Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1 Critical Analysis Essay


Please see the bottom of the page for full explanatory notes and helpful resources.

ACT IV SCENE I A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron. 
[Thunder. Enter the three Witches]
First WitchThrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second WitchThrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Third WitchHarpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
First WitchRound about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
ALLDouble, double toil and trouble;10
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Second WitchFillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALLDouble, double toil and trouble;20
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Third WitchScale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe30
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
ALLDouble, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Second WitchCool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
[Enter HECATE to the other three Witches]
HECATEO well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' the gains;40
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
[Music and a song: 'Black spirits,' &c]
[HECATE retires]
Second WitchBy the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!
MACBETHHow now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is't you do?
ALLA deed without a name.
MACBETHI conjure you, by that which you profess,50
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me60
To what I ask you.
First WitchSpeak.
Second WitchDemand.
Third WitchWe'll answer.
First WitchSay, if thou'dst rather hear it from our mouths,
Or from our masters?
MACBETHCall 'em; let me see 'em.
First WitchPour in sow's blood, that hath eaten
Her nine farrow; grease that's sweaten
From the murderer's gibbet throw
Into the flame.
ALLCome, high or low;
Thyself and office deftly show!
[Thunder. First Apparition: an armed Head]
MACBETHTell me, thou unknown power,--
First WitchHe knows thy thought:
Hear his speech, but say thou nought.70
First ApparitionMacbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;
Beware the thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.
MACBETHWhate'er thou art, for thy good caution, thanks;
Thou hast harp'd my fear aright: but one
word more,--
First WitchHe will not be commanded: here's another,
More potent than the first.
[Thunder. Second Apparition: A bloody Child]
Second ApparitionMacbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!
MACBETHHad I three ears, I'ld hear thee.
Second ApparitionBe bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born80
Shall harm Macbeth.
MACBETHThen live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;

That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder.
[ Thunder. Third Apparition: a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand ]
What is this
That rises like the issue of a king,
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?
ALLListen, but speak not to't.
Third ApparitionBe lion-mettled, proud; and take no care90
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
MACBETHThat will never be
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellion's head, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom. Yet my heart100
Throbs to know one thing: tell me, if your art
Can tell so much: shall Banquo's issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?
ALLSeek to know no more.
MACBETHI will be satisfied: deny me this,
And an eternal curse fall on you! Let me know.
Why sinks that cauldron? and what noise is this?
First WitchShow!
Second WitchShow!
Third WitchShow!
ALLShow his eyes, and grieve his heart;110
Come like shadows, so depart!
[ A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand; GHOST OF BANQUO following ]
MACBETHThou art too like the spirit of Banquo: down!
Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls. And thy hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
A third is like the former. Filthy hags!
Why do you show me this? A fourth! Start, eyes!
What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Another yet! A seventh! I'll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see120
That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry:
Horrible sight! Now, I see, 'tis true;
For the blood-bolter'd Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his.
[Apparitions vanish]
What, is this so?
First WitchAy, sir, all this is so: but why
Stands Macbeth thus amazedly?
Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites,
And show the best of our delights:
I'll charm the air to give a sound,
While you perform your antic round:130
That this great king may kindly say,
Our duties did his welcome pay.
[ Music. The witches dance and then vanish, with HECATE ]
MACBETHWhere are they? Gone? Let this pernicious hour
Stand aye accursed in the calendar!
Come in, without there!
[Enter LENNOX]
LENNOXWhat's your grace's will?
MACBETHSaw you the weird sisters?
LENNOXNo, my lord.
MACBETHCame they not by you?
LENNOXNo, indeed, my lord.
MACBETHInfected be the air whereon they ride;
And damn'd all those that trust them! I did hear
The galloping of horse: who was't came by?140
LENNOX'Tis two or three, my lord, that bring you word
Macduff is fled to England.
MACBETHFled to England!
LENNOXAy, my good lord.
MACBETHTime, thou anticipatest my dread exploits:
The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it; from this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise;150
Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o' the sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool;
This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.
But no more sights!--Where are these gentlemen?
Come, bring me where they are.

