Summary

The witches have gathered, and prepare for their upcoming conversation with Macbeth. Macbeth arrives and demands to know more about his future. They witches summon several apparitions, each of which makes a prophecy to Macbeth. A helmeted head warns him not to trust Macduff, a bloody child tells him he need not worry about anyone born of a woman, a child with a crown and a tree tells him not to worry about any attacks until the forest at Birnam marches against him. The last apparition is a procession of kings, reminding him of the prophecies that Banquo will be the father to a line of kings, and he will not. Macbeth, furious when the witches vanish again, condemns them and those who listen to them. He then learns that Macduff has run away to England; he resolves to attack Macduff’s castle in Fife and kill his family. He vows that from now on, he will act as soon as he conceives any plan.

Enter

To come on stage.

A cavern.

The cave is the “pit of Acheron” referred to by Hecate in Act 3, Scene 5. Acheron was associated in classical mythology with the entrance to hell.

a boiling cauldron.

The witches gather around the large iron pot, which is boiling and steaming over the fire, to cast their spells.

thrice

Three times. (Once, twice, thrice.)

brinded

Striped. Pronounced BREND-ed.

mew’d

Made a mewing sound. A meow.

hedge-pig

Hedgehog.

Harpier cries ’tis time, ’tis time.

The word harpier is likely a form of harpy — a mythological creature part woman and part bird. The meaning of this line is not entirely clear, but something is crying “It’s time! It’s time!”

Round about the cauldron go; / In the poison’d entrails throw . . .

The witches begin to circle the cauldron, adding items to the brew bubbling in it — poisoned intestines (entrails), and the venom exuded by a toad after a month sleeping under a cold rock, for starters.

Elizabethans who believed in witchcraft — the majority — would have attached significance to such exotic objects, investing them with dark, demonic powers.

Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

The witches chant this rhyme several times in this scene. Remember that there are several references throughout the play to things being double, or doubled.

Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake . . .

More items for the witches’ brew — this time there is a filet (fillet) of a snake from a swamp (a fenny snake), an eye from a salamander (eye of newt), a snake’s forked tongue (an adder’s fork), and the stinger of a slow-worm (blind-worm’s sting), among other things.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, / Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf . . .

More ingredients — a dragon’s scale, a substance refined from mummies (Witches’ mummy), the mouth and stomach (maw and gulf) of a shark that had eaten its fill (ravin’d), hemlock dug up at night (held to be even more powerful than ordinary hemlock, a poisonous plant), the liver of a Jew (Jews were second-class citizens because they did not believe in Christ; therefore blaspheming Jew), the bile (gall) of a goat, strips of yew-wood (thought to be poisonous) cut while the moon was eclipsed, the nose of a Turk and the lips of a Tartar, and the finger of a baby of a peasant mother (drab) who died while being born (strangled by the umbilical cord) in a ditch.

Make the brew thick and slimy (slab), and add to it a tiger’s entrails (chaudron).

Cool it with a baboon’s blood, / Then the charm is firm and good.

Add baboon’s blood to the mixture, cool it down, and then the spell will be complete (firm and good).

Enter Hecate to the other three Witches.

Hecate enters and comes to the Witches.

I commend your pains; / And every one shall share i’ the gains . . .

I praise your work (pains), and everyone here will benefit by it (share i’ the gains). But now dance around the cauldron and sing, with elves and fairies enchanting your brew.

Music and a song: “Black spirits,” etc.

Again, we have no material here from Shakespeare’s hand, but it’s likely that Thomas Middleton, a fellow playwright, wrote something for the witches to do, or had available a song called Black Spirits. This material is lost, and must be re-created for modern performances.

retires

Hecate moves to the back of the stage, without leaving it. She will come forward again, later in this scene, but for now she is not a part of the action.

By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.

This quotation is famous enough that fantasy writer Ray Bradbury used it in the title of one of his novels, later made into a movie.

The something wicked is, of course, Macbeth himself.

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! / What is’t you do?

What’s going on here, you secretive, evil creatures? What are you doing?

A deed without a name.

Something so black, so evil, that it has no name.

I conjure you, by that which you profess, / Howe’er you come to know it, answer me

I command you, by your own religion (that which you profess), no matter how you know the information, to answer me.

Though you untie the winds and let them fight . . .

Witches were thought to control the winds. Macbeth says that even if they let them loose (let them fight) and produce a great storm, even against the churches, even if the stormy (yesty) waves make seafaring impossible, even if young corn gets blown away and trees blown down, even if castles should fall down on their keepers’ (warders) heads, even if palaces and pyramids should tumble down to the ground, even if all of nature’s seeds (germens) should be blown away in a cloud — even if destruction itself should grow sick of destroying, answer my questions.

Say, if thou’dst rather hear it from our mouths, / Or from our masters?

Would you rather hear the answers from us, or from our superiors?

Call ’em; let me see ’em.

This is usually understood to mean “Bring it on.” Macbeth is not afraid of the witches, or their masters. Not yet.

Pour in sow’s blood, that hath eaten / Her nine farrow

A few final ingredients — pig’s blood (the blood of a sow who had eaten her nine baby pigs, or farrow), and grease exuded from the gallows (gibbet) used to hang a murderer.

