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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Act IV, Scene 1

Summary

The fourth and final witch scene in the play is set in a cavern with a boiling cauldron in the middle. As in the other witch scenes, the weather is dark and ominous, with thunder in the background. The three witches are concocting their " hell-broth" and casting spells, obviously while waiting for Macbeth to arrive. As they throw entrails and other vile things into their magic potion and stir it, they chant their famous song: "Double, double, toil, and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble." During their preparations, Hecate, their queen, joins them and praises their efforts, saying, "Oh, well done! I commend your pains and everyone shall share in th' gains." She then instructs the witches to sing and dance around the cauldron. In the midst of their music, Macbeth enters and greets them as "secret, black and midnight hags." He then demands answers to his questions. The witches are eager to oblige and conjure up apparitions for Macbeth to satisfy his questioning. The first one appears with a clap of thunder and is nothing more than a head wearing armor. It calls Macbeth three times, warns him to "beware Macduff," and quickly disappears. Thunder also calls for the second apparition, a child covered with blood. Again the apparition calls Macduff three times and tells him to "be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn the power of man; for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth."

The king is delighted to hear this news, and his first reaction is to spare Macduff's life since he need not fear him. But he quickly changes his mind, deciding not to tempt fate. The thunder sounds again, and a third apparition appears as a crowned child carrying a tree in his hand. The child tells Macbeth to be brave and proud and not to worry about conspirators because "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him." This news overjoys Macbeth, for he believes such a feat is an impossibility.


Macbeth still wants to know the answer to one more question. "Shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?" The witches suggest that the king does not want to hear the answer to that question, but Macbeth insists saying, "Deny me this, and an eternal curse fall on you." Suddenly the cauldron begins to sink, and a trumpet sounds. Then a procession of 8 kings appear, the last one carrying a mirror. Banquo's ghost is at the end of the parade. As each king passes before his eyes, Macbeth looks in horror and realizes its resemblance to Banquo. Macbeth is heart sick that the original prophecy will come true, and he curses the witches and all who trust them.

After the kingly apparitions have departed, the witches perform again with music and dance and then suddenly vanish. Macbeth curses the day and calls to Lennox, who has been waiting outside. Macbeth questions him to find out if he has seen the three weird sisters, but he has not. Lennox, however, has news for the king. Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth is infuriated by the news and seeks retaliation. He plans to take Macduff's castle by surprise and kill his wife and children. The chaos of the scene will, it appears, end in greater chaos, murder, and mayhem.

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