Birnam Wood Quote: Meaning in Macbeth & Overview

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  • 0:01 A Brief Summary of Macbeth
  • 1:34 The Prophecy of Birnam Wood
  • 3:07 Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

When it comes to Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', the trees aren't just part of the scenery. Explore the roles that Birnam Wood plays in 'Macbeth', from ghostly prophecy to brilliant military strategy.

A Brief Summary of Macbeth

Before we can discuss the role of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare's Macbeth, let's take a short glimpse at what happens in Macbeth before Birnam Wood comes into play. Because it tells the story of a character's downfall, Macbeth is considered a tragedy. Therefore, Macbeth is a tragic hero. A tragic hero is a character who begins the play as a good person, but through a series of misguided decisions becomes stuck in an increasingly unfortunate situation, which ultimately results in the character's death. The reason for the tragic hero's downfall is a tragic flaw, a personality trait that leads the character to make poor choices. In this case, Macbeth's tragic flaw is his blind ambition.

The play begins with a meeting of three witches, who decide they will give their 'prophecy' to a Scottish general named Macbeth. Returning victorious from battle, Macbeth encounters the witches, who predict that he will one day become the king. Spurred on by his wife, Macbeth plots to murder Duncan, the current king of Scotland.

The plot is successful, and Duncan's two sons flee out of fear. Because Duncan's rightful heirs are no longer present, Macbeth becomes the new king. However, this is not enough to ease Macbeth's mind. Driven mad by ambition and guilt, Macbeth plots to have his potential 'enemies' killed. This paranoia also causes Macbeth to return to the witches in search of more predictions. It is at this point that Birnam Wood becomes important.

The Prophecy of Birnam Wood

In response to Macbeth's request, the witches present Macbeth with several apparitions (ghostly figures) that each give Macbeth a misleading 'prophecy.' One of the three apparitions, a child wearing a crown and holding a tree, delivers the following lines:

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

Although the apparition tells Macbeth to 'take no care' of any threats, these lines foreshadow Macbeth's defeat. Foreshadowing is a literary device that gives the reader a hint (sometimes a very subtle one) of what will happen later in the story. Because it is highly unlikely that a forest (Birnam Wood) will walk up the hill to his castle (Dunsinane Hill), Macbeth expresses great relief:

That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellion's head, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac'd Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom.

Macbeth's excessive pride, or hubris, leads him to believe that no enemy can harm him. Unfortunately, for Macbeth, this sense of security is false. Not long after this moment, the prophecy of Birnam Wood comes true.

Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane

Disgusted by their king's paranoid and violent behavior, the nobles of Scotland soon rebel. Malcolm, Duncan's first son and rightful heir to the throne, returns from England to lead an army against Macbeth. In Birnam Wood, Malcolm hatches a plan to take Dunsinane Castle by surprise:

Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear't before him; thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host and make discovery
Err in report of us.

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