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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Notes

The four witch scenes serve to bind the play together through their repetitive nature. They also create a strong visual image of the dark, gloomy mood that is characteristic of the entire play. Of the supernatural scenes, this final one is the most dramatic with the strongest visual imagery. Like in the other witch scenes, there is again thunder in the background and darkness all around to set the mood. In addition, there is a cauldron bubbling with a "hell-broth," and the three witches chant and dance around the fire. The picture is one of eerie chaos, just as is found in Macbeth's mind and in the entire country of Scotland.

The language and structure of the scene reinforce the sense of swirling chaos. The witches stir their magic potion "round about the cauldron," and Hecate instructs her charge to "now about the cauldron sing, like elves and fairies in a ring." Macbeth then comes into the scene and, with a storm force, demands answers from the witches. He says he does not care what stormy destruction they cause, " though you untie the winds and let them fight against the churches...though trees blow down...though castles topple...though the treasure of Nature's germens (atoms) tumble all together, even till destruction sickens," Macbeth wants to know his future. The magical number three also swirls around the whole scene. There are three witches; "thrice the brinded cat hat mewed;" there are three verses to their singing, and the refrain of "Double, double toil and trouble" is repeated three times; there are three apparitions called forth, and they call to Macbeth, repeating his name three times; and finally three prophesies are given to the king (just as is his first meeting with the three weird sisters). The scene is also divided into three sections. In the first part, the witches are alone in the cavern stirring "poisoned entrails...eye of newt...gall of goat" and other horrible ingredients into the "hell-broth." The second section of the scene is when Macbeth approaches the witches and sees the apparitions. The third and final section is when the king talks to Lennox and reveals his mental state has declined even further, to the point that he plans to needlessly murder the wife and children of Macduff.


The appearance of the three apparitions adds to the sense of chaos in the scene. The first one, the armed head, seems almost timid, "unmanly." He speaks only briefly, warning Macbeth to "beware Macduff" and then begs to be dismissed, as if not able to stand the sight of the wicked king. The image of this first apparition is likely a mockery of Macbeth himself--small, armed for murder, and uncomfortable with himself. Since it is only an armed head, without other members of the body present, it foreshadows that Macbeth will have to fight Macduff alone, without supporters.

The second apparition is the disgusting image of a child covered in blood (a reflection back to the bloody daggers, bloody hands, and bloody face). This ghost has more to say, telling Macbeth to be "bloody, bold, and resolute...scorn the power of man." He then promises Macbeth that he will not be harmed by anyone born of woman. (Later in the play, the audience learns that Macduff had been "untimely ripped" from the womb.) The image of the bloody child is another mockery of Macbeth. He has spilled much blood to gain and protect the throne, and yet he knows he cannot possess it for long, for he is childless, with no heirs to wear the crown. The second apparition also foreshadows the murdering of Macduff's child by the vengeful Macbeth in the next scene.

The third apparition is the image of a crowned child carrying a tree in his hand. It speaks longer and more-self assuredly that the first two apparitions and tells Macbeth to be "lion-mettled and proud," for "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him." The image of this regal child, in contrast to the bloody one before, is of new growth and life. The blood (symbols of murder, evil, and chaos) has been replaced with a tree (new life, regeneration, goodness). The apparition foreshadows that calm will again come to Scotland, not under the bloody rule of Macbeth, but under the new reign of Banquo's heirs.

It is significant to note Macbeth's reaction to each apparition. To the first one, the king gives thanks for the word of caution and praises the apparition for knowing how much he does fear Macduff. His reaction to the second one is to say "Then live, Macduff." He feels he should not worry about his enemy since the king assumes Macduff was born of woman. A moment later, the king's chaotic, fearful mind switches gear and decides that "Thou shalt not live" in order to be double sure and in order to be able to sleep again (as if one more murder would aid his sleeplessness). Macbeth, totally missing the meaning of the third apparition, reacts to it by saying it has uttered "sweet bodements." Macbeth is feeling invulnerable for he thinks that no one "can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root."

Even though Macbeth has reacted to each of the three appearances (that do reflect realities in this case), he still is not satisfied (he always wants more). He wants to know if the earlier prophecy about Banquo will come true, if his heirs will seize the throne. To answer his question, the witches bring forth a parade of eight kings; all look like Banquo, with Banquo's ghost in the rear. The vision is ghastly to Macbeth, and he screams, "Horrible sight." His fear, that his murdering has been only for the benefit of Banquo' sons, seems to be truth.

After the parade of kings, the witches have nothing more to show Macbeth and vanish into the dark night. Lennox then enters. Macbeth turns to him and curses the witches saying, "Infected be the air where on they ride." He also ironically curses himself by saying, "Damned (be) all those that trust them!" What an appropriate point in the play for Macbeth to utter these spoken words. Macbeth has truly damned himself throughout the play by his thoughts and actions and has become the most damnable of tyrants. But at the end of this scene, he is plotting his most evil act of the entire play -- the innocent murder of Macduff's wife and children. It is to be a murder without purpose or meaning, the evil action of a totally sick and chaotic mind.

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