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Summary of Act 4, Scene 1:
Thunder announces the entrance of the Witches. As another reminder that they are acting at the behest of evil powers, they tell each other about the voices they are hearing, beginning with First Witch crying, "Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd" (4.1.1). A hedgehog has spoken to the Second Witch, and the Third Witch is taking orders from "Harpier" (4.1.3) , whose name suggests "harpy," which is a disgusting monster with the head of a woman and the wings, feet, and claws of a bird of prey.
Now the Witches chant about what they are putting into the cauldron to make the magic potion. First there's a toad, chosen because it has been sweating poison for a month. After that, the ingredients are all mutilated body parts, beginning with "Fillet [slice] of a fenny [swamp-dwelling] snake" (4.1.12), and including "Lizard's leg and owlet's wing" (4.1.17). It's as though the witches had gone dumpster-diving at some ghastly slaughter house.
After this, the stew gets ever more foul as human parts start to go into the pot, the last one being, "Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver'd by a drab" (4.1.31). A "drab" is a prostitute, and in the real world of Shakespeare's time it did happen that prostitutes, with no money, no family, and no friends, delivered their babies in hiding, then killed and disposed of them. This should remind us that these Witches are not cute old ladies in pointy hats.
Finally, the mixture in the cauldron is cooled with "baboon's blood, / Then the charm is firm and good" (4.1.37-38). (At this point, Hecate enters, to congratulate the witches on their work, and to lead them in a song which we know was not written by Shakespeare. All editors agree that Shakespeare never intended for Hecate or her song to get into his play, which is a good thing, because her song is pretty boring.) Now the Witches are ready for Macbeth, and the Second Witch, sensing his approach, says, "By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes" (4.1.45).
It seems that the cave has a door, and that the door opens by Witches' magic, because when Second Witch says, "Open, locks, / Whoever knocks!" (4.1.47), in comes Macbeth. He asks them what they're doing, and they answer mysteriously, "A deed without a name" (4.1.49), but Macbeth doesn't seem to be listening. He immediately demands that they answer his questions, saying "I conjure you, by that which you profess, / Howe'er you come to know it, answer me" (4.1.50-51). What they "profess" are the arts of black magic, but Macbeth cares about nothing except himself. He wants answers, even if it means that winds knock down churches, waves swallow ships, crops are lost, or "though the treasure / Of nature's germains tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken" (4.1.58-60). "Nature's germains" are the seeds of all nature (we might call them "the building blocks of life"), and "destruction" is imagined as a person who would destroy so much that he would become sick of himself. In short, Macbeth wants his answers, even if the whole world goes to hell.
The Witches tell Macbeth that they will answer his questions, and ask if he would like to hear the answers from them or from their masters. Macbeth boldly replies that he wants to see the masters.
Hearing this, the First Witch throws the final ingredients into the cauldron, saying, "Pour in sow's blood, that hath eaten / Her nine farrow; grease that's sweaten / From the murderer's gibbet throw / Into the flame" (4.1.64-67). These images are both horrifying and prophetic. The gruesome picture of a sow eating all nine of her own piglets represents what Macbeth is doing to Scotland. A sow should nurture and protect her babies, and a king should nurture and protect his people, but by the end of this scene Macbeth will order the murder of the innocent wife and children of Macduff.
As for the "murder's gibbet," it is the gallows where the murderer is hanged by the neck until dead, and "sweaten" means "sweated." How can a gallows sweat? Here, thanks to Ed Friedlander, M.D, is the explanation: "I'm an autopsy pathologist. I am very familiar with how human bodies decompose. . . . The bodies of murderers were left hanging on the gallows (gibbet) until they were skeletonized, which takes weeks. At about ten days in suitable weather, there are enough weak points in the skin that the bodyfat, which has liquified, can start dripping through. There will be a puddle of oil underneath the body." Macbeth is a murderer who will leave a stain on Scotland. At the end of the play, the last thing we will see is his head on a pole.
Now come the apparitions. Each is an illusion created by the Witches to lure Macbeth to his destruction, but they can only do so with the help of Macbeth himself. As with horoscopes, everything depends on the interpretation, and we tend to interpret by the light of our own hope and fears.
