apparitions in macbeth analysis

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Summary and Analysis Act V: Scene 3

Macbeth dismisses reports of invasion by trusting to the prophecies of the apparitions, which seemed to promise him invincibility in battle. When a servant enters to announce the approach of a huge army, Macbeth appears momentarily to lose courage and then angrily spurns his servant and orders his armor to be put on. The Doctor, whose news concerning Lady Macbeth is just as grim, is treated with similar contempt.

Macbeth's tone is typically brazen. The reports he has heard can have no consequence, given the prophecies of the three apparitions of Act IV, Scene 1. Throughout this scene, any doubts he may have are quelled by his bold imperatives: "Bring me no more reports," "Fly, false thanes," and more. We see a man completely self-assured, a "confident tyrant," as Siward calls him in the subsequent scene. These angry words do much to assert his own manhood, in contrast to the cowardice he perceives in others — not only his servant, whom he calls "cream-faced" and "lily-livered," but also the rebel soldiers, whom he insultingly refers to as "epicures" (that is, self-indulgent and lazy).

In the dialogue with the servant, Macbeth orders him to "prick his cheeks" in order to "put colour" back in his face, an ironic reminder of the earlier color symbolism when Macbeth was accused by his wife of having a white heart, as opposed to her own red hands. Another imperative — "Give me my armour" — has to be repeated when Macbeth's armourer, Seyton, initially refuses to do so. Similarly, when the Doctor confesses that he has been unable to cure Lady Macbeth's madness, Macbeth mocks his ability, challenging him to "Throw physic (medicine) to the dogs."

But there is also another Macbeth, who admits to being "sick at heart" and who feels he has entered the season of the "yellow leaf," that is, literally, the fall of his own reputation; and who, in a further moment of self-realization, recognizes the sickness of his own land: "If thou could'st, Doctor, cast / The water of my land, find her disease, / And purge it to a sound and pristine health / I would applaud thee to the very echo / That should applaud again" (50-54).

Earlier, referring to his wife's sickness, Macbeth has questioned the doctor's ability to remove from her those thoughts and feelings "Which weigh upon the heart." The Doctor's response: "Therein the patient must minister to himself" is particularly interesting. Where we expect " her self," Shakespeare instead uses the masculine pronoun, referring to a patient of either sex, particularly in proverbial statements such as this one. The suggestion is that Macbeth, too, must find the cure to his own disease. Macbeth's military preparation, which the Doctor says he has heard about, is unlikely to be any more effective than a medicinal preparation or remedy which he might prescribe for the sick nation of Scotland.

English epicures (8) the self-indulgent English

sway (9) command

goose (12) cowardly

sere (23) dry

fain (28) rather

skirr (35) scour

oblivious (43) that brings oblivion

physic (47) medicine

cast the water (50) examine the urine (here, used metaphorically)

rhubarb . . . drug (55) purgatives

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by William Shakespeare

Macbeth summary and analysis of act 4, 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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Prophecy in Macbeth

The plot of Macbeth is set in motion ostensibly by the prophecy of the three witches. The prophecy fans the flames of ambition within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, serving as the primary impetus for the couple to plot the death of Duncan--and...

"Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck till thou applaud the deed!"

Macbeth is essentially telling his wife that he doesn't want her to know what he's doing until he's done it..... but that she'll be happy with the result.

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apparitions in macbeth analysis

English Summary

Notes on Prophecies & Apparitions in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Back to: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The play Macbeth seriously deals with the idea of fate and whether it is decided by our actions or due to external forces. The three witches are a supernatural force in the play. In their characteristic ambiguity, they utter prophecies in their very first confrontation with Macbeth and Banquo .

Table of Contents

1st Apparition

Their first prophecy is for Macbeth when they hail him as the Thane of Glamis, the Thane of Cawdor and the one who shall be king hereafter. As we come to know further in the play, this prophecy is in closest relation to Macbeth’s inner desire for absolute power which is kingship .

This prophecy plays an important role in the progress of the play because it sets the forthcoming actions which are by Macbeth when he tries to earn the power in a shortcut way under the influence of Lady Macbeth.

The moment Duncan awards him with the title of the Thane of Cawdor, he firmly starts believing in the prophecies. The fact that Duncan declares Malcolm as the heir to the throne alarms him and he wants nothing to cloud the prophecy and as an imminent possibility, he observes what Lady Macbeth says and kills Duncan. 

2nd Apparition

The second prophecy of the three witches from the first meeting was for Banquo . Confusing both of them further, they address Banquo as “ lesser than Macbeth, and greater ,” “ not so happy, yet much happier. ” And they predict that Banquo shall have kings in his coming generations but he will never be king by himself.

How Banquo reacts after listening to this tells us of his clear conscience. He disqualifies them as dark evil forces which deceive even in its truth. At the same time, hearing this, Macbeth perceives of Banquo as a threat and the second murder after Duncan is that of Banquo.

