Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The witches meet at the pit of Acheron and brew a spell in their cauldron to create trouble, likely for Macbeth. Hecate arrives and praises their efforts, and then Macbeth appears. During his visit with the witches, three apparitions rise from the cauldron, each one giving Macbeth information about his future. The first is a helmeted head that warns Macbeth to beware of Macduff. Macbeth gives thanks for the warning. The second is a bloodied child who assures Macbeth that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." At this, Macbeth decides Macduff isn't a threat, but he plans to kill him anyway, just to be safe. The third apparition is another child. This one wears a crown and holds a tree in its hand. It says Macbeth will hold the throne until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Because the movement of an entire forest doesn't seem possible, Macbeth takes reassurance from this omen as well.

After the last apparition, Macbeth demands to know more, but the witches tell him to seek no more answers. He threatens them with a curse, and as the cauldron sinks into the earth, a procession of eight kings and Banquo's ghost enter the scene. Macbeth speaks to them, though they do not respond, and he understands from the ghost's smile that this vision is Banquo and his descendants, all kings. The final king holds a mirror, in which Banquo's line seems to stretch to infinity. Macbeth is upset, so the witches make music and dance to cheer him, and then they vanish.

Lennox arrives moments later with word that Macduff is in England. Macbeth decides to take this opportunity to ambush Macduff's castle at Fife. He plans to murder Macduff's family and servants, showing no mercy.

Analysis

The visions at the center of this scene renew Macbeth's confidence in his future. Because the witches' previous predictions have fed his ambition and given him everything he wanted, he does not pause to think that these visions may be incomplete or that the witches may not be working in his best interests. Instead, he reads the visions at face value. Thinking that the final two messages—that no one born of woman can cause him harm, and that he will not lose in battle until a forest moves to a hill—assure his victory, he ignores the first message that emphasizes Macduff as a threat. With an arrogance derived from the second and third visions, he orders an attack on Macduff's castle, showing how he has changed, perhaps under the twin burdens of power and guilt. His attack on Macduff's castle is avaricious, vindictive, and rash.

Macbeth is visibly distressed by the vision of Banquo's descendants in a long line of kings; this prediction has been plaguing him for some time. However, he makes no immediate plans to locate or eliminate Fleance. Instead, he focuses on Macduff's family, providing additional evidence that he is acting on emotion rather than deliberation. He says as much when he declares that he will now immediately act on his thoughts: "The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand." He believes he is able to adopt this approach because the second and third visions protect him, but again his ambition and arrogance are driving him to pick and choose—to believe the prophecies he likes, rather than observing them carefully as a whole. He has information about his destiny but no true understanding of it, which leads him to act rashly.

Though it is Malcolm, not Fleance, who becomes king at the end of Macbeth, Shakespeare likely added the detail about Banquo's role as the father of many kings in order to flatter James I, whose family claimed the real-life Banquo among its ancestors.

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