Next: Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 2

Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 1
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)

The interest in this act centres around Macbeth's relation to Macduff, who has been already pointed out as his sole opponent among the Scottish nobles. In the first scene, Macbeth is warned against him by name and resolves to put him to death; in the second, assassins, who have come too late to find him in his castle, massacre by Macbeth's orders his entire household; in the third we find him in England stirring up Malcolm to war against the tyrant, receiving the terrible news of the slaughter of his wife and children, and vowing revenge upon their murderer. We see less of Macbeth in this act than in any other, but we see enough to show us how, by this time, he has wholly given himself over to evil.

The difference between the Macbeth whom the witches waylaid and the Macbeth who seeks them out has been already pointed out. Even more terrible is the difference between the Macbeth who was "too full o' the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way," and the Macbeth who orders the massacre of Macduff's wife and children. The wanton cruelty of this crime, by which Macbeth has absolutely nothing to gain, marks the lowest point of his fall.

At the close of the act, we join with Macduff in thinking of him as "this fiend of Scotland," and look forward eagerly to the punishment that is about to be meted out to him. It will be shown later on with what art the poet contrives to regain for him a certain portion of our sympathy.

The witches who know that Macbeth is coming to consult them are revealed in a cavern preparing their enchantments. We may suppose that the caldron with all its horrible ingredients was necessary to call up the apparitions which the witches mean to show Macbeth. The student should note carefully the forms and utterances of these apparitions, and consider in what way their words confirm Macbeth in his evil purposes, and embolden him against repentance.

The speeches of the witches are thrown into the same trochaic metre that they have employed on their former appearances. The difference between this and the light iambic metre in which Hecate speaks, is one of the main reasons for rejecting that character as the interpolation of another poet than Shakespeare.

Please click here for detailed explanatory notes for the Witches' Chants (4.1.1-47) and analysis.

50. conjure, adjure. The accent is on the first syllable. The whole speech is very characteristic of the desperate recklessness of Macbeth. He is determined to have an answer from the witches, no matter what storms their enchantments raise, and no matter what destruction of life and property results.

50. profess, make claim to know.

53. yesty, frothy, like yeast.

54. navigation, ships.

55. bladed corn, corn in the green ear.

55. lodged, beaten down.

57. pyramids, towers, or steeples.

59. germens, seeds of life.

63. our masters, the evil spirits, whom the witches serve and who presently take shape as the three apparitions.

64. eaten. According to an old Scotch law a sow who ate her pigs was to be stoned to death as a monster.

65. nine farrow, litter of nine.

67. high or low, great spirit or small.

68. deftly, fitly.

68. The "armed," i.e. helmeted, head represents Macbeth's own head which was destined to be cut off by Macduff. The bloody child represents Macduff, who had been ripped from his mother's womb. Note the concealed meaning in the witch's statement that this apparition is more potent than the first.

74. harp'd, touched.

78. Had I ... hear thee, if I had more ears than I have, I'd listen to you with all of them; a figurative way of saying that Macbeth is listening with eager attention.

83. double, used here as an adverb.

84. take a bond of fate. "Fate" is probably used here in the sense of "Death." Macbeth intends to kill Macduff, and by so doing he will obtain a "bond," a sure pledge, from Death that Macduff will never harm him. Thus he will be doubly sure, first by the prediction just uttered, next by Macduff's death.

86. sleep in spite of thunder. Macbeth has already complained of his restless sleeplessness. It is natural to suppose that a stormy night, recalling to him the terrors of the night in which he murdered Duncan, would still further heighten his distress. But he thinks that if he can get rid of his last fear by killing Macduff, he will be able to rest again.

86. The third apparition represents young Malcolm; the tree represents Birnam wood.

88, 89. round And top, the crown and highest attainment.

93. Birnam wood, a forest twelve miles from Dunsinane. In this line "Dunsinane" is accented on the second syllable, elsewhere in the play on the first.

