. For instance, they repeat the statement “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron”(101) three times when they are enchanting the cauldron and throwing into it gruesome parts of plants and animals as portions for a sacrifice. The apparitions also call out Macbeth’s name three times before explaining to him what they mean.

Additionally, the play has three apparitions that appear as an armed head, a bloody child, and a boy holding a tree in his arms. The witches met three times in the play where the first time, they agree to meet Macbeth and prophecy to him about his future in Act 1, Scene 1. The second time, the witches meet Macbeth and Banquo where they proclaim the three prophecies in Act 1, scene 3. They lastly meet in Act 4, Scene 1, where Macbeth seeks their counsel, but they predict his downfall by explaining his future ambiguously through dubious statements. In Act 4, Scene 5, Macbeth repeats the word ‘to-morrow’ three times to set a tone for grieving the death of his wife. In Act 2, Scene 3, Porter and MacDuff have a great discussion about the three things that alcohol provokes that such as reducing libido. Porter said, “Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock, and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three thing.” Macduff replies, “What three things does drinking especially provoke?” He (Porter) replied, “Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes: It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” (49) Therefore, the recurrence of certain things three times is majorly used in the play, which must be noticed by the audience since it is also applied in critical scenes.

Shakespeare repeats various things three times in the play to create a pattern of the rule of three. Shakespeare used the three witches also known as “Wayward Sisters” or “Weird Sisters” to represent the Three Fates of Classical Mythology where the number three is believed to be bad luck as it creates unholy trinity. During Shakespeare’s time, the number three was regarded unlucky and the repetitions of particular occurrences three times created powerful black magic that led to misfortunes and imminent destruction. In Christianity, it is believed that three is a number associated with the holy trinity of God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Conversely, in witchcraft, it was believed that three is an evil number and anyone associated with it could over time come to ruin since it was a bad omen that attracted evil forces. Shakespeare also ties the rule of three to the witches sisters to portray how the witches were considered to be most wicked and dangerous people during his lifetime. For instance, Macbeth and his wife believing in the three prophecies turned them into wicked people that killed King Duncan and comrade. The witches acted as the catalysts that made evil grow inside Macbeth and lady Macbeth where they used them as puppets for their wicked course. Macbeth could not have killed the king without the influence of three prophecies, which is shown in his hesitation to murder Duncan. In Act 1, Scene3, Banquo warns Macbeth how witches use trifle honesty to win over people to their wicked schemes. “The instruments of darkness tell us truth; Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.” (15) The act shows how the witches were evil and treacherous people that could destroy a person’s life. The wickedness of the witches is portrayed clearly in Act 1, Scene 3, where they conjure spells to harm an innocent navy captain whose wife had refused to share food with one of them. Besides, the rule of three and the evil associated the number is also portrayed by the three apparitions that explain how the downfall of Macbeth will come to pass dubiously.

Furthermore, the witches also repeat certain phrases three times when enchanting spells to arouse dark powers that resulted in wickedness portrayed in the play. Therefore, the three witches represented a form of unholy trinity that creates tragedies in the society. The three apparitions call the name of Macbeth three times as a way to summon to his spirit, soul, and body. It was believed that the spirit of a person represents their subconscious, unconscious, and intuition, which can travel in the spiritual realm or astral world. The soul represents emotions, will, and intellect, which determines the personality of an individual. Therefore, the apparitions and witches calling Macbeth’s name three times aroused evil power to control his inner man, which caused evil and tyranny to grow inside him and lead to his destruction. The evil associated with three also leads to the deaths of three main characters on the stage that are King Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s son. Most of the phrases repeated thrice in the play are associated with certain forms of wickedness, which proves that three is a number that represents evil.

The contribution of the pattern to the play, the author uses recurrence of three to bring the attention of the audience to essential information. He uses recurrence of three to connect with the audience’s awareness about the magic associated with the number, which helps us to grasp the message conveyed through the play. Repetition helps the audience to understand between the struggle of good and evil that the righteous will always prevail no matter how powerful can the wicked become. Through the belief that bad luck always comes in threes, the writer uses the number to develop the tragedy in the play. The numerous recurrences of three in scenes of the witches help the author to emphasize the belief to the audience that there is magic in things that occur three time, which is why the number is associated with tragedy. The rule of three also made the play enjoyable as it helped the audience enjoy it and appreciate the power of magic being superstitious themselves. Shakespeare knew that by repeating words or an occurrence three times, he would have cemented it in the minds of the audience.

The pattern causes the audience to have a thrilling experience and help them understand the consequences of giving yourself over to instruments of darkness. It helps the reader to notice the deceptive maneuvers used by the witches to deceive Macbeth and make him think that he is destined for greatness. Conversely, the pattern also causes the audience to have sympathy for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth since they are used to deliver essential messages that develop their tragic characters. For example, the repetition of the word “tomorrow” three times after the death of his wife shows how he has turned into a wicked ambitious man who does not care what happens to others. Additionally, the use of the rule of the three makes the audience to perceive witchcraft as a strange concept that can cause havoc in the world. The pattern makes the witches speak in rhythmic couplets compared to unrhymed verses applied in other scenes of the play, which helps the audience to understand their evil nature that is portrayed by their malevolence and unearthliness in Act 1, Scene 1. Lastly, the pattern also helps the audience to notice the unholy trinity that witches create by being three and repeating evil spells and chants.

The recurrence of three in the play can go unnoticeable since it is portrayed in having three witches, three meetings of the witches, the prophecies, and repetition of certain phrases three times. Thus, creating a pattern of bad luck that is shown in the unethical behavior Macbeth develops and the tyrannical nature that forces people to rebel and ousts him out of power. The pattern reveals to the audience the true nature of instruments of darkness and the consequences for associating with them. Macbeth downfall proves Banquo’s statement that the evil only entices humans with honest trifles too, later on, cause their destruction. Therefore, the pattern ensures that the audience gets to understand the battle between good and evil along with the consequences of associating with either side. The pattern ensures that the audience gets to understand Shakespeare’s message in the play. The recurrence of three is majorly portrayed by the witches who also use it to bring attention to essential information in the play, which makes it look supernatural.

Work Cited

  1. Gaiman, Neil. ‘Unholy Trinity: The Number Three in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.” WordPress, 12 Oct. 2013, Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.
  2. Shakespeare, William. Cambridge School. NEW YORK, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Cite this page

The Pattern of Three in Macbeth. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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