Act Four Scene One Macbeth Analysis Essays


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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Points to Ponder ... "[The Witches'] relation to the play as a whole is no less important than to Macbeth as an individual. These creatures, whose proper element is the tempest, whose chariot is the whirl-wind, whose religion is to do the evil, form a fit setting for a drama in which the very ground rocks beneath one's feet, in which the whole action is a stormy struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil." N. B. Bowman. Read on...


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Act 4, Scene 1

The witches circle a cauldron, mixing in a variety of grotesque ingredients while chanting "double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble" (10-11). Hecate appears, they sing all together, and Hecate leaves. Macbeth then enters, demanding answers to his pressing questions about the future. The witches complete their magic spell and summon forth a series of apparitions. The first is an armed head that warns Macbeth to beware the Thane of Fife (Macduff). The second apparition is a bloody child, who tells him that "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (96-97). This news bolsters Macbeth spirits. The third apparition is a crowned child with a tree in its hand, who says that "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him" (107-09). This cheers Macbeth even more, since he knows that nothing can move a forest. Macbeth proceeds to ask his last question: will Banquo's children ever rule Scotland?

The cauldron sinks and a strange sound is heard. The witches now show Macbeth a procession of kings, the eighth of whom holds a mirror in his hand, followed by Banquo. As Banquo points at this line of kings, Macbeth realizes that they are indeed his family line. After the witches dance and disappear, Lennox enters with the news that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth resolves that he will henceforth act immediately on his ambitions: the first step will be to seize Fife and kill Macduff's wife and children.

Act 4, Scene 2

At Fife, Ross visits Lady Macduff, who is frightened for her own safety now that her husband has fled. He reassures her by telling her that her husband did only what was right and necessary. After he leaves, Lady Macduff engages her son in a conversation about his missing father. The little boy demonstrates wisdom well beyond his years. A messenger interrupts them with a warning to flee the house immediately. But before Lady Macduff can escape, murderers attack the house and kill everyone including Lady Macduff and her son.

Act 4, Scene 3

Macduff arrives at the English court and meets with Malcolm. Malcolm, remembering his father's misplaced trust in Macbeth, decides to test Macduff: he confesses that he is a greedy, lustful, and sinful man who makes Macbeth look like an angel in comparison. Macduff despairs and says that he will leave Scotland forever if this is the case, since there seems to be no man fit to rule it. Upon hearing this, Malcolm is convinced of Macduff's goodness and reveals that he was merely testing him; he has none of these faults to which he has just confessed. In fact, he claims, the first lie he has ever told was this false confession to Macduff. He then announces that Siward has assembled an army of ten thousand men and is prepared to march on Scotland.

A messenger appears and tells the men that the king of England is approaching, attended by a crowd of sick and despairing people who wish the king to cure them. The king, according to Malcolm, has a gift for healing people simply by laying his hands on them.

Ross arrives from Scotland and reports that the country is in a shambles. When Macduff asks how his wife and children are faring, Ross first responds that they are “well at peace” (180). When pressed further, he relates the story of their death. Macduff is stunned speechless and Malcolm urges him to cure his grief by exacting revenge on Macbeth. Macduff is overcome with guilt and sorrow from the murders that occurred while he was absent. Again Malcolm urges him to put his grief to good use and seek revenge. All three men leave to prepare for battle.


As the act opens, the witches carry on the theme of doubling and equivocation that threads throughout the play. As they throw ingredients into their cauldron, they chant "double, double, toil and trouble"—a reminder that their speech is full of double meanings, paradox, and equivocation (IV i 10). The apparitions that the witches summon give equivocal messages to Macbeth, and they appear to know quite consciously that he will only understand one half of their words. Although Macbeth himself has previously acknowledged that "stones have been known to move and trees to speak" (III iv 122), the apparitions give Macbeth a false sense of security. He takes the apparitions' words at face value, forgetting to examine how their predictions could potentially come true.

The theme of doubling is amplified when the witches summon the "show of kings." Each king who appears looks "too like the spirit of Banquo," frightens Macbeth with their resemblance (IV i 128). For Macbeth, it is as if the ghosts of Banquo have returned to haunt him several times over. In the procession of kings, Macbeth also notes that some carry "twofold balls and treble scepters"—as if even the signs of their power have been doubled.

On a historical note, it is generally thought the eighth king holds up a mirror in order to pander to James I. This last king—the eighth-generation descendant of Banquo—is none other than a figure of James I himself. He thus carries a mirror to signal as much to the real James I, who sits at the forefront of the audience. A similar moment of pandering occurs when Malcolm notes that the king of England has a special power to heal people affected by “the evil” (147). In various subtle ways, Shakespeare complimented King James I—a legendary descendant of Banquo and author of a book on witchcraft (Daemonologie [1597]).

James I is not the only character who is doubled in Macbeth. Throughout the play, characters balance and complement each other in a carefully constructed harmony. As a man who also receives a prophecy but refuses to act actively upon it, Banquo serves as sort of inverse mirror image of Macbeth. Although he has troubled dreams like Macbeth, his arise from the suppression of ambitions whereas Macbeth's arise from the fulfillment thereof. Other major characters, including Malcolm, Macduff, and Lady Macbeth, can also be seen as foils or doubles for Macbeth. Particularly interesting is the case of Lady Macbeth, who in some sense “switches roles” with Macbeth as the play progresses. Whereas she first advises Macbeth to forget all remorse and guilt, Lady Macbeth becomes increasingly troubled by her own guilt as Macbeth begins to heed her advice.

Another form of doubling or equivocation is found in the theme of costumes, masks, and disguises. While planning Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth counsels Macbeth to "look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't"—to "beguile the time" by disguising his motives behind a mask of loyalty (I v 61). After the murder, Lady Macbeth paints the bodyguards' faces with a mask of blood to implicate them. Similarly, while preparing to kill Banquo, Macbeth comments that men must "make [their] faces visors to [their] hearts, / Disguising what they are" (III ii 35-36). Thus when Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty, he begins appropriately by saying that "all things foul would wear the brows of grace" (IV iii 23). Even the most foul of men—perhaps like Macbeth and the murderers—are able to disguise themselves. Just as the witches’ equivocation covers up the true harm within their alluring words, disguises and masks hide the inner world from the outer.

Finally, during the scene in which the murders occur, Lady Macduff reflects the bird symbolism that began in Act 1. When Lady Macduff complains to Ross about the abrupt departure of Macduff, she states: "the poor wren / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, / Her young ones in her nest, against the owl" (IV ii 9-11). Her metaphor comes to life when she and her son are attacked by Macbeth's men. Macbeth, as earlier established, is identified with the owl; so Lady Macduff, trying to protect her son, becomes the wren in a realization of her own figure of speech. It is with particular pathos that the audience sees Macduff’s precocious son fall prey to the swords of Macbeth’s ruthless murderers.

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