95. impress, force into service.

96. bodements, predictions.

97. Rebellious head, an army of rebels.

98. our high-placed Macbeth. The phrase seems rather awkward, coming from Macbeth himself. Possibly "our" has something of the force of the royal "We" in it. "High-placed" is thought by Dr. Liddell to refer to Macbeth's situation on Dunsinane hill.

99. the lease of nature the allotted span.

100. mortal custom, the custom of mortality, i.e. death.

106. noise, music.

111. Eight King, the eight sovereigns of the Scottish house of Stuart, from Robert II to James VI, inclusive. According to Holinshed, this house traced its descent back to Banquo.

118. I'll see, I wish to see.

119. a glass, a magic glass by means of which one could foresee the future. The eighth king who bears the glass is James VI of Scotland, ruling in England as James I when this play was written. Shakespeare meant to pay him a compliment by declaring that many of his descendants should reign. The present king of England is descended on the mother's side from James I.

121. balls, the golden orb carried by the monarch at his coronation. James was twice crowned, once in Scotland, and once in England.

121. treble sceptres, indicating the official title of the English monarchs from James I to George III, viz.: "King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland."

122. A syllable is wanting in the third foot. Its place is supplied by the pause after Macbeth's ejaculation, "Horrible sight!"

123. blood-bolter'd, with hair matted with blood.

124. What, is this so? These words, and the following lines to 132, inclusive, are almost certainly interpolated. Macbeth has just said, "I see 'tis true," and it is therefore out of keeping for him to ask the witches, "is this so?" The metre of the witch's speech is like that of Hecate in iii. 5, and unlike that which Shakespeare uses for the witches, and the suggestion of the witch that she and her sisters cheer up Macbeth by a dance, is too absurd to need discussion. The passage is one of the spectacular interpolations with which the reviser sought to increase the drawing power of Macbeth.

132. Our duties ... pay, our dutiful service (shown in the dance) gave him a welcome; an awkward and un-Shakespearean line.

134. Stand ... calendar, became a day marked in the calendar as one of ill omen.

127. sprites, spirits.

130. antic, fantastic, grotesque.

135. Enter Lennox. Lennox, we must imagine, had accompanied Macbeth on his visit to the witches, but had been left outside the cave. There is a distinct significance in the fact that the lord who, in the preceding scene, had called Macbeth a tyrant, appears here as his confidential companion. In spite of his spies Macbeth did not know how his nobles hated him.

139. damn'd all those that trust them, Macbeth does not realize that he is pronouncing judgment on himself, for, in spite of the show of the kings, he still trusts in the predictions of the witches.

144. anticipatest, preventest.

145. flightly, fleeting.

147. firstlings, first offsprings.

153. trace him in his line, his relatives.

155. sights, apparitions.

155. no more sights. Macbeth has had more than enough of the witches and their apparitions.

How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. < >.

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Summary: Act 4, scene 1

In a dark cavern, a bubbling cauldron hisses and spits, and the three witches suddenly appear onstage. They circle the cauldron, chanting spells and adding bizarre ingredients to their stew—“eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog” (4.1.14–15). Hecate materializes and compliments the witches on their work. One of the witches then chants: “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes” (4.1.61–62). In fulfillment of the witch’s prediction, Macbeth enters. He asks the witches to reveal the truth of their prophecies to him. To answer his questions, they summon horrible apparitions, each of which offers a prediction to allay Macbeth’s fears. First, a floating head warns him to beware Macduff; Macbeth says that he has already guessed as much. Then a bloody child appears and tells him that “none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.96–97). Next, a crowned child holding a tree tells him that he is safe until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Finally, a procession of eight crowned kings walks by, the last carrying a mirror. Banquo’s ghost walks at the end of the line. Macbeth demands to know the meaning of this final vision, but the witches perform a mad dance and then vanish. Lennox enters and tells Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth resolves to send murderers to capture Macduff’s castle and to kill Macduff’s wife and children.