Come, high or low; / Thyself and office deftly show!

The witches call on the spirits, whether high- or low-ranking, to show themselves and say what they have to say.

Apparition: an armed Head.

An apparition (a ghostly vision) arises — a head, wearing a helmet, as if ready for war.

say thou nought

The witches caution Macbeth not to speak to the apparition.

nought — nothing

thane of Fife

The apparition warns Macbeth to beware Macduff, who is thane of the district called Fife.

Whate’er thou art, for thy good caution, thanks . . .

Whatever you are, I thank you for your warning. You’ve put your finger on my fear (harp’d my fear aright; Macbeth agrees with the apparition — Macduff is to be feared). Macbeth asks the apparition for one more thing . . .

He will not be commanded: here’s another, / More potent than the first.

That spirit will not obey commands, but here’s another, more powerful than the first.

Second Apparition: A bloody Child.

The new apparition is of a bleeding child. The blood is usually depicted as coming from wounds on its head.

Had I three ears, I’ld hear thee.

If I had three ears, they would all be listening.

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn . . .

The apparition tells Macbeth to dare anything: take lives, act boldly, don’t swerve from your intent, laugh scornfully at the strength of all men, because no one who was born of a woman can harm you.

Macbeth makes a serious error here, believing that all people are born of women. This is a natural mistake, but it’s still a mistake. The spirits are misleading him, allowing him to believe that he’s safe. Macbeth will learn, in the end, why it’s a mistake to believe this.

Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?

Macbeth says that he can allow Macduff to live after all, that there’s no need for him to fear Macduff. After all, Macduff is a man, and therefore (as Macbeth believes) born of a woman.

But yet I’ll make assurance double sure . . .

But Macbeth cannot let it go. He must make sure, and not just sure, but doubly sure. He’ll swear an oath (take a bond of fate, a serious act), and will not allow Macduff to live. All so he can tell fear that it’s powerless, that he need not be afraid, so he can sleep in spite of thunder — without a guilty conscience.

Macbeth believes that if he can eliminate all threats, he will find peace.

Third Apparition: a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

The third apparition, a young child wearing a crown and holding a tree, is symbolic of kingship and royalty.

What is this / That rises like the issue of a king . . .

Macbeth wonders at this apparition, which looks like the child (issue) of a king, and who wears on his baby’s head (brow) a crown (the round and top of sovereignty, or kingship).

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care . . .

Be proud and decisive, like a lion, don’t worry about others who want to rebel (chafe, fret) or conspire against you. You will never be conquered (never vanquish’d be) until the forest at Birnam (Birnam wood) comes to the hill at Dunsinane to fight you.

That will never be: / Who can impress the forest . . .

That can’t happen! No one can make the trees march into battle (impress the forest), or make the tree pull its roots out of the earth (unfix his earth-bound root). Good news!

Macbeth is again mistaken, and will learn why before the end.

Rebellion’s head, rise never till the wood . . .

Macbeth says that rebellion against his rule will never happen until the forest at Birnam rises against him, agreeing with the prediction of the apparition. He goes on to say that he will live a normal lifespan (live the lease of nature), and die at a normal age (pay his breath / To time and mortal custom).

Again, Macbeth is incorrect. Act 5 will show why.

Yet my heart / Throbs to know one thing: tell me . . .

Macbeth is still not satisfied. He wants to know one more thing, if the witches or apparitions can say (if your art / Can tell so much) — will Banquo’s children and descendants (issue) ever rule here in Scotland?

I will be satisfied: deny me this, / And an eternal curse fall on you!

This is my last request. Tell me this and I’ll ask no more. Deny me this, and may you be cursed forever!

Why sinks that cauldron? and what noise is this?

The cauldron begins to sink (lowered down through a trap door in the stage), and music begins to play. This is to set the scene for the most important of the apparitions, about to enter. Macbeth is alarmed because this is unlike the other events.

Hautboys

Hautboys — French, literally, high woods, high-pitched woodwind instruments — oboes. The music of oboes is heard; oboe music was associated with royalty.

Pronounced OH-boys.

Come like shadows, so depart!

The witches urge the entrance of the last apparition, to come stealthily, like a shadow, and leave the same way.

A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand; Ghost of Banquo following.

The stage directions call for a show, or procession, of eight kings, the last holding a mirror (glass), and the ghost of Banquo following them. This can take place over a few minutes, with Macbeth’s next lines spoken as it’s happening.

Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo: down! / Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls . . .

You are too much like Banquo! Down! Your crown sears my eyes!

Since Banquo never sat on the throne, his appearance here with a crown may be an allusion to his kingly nature.

And thy hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first . . .

Macbeth begins to notice that the eight kings resemble each other. He starts to look at the first, then the second, etc., noticing that they have similarly colored hair (and are likely related). He notices that the third is like the second (the former).

Filthy hags! / Why do you show me this?

Macbeth, losing his composure, screams at the witches, blaming them for what he sees.