This is when we understand how Macbeth is trying to correct whatever sounds dangerous to him in the prophecies which means he is trying to control his own fate.

Once Macbeth has progressed as per the first confrontation with the three witches, they reveal themselves to him again. This time, under the influence of Hecate, they equivocate in a better way. They show him three apparitions. 

The first apparition is ahead with a helmet as armour on it. By this time, Macbeth has already doubted Macduff. This apparition warns him of the danger from Macduff and it confirms Macbeth’s next action which is to kill him and before doing so, he kills his family. 

The second apparition is a bloody child. Shakespeare has used child imagery in the play several times. Ironically, the child utters to be bloody bold and resolute. It confirms Macbeth’s further rampage as a killing machine.

As a prime equivocator, this apparition lures him into the first false sense of security which is that he won’t die because nobody born from a woman will ever harm him. 

3rd Apparition

The third apparition is a crowned child holding a tree who says that Macbeth is safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane hill. It sounds absolutely impossible hence it makes Macbeth sure of his invincibility. These apparitions are equivocations.

We see that Macbeth’s inability to trace the evil in them lures him further into misdeeds. His wrong actions and wrongly created confidence finally put him in a battle where he is defeated.

These apparitions and prophecies can be closely equated to the evil which already lies in Macbeth. The fact that Banquo sees the witches and yet act differently makes us think of Macbeth’s vulnerability to evil and his final tragic disintegration more.

apparitions in macbeth analysis

William Shakespeare

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Norwegians, aided by Scottish rebels, have invaded Scotland. The Scots successfully defend their country and their beloved king, Duncan . One Scotsman in particular, Macbeth , Thane of Glamis, distinguishes himself in fighting off the invaders. After the battle, Macbeth and his friend Banquo come upon the weird sisters , three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and one day King. They further prophesy that Banquo's descendants will be kings. The men don't at first believe the witches, but then learn that the old Thane of Cawdor was actually a traitor helping the Norwegians, and that Duncan has rewarded Macbeth's bravery on the battlefield by making him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth immediately fantasizes about murdering Duncan and becoming king, but pushes the thought away. Later that day, Duncan announces that his eldest son, Malcolm , will be heir to his throne. As Macbeth begins to succumb to his ambition, Duncan decides to spend the night in celebration at Macbeth's castle of Inverness.

Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband about the prophecy and Duncan's imminent arrival. She decides her husband is too kind to follow his ambitions, and vows to push him to murder Duncan and take the crown that very night. Macbeth at first resists his wife's plan, but his ambition and her constant questioning of his courage and manhood win him over. That night they murder Duncan and frame the men guarding Duncan's room. The next morning, Macduff , another Scottish thane, discovers Duncan dead and raises the alarm. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pretend to be shocked and outraged. Macbeth murders the guardsmen of Duncan's room to keep them silent, but says he did it out of a furious rage that they killed the king. Duncan's sons think they may be the next target, and flee. Macbeth is made king, and because they ran, Duncan's sons become the prime suspects in their father's murder.

Because he knows the witches' prophecy, Banquo is suspicious of Macbeth. And because of the prophecy that Banquo's line will reign as kings, Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat. Macbeth gives a feast, inviting many thanes, including Banquo. Macbeth hires two murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance as they ride to attend the feast. The men kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes. At the feast, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost, though no one else does. Macbeth's behavior and the death of Banquo make all the thanes suspicious. They begin to think of Macbeth as a tyrant. Macduff refuses to appear at the royal court at all, and goes to England to support Malcolm in his effort to raise an army against Macbeth.

Macbeth visits the three witches to learn more about his fate. They show him three apparitions who tell Macbeth to beware Macduff, but also that no "man born of woman" can defeat him and that he will rule until Birnam Wood marches to Dunsinane (a castle). Since all men are born of women and trees can't move, Macbeth takes this to mean he's invincible. Yet the witches also confirm the prophecy that Banquo's line will one day rule Scotland. To strengthen his hold on the crown, Macbeth sends men to Macduff's castle to murder Macduff's family. Meanwhile, in England, Macduff and Malcolm prepare to invade Scotland. When news comes to England of the murder of Macduff's family, Macduff, weeping, vows revenge.

While the English and Scottish under Malcolm march toward Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth begins sleepwalking and imagining blood on her hands that can't be washed off. Macbeth has become manic, cruel, and haughty—many of his men desert to Malcolm's side. In Birnam Wood, Malcolm and his generals devise a strategy to hide their numbers—they cut branches to hold up in front of them. As Macbeth prepares for the siege, Lady Macbeth dies, perhaps of suicide. Macbeth can barely feel anything anymore, and her death only makes him give a speech about the meaninglessness of life. Then Malcolm's forces appear looking like a forest marching toward the castle. Malcolm's forces quickly capture Dunsinane, but Macbeth himself fights on, mocking all who dare to face him as "men born of woman." But Macduff reveals that he was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb (a caesarean section). Macduff kills Macbeth, and Malcolm is crowned as King of Scotland.

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