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.
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
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. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_4_1.html >.
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...