A fourth! Start, eyes! / What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? / Another yet! A seventh! I’ll see no more

Macbeth’s horror grows as he sees each new king. He screams for his eyes to leave their sockets (Start, eyes!), he thinks the line of kings will go on forever (to the crack of doom), he refuses to see more (I’ll see no more) . . .

And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass / Which shows me many more . . .

A last king appears, the eighth, who holds a mirror (bears a glass) showing a long line of kings within it. Shakespeare was specifically referring to James I of England, who was watching the play in the audience, as the heir to a line of kings descended from Banquo, who was virtuous throughout his life (according to Shakespeare). In fact, in the source material Shakespeare consulted, Banquo was Macbeth’s accomplice in the murder of Duncan. James, however, believed he was descended from Banquo, which probably accounts for Shakespeare’s treatment of the character. Shakespeare attempted to flatter James by implying that James’ line would continue forever.

Some of the future kings carry two-fold balls and treble scepters — emblems of English royalty, indicating two kingdoms united in one (England and Scotland), and three kingdoms united in one (England, Scotland, and Ireland).

Below is a portrait of Elizabeth I (James’ predecessor), showing her with a single orb (ball) and single scepter. England and Scotland had not yet been united.


Now, I see, ’tis true; / For the blood-bolter’d Banquo smiles upon me, / And points at them for his.

Now I see that all this is true. The sight of Banquo confirms it, with his hair matted with blood (blood-bolter’d), smiling, and pointing to the future kings as his descendants.

What, is this so?

Macbeth, still hoping that the apparitions might not represent truth, asks the witches to confirm the prophecies.

thus amazedly

in such amazement

Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites . . .

Come on, ladies, let’s cheer up his spirits (sprites), and show him our best: I’ll make music from the air while you dance (perform your antic round, old-fashioned dance), so this king will tell others we gave him everything he asked for.

The witches are supremely unconcerned with Macbeth’s fears.

Music. The witches dance and then vanish, with Hecate.

Macbeth is left alone with his fears. The witches are gone.

Let this pernicious hour / Stand aye accursed in the calendar!

May this evil day (pernicious hour) be cursed in the calendar!

Just as holy days are observed in the calendar, Macbeth wants this time to be known as a moment of great evil.

Come in, without there!

Macbeth calls for the people standing outside (without) the cavern to come in.

What’s your grace’s will?

What would you like, your grace?

Saw you the weird sisters?

Did you see the witches?

Came they not by you?

Didn’t they pass right by you?

Infected be the air whereon they ride; / And damn’d all those that trust them!

Macbeth, in his frustration and anger, blames the witches for the things they foretell. He wants them to suffer (infected be the air whereon they ride), and wants all those who trust them (ironically unaware that this includes himself) to be damned.

I did hear / The galloping of horse: who was’t came by?

Someone arrived at a gallop: who was it?

’tis two or three, my lord, that bring you word / Macduff is fled to England.

Two or three messengers arrived, bringing you the news that Macduff has run away to England.

We already knew this, but it’s possible Macbeth is only hearing of it now.

Fled to England!

Macbeth realizes that this will complicate his plans.

Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits . . .

Macbeth addresses Time (personified), saying that it has prevented (anticipated) his plans (dread exploits). He remarks that any plan not executed quickly may never be executed at all (the flighty purpose never is o’ertook / Unless the deed go with it). Macbeth worries that he has lost the chance to kill Macduff.

from this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand.

Macbeth promises himself that from now on (from this moment) he won’t wait again — as soon as he thinks of something (the firstlings of his heart), he’ll act immediately (the firstlings of his hand). He made a similar promise earlier — to act before he had a chance to think about the consequences. And he does act quickly, rashly, as we see right away.

And even now, / To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done . . .

Immediately, Macbeth conceives a plan. He sees this as an opportunity to validate his new promise — To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done. He acts immediately to kill Macduff’s entire family, since he can’t reach Macduff himself at this time.

The castle of Macduff I will surprise — I’ll attack Macduff’s castle without warning

Seize upon Fife — attack Fife

give to the edge of the sword — slaughter with swords

all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line — everyone unfortunate enough to be related to him.

Macbeth is determined to kill everyone he can who’s related to Macduff.

No boasting like a fool; / This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool.

I won’t boast about this, the way a fool would. I’ll just do it, now, before I lose my determination (before this purpose cool).

But no more sights!

No more visions, no more apparitions! Enough of that!

Where are these gentlemen? / Come, bring me where they are.

Where are the messengers? Take me to them.

Aside

In an aside, the character speaks privately to himself for a moment, or directly to the audience, or privately to some (but not all) of the other characters present.

As a matter of convention, an aside is always a true statement of what the character thinks. A character speaking in an aside may be mistaken, but may not be dishonest.

An aside (again as a matter of convention) cannot be heard by those not spoken to.

Exit

The character leaves the stage.

Exeunt Murderers.

Latin, literally “they leave.” The Murderers leave the stage.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.

Exeunt all but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Latin, literally “they leave.” Most of the players leave the stage, leaving Macbeth alone with Lady Macbeth.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.

Exeunt

Latin, literally “they leave.” Everyone leaves the stage.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.