The first apparition is an "an armed Head " (4.1.68, s.d.). The head apparently represents Macduff, who will come to Scotland at the head of an army. Macbeth tries to question it, but First Witch tells him that the apparition knows what he's thinking, so he should be quiet and just listen. She's right about the apparition knowing Macbeth's thoughts; it cries, "Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; / Beware the thane of Fife" (4.1.71-72). This is exactly what Macbeth was thinking even before he saw the apparition.
The second apparition is a bloody child which tells Macbeth to "Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.81). This is an equivocation. It sounds like it means that no man can harm Macbeth, because every man is born of woman. Except Macduff. At the end of the play, in his last battle, Macbeth learns that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (5.8.15-16). Cesarean section doesn't count. "Ripp'd" isn't "born."
After the second apparition disappears, Macbeth notices that the first two apparitions have contradicted each other. If "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth," then he doesn't need to "beware Macduff." "Then live, Macduff," Macbeth says to himself, "what need I fear of thee?" (4.1.82). But in the next breath he changes his tune, saying, "yet I'll make assurance double sure, / And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live; / That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies" (4.1.83-85). His reasoning contradicts itself. If fate isn't a sure thing, then it isn't fate, but Macbeth is going to murder Macduff, to make sure that fate keeps its promises. In addition, Macbeth is afraid of being afraid, and is going to kill Macduff to prove that he's courageous.
The third apparition is "a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand " (4.1.86, s.d.). The child must represent Malcolm, child of King Duncan, and the tree in his hand shows how his army will camouflage itself as it approaches Macbeth's castle. However, this significance is lost on Macbeth, and he believes he is safe when the apparition says that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him" (4.1.92-94). He is exultant because he's sure that trees can't walk, but he still wants to know if Banquo's descendants will become kings of Scotland.
The Witches warn Macbeth that he shouldn't ask any more questions, but he flies into a rage and demands that they answer. At this, the cauldron sinks out of sight, ominous oboes are heard, and the last illusion appears. It is a parade of eight kings, escorted by Banquo. Macbeth doesn't want to look, but he can't help himself. When he sees the first king, he says to it, "Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls" (4.1.113). Yet he keeps looking. By the time the fourth one appears, he says, "Start, eyes!" (4.1.116), as though he could command his own eyes to jump ("start") out of his head and make him blind. Yet still he looks, though it appears that the line of kings will "stretch out to the crack of doom" (4.1.117). And the more he looks, the worse it gets. The eighth king holds a mirror in which Macbeth sees even more kings, some with "two-fold balls and treble scepters" (4.1.121), indicating kingship of both Scotland and England. The final touch of this show of kings comes when "blood-bolter'd Banquo smiles upon me, / And points at them for his" (4.1.123-124). "Blood-bolter'd" means that Banquo's hair is matted with blood, as the murderers left him, but still Banquo can smile, because all of those kings are his descendants.
The witches dance and then vanish:
At this point, there are a few lines which indicate that the witches do a song and dance to help Macbeth cheer up, but Shakespeare's editors consider this passage spurious.
Now the witches vanish, together with the apparitions of Banquo and his line of kings. Macbeth, in a rage at what he has seen, calls for whoever is outside to come in, and in comes Lennox. Macbeth asks him, "Saw you the weird sisters?" (4.1.136). No, Lennox didn't see them, even though Macbeth is sure they must have come out right past him. Macbeth curses the witches, saying, "Infected be the air whereon they ride; / And damn'd all those that trust them!" (4.1.138-139). We wonder, does Macbeth realize that he's damning himself?
Macbeth also heard horses, and now he wants to know who that was. Lennox informs him that it was messengers with the news that Macduff has fled to England. (Lennox knew earlier that Macduff had gone to England, but didn't tell Macbeth.) At the news, Macbeth is angry at himself for not acting quickly enough. He had meant to murder Macduff, too, and now it's too late. He promises himself that "from this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand" (4.1.146-148). Immediately, he keeps that promise to himself, and announces that "The castle of Macduff I will surprise; / Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o' the sword / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line" (4.1.150-153). He has just said that he will act upon impulse, and this is an act of pure impulse. It does nothing to make to make him safer; in fact, later in the play we will see that he has only given Macduff even more reason to search him out and kill him.
The scene began with the witches stirring up a cauldron of evil, and it ends with the promise of more slaughter.
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