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Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Act IV, scene 1 begins with the witches chanting around a cauldron, reciting the well-known formula for witch's brew. Macbeth comes upon them in the forest, and the witches summon three apparitions to foretell Macbeth's future. Suspecting that he might not be hearing the entire truth, Macbeth prepares to take matters into his own hands to ensure his place on the throne of Scotland.

Previous Scenes

Previously, Macbeth has murdered Duncan and usurped the throne of Scotland. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing for their lives, have fled the country. Act III, scene 6 reveals a plot to overthrow Macbeth and restore Duncan's heirs to the throne.

The Witches

The witches are concocting a potion in their cauldron as scene 4 begins. They toss many tasty ingredients into the brew, including 'eye of newt and toe of frog' (line 14). The witches' incantation includes the well-known passage 'Double, double, toil and trouble;/Fire burn and cauldron bubble' (lines 10-11). Sensing that Macbeth is near, the witches show that they understand the true nature of Macbeth. 'By the pricking of my thumbs,/something wicked this way comes,' (lines 44-45), they say as Macbeth approaches.

Macbeth says he has some questions, and the witches indicate that they will answer. Then they ask Macbeth if he would rather speak to their masters. When he says he would prefer to hear from the masters, the witches add a few more ingredients to the cauldron and summon three apparitions.

The Apparitions

The first apparition, an armed head, warns Macbeth to 'beware Macduff' (line 71). Macbeth asks for more information, but the witches inform Macbeth that the apparition does not obey any commands.

The second apparition appears as a bloody child and claims that 'none of woman born shall harm Macbeth' (lines 80-81). This relieves Macbeth to some extent, and he wonders if he should bother with killing Macduff as he has planned. After some consideration, Macbeth decides to make 'double sure' (line 83) that his own position is secure by killing Macduff anyway.

The third apparition, a crowned child holding a tree in his hand, appears last. This apparition makes the most startling prediction of all: 'Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him' (lines 92-94).

Macbeth, knowing that trees are rooted to the earth, finds this impossible to believe. The apparitions vanish, leaving Macbeth alone with the witches once again.

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