In spite of what SparkNotes may say, when the witches tell Macbeth he will be Thane of Cawdor and King, it is not foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is much more subtle than that. WiseGeek defines it as giving “hints about things to come in later plot developments. It can be very broad and easily understood, or it may be [the] complex use of symbols, that are then connected to later turns in the plot.” To add to that, Buzzle says foreshadowing “can either be done in passing with the help of a comment, or as a thought that one of the characters has, as a symbolic representation through certain symbols, as well as certain other forms.” Going by this definition, the Hook revenge plot is the type of foreshadowing that is broad and easily understood.
I have just finished marking sixty exams in which students are asked to provide an example of literary devices, foreshadowing amongst them, from the works of literature studied in the semester. Invariably, students point to Macbeth and the first set of prophecies he receives from the witches early in the play. Told he will be Thane of Cawdor and king, the witches prophecies are not foreshadowing, any more than a character who states that he is about to go shopping and then leave to go to the store is foreshadowing. Conversely, the second set of prophecies may indeed be considered foreshadowing, as by this time the audience has learned the witches have the power to see the future and the prophecies are cryptic enough that one must have been paying attention to realize how they refer to Macbeth’s demise.
Foreshadowing in Macbeth occurs to predict Lady Macbeth’s death. Throughout the play, Shakespeare describes sleep as a metaphoric death. When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, she is in a state between life and death. As Macbeth’s reign is about to come to an end with the attack of the English army, the audience knows that Lady’s Macbeth’s life as she knew it is also about to come to an end. Whether she survives or not, she will no longer be queen, which is a kind of death. Seeing how badly Lady Macbeth wanted her title, for her, actual death is probably preferable. If you missed the signs, missed making the connection between sleep and death, Lady Macbeth’s death would no doubt come as a shock.
Another example is in plant and tree imagery. In Act I, before Macbeth succumbs to his ambition, Duncan tells him, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make the full of growing” (iv). Once Macbeth “plants” Duncan in the ground, he grows to be the new king. One of the markers that Macbeth’s end is near is when Birnam Wood advances on Macbeth’s Dunsinane castle. When Macbeth arrives at the witches’ lair before he receives the second set of prophecies, he comments they have, among other things, blown trees down (IV.i). When Macbeth hears the Birnam Wood prophecy, he asks “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root?” (IV.iii). This is after the witches show Macbeth an apparition of a child with a tree in his hand. Later, after seeing Banquo’s ghost, he admits to Lady Macbeth, “Stones have been known to move and trees to speak”. At this point, anyone that’s been paying attention should get the idea that trees and plants may play an important role in Macbeth’s future. This is how foreshadowing works.
Foreshadowing is difficult to incorporate into a piece of writing as it requires a great deal of planning. In the young adult novel I am currently crafting, I have been dropping breadcrumbs as to the revenant’s origin. That the necromancer responsible for Zulu’s resurrection is Malchus should come as a surprise to a few, but savvy readers will have picked up on this fact earlier in the plot than the reveal. One might ask, what keeps the reader reading if a major revelation is figured out early in the plot? Suspense is the answer. Even if the reader picks up on the clues and puts the puzzle together, he should continue reading to see if his assumption is correct. The reader is kept guessing if his interpretation is correct until the reveal, because foreshadowing done right is implicit in nature.
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Sparknotes. Macbeth Key Facts. 2012.
WiseGeek. What is Foreshadowing. 2013.