Read a translation of Act 4, scene 1 →

Summary: Act 4, scene 2

At Macduff’s castle, Lady Macduff accosts Ross, demanding to know why her husband has fled. She feels betrayed. Ross insists that she trust her husband’s judgment and then regretfully departs. Once he is gone, Lady Macduff tells her son that his father is dead, but the little boy perceptively argues that he is not. Suddenly, a messenger hurries in, warning Lady Macduff that she is in danger and urging her to flee. Lady Macduff protests, arguing that she has done no wrong. A group of murderers then enters. When one of them denounces Macduff, Macduff’s son calls the murderer a liar, and the murderer stabs him. Lady Macduff turns and runs, and the pack of killers chases after her.

Read a translation of Act 4, scene 2 →

Summary: Act 4, scene 3

Outside King Edward’s palace, Malcolm speaks with Macduff, telling him that he does not trust him since he has left his family in Scotland and may be secretly working for Macbeth. To determine whether Macduff is trustworthy, Malcolm rambles on about his own vices. He admits that he wonders whether he is fit to be king, since he claims to be lustful, greedy, and violent. At first, Macduff politely disagrees with his future king, but eventually Macduff cannot keep himself from crying out, “O Scotland, Scotland!” (4.3.101). Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland leads him to agree that Malcolm is not fit to govern Scotland and perhaps not even to live. In giving voice to his disparagement, Macduff has passed Malcolm’s test of loyalty. Malcolm then retracts the lies he has put forth about his supposed shortcomings and embraces Macduff as an ally. A doctor appears briefly and mentions that a “crew of wretched souls” waits for King Edward so they may be cured (4.3.142). When the doctor leaves, Malcolm explains to Macduff that King Edward has a miraculous power to cure disease.

Ross enters. He has just arrived from Scotland, and tells Macduff that his wife and children are well. He urges Malcolm to return to his country, listing the woes that have befallen Scotland since Macbeth took the crown. Malcolm says that he will return with ten thousand soldiers lent him by the English king. Then, breaking down, Ross confesses to Macduff that Macbeth has murdered his wife and children. Macduff is crushed with grief. Malcolm urges him to turn his grief to anger, and Macduff assures him that he will inflict revenge upon Macbeth.

Read a translation of Act 4, scene 3 →

Analysis: Act 4, scenes 1–3

The witches are vaguely absurd figures, with their rhymes and beards and capering, but they are also clearly sinister, possessing a great deal of power over events. Are they simply independent agents playing mischievously and cruelly with human events? Or are the “weird sisters” agents of fate, betokening the inevitable? The word weird descends etymologically from the Anglo-Saxon word wyrd, which means “fate” or “doom,” and the three witches bear a striking resemblance to the Fates, female characters in both Norse and Greek mythology. Perhaps their prophecies are constructed to wreak havoc in the minds of the hearers, so that they become self-fulfilling. It is doubtful, for instance, that Macbeth would have killed Duncan if not for his meeting with the witches. On the other hand, the sisters’ prophecies may be accurate readings of the future. After all, when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane at the play’s end, the soldiers bearing the branches have not heard of the prophecy.

Whatever the nature of the witches’ prophecies, their sheer inscrutability is as important as any reading of their motivations and natures. The witches stand outside the limits of human comprehension. They seem to represent the part of human beings in which ambition and sin originate—an incomprehensible and unconscious part of the human psyche. In this sense, they almost seem to belong to a Christian framework, as supernatural embodiments of the Christian concept of original sin. Indeed, many critics have argued that Macbeth, a remarkably simple story of temptation, fall, and retribution, is the most explicitly Christian of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. If so, however, it is a dark Christianity, one more concerned with the bloody consequences of sin than with grace or divine love. Perhaps it would be better to say that Macbeth is the most orderly and just of the tragedies, insofar as evil deeds lead first to psychological torment and then to destruction. The nihilism of King Lear, in which the very idea of divine justice seems laughable, is absent in Macbeth—divine justice, whether Christian or not, is a palpable force hounding Macbeth toward his inevitable end.


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