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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE I
Thunder crashes, and the witches appear. They have been out of the play since Act I, except for the unnecessary Scene V of Act III, so the beginning of this scene reminds us of who and what they are.
As the witches dance around the cauldron, they chant the recipe for the evil mess they are brewing:
Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake, Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog Act IV, Scene i, lines 14-17
Their ingredients make a wonderfully nasty list, but an evil one too: "Scale of dragon... Witch's mummy... finger of birth- strangled babe...." These are not just strange women; they are evil creatures.
Hecate appears. Again, Shakespeare probably did not write this section. It seems like another excuse for music and song, and it does nothing to move the plot forward.
Into this creepy, dreary fog-filled place comes Macbeth. He strides in boldly, as if he belonged there. In fact, when one of the witches senses Macbeth coming, she chants, "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes" (lines 44-45).
The Macbeth who presents himself to the witches is not the same man they met in Act I. That man recoiled from these weird hags, even though he was enticed by what they said. The Macbeth who comes in now is a man totally dedicated to evil.
The Macbeth the witches first waylaid was afraid of what would happen if he did something evil. (Remember how he argued with his wife in Act I, Scene vii). This Macbeth starts by announcing that even if the entire world fall apart as a result, he wants answers to some questions. The theme of physical nature being affected when people do sinful things that are against human nature is found in Macbeth's demand for answers:
though the treasure Of nature's germens tumble all together, Even till destruction sicken, answer me To what I ask you. Act IV, Scene i, lines 58-61
He is saying he does not care if the order of all creation is wrecked by what he does. Remembering the weird events that followed Duncan's murder, that possibility doesn't seem so far- fetched.
Macbeth's resolve is further demonstrated when the witches give him a choice of talking with them or with their masters. Any normal person would have to think twice (at least) before asking to see the demon masters of these hags. Macbeth, however, immediately shouts, "Call 'em, let me see 'em" (line 63).
The witches conjure up three strange visions, and each gives Macbeth a specific piece of information:
First, an "Armed Head" appears. That means the head of a man wearing the headpiece from a suit of armor. This apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff, the Thane of Fife. Macbeth says that he already was worried about Macduff, but the figure vanishes.
The second apparition is a bloody child. The demon tells Macbeth to be "bloody, bold, and resolute" (line 79), as if Macbeth needed that advice. But he gives Macbeth a good reason to be confident: "Laugh to scorn the pow'r of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (lines 79-81). Macbeth is pleased by this prophesy, but he plans to kill Macduff anyway.
Finally, a child wearing a crown and holding a tree in its hand appears. This figure says Macbeth will never be defeated until "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him" (lines 93-94). This assurance is even more comforting to Macbeth than the previous one. You can tell that Macbeth thinks he is being told that he is invincible, but you know there has to be a trick. In this play, nothing is what it appears to be.
The form each apparition takes is an indication of doom. The Armed Head could be Macbeth's head, which Macduff will cut off. The bloody child who tells Macbeth to fear no man born of woman could be Macduff, who was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. (That means he was delivered in a crude version of what we today call a cesarean section. So, he was never born of a woman in the normal way.) The child with a tree in his hand might represent Malcolm, who will tell his soldiers to carry branches from the trees in Birnam Wood to disguise their approach. But Macbeth knows only what he has been told. The one warning sounds helpful, the two prophesies sound like good news to him.
There is one thing more he wants to know, though. Will Banquo's line inherit the throne? The witches do not want to answer, but Macbeth insists.
The witches show him a ghostly procession of eight kings. The last king holds a mirror, which shows even more kings. And all of them look like Banquo! Banquo himself appears, pointing at them and smiling. Macbeth interprets this vision correctly; the descendents of Banquo will be kings.
This last vision serves a dramatic purpose. It enrages Macbeth and probably makes him even more evilly reckless. But there was another, nondramatic, purpose for this vision. Macbeth was first presented for James I, who was a descendent of the historical Banquo. "Banquo's issue," as Macbeth calls it, was the Stuart line of kings.
The witches vanish, leaving Macbeth standing amazed. Macbeth calls to Lennox, who was waiting for him nearby. Lennox says he did not see the witches go past him, confirming that they vanished into thin air. He also tells Macbeth that several men came to tell Macbeth that Macduff has gone to England.
Is Lennox toying with Macbeth in the same way the witches were? We know that Lennox was already aware of Macduff's mission to England. Perhaps he withheld the information till now for some purpose. Like the characters in the play, we cannot be sure what to believe.
Macbeth senses that it is dangerous to trust the witches: "damned [be] all those that trust them" (line 139). But he no longer has any cool judgment to guide him. Or maybe Macbeth considers himself damned already; he certainly places all his trust in the witches' prophesies.
In the same way that the witches' earlier predictions set the action of the first part of the play, these new prophesies have set the action of the rest.