The 3 Apparitions in Macbeth

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  • 0:00 Toil & Trouble:…
  • 1:36 The Three Apparitions
  • 4:36 Mortals' Chiefest…
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Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Anyone familiar with the 'Scottish Play' knows it's full of magic and mayhem, but what about the point where these two meet? Come explore the dark realms of divination in this lesson on the Three Apparitions in Shakespeare's ''Macbeth''!

Toil and Trouble: Conjuring Illusions in Macbeth

'Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.' This Three Witches, or Weird Sisters, refrain is one of the most famous couplets in all of Shakespearean literature, but it's only one of the many magical incantations that makes Macbeth so steeped in witchcraft.

This couplet is particularly important because it's part of a magic ritual that brings about one of the most unnerving scenes in one of Shakespeare's darkest tragedies. This defining moment of Macbeth takes place in Act IV, Scene I, in which the Three Weird Sisters gather around their cauldron in a cave and conjure the famous ghostly apparitions that foretell the bloody fate of Macbeth, a medieval Scottish warrior.

When the play opens, Macbeth is serving in King Duncan's army and is married to a very ambitious woman. By the time Act IV rolls around, Macbeth's already taken the witches' previous pronouncements of his rise to power to heart and believes he is destined to become Scotland's next king. Under the influences of his wife, Lady Macbeth, and his desire to become king, Macbeth does away with King Duncan, forces Duncan's sons into exile, and even has one of his own best friends, Captain Banquo, murdered.

So, how could things get any worse? Haunted by Banquo's ghost and the fact that Banquo's son, Fleance, escaped assassination, Macbeth decides to consult with the Weird Sisters once again: 'More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know, / By the worst means, the worst' (Act III, Sc. IV).

The Three Apparitions

Having prepared their spells ahead of time, the sisters are ready and waiting for Macbeth by the time he arrives in Act IV, Scene I. When Macbeth shows up, he demands that the witches use every power at their disposal to answer his questions, but before he can ask a single one, the Weird Sisters ask him if he'd like to hear from their 'masters' directly. As soon as Macbeth gives the word to 'Call 'em; let me see 'em,' the sisters add the final ingredient to their magical concoction and invoke the three apparitions: the severed head, the bloody child, and the royal child and tree.

First Apparition: The Severed Head

Of course, Macbeth is full of questions, but he's instructed to keep quiet since the first apparition - a disembodied head - is able to read his thoughts, as are the other apparitions. The severed head is armed, but since it is disembodied, the only thing it could be armed with would be a helmet. After calling Macbeth's name three times, the first apparition warns him to 'beware Macduff; / Beware the thane of Fifeā€¦' before asking to be dismissed and disappearing.

Macbeth acknowledges that the apparition 'harp'd my fear aright,' namely that Macduff, his archrival, would be a threat to his reign. As a result, he has Macduff's children and wife murdered. The 'armed' and severed head represents Macbeth's bloody fall from power. However, the head can also symbolize Macbeth himself and his murderous actions, rather than any external threat.

Second Apparition: The Bloody Child

'More potent than the first,' when the second apparition arrives, it's in the form of a bloodied child. After being instructed once more not to speak, Macbeth is told by this ghastly illusion to 'Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man.' According to the apparition, Macbeth can't be killed by anyone born from a woman.

After this last pronouncement, Macbeth believes he has nothing to fear from Macduff and is home free. All people are born from women, right? Once again, we find that the apparition really represents Macbeth. This time, it's his childish naïveté that allows him to be led into such bloody ambitions with so little effort.

The Third Apparition: The Royal Child and Tree

The third apparition of a baby boy holding a tree immediately catches Macbeth's attention with his mark of royalty: a crown. Taking in to consideration the boy's words to 'Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care / Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are,' Macbeth might expect this apparition to symbolize his line's eternal reign. However, the second part of its pronouncement will eventually reveal the real identity of the crowned child.

The last of these dark specters finishes by telling Macbeth that he'll never be defeated until Birnam Wood marches against Dunsinane, the location of his royal palace. Even more than the second apparition's reassurance, this prophecy serves to bolster Macbeth's belief that he'll maintain the throne, since trees in a forest can't just uproot themselves and march against him, can they?

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